EPISODE 114: Edward Hughes Details His Journey from Being a Successful Trial Attorney to Leading a Growing, Worldwide Sales Force at Appian Corporation

EPISODE 114: Edward Hughes Details His Journey from Being a Successful Trial Attorney to Leading a Growing, Worldwide Sales Force at Appian Corporation

EDWARD’S’ FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Pay attention to your family. Eat healthy. Be sure that you exercise.”

Edward Hughes is a Senior Vice President for Worldwide Sales and Operations at Appian Corporation.

Prior to coming to Appian, he also held sales leadership positions at Compuware, Pegasystems and Rational Software.

Find Edward on LinkedIn!

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and fill in some of the blanks?

Edward Hughes: Thank you, Fred. Thank you for having me here. I started actually as an attorney, I was a trial attorney and I was representing a company called Compuware in various litigations involving intellectual property that fortunately I won and Compuware asked me to join the organization. The transition from being an attorney to being in business was seamless and I think secretly a lot of attorneys wish they could do that for their entire careers. I did it quite successfully.

I eventually ran the Compuware professional services organization before transitioning into software sales with Rational Software.

Fred Diamond: What did you learn as a trial attorney that set you up to be a worldwide sales leader with a thriving software company?

Edward Hughes: The interesting thing is that preparing for a trial is similar to preparing for a sales call. One of the things you learn in law school that came in very handy is first of all, how to use language effectively, how to write and communicate persuasively but one of the things that you do in preparing for a trial is to come up with what I call the theory of the case. That is drawing together disparate facts that you’ve discovered and spinning them into a story. In the trial situation it’s so that you can advocate successfully to the judge or to the jury.

In sales is so that you can advocate successfully to your client and prospect, the idea is to take facts that perhaps at first may not seem to have a connection and turn them into a theme that is both persuasive and ultimately can lead to a successful outcome. In sales, that’s a contract.

Fred Diamond: You made the transition from trial attorney to leading a service organization. Of course, now you’ve been leading Appian sales organization for the last period of time, but did you ever think that you would go into sales as you were going through college? Then you went to law school and then you were an attorney for a number of years.

Edward Hughes:  As a matter of fact, at that time my parents almost disowned me when I told them that I was going into sales and a couple of things there, lawyers have the mantel of respectability and credibility when they’re sitting around the table and they can announce opinions and they’re given due difference, whereas salespeople have no respect until they win the deal. Then they have all the respect in the world. I did not regret it at all, sales has been a never-ending source of both the stimulating ideas and activity. It’s put me in touch with a very broad range of people that otherwise I would never have come into contact with, I’ve enjoyed every minute.

Fred Diamond: This is a fascinating angle. I’m thinking about the people that we’ve interviewed for the Sales Game Changers podcast, this is episode #114. Usually they fall into one of two categories: they’ve been selling lemonade since they were 10 years old, sold everything in the neighborhood and then sold T-shirts in college and moved into sales, or they were a finance person or an analyst or a consultant and someone said to them, “You’re very good in front of the customer. Have you thought about moving into sales?” I’m pretty sure you’re the first person we’ve had whose an attorney.

Before I ask you a little bit about what Appian does, would you hire attorneys to be on your sales team? If somebody showed up, “I’ve also been a trial attorney for 5 years, I’m done, I want to move into corporate”, how would you view that?

Edward Hughes: Quite favorably. As a matter of fact, we tend to hire people from different walks of life and within Appian itself we mix it up quite a bit. We move people from one function to the other. I think it’s actually an asset for sales organization to have people with different backgrounds. We hire musicians, we hire writers, we hire people from marketing organizations so it actually provides that element of creativity, an injection of new ideas, new perspectives is always healthy in sales.

Fred Diamond: Very good. For the people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast around the globe, we’re doing today’s interview from Appian’s headquarters. Just as an FYI, it’s about 15 minutes outside of Washington DC. It’s in a beautiful building here looking over the Shenandoah Mountains, looking way into probably DC at one angle, if you will. I’ve got a great angle, a great view of Dulles Airport over there. Appian’s been on a great run and you’ve been a big part of that. Why don’t you tell us what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.

Edward Hughes: It has been a great run. I think the core element of Appian’s value proposition has really not changed for the last 10 years. That is that we have figured out how to deliver powerful applications very quickly. Broadly speaking, that is under the rubric of low code platform, but the element that we bring that perhaps our competition doesn’t have is that we build power into the equation. That is by providing components that you can assemble and configure, you can deliver applications not only quickly but you can at the same time enhance them, extend them and also add additional applications easily.

The power of the platform itself is rooted in our origins wherein what was called the BPM space – the Business Process Management space – and the core there has to do with case management and process automation. Rules, capability, so the platform – and we do call it a platform – aggregates a number of disparate software products into one unified suite that can deliver applications very quickly. By quickly I mean we can take the usual development cycle for an application that perhaps would be 4 to 6 months and do it in 4 to 6 weeks.

Fred Diamond: Very good.

Edward Hughes: It’s tremendous value delivered in a very short period of time.

Fred Diamond: Very good. We talked about how you made the transition from being a trial attorney to moving into sales, tell us more some of the lessons that you’ve carried over. You talked about preparation, but tell us some of the other lessons that you’ve learned from the transition and in some of your first jobs in sales.

Edward Hughes: Salespeople are all about communication, so you have to be able to communicate clearly. It would seem obvious, but one of the things about communicating clearly is that you have to have clear ideas in your own head. There is no shortcut to preparation. If you find yourself driving to the sales call and trying out what to figure what you’re going to say in the sales call, you’re in trouble. There is no shortcut to preparation. If I were to isolate the one weakness in most sales organization is that salespeople don’t realize the importance of preparation.

Fred Diamond: We’ve talked sometimes about how salespeople practice in front of the customer.

Edward Hughes: That’s the wrong time to do it.

Fred Diamond: Absolute wrong time to do it.

Edward Hughes: Yes. From a sales management standpoint, everything that I do is directed at helping people prepare better for their sale. We have a vast knowledge base that salespeople can access. We try to make things simple not because salespeople aren’t smart, but we try to make them simple because they’re easier to remember. We have a standard deck, we have a standard sales process, we have standard artifacts that are used.

We try to make the sales process change from being an art form into a science, and that I think produces two very desirable outcomes: one is predictability so that you know where you are, you know what you’re supposed to be doing, you understand what steps need to be taken to have a successful outcome and the other is consistency so that you don’t engage in fruitless activity that may or may not have a successful outcome. Turning sales from an art form into a science is perhaps one of the most powerful evolutions that sales profession has gone through over the last 10 years.

Fred Diamond: I’m diverting here, how successful have you been at bringing people in that understand that? That utilize the science, that want to apply the preparation versus people who may be focused more on the art, if you will?

Edward Hughes: That’s quite difficult. A lot of very successful salespeople are what you would call fallen into the category of lone wolves, meaning, “Leave me alone, I’ll let you know how things are at the end of the quarter.” I’m not sure that that’s very helpful so during our recruiting process we try to weed out the characteristics of a lone wolf and look for people that are both able to collaborate and cooperate but also that are smart enough to reach out and include expertise, knowledge, experience where necessary to help them in the sale cycle.

We want people that are very open to a collaborative effort even though they are ultimately responsible and accountable for delivering the results. Unlike perhaps other professions, in sales you always know where you stand because you have a quota and you’re delivering against that quota. There are no secrets in terms of whether you’re succeeding or not, and we expect results every quarter and track it every week so we know where everybody stands right away.

Fred Diamond: Speaking about expertise, what are you specifically an expert in? Tell us about your specific area of brilliance.

Edward Hughes: [Laughs] first of all, I am a jack of all trades as a lot of lawyers are. We believe that we can know everything about a subject but quickly move on to the next subject and overtime that’s been the case, certainly in sales. For instance, before I meet with a client I will do in-depth discovery about the client. Not just the usual things in terms of reading annual reports and of chairperson letters to the stock holders but in terms of delving into their financial details to try to understand what’s driving the organization.

You become an expert in that client, I tell the salespeople during the training courses which I do, “You should know more about the client than the client knows about themselves.” In terms of the things that interest me, very few of them have to do with the software industry. My hobby is medieval history, so when I have occasion to do so I will travel to medieval locations and explore the architecture, the cultures, the societies that lived in those times. We could go on for hours about the lessons that you learn from medieval times to how they’re applicable today but I find that fascinating.

I’m also keen on automobiles, I used to be able to take automobiles apart and put them back together again. I don’t think I could understand what’s going on in an automobile today but 30 years ago I knew it pretty well.

Fred Diamond: Curiously, what was your major in college? Obviously you went to law school, but with all these varied backgrounds…

Edward Hughes: That could be telling, I majored in philosophy.

Fred Diamond: OK, good for you.

Edward Hughes:  Yes, at one time I suppose I would have become a philosophy teacher but I discovered that everyone in the philosophy department was much smarter than I was so I decided to become a lawyer.

Fred Diamond: Good for you. I was a history major.

Edward Hughes: That’s useful also, by the way. [Laughs]

Fred Diamond: I wonder how many of the Sales Game Changers we’ve interviewed were philosophy majors.

Edward Hughes: You would be surprised, Appian has quite a few philosophy majors, as a matter of fact.

Fred Diamond: You moved from being a trial attorney for one of your clients and then they asked you to come on board to lead some of their sales efforts. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.

Edward Hughes: I was extremely fortunate that the first manager I had – a woman – was probably the most talented sales leader and I use leader in the sense of leadership, in the true sense of that word that I’ve ever met. There were a couple of characteristics there that I’ve carried forward. #1 is extremely disciplined, there was very little that she did as she managed the business that was left to chance. #2 is curiosity, deep, broad curiosity not only about the business but about the people that were in the business.

The clients, this whole focus on discovery before you meet with clients, that was something that she handed down. The third was a passion for what she did, she was very engaged with every part of the business during business hours and providing support, even where people needed it after hour. She was really enlightened in that regard.

Fred Diamond: You have quite a large sales team right now, what are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader?

Edward Hughes: First of all, we’re a rapidly growing organization and the challenges of a sales leader during periods of expansion are different than the challenges of a sales leader during contractions. For instance, I was managing Rational Software right after the 2000 crash and that’s a different type of management than what you have in a rapidly expanding, growing business. I’ll focus on the rapidly expanding, growing business. The #1 challenge is finding talent, that is just the most important thing that you can do as you’re growing a business is to make sure that the building blocks are sound. Whether it’s a small organization, every person can have a dramatic effect on the organization and as it grows, every person can have a significant influence.

That’s good and bad but you want to make sure that you’re bringing in people that are going to be pulling the wagon, not just riding the wagon, to use an old cliche. The second part is obviously if you’re bringing a lot of new people is how do you enable them, how do you train them, how do you cultivate them to the culture that has brought the success to the company? Training, enablement is very important. The third one applies to all managers in sales, there is no substitute to being present at the point of impact and that is when a salesperson is meeting with a client. If you don’t see that chemistry in action, if you don’t see that interaction personally then you have very little idea about what salespeople are doing, what clients are asking for so being present every day.

Managing sales is quite difficult because it requires enormous sacrifice, both personal because you’re traveling all the time but also in terms of the stamina that you need to be able to go and be at it 16 hours a day, 18 hours a day so it’s quite taxing.

Fred Diamond: Edward, what’s the #1 specific sales win or success from your career that you’re most proud of? Why don’t you take us back to that moment?

Edward Hughes: We used to have a bell in one of my other employers, we used to have a bell outside the door that we would ring every time we had a sales win and it’s really important to celebrate sales wins. I would say every deal that we’ve won has been both invigorating and a challenge. I realize that especially here at Appian, we’re wading through the tall grasses always and we’re up against the biggest competitors, companies that in many cases are hundreds if not thousands of times larger than we are. Every win is hard fought and it’s the result of true genius.

We do a lot of business in the financial services field and recently over the past couple of years have been expanding into the pharmaceutical field which is also quite challenging because it’s dominated by a couple of big players and pharmaceutical companies I think are justifiably mistrustful of new, because what they do could result in life or death. Without naming the company, we went through a very difficult competition to try and win a software deal for what eventually will become their platform and the thing that is going to stay with me on that win is that we weren’t even being considered when we first went there.

Through grit, determination and perseverance we were able to both have our case heard and to convince them that we were better that the alternatives. The thing that makes it so memorable is that when we had our victory win, our win day with the client – we have a win day – the CEO of the company actually stood up and explained why he made this choice. It was his way of explaining why everyone in the organization should have confidence in the decision they made.

Fred Diamond: What did he say? [Laughs]

Edward Hughes: He said, “This is going to change our company and you should embrace change.” That’s his theme.

Fred Diamond: That’s a real smart thing, having the CEO of the customer that you just sold to just brought on as a customer to explain to his people why the decision was made so that everybody is on board. As you know, for the types of things that you’ve been selling a lot of people would have to be on board to even have made you the customer. Challenger says that there’s at least 7 people right now that are involved in decision.

Edward Hughes: Ours is transformational software so we actually asked them to make that speech. One of the things that we look for as executive support, obviously like any change management scheme needs to have deep, broad, executive support and if we can get the CEO to send out a letter – in this case it was to make a speech explaining that this is important and that everyone in the organization should embrace the change – it can make the journey much easier.

Fred Diamond: Again, you were a philosophy major, you’re an aficionado of medieval history and cars and you had obviously a very successful career as a trial attorney. One of your clients actually brought you into sales, into the company. Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s just not for me”?

Edward Hughes: I don’t remember every moment in my life but I can say with a certain degree of certainty that I’ve never doubted being in sales. Sales is like breathing, it’s life itself. To a certain extent, sales organizations have a lot to teach other parts of the organization in a company. Everyone in a company is in sales, we’re all in sales. Especially in software, we’re all trying to convince clients to buy something that they basically don’t understand, that is software being extraordinarily abstract.

Really, there isn’t a thing that you’re going to show clients, you have to persuade them. You have to explain your idea in the clearest, crispest, easiest fashion so that they’ll embrace it. Everyone in a company is in sales and I talked to engineering about that, I talked to marketing about that, HR, finance, we’re all in sales. It just so happens that the sales organization itself is the point of contact with the client, but everyone is in sales and I think that’s life itself, as I say.

Fred Diamond: Edward, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the sales professionals listening to today’s podcast around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?

Edward Hughes: A lot of the things that we’ve talked about here, Fred, involving preparation, discovery is very important. I don’t think you can be successful unless you do that, you can’t go in with a blank slate about your client, you’ve got to know them better than the client knows themselves. Good salespeople, I’ve noticed, are very disciplined and determined about what they do. The mindfulness, if you’ll use the term, about what they’re about is apparent in everything that they do not just in the preparation phase but also in the way they interact with the client, in the way that they understand client problems, in the way that they understand how we, Appian, can help the client.

That mindfulness, consciousness about the importance of the relationship is so critical to a successful sale. As I said, we’re up against tough competition all the time and you can put white papers together that would show how Appian is better than all of our competitors. It’s true, you can lay out the facts very clearly but a client is unlikely to be able to absorb that unless they first have trust and confidence in what you say. One of the biggest challenges is how do you gain that trust, how do you gain that confidence? Being mindful of the client, showing them that you’re not just advocating a position but you’re doing it from a posture of understanding what their challenges and problems are that you care about their success.

To summarize what successful people need is they’ve got to care about client success. They’ve got to understand that clients are going to be investing, dedicating time, resources and money into your product and you’ve got to be interested in showing that they’re going to succeed because of it. Once they know that, they will trust what you say and have confidence that you’ll be able to deliver.

Fred Diamond: That’s so powerful, the customer is definitely in control and most customers are looking to you as a partner. They have big challenges and the sales professionals we find today that are most successful are the ones that are not trying to “sell” something. You can’t do that anymore, the customer is in so much control but if you bring something that is going to help them achieve their goals – and it has always been like that but it’s even more so now. How are you going to help the company sell more of their things, provide service to their customers, open new markets, whatever their challenges might be?

Edward Hughes: I would agree with you there, Fred, although I would disagree on the fact that you don’t sell anymore. Actually, selling is what we do and make no mistake, there’s a difference between providing a consulting solution and selling software. Selling software means selling and you’ve got to take the facts and fit them to the thing that you have, the product. Sometimes the product is great, sometimes the product is not very good, you still have to sell it. It’s really trying to understand how the software that you’re selling can help the client, that is the key to success but you’ve got to sell. You’ve got to advocate [laughs]

Fred Diamond: That’s a great point. This is the Sales Game Changers podcast, nobody that I’ve interviewed hasn’t sold anything recently and almost everybody that we’ve interviewed on the Sales Game Changers podcast that we serve on the Institute for Excellence in Sales has hundreds of millions of dollars in quota and that stuff just doesn’t work on its own. Edward, what are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?

Edward Hughes: The 7 habits of highly successful… Actually, sharpen the saw is one of them. My favorite is start with the end in mind, which is the #1. The reason why the two go together is that if you start with the end in mind then you know what you need to do in order to be able to stay sharp, in order to know the things that you need to know, in order to do your job. I’m not a traditional sales leader, as you can tell from my background and what I do. I’m going to give you things that you’re not going to find in any book.

#1 is pay attention to your family.

You say, “What does that mean about sharpening your saw?” Because when you’re paying attention to your family, you are using and accessing parts of your personality, parts of yourself that aren’t used in your job, at work. Those are the things that keep you sharp which are empathy, understanding, patience – you need a lot of patience as a sales leader – generosity of spirit, all of the things that actually make us better people overall, you learn from paying attention to your family so that’s #1.

#2, eat healthy. Salespeople are on the road, they’re grabbing stuff at the kiosk at the airport, they’re taking ridiculously unhealthy lunches and breakfasts and dinners, it’s very important, this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It’s very important to eat healthy, you’re going to be no good to anybody if you end up having health problems at 40, and so it brings me to the third, be sure that you exercise.

Exercise stimulates the brain and the neurons in your brain better than anything else and if you want to stay sharp, if you want to stay healthy, if you want to continue being able to succeed, exercise every single day. Those are three things I’ll bet you no sales leader has ever told you but I believe them.

Fred Diamond: A lot of the guys, obviously we’re exercising. It’s interesting, most of the people that we’ve interviewed on the Sales Game Changers podcast, people who have been in sales leadership positions for 15, 20, 30 years and you just don’t wake up one day and say, “I’m done working on the fry station, I’m going to become a VP of sales for a company that sells multi-million dollar software.” You need to be at the top of your game, you need to be fit. The question is can you balance it and can you impart upon your team that they should do it? Edward, what’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?

Edward Hughes: The evolution of software over the last 35 years – I have that perspective – has gone from being tools which is what we sold at Compuware, was basically tools, to try to actually improve the software business which I think is part of what Compuware was doing, what Rational was doing certainly and to what we’re doing which is trying to improve business itself, how work is being done. That transition from being a tool and an appliance to being part of a major business initiative is very significant. The most important thing to our clients is their customers, everything that they do with software has to somehow impact their customers. I think that’s the biggest transition that is going on right now.

Software companies that understand that what they have has to relate to and improve how clients relate to their customers, software companies that do that are going to succeed and software companies that don’t, I’m afraid are going to go by the way side. The major initiative that we have here at Appian has to do with improving the customer journey for our clients and that is making it more visible, easier, faster, more transparent, providing it with all the power and intelligence that software needs in order to satisfy customer requirements.

Fred Diamond: Again, you made the transition from trial attorney, what is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?

Edward Hughes: Every day is a challenge. I tell this to the sales force at the end of the quarter, “All sins are forgiven and all glory is forgotten.” Every day is a new challenge, every client provides an opportunity and every client provides a challenge. There’s never-ending variety of problems and issues that come up. In the course of the day I will deal with probably every aspect of a business in some way, either directly or indirectly. Licensing, legal issues, finance, accounting issues, revenue recognition issues, HR problems, client issues. It’s a banquet, if you were looking for a career that would give you the most diverse set of problems and challenges, you couldn’t do any better than in sales. I’m invigorated every morning.

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought? Again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe. Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?

Edward Hughes: The rewards of succeeding in sales are both material – obviously, you earn your commission, you make your quota, you’d be in accelerators – but there’s a personal element there and as a sales leader I can say that one of the most satisfying things is to see the look of satisfaction on a successful account executive after a sale. Their demeanor, the look in their eyes transforms. I guess the one thing that sticks in my mind is that I see hope, their wishes and desires have come true and it’s deeply satisfying. That makes it all worthwhile.

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