An Interview with John Kourtoulos: Women in Sales Careers

Our editor Holly sat down with John Kourtoulos, the Sales Director for UK and Ireland for AkzoNobel, to discuss the role of women in his business, particularly in sales. We also discussed how a global brand like AkzoNobel wants to encourage more women to join a career in sales and how they want to ensure they are supporting women in their business. 

What is AkzoNobel? What is your job role within the business?

John: AkzoNobel is a global coating company who own the Dulux brand, we supply coatings for a range of various products ranging from phones to buildings. The division I am in is decorative paints, which are basically paints that change the aesthetic environment within commercial or residential spaces, like houses, hotels, hospitals, stadiums, and everything else in between. We add colour to people’s lives, and want to inspire and enable beautiful living spaces. I joined in 2009, after having previously worked for Kellogg's as an Account Manager. My current role is Sales Director for the UK and Ireland (IRE). Essentially, every pound that is spent on products falls under my team's jurisdiction. I have had a wonderful 13 years with this company where I have really been shaped by the experiences along the way. 

What does a senior executive job role look like for your company?

John: A massive part of being in this role means you can influence and shape people’s careers and journeys that they go on, and it’s a real privilege. It's also about helping individuals to develop and advise people in their career. Difficult chats can happen but you can really help people. You have accountability for people, customers and broader business, and a big part of that is being involved in the decision making of the business. Some would say it is a big job!

How many senior executive staff members do you have and what % of them are women?

John: In the UK and IRE management team there are 4 males and 3 females, compared to before in 2015/2016 there was only 1 female. At the moment on my current sales leadership team there are 4 males and 2 females. 

We know that AkzoNobel plans to increase female representation at senior executive level by 30% by 2025. Do you think this is good enough and achievable?

John: I do a lot of work with the UK green building council, and in the context of sustainability, we often hear of the idea of greenwashing, whereby sometimes people in organisations can be claiming to do loads of good stuff that is actually not having a solid impact, and their actions have been dressed up to be something more than they actually are. In contrast, in a sustainability sense some other companies are really and genuinely trying hard, because companies have to start somewhere don’t they? 

I am really aware of this balance between genuinely trying to do good and just making it look like you are. 

So going back to female representation, in my division of decorative paints for the UK and IRE, we made an external pledge of two targets which we are really serious about. Two years ago we announced that we wanted the sales teams to be 25% female by the end of 2025. Instinctively, you could say it doesn’t sound like much, but it all depends on your start point. We started at 19/20% and I thought to increase it by 5%, may be challenging, but I am proud to say with a focussed mindset we have now reached the target, and reached it earlier than anticipated. The work doesn’t stop there of course, but I am pleased at this reality.

We also announced that we wanted to be more active in promoting decorating as an attractive career for women. I think AkzoNobel offers so many opportunities, but it's sometimes hard in a frontline sales role to attract women into sales. When I compare Akzo to other companies, we have learned that the perception of the world of paint is potentially less appealing than other careers in other industries, so we need to consider how we make sales careers for women appealing and accessible, and shout about how great our business really is.

Ultimately with these targets, it is important that at a global level we are trying to reach a goal of recruitment. I am proud of what we have done so far and we have made some progress, but I know there are many things for us to learn from. The desire to keep pushing forward does not change. The more women in our business are visible to others, the more aspirational these types of careers become for women. There is still lots more we can do and intend to do.

So what strategies have you put in place to attract women in sales?

We want 36% of our managers to be female by the end of 2022 as we want to help aid the position of women in managerial positions. We have an internal female network of organised meetings and seminars, to champion the career development and support of women in the organisation. The use of our internal wellbeing ‘Thrive’ meeting and seminar initiatives is also there to unlock desire for progression, and awareness and focus on inclusivity and diversity. A range of topics are covered by these workshops and they have been very positively received. 

We also held women in sales workshops to speak to females about the barriers to sales. What I became aware of is there were 3 things that stopped women applying. Some myths need to be busted about sales, some myths need confirmation, and some things just need to be done differently from our company's perspective. The myth busting of daily quotas, incentivised by bonus – it's just not true! Also myth busting that sales is inflexible, with weekends away and consistently working late in the evening, this is just not the reality.

As an example of flexibility, an employee on my team is a new working mother, and there is a point in her week where she really needed to be free earlier on a specific day for childcare, and this flexibility is really important – we sought to accommodate this and formalise it, and it makes such a big difference to her how she feels about working here.

Things that needed to be done differently by the business was also about looking at advertisements going out. We needed to be better at advertising to women! We try to advertise to places where women have access to the advertisements. We try to bring to life real life examples of female careers in sales.

You mentioned earlier about working mothers. What do you have in place now to protect women who become pregnant in your workforce? And how are women’s roles safe in this business?

It's important to remember that working and having children is challenging to juggle. People need to understand that it is difficult to do all of this at once. Firstly, at AkzoNobel there is no scenario in which women would not have a job to come back to. We support women in their pregnancy, for example with antenatal requirements and such. In the run up to maternity leave, it's up to the employee to guide the narrative in terms of time off. We always seek to protect their role. There is an amount of time that the exact role can be held, after that a similar role will be kept. We offer 18 weeks full pay, then flip to reduced statutory maternity cover after that. After doing some research about comparison with other companies, we are probably middle of the pack, some businesses are really leading the way, others scale full pay down the longer you have the maternity leave. 

We are constantly learning and seeking to evolve our approach. When I started, it used to be that if you were on maternity leave you did not receive your bonus, which was nonsense! So we very quickly changed that to ensuring that women did receive their yearly bonus. We do childcare vouchers, which is a salary sacrifice arrangement, we work with women on return to work days. It's up to the manager how these returns go. We have formal and informal flexible working. Irrespective of policy, the line manager is important. The manager's role in supporting and keeping positive dialogue is really important. Some mothers will want different things. Some may want complete time away, some may want to still be involved. Managers are reactive to what female employees want. You need to work with the individual about what they want and need. We try to accommodate any requests that we get.

How do you ensure that working for your company is accessible for working mothers or people with care responsibilities?

Everyone needs flexibility and support. How you can make someone feel as an employer by listening to people can't be understated. Our ability to accommodate a requirement will be indexed to the role that individual does and it can depend. There is no straight yes or no for things. We have formal flexible mechanisms, part time working, nonstandard hours working, etc, but it comes down to what do individuals need and what their role can allow, we always ask what can it take to accommodate this? Line managers have to consult with Human Resources. If requirements cant be met, other things can be done and considered. I'm a big believer in if you show a person goodwill, it will pay back to the employer. Where you could flex and accommodate, why wouldn’t you?

We have working from home availability and opportunities as well. 60:40 home working versus in the office. Sometimes in person is really necessary, but there needs to be flexibility for people in various places in the country or the world. If you are an inflexible employer in this world, you are going to have low retention rates, and you're going to be stagnant in your development. You need to develop to be an effective business for people looking to join a business for their career. 

In relation to unpaid absence for child care responsibilities, as an employer, you would seek to accommodate. We do have policies in place to protect our employees, but again, it comes down to managerial discretion. If I look at how we have supported examples of our employees who need our help and support, I am really proud of the support that we offer. Judgement calls have to be made, but generally we seek to support by being flexible and helpful.

Is there anything else you want to say about AkzoNobel?

I feel privileged to be in this position. I think that we have been really responsive as a business, especially after covid. We launched the True Colours initiative, any individual who feels passionate about a charity or cause can apply to take out of this pot of money to give to a charity of their choice. BAFFA scheme (building a future for Africa/Asia), we went to places to fundraise and build schools in developing countries. It was amazing to have that and anyone across the business can go. The Outward Bound centres, we work to raise money for them and can become mentors for them. We also do marathons, we did the London Revolution too, to raise money for charities. We have Christmas and family events that are woven into the fabric and culture of our business. We also do ‘Wellfest’ which is there to support employee wellbeing that started during lockdown and became a global initiative. All of this, and the people in this organisation is what keeps me motivated and has made me choose to spend 13 years of my career here. We are all in a moment in time, and for a brand like Dulux, you carry the baton for it, and all you can do is try to leave the place in a better place than when you found it. I try to adopt this always, we don't get it right all the time but we certainly always try. 

Women are underrepresented in many careers due to an ingrained perception from young through our education system and society that these careers are made for men. Women belong everywhere, in all positions and careers. If you feel like a career in sales is something you would be interested in, we encourage you to have a look and apply. You could find some job advertisements here if you are looking. Good luck!

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