People.ai

In every organization there are unsung heroes. Many times these heroes are the men and women that fuel the engine of the enterprise – sales leaders. This series is an attempt to share written portraits of these amazing humans that bring together a passion for moving the business forward with data, technology, and a few other ingredients that might surprise you.

Like most of us, I was counting down the days to 2021. And it’s here. Not exactly the start I was hoping for, but I’m happy to kick it off with the story of a young, powerhouse sales leader, Sarah Bagaman from Okta.

I first heard about Sarah during what you would consider (in the remote world), water cooler conversation. My teammates and I were chatting about some of the super cool people we get to meet through our work and Sarah’s name came up. The team was describing her tenacity and smarts in how she runs her territory. I was intrigued and introductions were made.

Sarah has been leading the Enterprise Inside Sales team at Okta for just shy of two years. She was the first leadership hire to build out this new function and new part of the business. As we met, I quickly got a sense of her sharp wit, seemingly endless energy, and passion for her team.

Sarah’s story unfolds in an unexpected way. She studied kinesiology with a focus on nutrition and wellness. She loved being a college athlete, understanding the science of the body, and participating in team sports. Halfway through her studies, she realized another calling — sales. I asked her how she transitioned into sales and she shared how being in the Bay area shows you firsthand how technology impacts the way San Francisco – and even more broadly the world – operates. As someone who was driven and curious, it was enough to pique her interest.

What on the surface seemed like a career stretch, turned out to be the perfect fit. Sarah recognized quickly that sales is a team sport and she brings the spirit of winning and losing together to her organization every day. She clearly loves the team dynamic, the rush of competition, and as she says “being in control of your destiny”. Becoming a sales leader became a natural progression on her career path.

I was instantly intrigued by the idea of controlling your own destiny, especially in sales, where predictability can often be elusive. I asked Sarah what levers she pulls to get the outcomes she desires. Sarah invokes the “sales is part art and part science” moniker, but her explanation hits home in a very fundamental way. She is very methodological. Starting with “controllables” – putting yourself in the best position to win. Sarah lists the variables of success: are you talking to enough people, do you have enough pipe coverage, are you doing the basic math, and are you balancing what you can control. You also have to acknowledge that you can do everything right and sometimes, still not win. To round out the picture, Sarah looks to the human dimension; what the individual brings to the relationship, and if her sellers are consistently doing the right things.

As Sarah says: “the harder you work, the luckier you get”.

With each question, Sarah’s tenacity and work ethic come through clearly. I ask her about her challenges and once again, I receive a multi-dimensional answer. Sarah describes ramping up a lot of new reps as one of the toughest challenges, especially in the new remote environment. She talks about the transition from being able to learn through osmosis with sheer proximity with your peers, to being in front of a computer and needing data to guide you. Then, learning to work with your field co-sell counterparts who were also adjusting from 100% in-person meetings to a virtual world.

She voices her frustration with not being able to be in person with her team. She describes them as her mini-family, where she’s the one responsible for everyone feeling safe, having a sense of connection, and rapport. Recognizing that she can’t control and change the current state, she focuses on what she can accomplish. She’s creating a springboard into field sales for her team. She’s most excited about seeing her reps earn promotions and continue to move up within the organization. It’s validation that the team has been doing the right things to build the future talent at Okta and advancing the careers of the team she’s coaching.

Recognizing Sarah’s charter to build the next generation of Okta field reps is no small feat, I ask her what role People.ai plays in coaching her team. Her response is crisp and straight-forward. She uses People.ai at minimum weekly in her team meetings; they focus on the leaderboard, review pipe generation, understand where reps are spending their time to assess pipe coverage, and align on the deals they are chasing this quarter. In her 1×1 sessions, it gives her the data points and analytics to break down the activities (emails, meetings, calls) and see where her team is crushing it and where they might need help. It gives her a time-boxed view of what is working and what’s not.

Her recipe for success? Affording her team the same opportunity to execute at the level of field reps, which means giving them the same exposure, the same tools and resources, and the same expectations/accountability. She also focuses on removing roadblocks along the way. Her philosophy is that of an athlete: you build muscle memory, use your wins and losses as indicators of success, and continue to rinse and repeat. As a manager and coach, her focus is to create a self-starting engine: give her team the resources they need to level up, give them structure, and remind them when they need a break.

Finally, I ask Sarah to take a walk back down memory lane and think about what’s been the most rewarding part of the job. She takes a moment and with a generous smile describes the journey of building something from the ground up and being able to put her stamp on it – and continue to do so every day. She speaks highly about her leadership team that has set the tone, and the culture that gives autonomy to perform at peak levels, but also the support system that is built through a collaborative environment. Sarah continues to invoke the amazing quality of people she is surrounded by at Okta and that she truly loves who she works with every day. She ends our interview with a simple statement: “I knew what I signed up for, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and I knew you can’t forecast everything, but, it has been fun!