EPISODE 630: Building Sales Culture at Professional Services Leader KPMG with Julia Abramovich

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Today’s show featured an interview with KPMG Sales Leader Julia Abramovich. We also recently interviewed Lorna Stark, National Sector Leader for State and Local Government at KPMG here.

Find Julia on LinkedIn.

JULIA’S ADVICE:  “Sales is all about outcomes, not activity. Sometimes we confuse the two. Activity leads to outcomes, but if you want to be successful in sales, measure yourself in outcomes, not just activity. That’s a key framework in my mind.”


Fred Diamond: We’re talking to Julia Abramovich. She leads the business development team at KPMG and works with the sales professionals dedicated to driving new pipeline and booking. You’re the head of markets for KPMG’s One Americas region. But Julia, one of the reasons why I was really excited to have you on the show is because typically we interview sales leaders around the globe from product companies, companies like Salesforce, and Oracle, and Hilton, and Apple Computer, et cetera. Not everybody thinks sales services when they think of like KPMG. Maybe they think of Phil Mickelson or whatever it might be. Tell us about you, tell us about your role as the sales leader from KPMG.

Julia Abramovich: Fred, thank you so much to inviting me to the show. I’m excited to speak with you today. You mentioned product company. I did spend 16 years in a large technology firm, so very much got my learning and education in that environment. Today, I’m speaking to you in my role at KPMG, my primary capacity as the US firm sales leader. In addition to leading our business development team, I also serve as a lead partner on a Fortune 50 client. The reason that’s important is it allows me to test ideas and frankly, be credible with my team. I carry a quota for that account, just like every single one of them. Most importantly, I love being with clients and in the market, so it allows me to do that as well.

You did mention the global role I’m stepping into, and I think that will be a great way to take a bit of a show on the road in terms of what we’ve built in the US, but that could be a conversation for a future podcast. That’s what I do today for KPMG. Our team is 300 strong. We call ourselves small but mighty. Selling services, as you alluded to, is a bit different than product. It’s definitely a team sell environment. I can tell you a little bit more about KPMG for those who may not be as familiar, because I think that parlays into why selling service is a little different.

Fred Diamond: Give us the real KPMG. We have listeners all around the globe, and we have sales leaders who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and we also have a lot of people who are in the early stages of their sales career who may not have an understanding of exactly what the firm does. Give us a little bit of a peek into what KPMG does as it relates to how you provide value for your customers.

Julia Abramovich: KPMG’s considered what many may have referred to as big four. It originates from the roots in the audit business. The importance of the audit business is that we make financial markets run. The reason the stock market works is because there are the big-four-like organizations who help build trust in the financial systems. But in general, KPMG is a multidisciplinary consultancy. We do audit, tax, and advisory types of work. Our solutions span really every C-level stakeholder across every industry. You mentioned some folks are considering careers in sales or careers in general. No matter what your industry passions are, if you like to understand how the markets work and what the C-level executives are thinking about, the big problems we try to solve for them, that’s what KPMG does. Obviously, we have offices in all 50 states and we’re a collection of global firms, so almost in every country you might want to work in, so come on over.

Fred Diamond: You just mentioned you were in sales with the technology leader for about 16 years in your career. Then you decided to make the move to KPMG. Talk about that for a little bit. Talk about what was going on with you that led you to making this shift in your career.

Julia Abramovich: Well, I was thoroughly enjoying the time in this large technology firm, rigorous environment, wonderful people, big problems that we were solving for clients. But when the opportunity with KPMG came up, I really saw this as an opportunity to take an organization from good to great. They had a really strong foundation, but as I mentioned, the team was quite small because in a private partnership, which KPMG is, every partner has sales responsibility, every professional has a sales responsibility. What a dedicated business development team, my team does, is augment and supports the broader population, but also leads for our top stack of accounts and our priority solutions. We’re very intentional in how we dedicate our limited sales resources to our most important areas.

The reason I chose to make a switch is I really thought this would be an opportunity to co-create something and be, I don’t want to say creative, but maybe a little bit creative. We got to try a lot of very interesting and innovative things that might be very difficult to do in a large organization. For example, and I think we’ll talk about it later in the podcast, the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how do we incent sales leaders to spend time on that, which is very important, but it’s among many, many priorities. We were able to build that into our compensation systems and our metric system in an agile way, prove something that I think every large organization has been struggling with, how do we make DEI more of a fabric of how we manage sales professionals?

Fred Diamond: One of the main things that the Institute for Excellence in Sales is involved with right now, our mission is actually to help employers attract, retain, motivate, and elevate top tier sales talent. One of the ways that we do that is through our Women in Sales and Diversity in Sales programs. That is definitely top of mind. Before we get to that though, I want to talk about culture, the concept of a sales culture. Again, we’ve interviewed so many people in companies where building the sales culture from the top sales leader all the way down to the people on the docks, and the people in the factory or the warehouse, to understand that their company will succeed if there’s a sales culture, which is really a service culture. But I want to talk a little bit about that. You said you took on this challenge, and it sounds like an amazing challenge. How did you start? Tell us a little bit about what the culture was from a sales perspective and where you’re hoping to get it to. I know it’s a journey, and give us some specifics on what that looks like at a KPMG.

Julia Abramovich: It’s a topic we talk about often. I think sales culture is a journey no matter where you start. In any organization, you may have a debate, what is the true starting point and what is the true north? But we are on that journey, and I can incredibly say we’re making progress as we benchmark how we’re advancing. But what we’ve been doing is deploying a number of initiatives to continue to strengthen and grow our sales culture. Be it tactically, things like sales culture toolkit. Well, we launched that in the fiscal ‘20 that just really defined and simplified some of the sales concept. Like, what does it mean? It means building trusted client relationships, active listening, bringing relevant insights to clients. How do you invite the right teams when you spot a new opportunity? Really demystifying what sales is. Then we deployed that toolkit, not just across our sales team, but much more broadly through the organization, into our delivery organizations, and really embedded it in how people operate. That’s one example.

Another example of a, I don’t even want to call it a campaign or initiative, we call this Everybody Sells. Honestly, that terminology really stuck. I often see those two words, Everybody Sells, as headliners in many meetings and team discussions. That’s really what we want to sprinkle in the sales culture dust into the way the business operates so it can be a tide that rises all boats. We also had a number of cultural efforts, a heads up thinking and so on. I actually think a very important step was tying our values into the sales culture, and refreshing our firm values was a tremendous firm-wide effort. Our values are really important to us, and they’re integrity, excellence, courage, together for better.

When we went through the culture values refresh, really the whole organization got on board behind it. Then what we did is took those five values that everyone was signed up for and understood and could recite now, and tied sales behaviors directly to each. For example, courage, it’s a big word, and it means so many things. How does being good at sales or business development tie to being courageous? It could be delivering tough news to your customer. You don’t sell more business if you can’t credibly do a really good job on your current project. Sometimes projects have bumps, and you have to, to your point, in services organization, deliver on the current engagements and sometimes tell the tough news to the client. Maybe the go live pushes or maybe they’re not holding up their end of the bargain in terms of governance. Our value of courage, how does it tie into being successful in sales, and so on and so forth. We did that for every one of our values, and I thought that went a really long way.

Fred Diamond: Courage is a great one. We speak about courage not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. You’re right, to be successful in sales, there’s so many courageous steps along the way. Asking a customer for another meeting, asking to go to the next level at the customer site. I have one clarification question, Julia. You mentioned that you also work on an account. Are there people at KPMG who are just in sales, or are we talking conceptually about service professionals who are also working on accounts developing sales skills to be more aware of the fact that they’re in sales, even though they may be billable and working on accounts? Are there full-time just sales professionals, or are we talking here about BD professionals and we’re trying to enable them from more of a sales culture perspective?

Julia Abramovich: My team, this business development team, we do not do any delivery. We’re fully quota carrying, fully dedicated biz dev professionals that cover accounts or solutions. We’re organized into the top accounts program, where you’d have a dedicated account relationship director, we call them ARDs, that you’d be most familiar with. We have solution sellers, solution relationship directors, and they may focus on our top solutions like Oracle implementations, Microsoft, Salesforce. We have a number of very important alliances. Those are just to name a few, ServiceNow. We have geographic sellers that cover a market, market relationship directors. That would be the next tier of accounts, if you will, where you’d have a dozen of accounts in a Boston or New York market, for example. Those are just dedicated sales professionals.

But to your point, those sales skills are really critical to our delivery professionals. Those are consultants on projects. They also need to sell. As they grow their careers, they need to develop these skills. The curriculum that we develop is not just for our team of dedicated sales professionals, but we like to extend it to our broader delivery organizations, which is thousands and thousands of professionals in advisory tax and audit businesses.

Fred Diamond: I want to talk about the BD professional, the ones that you are looking to attract. You’re selling, in a lot of ways, critically important solutions that the customers truly need to be successful. We’ve spoken so much over the last couple years at the Institute for Excellence in Sales and the Sales Game Changer podcast about how tough it’s been, not just from a sales perspective, but from what your customers are trying to deliver, especially over the last couple of years as we’re coming out of the pandemic. I’m just curious, when you look to build your sales team at KPMG, tell us who you’re trying to attract. Are you trying to attract people from the customer side who might be looking to make a career change? Are you looking for really bright kids coming out of the Ivy League? Give us a little bit of a perspective on how you’re building your sales team. KPMG is one of the biggest brands in technology. It’s been that way for a long time. Even though people may not know exactly everything you do, people are probably familiar with the company brand or the company name at least. Give us a little bit of perspective on who would be successful, what type of person working in your sales organization.

Julia Abramovich: The answer is it depends on the team that I’ve mentioned. Are you covering an account? We would be looking for deep industry expertise. Let’s say you’re covering a large bank. We would love for you to either have sold to bank or come from banking from an experience standpoint so you can speak the same language with your client. If you are working in an alliance space, I’ll mention a different one. Like for example, Workday. If you worked at Workday, or have sold Workday services, or have led a Workday implementation at your prior employer, having that experience is really critical because it makes you credible with the clients you’re looking to put in an HR solution. If you are selling deal advisory and strategy services, coming from M&A or private equity is hugely helpful.

You also mentioned something about a career level. When I joined, we mostly had pretty tenured sellers and we had account relationship directors who were CIOs for the government. You mentioned Lorna Stark. She had some of the sellers who literally were CIOs for large state agencies who are now helping us build those businesses on the KPMG side. But we noticed we didn’t have as much talent coming up internally as our professionals grow. We didn’t have that feeder pool of talent. We started an early career in sales program that’s called RISE, where we do hire professionals, not right off campus, but maybe with two, three years of sales experience. They’ve demonstrated that they’re interested in sales and have that acumen, but may not have the industry or solution depth.

It’s a two-year program. It’s a bit of a sales apprenticeship. You work with a sponsor side by side in any of those market or solution or account roles. Then you graduate typically after two years and go on a smaller account potentially, or smaller territory, and then grow your career that way through manager and associate director and so on, up to director or senior director. We’re building that pool of professionals that will hopefully be our future. We’re, I think, heading into our fifth year of the RISE program now, and I can tell you the RISE associates that we’re bringing, they’re just so energetic. They bring so many new ideas, and it’s also a group that’s highly diverse. I’m really optimistic that as they grow up with the firm, they’ll be our future.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about diversity then. By the way, the RISE program sounds fascinating. We don’t hear, to be honest with you, all that often anymore about a two-year program where people are nurtured, mentored, taught, et cetera, how to become excellent at sales. I worked at Apple Computer for a long time, and they spent a year when I started getting us sales trained, and product trained, and customer trained. Now we hear about maybe a month that people get when they come on board and then they’re thrown on the phones and they have to sink or swim, if you will. That sounds like a great program that will be really attractive to the right people. We touched on DE&I, you just answered it in the last question.

Julia Abramovich: I just want to add one more point that I think is really important to your question, who do we hire? I answered the profile question of it, but I think the most important part of it is the cultural fit. That spans across all those roles. I feel like people self-select into the culture they want to work for in sales. There’s a lot of pretty highly competitive, almost cutthroat environments, and some people really thrive in those in sales, and they’re very successful. That’s not our culture. We’re more of a collaborative team sell, and that’s how KPMG works. I feel like people who are successful fit one of those profiles of industry or solution, et cetera, that I mentioned earlier, but they also need to be very collaborative and fit our culture, which I think is proven time and time again to be the key to the success here.

Fred Diamond: Well, let’s talk about DE&I, we touched on that at the top. A major part of the Institute for Excellence in Sales is we launched what we call our Premier Women in Sales employer designation back in the spring of 2023, recognizing companies that are great places to work for women in sales and also for minorities in sales as well. Touch on that, talk about your DE&I framework and how that fits in with what you’re looking to achieve and how you’re moving forward.

Julia Abramovich: KPMG has a very declared strategy. We call it Accelerate 2025, and it’s an intentional set of qualitative and quantitative metrics that we are working towards to improve Our DE&I posture, work very closely with our chief diversity officer, Elena Richards. This is a commitment we have from the very top of the firm, from our CEO and deputy chair. The way it manifests itself broadly in our talent strategy is in three areas. I really like how we segment that, Fred, because it’s logical. It’s three areas, getting here, succeeding here, and leading here. We look at each of those stages of your career, like getting here, how do we show up in recruiting? How do we make sure we have diverse interview slates, diverse interviewers so people see somebody across the table or zoom link that looks like them. Succeeding here talks a lot about career path and all the enablers of what happens once you join KPMG. Lastly, leading here. Succession planning and things like that.

In sales on my team, we adopt that framework and then customize it for what we need in business development. Our sales leaders, as I mentioned earlier, are measured on making sure they have a mentorship relationship with a diverse candidate that any position they fill there is a diverse slate, or we can’t move forward, and there is a diverse set of interviewers. Same goes for succession planning. Making sure we’re intentional in how we’re building those slates, because if we are not intentional, then we don’t have those two, three years to develop the other candidates that may not be as prepared. But if we want to make sure we have a diverse slate of successors, we have to be working on it along the way, not just when the position becomes vacant.

I would say those are some of the key firm wide and business development programs. We also have a women’s development program, specifically just for sales, where we take our high potential female sellers and put them through a yearlong program of internal and external programming, and also a bit of a cohort and a networking group where we have each other to bounce ideas from in a more informal way. We I think just graduated our third cohort there. The RISE program, as I mentioned, the early career program, is a huge feeder of diverse talent for us. We also have a sales center in Orlando now that’s focused more on early career professionals. That also is a great place where we bring in diverse talent and groom them for the positions in the firm over time.

Fred Diamond: To be honest with you, we tracked some of the great sales organizations around the globe, and I didn’t know until we discovered some of your people, Lorna specifically, and now learning from you, some of the amazing things that KPMG is doing. I want to give you an opportunity to pitch why somebody would want to come work at KPMG. You mentioned that you worked at one of the top technology companies for a long time. The challenge of attracting, retaining top tier talent is something that every company that we deal with, I did a podcast interview with a guy named Frank Passanante, who was the top sales leader at Hilton USA, back in 2019. I asked him, what is his biggest challenge? He said, every sales leader is going to answer hiring and retaining top tier talent. It’s table stakes. Give us a pitch on why somebody would want to move to KPMG specifically in a sales role.

Julia Abramovich: Well, I’m biased because I personally think we’re a great place to work and grow your career, but in more systematic way, we have a framework of a sales culture equation, if you will. That says that direction, plus support, plus accountability equals success. You’ll get results and you will have fun at work. We try to work by this sales culture equation. What do I mean by it? Direction. Is there a clear set of metrics, direction, guidance from the business? You can’t be successful as a salesperson if you don’t have clear direction. That’s one. Support. Support means many things. Career path. We’ve worked very hard over the last few years to put together a sales career path that’s transparent, that starts at the early steps with RISE and so on, and goes all the way up to managing director.

We have a modern CRM. We recently just went live with Salesforce, and it’s a game changer, not to use your term, in terms of how we serve our clients. That support bucket continues to evolve with the programs and the tools that we offer our sales professional. Accountability is really important. We hold our sales leaders accountable and our leadership, and it’s a journey. That accountability is so important in sales, and that’s how you get results. I’m a big believer in having fun at work. We recognize success, and even through the years of COVID, we’ve tried to get our teams together virtually, have a community across the different businesses. I guess those would be some of the reasons KPMG is a great place for a sales career.

Fred Diamond: Julia, before I ask you for your final action step, and you’ve given us so many great ideas, I’m thinking about the breadth of your career getting to this point right now. Again, a big part of what we do at the Institute for Excellence in Sales is our Women in Sales programs. We’re having a conference in October. Our Women in Sales Leadership Elevation. Gina Stracuzzi, who runs our Women in Sales programs, has a program called the Women in Sales Leadership Forum, where we take 15 women in a hybrid situation through a six-session leadership program over six months. It’s such an important part of our business, and a lot of people look at the institute as the center of excellence for corporate women in sales best practices.

I’m going to ask you for one bit of advice that you would recommend to a woman who’s let’s say in her late 20s, junior stage of her career, who is looking to be you one day, who’s looking to be a sales leader at a major brand. You could probably list 50 things, but give us one, I’m putting you on the spot here. Give us the top thing that you would recommend for them to achieve that level of career success.

Julia Abramovich: That is a really hard question, Fred. I think having fun at work and loving what you do is so, so important. If you don’t wake up every day and want to go to work, I would urge you to reexamine what needs to change in your professional equation, because it doesn’t always mean changing roles. What is the one thing that needs to change to make sure you love what you do and have fun at work? But maybe if I can add, I know you asked for one thing, but I think that’s a broader leadership thing that everyone should be aware of at every level. It’s something I heard a couple weeks ago at a leadership event. I think it’s a very good reminder. It’s treat everyone as a volunteer.

We’re in a knowledge economy now, and you can’t observe people doing their work. It’s not like counting widgets at a factory, or carrying buckets, or digging a ditch. You can’t supervise that work effort. It’s mental capacity where knowledge workers and that motivation and engagement is impossible to observe. As leaders, as colleagues, as employees, we have to treat everyone as volunteers. We have to give people choice in flexibility in how they do their work, and then we have to hold people accountable. I do think that’s a big evolution of how sales has also changed over the years. Because buying certainly has changed from our clients, and I feel like sales hasn’t changed as much to keep pace, and that’s what I would ask everyone to think about, about people they work with.

Fred Diamond: Once again, I want to thank Julia. We spoke today with Julia Abramovich from KPMG. I want to acknowledge you for what you’ve done in your career. Again, listening to today’s show, again, you’re the second person we’ve had from KPMG, Lorna Stark we mentioned before. But I didn’t expect, to be honest with you, when we first asked about bringing in some of your leaders, including you on the show, about the breadth of the sales culture and all the programs that you have in place to ensure that you’re successful helping your customers achieve what they need to achieve. I want to thank you for giving us some of those insights. I want to congratulate you on all these amazing programs that you’ve implemented, and it’s been an honor speaking to you today.

Give us your final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. Give us something specific that sales professionals and leaders listening to today’s show or reading this transcript should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Julia Abramovich: Sales is all about outcomes, not activity. Sometimes we confuse the two. Activity leads to outcomes, but if you want to be successful in sales, measure yourself in outcomes, not just activity. That’s a key framework in my mind.

Fred Diamond: Once again, I want to thank Julia Abramovich for being on today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast. My name is Fred Diamond.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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