EPISODE 330: Red Hat SLED Sales VP Nancy Bohannan on How to Embrace Diversity and Inclusiveness on Tech Sales Teams

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the WOMEN IN SALES Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Gina Stracuzzi on February 8, 2021. It featured Nancy Bohannan, Red Hat State & Local and Education (SLED) VP of Sales.]

Register for the IES Women in Sales Leadership Forum here.

Find Nancy on LinkedIn here.

NANCY’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “For me, leadership is taking the time to purposefully build a diverse team.  Internalize that you’re going to get better by being around people who are different than you. Making that extra effort makes a team that much stronger, and I wish I did see more of that across the IT industry.  If everybody could have that attitude, the differences are going to make me better and make us better as a team. I think about it from a perspective of how we’re going to get better, how we’re going to bring in different ideas and make us all grow. Diversity is growing from people who are very different than I am.”

Gina Stracuzzi: We’re going to be talking about a pretty important topic – embracing diversity and inclusiveness so that you have an opportunity to learn from different points of view. This is a subject that everybody is talking about and we’ve made great strides, but we still have a way to go, perhaps some of that is about how we address our thinking. Before we get into that topic, Nancy, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today?

Nancy Bohannan: Hello, everybody, it’s wonderful to be here, it’s a truly very important topic. Just for a little background for all those folks out there, I was raised in Kentucky, very proud of it, I bleed blue, big Kentucky girl. Got raised on the race track and on the golf course, that was my background, a lot of my growing up is all about those two topics. Went to school in Missouri and graduated, starting my career and Hughes Aircraft as a software developer. Of course, they brought us up the right way there, they didn’t let us do software development, they made us do operations and maintenance so we saw ways bad code was written. Finally we got out of that and we got to write our own code. I stayed there for well over a decade and was shipped back to the East Coast and worked at a classified ground station and did satellite command and control. Pretty passionate about it, I loved it, I thought it was really cool, I had a pager and when things went bad I’d be paged and I had to run into the office. Hughes was a very male-dominated company, I was one of the few females back in the early 80s so I was definitely an outlier there. I enjoyed it, Hughes got bought out by Raytheon so I was having to rebuild my career a bit and I had the dot com period come up.

I had a friend say, “Make a million dollars in a year” and I said, “That sounds really good.” By that time I had three kids, I had a daughter and twin boys in two years, so I had my hands full but I decided to go try to make a million dollars, that sounded appealing having three small kids. I joined a small company called Blueprint Technologies right when we had the dot bomb. It was probably the most interesting 18 months in my career, if I’m honest with you because I was from Hughes, it was very hierarchical and process-oriented and all of a sudden I was in a very flat organization. Probably 6 months in we couldn’t afford a janitor anymore so on the sheet we took turns taking out the trash. It really made me like that environment, that culture, “All for one, one for all” where titles didn’t mean much. That was a lot of fun, I kept up saying to the person that brought me in as we were having harder and harder times, “You probably need to let me go.” I was the only bread-winner in our family with three kids, so I was also a little nervous. I wanted the stability of a Hughes Aircraft but the agility of a Blueprint Technologies.

I can’t say enough great things about my career at Microsoft, I started out running the joint Department of Defense business, I love the DOD, that was really cool to be in the federal government. Then went over to run Public Sector Services Sales and then went over to run North America Services Sales that included commercial, so that was fun. It was the first time in my career I was now selling to commercial, talk about a different sale cycle and a different approach. A lot of fun stuff, a lot of golf and baseball games and things like that. That was interesting and then from there I ran Worldwide Specialty Sales for Services and that was really interesting because I spent more time out of the country than in the country, I ran around the world. Talk about diversity, cultures, learning how to be the American from corporate flying into China and trying to tell them, “This is the way you should org because this is the way we org all over the world” and trying to set standards around the world. I had a lot of learning on diversity, styles, going out to the field and being a listener. From Microsoft, after 15 years there believe it or not, I decided to take a break.

I wasn’t sure if I was done or what I was going to do and then one day I got called from IBM and it was like, “I don’t know if I’m interested or not, I’m really burnt out from worldwide travel, you have to give me these four things if you want to talk to me” and the next day they called me with my four things [laughs]. Then I panicked, “Well, do I really want to do this?” I spent almost three years at IBM and again, that was a very different culture than the Microsoft culture but it was a very robust company with both services, hardware and software, all the different brands, really smart people so I enjoyed that time a lot. During that period, IBM brought Red Hat. I was running Federal Software Sales for IBM at that point and I started sitting across the table from the Red Hat Public Sector team and frankly, I just fell in love with them there. A lot of fun people and they had the SLED market, the SLED market is interesting because it’s three markets in one market. You’ve got some barge enterprises and then you’ve got the small, tiny things and you’ve got the regional things. I always did like the SLED market even though I was like, “Am I crazy for wanting to go do the SLED market again?” I started Red Hat last March, the first day we were sent home so I’ve been at Red Hat since March 17th and haven’t been in the office yet as of today.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s pretty amazing. Before we go on, just in case some people don’t know, what does SLED stand for?

Nancy Bohannan: State and Local Government and Education.

Gina Stracuzzi: Admittedly, I had to look it up too. I knew parts of it but it was the local that was throwing me off. That is quite the journey, and you have certainly been in bastions of male leaders, I’m sure some of whom were not always as receptive to women being in those roles. I would imagine that most of them were respectful of your training and your knowledge. I don’t know where you want to start this conversation, but this thinking about diversity and wanting to include diverse thinking in your decisions and your work ethic, has that always been part of your life? Where did that come from?

Nancy Bohannan: Not at all. Unfortunately, my mom died when I was quite young so I was raised with three older brothers and a father and my three older brothers throughout, the four of us in five years so we were tight. In one way I was just raised as one of the boys and my dad didn’t know quite what to do with me so he threw me on a golf course after my mom passed and I was raised by the golf course. I don’t remember my dad ever saying, “You can do anything, you’re as good as a boy”, I just remember being expected to do anything. I mowed the grass, I was just a family member and we all did the dishes, I never had any traditional roles. I had three brothers, the protectors but they were also pretty rough with me so I didn’t have much of a concept of being different at all or a concept that I couldn’t or could do things.

I took it for granted, I think, and one of the a-ha moments for me was as a first line manager not in sales, at that time I was doing software development, a female came to me and she says, “How do you talk around that table with all those men?” I was like, “What?” I had no idea of what she was talking about and she said, “Aren’t you scared to talk?” In one way, I saw it was a huge advantage. There was Fred, Joe, Harry, Sam and I was the only female there, everybody remembered me. I left that meeting, everybody would say hi to me in the hallway. At that point I just remembered thinking, “I need to help her” because she was super good, super smart, she was one of the best developers we had and I just remembered that was an a-ha moment. I think that was the time I was like, “I really need her to speak up and I’m going to have to really help her get her confidence.” That was pretty early in my career. I was already a first time manager, but that was really shocking to me.

Gina Stracuzzi: This is more in the inclusive side of the fence compared to diversity, but it is one of the things that women struggle with the most because we were socialized not to speak up, let the men talk. I have a very similar background to you, as we’ve discussed, I was raised with five brothers and just a really strong figure of a father so I was one of the boys. It has helped me along the way, but a lot of women weren’t raised that way, it was implicit that you take a back seat so a lot of women didn’t know how to stand up for themselves. That’s changing dramatically, but we still get talked over in meetings and employers will tell us at the Institute that one of the biggest challenges they have is getting women to speak up in meetings. I think your idea of, “I have to help this woman” was a great recognition and a great a-ha moment, as you called it because you probably helped her tremendously.

Nancy Bohannan: She killed and she had a great career but her nature was to be quiet and it’s funny. I had a situation at work today and it was a male but he’s the quiet male, he’s on my leadership team so I called him to get his perspective because he’s so rational, so reasonable, so easy to talk to. For me, what leadership is all about is leveraging those people around me who are different. His personality is very different than me so we have the male-female thing but we also just have personality differences, and he’s become one of my go-to guys on my leadership team because I want his perspective, I jump to the gun kind of quick and he’s very thoughtful. For me, diversity is all about pulling the best out of everybody to get the best answer and it can be male, female, races, etcetera but fundamentally what you really have to believe in is there’s that famous quote, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” If you can internalize that and really believe it, it’s so easy to embrace diversity.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s getting to that point where we have enough diversity around the table to be able to listen to their opinions, thoughts and ideas. We’ve made such tremendous gains, clearly we have further to go. How do you incorporate all of that thinking and what comes naturally to you in your leadership style? What recommendations might you have for others who are struggling to get people to speak up and share their ideas and bring diversity more into their hiring practices and into their mentoring practices so that they can get to the point where a diversity of ideas is what they get all the time?

Nancy Bohannan: That’s why you’re seeing some of the programs you’re seeing that look like forced diversity, “We want to hire a certain percent of a certain race.” That feels forced but again, if you believe that it’s the differences that make us better versus similarities, you realize. It’s so funny because I think it’s close to 70% of the females make electronics decisions, what electronics to buy at a home, it’s a crazy statistic and you even see advertising starting to change to embrace that concept. For me, leadership is all around taking the time to purposefully build a diverse team. Think about your growth periods in your life or coaches that pushed you or people you were around where you were just dumbfounded, “If they can do it, I can do it.” I was raised in a very middle-class family and then you see people who didn’t have the same advantages I had raised in a middle-class family and see what they’ve achieved. If that’s not inspirational… At times they’ve had to work twice as hard as I did to get to where they are and I want them sitting at the table with me because they’re going to inspire me in ways that I probably won’t inspire myself. I really do like looking at very different views of people to try to make me better.

To me, it’s about really believing it. Have you internalized that you’re going to get better by being around people who are different than you? If you can’t internalize that then you’re not going to grow as much. For me, it’s about personal growth as well as professional growth. How do I continue to strive to be a better person? We have this funny thing right now, you’re always creating goals for yourself and my latest goal is just to be a positive influence on every transaction I have with a human being. How can you really try to bring something to an atmosphere that maybe other people aren’t focused on? Because where people thrive is where they’re valued, where they’re listened to and where your opinions are asked, and I think that’s what makes us all better.

Gina Stracuzzi: We have a question from Beth, Beth wants to know, “What if I have an employee that I would like to promote but it isn’t necessarily ‘his turn’ yet but I think he’d be best for the job?”

Nancy Bohannan: It isn’t his turn yet? I’m not sure what that means.

Gina Stracuzzi: She said, “He doesn’t have enough time in job yet, but he’s a minority and I think his ideas are fabulous.”

Nancy Bohannan: There’s multiple ways to handle that in my opinion. One is to be the biggest advocate as you can and get your management to take a risk, sometimes that’s hard but I’m a firm believer in not playing in the mold, “You have to be in this role this long.” Mostly, I’d be very careful about if you promote somebody too quickly, but I would say to Beth push hard, try to get him promoted, be very data-driven. Why is he the best person in the job compared to other candidates? Be very clear, “If you pick somebody else you’re jeopardizing the business.” It can’t be an emotional thing, it’s got to be data-driven so I’d have that conversation. If for some reason the company doesn’t let you do it, continue to encourage that person, give them special projects, let them shine, give them experiences. If you go out, make them your acting, just give them every leadership possible so that after the two years is up, they’re ready to go. I would fight first and then if I didn’t win, I would do everything possible to make that person shine and give them visibility to leadership.

Gina Stracuzzi: Beth says thank you. Claire wants to know, she’s not in a leadership position but she would like to mentor some of the new hires. Should she ask management if that’s okay or just do it?

Nancy Bohannan: It’s always okay to be somebody’s friend and help them. You may not form part of a mentoring program but absolutely, new people come in, I open arms help them out 100%. If your company has a formal mentoring program and you want to be involved, I would go to my management and say, “I want to become involved” and find out what the requirements are, etcetera. I came to Red Hat, there’s a mentoring program here and you had to be here a year before you got into the program so I said, “Okay, I’m out.” Three months later they called me and said, “Why aren’t you doing this?” “The requirement is a year” and they said, “No, we want you” so I’m now part of a mentoring program. I think you should ask your management. If not, you don’t have to make it so formal, informal mentoring is key. Help those around you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk a little bit about mentoring programs at Red Hat. I know that Red Hat is a great supporter of their women, their Women in Sales program has sent a number of people through the Women in Sales Leadership forum and I have learned a lot from the women on your team over the various forums that they’ve been in. What kind of model do you use internally for mentoring? Are there lessons there that other people can follow?

Nancy Bohannan: There’s a formal mentoring program and execs sign to be mentors of specific folks. Then also in the Public Sector team we have a women’s group that meets quarterly that we pull together and work. I don’t have a lot of insight into all the different projects they’ve done in the past since I’ve only been there 10 months, but I think it’s super important. Both those programs are super important and I think the whole thing about mentoring is really helping the person. I’m mentoring somebody right now and it was really interesting, I won’t go into a lot of details but I’ve really had to get her focused on what she wanted versus how she felt like she was being treated. “Forget all this outside stuff, what do you want?” and it took quite a while to figure out what she wanted. Once we could define what she wanted then let’s get you there.

We’re all busy, I’m a direct person and I like to move fast and hard so, “Where are we going? What do you want out of this relationship? If you want to call me once a quarter and complain, fine but if you want something, let’s define it and let’s figure it out.” I think a good mentor does define what the relationship is upfront and it’s fine to have a buddy and just say, “I just need somebody to talk to once a quarter.” I experienced raising three small kids working full-time in this IT world, I was running around the world when my twin boys were in high school leaving them alone for periods of time. There are a lot of things I’ve experienced through my professional career that allow me to talk about my experiences.

Gina Stracuzzi: There’s a big difference between mentoring and sponsoring. I would think in issues of inclusiveness and helping diverse new hires as they come in, thinking about how people can find people who will not just mentor them but sponsor them in their growth up through a company. The woman you were talking about, when you’re mentoring her and you say, “Now we’re going to get you there” it seemed to me a little bit like then maybe you’re crossing over into the sponsorship role too. How would you suggest women look for these or diverse populations as they’re coming into new employment, how they might find these roles?

Nancy Bohannan: That’s a really good question because I feel like a lot of people get to this level but never get to the higher level. A lot of times, I don’t want to trivialize it but sometimes I think it’s luck because you found somebody who was willing to sponsor you. For me it was a retired 3-star general at Microsoft that got me into the executive level, he just believed in me like crazy and fought for me to get to that next level. That’s interesting, this whole concept of sponsorship. I think it starts with mentoring, you have to build a brand before somebody is willing to sponsor you and then you have to be really clear what you want. Finding a sponsor that believes in you and wants to help you get there, that’s totally different than mentoring and that’s hard but I think you can ask for it. “This is my goal, do you see me getting there?” I didn’t ask for it, Michael grabbed me and put me there but it is very different. I think you have to build a brand first, though. The great saying of, “The best way to get promoted is doing the current job you’re in damn well.”

Gina Stracuzzi: One topic that gets left out of the diversity and inclusion conversation often is people with disabilities, even people who maybe have hearing issues and that can affect their speech. One woman I was talking to said that this company she was interested in said they had this video for hiring people with disabilities. She said the video wasn’t captioned, so it completely left off people with hearing issues and I think as employers, there’s a lot that can be done to make sure that that inclusiveness is really broad and you really think through what that means. Who are we leaving out of this pitcher and how do we reach them? Something as simple as captioning doesn’t take a great deal but it can make all the difference in the world to somebody that’s got a hearing impairment.

Nancy Bohannan: I can’t agree more. Diversity is in all different shapes and forms and you don’t see a lot of that. I think making that extra effort makes a team that much stronger, and I wish I did see more of that across the IT industry. A little proud moment here, my son works for a company that focuses on getting people with disabilities into the workforce and it’s been fascinating to watch him go through that journey and try to get companies to embrace their program. I think if we had more of that in any company I’ve ever been in, we would have been stronger.

Gina Stracuzzi: These are lessons that all companies have learned and most corporations certainly at the level that you have worked at and down through the ranks are making big strides and gallant efforts, but the things that trip these programs up are resistance from within. People are afraid they’re going to lose something by opening up to even more competition for hiring and then there’s implementation problems, it’s not thought through – things like captioning on a video or they don’t have buy-in all the way up the top of the chain, or there’s a lack of consistency, language issues, all those kinds of things. I think the companies that are doing the best with it have thought all of those things through and then have leaders like yourself who are willing to not just talk the talk, they’re willing to walk the walk and go that extra mile to mentor and help people along. Let’s talk a little bit about what you would like to see or make happen and how you within your company and in your position would like to help other people learn from your lessons. I think that really goes to how do you live this every day and what do you want to bring to Red Hat, to other women and just people?

Nancy Bohannan: It’s interesting when I hear leadership doesn’t embrace it, I think that’s a little bit of a cop-out because it starts with me and if all I can do is influence what goes from me down, that’s a start. If everybody could have that attitude, the differences are going to make me better and make us better as a team. If we all could embrace that and influence at our level, I think there would be tremendous strides. I’m not looking for anybody else to do this, I’m looking for me to do it. When I manage my folks I’ll say to one of my front line managers and pick on somebody on their team, “What does Joe think about that?” I try to make sure I’m pulling in other people to make sure that my front line managers are pulling in their whole team.

I do try to be there and I probably do try to be there a lot for females, especially working ones because frankly, Gina, I think my goal was to get married and join a country club and play golf and be a stay-at-home mom. It just didn’t work out for me that way [laughs] and I think having my professional career has been such a blessing and I’ve grown so much from it and I like the opportunities it gave me. I like that I’ve been all over the world, I like that I’ve been in different cultures and I’ve had to learn different things. We used to have these programs where you’re going to be the exec sponsor of an account, who is the leader of that and who is the best fit for that person versus, “This title needs this”? Who is the best fit that’s going to bring a lot of value to that customer? I think about it from a perspective of how we’re going to get better, how we’re going to bring in different ideas and make us all grow. That’s what diversity is for me, diversity is growing from people who are very different than I am.

Then it also means to me as a female who’s grown up in IT – and I have a lot of funny stories, I’ve been in this industry a long time. I went to one interview and I look back on this way back when I went to this, the last interview was with the boss’s boss’s boss, “He’s Italian, he races cars and he drops you off and might try to kiss you goodnight. That’s your final interview.” [Laughs] I can laugh now, but being 21 years old and being told that was pretty terrifying but we’ve come a long way. I do think the different views I’m around getting people to speak up who are quiet really does make me better.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think we all learn from those kinds of times and thankfully we aren’t there anymore. I had a few of those myself so I had to chuckle when you said that. It’s really about embracing what’s in front of you and Roberta adds that when she’s in a meeting, even if she’s not leading it, if she sees someone sitting back that she thinks has something to say, she will specifically call on them. “It looks like you have a thought”, she says and I think that’s really admirable even if you’re not necessarily leading the meeting. If you see someone who looks like they want to say something, give them that opportunity and that’s where you get to hear those diverse voices that you brought up before.

Nancy Bohannan: It’s also inviting those people into the room, sometimes those people get left out. That’s the biggest issue, making sure they get invited into the room.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s a really good point, Nancy. Let me make that my last question to you. If you think somebody has value to add to a meeting and it’s not necessarily your meeting, how would you go about trying to get them in?

Nancy Bohannan: Ask [laughs]. Another thing I like to do and I’ve learned this through the years is when I go on PTO – and it’s so easy for me to be on PTO and then go ahead and call into a forecast call just because it’s with my boss – I’m like, “No, I want visibility, I want to make sure somebody who works for me is in my boss’s meeting” so they’re in that room and I’m not. I try to get out of the way even when I don’t need to get out of the way. My boss actually is really good at giving the mic to others, Paul is fantastic. It was so funny, we had an all-hands and he didn’t speak, it was just the quarterly all-hands and he let Alisson run it with marketing and then we did some awards. Giving other people the mic and letting them represent him, I think that’s a good model for all of us. Give other people opportunity to shine and they will surprise the heck out of you.

Gina Stracuzzi: That is a great piece of advice. Thank you so much, Nancy, for sharing your insights and your thoughts and how you try to be a leader that is inclusive and brings diverse voices into the meetings and into everything you do. I appreciate it very much.

Nancy Bohannan: Thank you for everything you’re doing, you’re very dedicated and on this topic as well as the Women Forum, we really appreciate you, Gina. Thank you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Thank you. I hope you’ll come back again and we can discuss something else. We’ll see you all here next week, everyone, thanks for your time.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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