Helen Sutton, Senior Vice President EMEA and APAC Sales at Dataminr talks to Liv Price, Senior Associate at Erevena, about her career in sales, sharing words of advice on how women can progress into leadership roles in what has traditionally been a male dominated area.
Helen is one of the most successful women in enterprise software in the UK today. Over her 20 years of experience, she worked across all industry sectors, with customers ranging from SMEs through to the largest in the world and has been responsible for both UK and European/Global teams setting and executing strategy. She has worked for the full breadth of company types including Listed, Private Equity owned, and has been through the transition from private through to successful IPO at DocuSign in 2018.
Her most recent role was on the EMEA leadership team at Splunk, as Area Vice President EMEA: Observability. She initially joined Splunk as UK & Ireland Country Manager and following her success in the role was asked to lead the EMEA Observability business following the acquisition of SignalFx for $1B at the end of 2019.
Tell us a bit about your career background
In a nutshell I lead European or International sales teams for high growth and SaaS companies. For the last 10 years it’s been predominantly for cloud-based technology companies. I’ve deliberately worked across a variety of organisations; large organisations like SAP; pre-IPO like DocuSign, Private Equity owned like Unit4and smaller listed companies like Splunk, and I think that variety of both customer profile and go to market has been really advantageous to my career.
I moved from a degree and background in engineering, which I enjoyed and found pretty character building, particularly being in my early twenties and often the only woman on site. You quickly have to find a way to get your point across without being intimidated. My first pivot was moving from this to presales for an ERP vendor for manufacturing companies. My first leadership role was running a European Pre-Sales team, and I spent 12 years at SAP in a variety of leadership roles.
“I would encourage anyone to take opportunity as it comes, as you build up a wealth of insight without realising it.”
What did SAP do to encourage diversity?
SAP is a fabulous organisation that’s very good at encouraging all sorts of talent. When I was there it figured out who had potential, running a High Potential Scheme which I was on a number of times. This allowed me to develop new skill sets and brought both attention and exposure which was particularly helpful. What I learnt was to make sure that people know who you are and what you’re doing.
“Nobody is going to make your career for you, you have to work quite hard to be visible and make sure that people know what you’re doing. Don’t just assume that people will proactively do it for you. Everyone is massively busy.”
SAP were really good at helping you to develop your career, and later in my time there I became involved in the Early Talent Development scheme, with a particular focus on diversity and age. At the time SAP’s age profile was older than they would have preferred and not necessarily representative of our customers, so we started bringing on board interns and doing graduate programmes which I become a sponsor for.
How important is it as a woman to find a sponsor or mentor?
I think this is one hundred percent important. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always managed to find sponsors who are good at being a sounding board for me and I get deeply frustrated when people don’t take up open door offers of mentoring. For example, in the past I have made public offers to mentor women and have had 4 Americans approach me for mentoring and zero Europeans. It’s frustrating as I’ve seen it be hugely successful in practice when I’ve mentored people.
How would you advise someone to go about finding a mentor?
There are two ways; either through a formal programme (mostly found in large organisations) or seeking it out informally. All technology organisations of any scale have women’s groups and I would encourage people to get involved with these. A company can provide the framework but it’s up to the individual to get involved and build their own network.
A lot of it comes down to being proactive and asking people. It’s about having the confidence to ask people who you admire. I still do it, where I ask people their advice and use them as a sounding board. It can be anyone, they don’t have to be super senior.
How do you encourage more women into sales roles?
Statistically if you look at where females tend to sit in an organisation, they are definitely still more in back office functions. There is a lot less representation in quota carriers or even pre-sales/sales engineers.
Hiring is the critical thing and thinking about hiring slightly laterally, such as hiring early talent. Rather than just hiring the person who has the skills to be an account director now, look at the pool and consider what can be achieved with development. It’s difficult to do that with all your hires, but you can be a bit more open to growing your own talent. We have the perfect vehicle with sales as you can have someone start as a Business Development Representative, who moves to Inside Sales and then Field Sales – there is a well-defined career path that you can put someone on and I’ve seen this work really well.
Alongside hiring early talent, another way of increasing your talent pool is to avoid always hiring from your network. It may be easier, but you will end up hiring people just like you. When you’re in a high growth organisation and you’re in a massive hurry it’s very tempting sometimes to just go back to your network. It’s important to insist on opening up the network whether it’s someone inhouse doing the hiring or an external agency.
Do you see a change in the pool of senior women in tech?
There are just not enough senior women in the market. However, what’s happened with Covid has been fascinating in terms of career movement. It’s clearly been proven that remote working is possible. People have found out that they are able to juggle a lot more and I do think it will open the net to more options. Such as, is it going to be possible to have part-time Field Salespeople? I think it probably is, and I’m guilty of having said no in the past. I’ve supported part-time Presales in the past, but I’ve not yet seen a full quota carrying Sales Director work part-time.
I think now there will be more opportunities which will encourage people who want to work four days a week or do something slightly different in terms of balancing home and professional life.
“It’s a pivotal moment in opening up the pipeline for more senior women. I wonder whether we might increasingly be able to open up the pipeline a bit more by relaxing the strict criteria that we’ve been working to.”
Experience tells me that it is possible to have that flexibility and perform at a senior level. There will also be plenty of senior women who will be interested in the flexibility of location that we will increasingly see following the pandemic.
What advice would you give to the next wave of women aiming for leadership?
I would offer four key pieces of advice:
- Don’t limit yourself in your own mind. You are your own limiting factor, you don’t need to be a 9 out of 10 for a role, go for it when you feel you’re a 6 out of 10.
- Go left and right in your career. Take on other roles that will allow you to develop the complementary skills that you need to progress.
- Be proactive in looking for sponsorship, no one is going to do it for you. At the end of the day you have to take ownership and make it happen for yourself, regardless of what programmes your company may have put in place.
- Take control and start up initiatives for yourself. Grass roots stuff is really important. For example, at DocuSign 2 senior executives in my network and I started an International Women’s Day party, inviting 100 women from across various companies at a range of seniorities. I know a number of important connections were made off the back of this.
Looking forward what are your hopes for diversity in the future?
I would really like to see diversity come into organisations organically and thoughtfully, rather than through mandated quotas. There’s a difference between a target and a quota. A brand can grow a diverse workforce through quotas but fail to maintain it but not baking equity into its culture. I vehemently hope that organizations will take heed of the inclusive workplace culture shift by fostering and maintaining a culture of equality and equity in order to organically meet diversity targets. It is my opinion that solely focusing on quotas can inspire a slew of unintended consequences.
Olivia Price is Senior Associate at Erevena, an Executive Search firm focused on high growth and transformation. Erevena’s clients are amongst the fastest growing companies in the world: they are VC & growth equity backed; they are publicly traded & privately held companies transforming to grow.