Leader Q&A: Meri Kukkonen

Post by: Anna Johansson
Published: 28 March 2023

Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far? What excites you about your current role? 

I have been in sales for over two decades now! I decided that I wanted to pursue sales leadership when I was working for a large B2B tech company back in Europe. They had an office for inside sales at one of those grey, depressing industrial areas, with grey office buildings with grey walls, and the mood of the people matched the colours.

I was curious about the bleak attitudes, so I started asking questions about the sales process, the product, the customer. The shocking answer? The team had hardly had any coaching, they didn’t know how to handle even the simplest objection, let alone know what mattered to their buyers.

I started organising short training sessions a few times a week to take the team through things like; letting engineers run them through a product demo, learning 10 answers to the question ‘what does the product do and why should the customer care?’ or ‘what is the value of an upgrade for the customer?’. 

The training combined with achievable, understandable goals built not only skills, but also team spirit. The sales results and job satisfaction turned a page, and that success came by focusing on people first and that’s the path I have been on ever since.

Now with Mitratech I am leading the APAC region. We already had great success in North America and Europe, with about 1,200 people globally and now 25 here in Australia. We are developers of corporate governance, risk and compliance solutions which are truly cutting edge technology. It’s a fast growing company run by modern leadership who sees that success comes from working together as a team towards the same goal: our customers’ success. 

It is such a great opportunity for me personally to take on this role and build out the sales team here in APAC as Mitratech is growing to become a true global leader in the GRC industry.  For my team, I am seeing such amazing opportunities for everyone to do the best job of their life. 

How did you find the jump from an individual contributor to taking on your first leadership role? What was the biggest challenge in starting out as a sales leader?

Every salesperson is a leader. We are leading the sales process, the direction of the conversation and negotiating our way to an outcome that is beneficial for both the customer and the business they represent.

Leadership is not an attribute that some people are born with. Leadership is a set of skills that you can learn, and therefore, you can become better at through practice.  

So the step, or the difference, is that for an individual contributor the goal is to maximise revenue through creating value for the end customer. As a sales leader, my goal is to create an environment where my team can be successful. 

Throughout my career, I have consistently been building the scope of responsibility I have in my roles and then practising the skills necessary to go from ordinary to excellent. I have taken in all the training and coaching I have had access to, applied it to see if it can help me become better and asked help from mentors, colleagues, managers. Now here at Mitratech I lead a group of professionals who are responsible for the whole customer lifecycle and I can apply skills I have developed over the decades, and keep growing. 

Whilst at an entry level there is on average an even mix of females and males, there is a higher attrition rate when it comes to females in tech sales as well as less female sales leaders – what do you think could be the reason for this, do you think there is any way to work on this representation?

I don’t know if there is really rigorous research around those numbers but it is a very interesting stat that surprised me. 

I have two thoughts about this. 

Firstly, what we do know from research is that women tend not to apply if they think that they don’t meet all the criteria. I want to encourage all people to be aware of this, and pay attention when job seeking or potential promotions at work. Questions to ask, for both the applicant as well as the hiring manager: What are the must-haves attributes and skills needed? Is formal education a must have? And my favourite: What’s the worst that could happen if I go for it anyway?

Secondly, a question to sales people: When have you made it? What is the measure of success in your career? 

Perhaps the number of women entering tech sales has grown, but seems like sales is also a stepping stone to other roles in organisations. 

That’s not a negative thing, sales can give a good foundation to understand business just like an accounting degree can do. We also need to give sales as a profession the credit it deserves. 

In good times, the market is flooded with transactional sellers, all genders, who are good at taking orders. When times are tough, these reps don’t survive because they never developed the skills required to be successful in enterprise sales. 

Ask yourself: am I a sales professional? Am I investing in my development to learn and become better at my craft? And if you’re a sales leader, what are you doing to coach your team for the long term?

What is the most rewarding part of your job at Mitratech? 

Technology can enable organisational transformation and beyond all the sales pitches, what we do here at Mitratech helps every Australian to have a better, safer experience with their banks, universities and government bodies. Our team here works in partnership with our customers to leverage the Mitratech governance, risk and compliance technology, benefitting risk professionals who directly enable the success of Australian industry, and further on, the Australia people. 

So, safe to say, number one for me is always the customer and the way I help our customers is building a winning team who truly enjoy what they do. 

Mitratech is known as a place where professionals can accelerate their skills faster than anywhere else. Mitratech has a strong professional development program coupled with support for career growth. The ultimate reward for me as a sales leader is  seeing my team make it into the President’s Club. 

In economic dips/changes in the market like we are currently experiencing, how do you go about coaching and mentoring your team to drive success?

My method when I start in a new role, face a new challenge or even a new macroeconomic situation is to take it back to the first principles. I ask questions, such as what makes a successful sales person here? How do you know? How should you spend your days? Is selling in action relevant to the go-to-market strategy of the organisation?

Regardless of markets being up or down, if you keep doing the basics right, you will be a step ahead of everyone who is not consistently managing their efforts by focusing on the right things.The basics can be qualifying well, executing the sales process, leading the deals, always following up and investing their time with the customers who want to work with me.  

Sales is quite a unique profession, as there is no formal training that you can take and it will guarantee that you will be able to make a living out of it. You have to bring so much more than just book smart skills to meet your targets and be successful as a sales rep. Sales is competitive and it’s hard. I think any junior rep who in these times expects to just show up for a regular 9-5 and smash their target may make it, but may not. I coach my team on ownership, accountability, how to work smart, lead their own agenda in every deal and get what they want to meet their targets. 

What have you been reading or watching lately?

  • My first recommendation is Nine Lies about Work. This one busts myths about work. The one that stands out is the myth that people need to be all rounders. You  should play to your strengths instead. Build those unique capabilities you have.. When I am hiring I always look for strong individuals, whose diversity of strengths are complementary.
  • The second is  The Comfort Crisis. It gives perspectives to look at your life: are you too settled in your ways, are you growing, what is har and creative ways to push your boundaries. 
  • The third one is a book called Amp It Up. This one is a sales book. I spoke about the sales professional being a leader of their work: no matter at what stage you are in your sales career, this book will give you practical tools to lead the sales process in your terms.