Episode 169: Amy Kendall LaBree on Enabling Authenticity in Sales

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast, I’m Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Amy LaBree from F5 join us. Amy, I would love for you to introduce yourself, your background, and your organization to our audience.

Amy Kendall LaBree: Hi Shawna, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here today. Like you mentioned, I am a Sales Enablement Specialist supporting a global team of sales specialists, which is a bit word on word. What we specialize in at F5 is application delivery, networking, application availability and performance, multi-cloud management, application security, network security, access and authorization, and online fraud prevention. I know that sounds like a lot, so sometimes it’s easier for me to just think of it as code-to-code application support. In my role, I support a team of specialists that focus on application security and preventing fraud for the end user.

While enablement isn’t necessarily new to the F5 organization, or the company I should say, the organization that I support was acquired almost two years ago and we didn’t have anybody in that role here at F5. I was hired back in February of 2021 to really help be that person, that point of contact for the sales team. Since I’ve been on the team, I’ve helped them create and deploy an onboarding program for our new hires, I curate these bi-weekly global sales talks that cover a variety of topics in the enablement field, anything from products to changes in legal. In addition, I’m also working on creating a smear, a subject matter expert program, to really help build confidence and skills in some of our theaters across the globe, giving them access to best practices, maybe additional folks to talk to in the company to give them that edge to better their pitch and customer engagements.

Sales enablement is newer to me as a role, but I do come from sales. I started in telecommunications as a frontline sales rep and worked my way up through management in the store, and then converted over to the corporate side of the house and really into training specifically. I went from being a trainer to managing a team of trainers across multiple markets. I guess what you could say about me is I have a true passion for helping people learn. For me, I look at the light bulb or those “aha” moments as my way of gauging my own engagement with any group that I’m working with.

SS: Well, Amy, we’re really excited to have you here to engage with our audience. One of the things that caught my eye was on LinkedIn, you actually contributed a post and in it you were really talking about culture. In particular, the importance of authenticity in work environments. I’d love to understand, what is the impact from your perspective on customer conversations when your sales reps are able to lead with authenticity?

AL: It’s a great question. Authenticity is so important to me and you really you have to start by being authentic. Dropping that poker face and just being willing to have candid and transparent conversations with your buyers, because that’s what they expect. With our salespeople, the goal really should be to build a mutually beneficial partnership with the customers. Becoming more transparent as a salesperson, while it’s uncomfortable at first, especially if we’re taught to keep our cards close like we don’t want to show our hand, but we have so much to gain from being transparent and authentic.

I’m one of those people that believes in the discomfort is where we learn, is where we grow. Authenticity is really your sales superpower, so being transparent helps to connect on a deeper level, it helps to lead to favorable outcomes for everyone. Not only are you looking at solutions for your customer’s problems, but you’re also helping to drive revenue for your company.
What does that look like then? To be authentic, what does that truly mean? I believe it’s subjective. It’s a crucial element for building trust in any relationship and trustworthiness helps determine what you’re willing, or what the customer I should say, is willing to share. How honestly they’re willing to talk about their concerns and then how willing they are to take that leap of faith in us or the company that they’re looking to buy from. I think about that, especially if a solution is new to their space. How do you sell that authentically?

Well, I think it starts with acknowledging some of your own limitations. If you’re working with someone who has experience in that field, it’s important to ask open-ended questions to understand where the customer currently is. You don’t assume that you know their business better than they do, and you really have to acknowledge them as the domain expert on the topic by continuing to ask questions about how they envision the project. What do they see? Really, it’s about level setting to drive better solutions than to pretend that you have the answers.

I’m a big believer of it’s okay to admit when you do not have all the answers. I think that there is more appreciativeness in that. I think it’s also then very important that we follow up. It’s okay to not have the answers, but it’s not okay to not go find the answers and let them know that. I think that being authentic and super transparent, it makes us look human and credible. We’re creating that relationship of it’s okay not to know everything, let’s go figure out how to find those answers and get back to your person.

SS: Absolutely. Now, another point that you made in that same post was that in order for employees to embrace authenticity, it’s important to have an environment that really fosters it. I’d love to get your best practices or some of your key strategies for promoting authenticity within the workplace?

AL: Yeah, it really starts at the top down, Shawnna. I think that having leaders within an organization who are also transparent and authentic, we see that as the example being set. Teams have to be willing to be honest, and they have to be open about what works and doesn’t work. They have to understand the strategy. While we all probably roll our eyes when our employee satisfaction surveys come out, they’re super important though. They’re super important in the fact that we have to be honest in these so that our leaders can understand what’s broken and what’s not working. I’m thankful that I have a company that looks at those scores and really took that as an opportunity as something to fix. For example, it was voices not being heard. How do we change that? How do we make sure that everybody’s being heard in this space? If we don’t share those things and let them know what’s not working, we’re never going to get better.

We have to learn from our mistakes. Just like we celebrate our wins, we have to learn from the things that didn’t work. I think with a culture of transparency, there’s no longer the pressure to flood through the product gaps or hide from the misses. Ideally, we want our sales reps to acknowledge their strengths along with their weaknesses, which I think can actually get you to the outcome faster.

The second part of that is letting everyone bring their whole selves to work. There’s been talk about it amongst the industries of what does that actually mean? It’s one thing to say to let your folks bring their full selves, but are you actually fostering that environment? I think it starts, again, we talk about leadership, so hiring practices. Are your teams diverse? I’m not just talking about race. It’s so much bigger than that. We look at gender, race, religion, sexuality, neurodiversity. It’s a new group of people that I haven’t necessarily seen focus on from an industry standpoint of including. You just have to create this environment where everybody is welcome because really everyone has something to bring to the table.

When you have a leader at the front of the organization who is a champion for this and helps to set the tone to make it happen, that’s where you start to see the shift in culture. It’s also important that companies have ERGs or EIGs, employee resource groups. While they’re important, they need to be active in providing content that helps enable the company to be more inclusive. As you can see enablement isn’t just in sales. There’s the ability to enable companies in all different ways.

SS: I couldn’t agree more. Now, I want to go back because you did start though with the importance of having it come from the top and the correlation between a positive work environment and leadership’s responsibilities. You made a comment that I came across around the difference between armored leadership and daring leadership. I’d love for those in the audience maybe less familiar, what does daring leadership mean to you? How can this leadership style drive business success for sales enablement leaders?

AL: Brené Brown, huge fan of Brené Brown. That is where the daring leadership comes from. I was introduced to this concept a few years back when I read “Dare to Lead.” It’s really about being courageous and setting the example or leading by example. In an armored stance, you’re leading by fear. You’re never really giving yourself a chance to learn more or really lean in when things get tough. You’re used to using shame or blame to manage others instead of accountability and empathy. As a daring leader, I allow my vulnerability to come through. I admit when I’m not sure about something. I’m a learner, I don’t want to be the know it all, I want to be constantly learning. That even means learning from your reports, it’s your peers. I think that there’s a lot that comes from upward coaching. I think that we need to take a minute to step back and look at that when we’re leaders and listening to the people that we lead because we can learn so much.

I also think it’s about making sure that you’re living your values rather than just professing them and being able to rely on trust and be the first to trust. Finally, standing up when things get uncomfortable. I think that that’s something that’s super important and especially as a woman as well, to find your voice and use your voice in those situations when it might be uncomfortable. In the enablement field, we have folks coming to us to find the answers or solutions to make them better at their jobs, and using daring leadership just helps to drive business success by creating a culture that helps create accountability, uses empathy, it creates a learner’s mindset and really learning to embrace change.

As we know, COVID-19 put us into a tailspin of how this new work environment works. For sales folks, they went from doing in-person face-to-face training or interactions to now they’re having to do things virtually. We have to be able to embrace those changes and just know we need to be agile and constantly changing. That’s where I said it all starts by leading by example. As leader, if you’re willing to put yourself out there, be a little daring, know that it might not work the way that you want it to but be okay with that and show your team that you’re okay with that, and you take those moments and learn from them instead of blaming or shaming someone who might have messed up for the team.

SS: I love that advice and I also love that book as well. One of the challenges, I think, to creating a healthy workplace culture and those authentic relationships that we were talking about just a moment ago, really can be ego. I think you’ve said previously that egos crash harder than character. From your experience, what are some best practices that sales enablement can utilize to help reps maybe overcome that ego that they might have and approach skill development with a little bit more humility?

AL: Oh, yes, the ego. In the sales world, ego can be front and center. It doesn’t always mean it’s a bad thing. Ego is your drive and how driven you are. As we know in sales, I mean we’re in constant competition to close deals. Who’s going to get the bigger deal? Who’s going to get the most ad-ons? Healthy doses of ego can help folks stay resilient when things go wrong and deployed properly that they can help us grow. I’ve seen account managers who have that know-it-all attitude, and honestly, they have the numbers to back it up. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re giving their customers that best experience. They’re not creating relationships to grow with them. The chances of their customer coming back to renew or to upsell could be hard.
I’m all about that customer experience first and foremost, I think that’s really what’s led me through my entire career. Are we creating the best experience? If you’re not creating a relationship with your customer, and you can’t understand them from that point of empathy that I spoke about earlier, eventually the relationship will not withstand. You truly have to deliver the value before selling the product.

Sales folks, they need to really follow a few true norths to help guide their efforts. The first of those being that they need to be able to articulate the business’s impact that the product will drive. Being able to add value context around the content that already exists. This will help uncover the business impact that their solution will deliver.

Number two, they need to acknowledge the products strengths and gaps. Remember the information’s out there. Anybody can go onto Google, or they can search about your product, so the goal should be to build trust and credibility by being authentic and driving toward a mutually beneficial goal. Educate your buyer about the broader market in there too. You have to know more than just your product. You have to know what the competition is, you have to be able to speak to the trends out there, and you want to make these conversations relevant and meaningful. A great salesperson helps the buyer understand the potential benefits of implementing a solution that resonates with them.

SS: Absolutely. I think you’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I want to double click into when engaging with customers, how can sales enablement also help reps remove ego from that sales process? I know this is front and center for you, but how can that have a positive impact on the customer experience?

AL: If I’m being honest, it all goes back to training. I had a manager or a leader tell me that at one point, that really it all starts with training. When the sales reps can understand the personas that they’re engaging with, I feel that there is a more solid relationship that can be built.
For example, we have a program that we started called Executive Conversations. What this does is each quarter, we invite a C-suite executive from our own organization to come in and sit with us and talk with a sales leader and have a conversation about things like, what will get them the meeting? Who has the money? Who controls the purse strings? What are the key words that you use? Just really hearing it from that persona themselves, what’s important to them, and I think that’s really important to understand that person. That helps guide for future conversations.

Ultimately, if a salesperson can lead with authenticity and transparency, I think the ego subsides a little bit. It’s okay to embrace the weaknesses the same way we celebrate strengths. I’ve mentioned that earlier. There’s power in both and it’s important to be authentic in a way that one sells. Great partnerships are built on trust first and foremost.

SS: Absolutely. Amy, thank you so much. I learned so much during this podcast and I know our audience did too. I appreciate you taking the time.

AL: Thank you so much for having me, Shawnna, and I look forward to future conversations.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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