​‘Sales is the best job going in any company’

Since leaving RGS in 1983, Kuno van der Post has enjoyed an exciting and dynamic career in life science sales, involving multi-million dollar deals which take him all over the world. The former boarder, now based in the United States, looks back on his time at RGS and offers current students some wise words of advice

Q: What did you go on to do immediately after leaving RGS?

A: I left at the end of my O-levels in 1983. I had been a boarder and my parents returned from Nigeria, so I went back to Harrogate to do my A-levels. Speaking plainly, I was a bit of a rebel. Mr Stanley (headmaster) and Mr Lodge (head housemaster) were, I’m sure, only too glad to see the back of me. This could be a whole other story in and of itself, but I fell foul of many factors, chief of which was my own lack of direction and naivety.

Q: How did your career path pan out after that?

A: I didn’t do too well in my A-levels – I got two and went to study mining and mineral surveying in Wales. Whilst I quite enjoyed being down the coal mines, I didn’t like the town where I was studying and finally realised I wanted to do something completely different. I knew being a miner wasn’t a long-term option for me, so went to study environmental science at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University. For the first time, I excelled academically, and I earned a scholarship to do a master’s degree at the University of Salford. I got my first job as a research assistant to the amazing Professor Frank Oldfield at the University of Liverpool and studied for my PhD part-time. My time in research had been filled with the use of lots of analytical equipment including mass spectrometers and so I got my first job in sales for a small company in Crewe, Cheshire, selling specialised scientific instruments all over the world. I’ve stayed in sales and marketing ever since. I had a hiatus in my mid-thirties when I decided to travel around Latin America, learning Spanish and Portuguese. I did that for nearly three years, teaching English as a foreign language and in doing so, met my former Colombian wife. I came back to the corporate world and quickly found myself being asked to manage teams and then departments. Sales really found me, I didn’t go looking for it, but it turned out to be a great fit for my personality and subsequent ambitions. Both scientific research and sales have taken me all over the world many times including a prolonged spell in Latin America. Now I specialise in sales and marketing for the life science industry. I work for companies which provide products and services to help pharmaceutical companies bring new drugs and medical devices to market.

Q: Can you outline a typical day?

A: My days start around 8am with calls with my direct reports and are then filled with meetings. It is roughly split between sales calls with clients, internal calls, document and contract reviews/approvals and coaching. I do a lot with spreadsheets and online software. I really like helping to coach and motivate the team in between on specific key deals (that’s the fun part). I usually finish work around 6pm. Of course, when I’m on the road either on sales visits or attending conferences/trade shows, then my day is completely different and often it’s a lot longer. I could be flying at 5am on a Sunday morning to Japan or China or crawling into a hotel room at 2am in Germany, then catching up on emails either very early or very late on a Saturday and Sunday. Sadly, all very successful salespeople will tell you that long hours and weekend work are too often part of the game.

Q: What have been the highlights of your career to date?

A: There have been lots thankfully. Here are some:

  • 1.Representing Yorkshire on an archaeological expedition to Peru in 1986
  • 2.Studying conservation techniques on a game reserve near Hluhluwe-Umfolozi in South Africa in 1989
  • 3.First climate change research trip to Yunnan Province, China in 1995. Kunming was still in the throes of Maoist culture and was unchanged for the most part from the 1920s.
  • 4.Designing, developing and testing a magnetic tracer for tracking coastal sand movement and being awarded my PhD by Lord (Dr David) Owen
  • 5.First peer-reviewed scientific paper published in 1997 as the principal author – Journal of Paleolimnology
  • 6.Attending a DTI trade mission to South Korea in 1997 and being entertained on the Royal Yacht Britannia on its way to pick up Prince Charles and Chris Patten in Hong Kong.
  • 7.Teaching English in Rio de Janeiro (I never thought I’d be a competent teacher) 2003-2005
  • 8.Starting the life science sales operations in Latin America with Oracle in 2011. It allowed me to deploy all my skills including my relatively new language ones. It also allowed me to spend lots of time in Argentina and Brazil, two countries I adore.
  • 9.Helping to build and lead a company to sell off for just under $100million.
  • 10.Continuing to be brought into companies to build out high-performing revenue/sales and marketing teams.

Q: What’s the best bit about your job?

A: Probably the coaching. One of the benefits in being an old salesperson is that you’ve seen most of the tricks and methodologies that work and those that don’t work and it’s a lot of fun to coach smart people to help them close deals (especially big multi-million dollar ones).

Q: And the worst?

A: Administration – yuk! Things like doing one’s expenses. A truly horrible job for someone like me with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Q: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

A: Overcoming ADD and accepting (and loving) who I am and how I can bring my best game to what I do.

Q: What were the most important things you learnt at RGS?

  • Politics: I felt the negative impact a parent had on my time at Ripon who incorrectly thought I was leading his son astray academically and was actively lobbying for my removal (in reality, it was the other way around). I naively assumed someone would see the truth and everything would be OK and it wasn’t! Politics happens whether you try to avoid it or not. You must not ignore it and always prepare for it.
  • Sport and practice: I was never really sport mad until I got to the boarding house. I found myself getting up at 6am to go practise drop kicks and running around the athletics track (I still miss that smell of freshly cut grass on the track first thing in the morning).
  • Benefits of good friendship: I am still good friends today with most of the boarders in my year. I especially love (and miss) the belly aching laughter.
  • Discovering myself: I learned about my strengths and weaknesses. However, it took me years to really acknowledge all my weaknesses and find the best ways to apply myself.

Q: What extra-curricular activities were you involved in at school and how valuable were they?

A: Rugby and athletics. I loved these sports. They taught me to respond quickly to fast-changing situations. They also taught what application was needed to be at the top of your game and therefore I learned to assess how much I was falling short. They also made me appreciate how to be a team player which was invaluable later in the competitive corporate world.

Sports lover: Kuno, pictured back row, fourth from right

Q: What do you wish you’d known back then?

A: That I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time. Also, that everyone is different and that ultimately, the only real competition is against oneself.

Q: What did you dream of doing when you were at school?

A: Lots. I wanted to be a famous actor, rugby player, archaeologist, researcher and a writer (all in one lifetime).

Q: What is the one piece of advice you’d give students interested in following a similar career path?

A: I’m assuming its sales here as I’ve had two careers really. Before the advice, let me state the following: sales is involved in everything material. Nearly every item that surrounds you at home, office or in your school had multiple salespeople involved at points along the supply chain from the raw material to the manufacturer to where you see it today. Yet the reality is, very few people say to themselves “I’m going to have a career in sales”. They usually fall into it. However, I passionately believe that it is the best job going in any company. Unlike in the UK perhaps, in the USA, it is a highly respected profession. It offers some of the best financial rewards going in industry. It has its ups and downs for sure, like losing a big dollar deal you worked hard on for over a year, sucks big time. However, winning one is so very exhilarating and liberating (and lucrative - great salespeople win more than they lose). You get to travel and meet lots of fascinating people (especially in life sciences). You also tend to get pulled to the top of companies. A lot of CEOs are ex-sales because they truly understand what makes a successful company (sell more, right?) So, my advice is to look for a career in sales once you have studied and achieved your degree (it helps in so many ways). Then get all the sales training you can get your hands on as early as you can and go have fun. Whilst life isn’t, sales is a game fundamentally and for the most part, can be done regardless of disability, creed or colour.

Q: Who were your favourite teachers and why?


  • 1. Ma Glover (we referred to all female teachers by using ‘Ma’ back in the day. Not sure if this tradition is still maintained). She loved teaching geography and I loved learning from her about the world and different countries. Her slides from the Sahel in Central Africa to the American Rockies or the Amazon jungle in Brazil, fired my imagination.
  • 2. Mr Rowland. He was very severe and taught Latin. He terrified most people. I found him fascinating and to me, he was a walking compendium of Roman war history. I could get him to digress in a heartbeat and I absolutely loved him drawing the battle outlines from Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Truly riveting stuff.

Q: Who or what inspired you when you were at school?

A: My boarding school friend Guy Spencer. He saw in me sporting potential and was my best coach and advocate. He has always been an advocate for me ever since. Dr Barry Saunders, a wonderful human being who showed me the earliest example of leading with both compassion and passion.

Q: What would you say has been your greatest success?

A: Above everything, it’s my son. Professionally, there’s a lot thankfully but I suppose I’m most proud of my PhD.

Q: And biggest disaster?

A: I’ve had a fair few and we’d need more pages than I’m sure you’d care to donate... However, I feel my biggest disaster has been not following my heart and not writing when I’ve had the opportunities (and there have been plenty).

Q: What do you miss most about Yorkshire and Ripon?

A: A lot. I tell everyone (as Americans love to ask where you are from) that I’m a South African Yorkshireman (I was born in Pretoria; grew up in Harrogate and Ripon). I miss the walks in the Yorkshire countryside. The smell of summer over a fallow Yorkshire field next to a quiet babbling beck. A good pint of beer. I miss the small town (city) historical charm of Ripon that in my mind, has a calm serenity you just can’t find in the USA.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

A: I’d like to do something completely different in about two years’ time. I really have no desire to retire. Luckily, there are lots of options, and I have already started writing as one of them! Let’s hope I can finish something sooner rather than later. I hope to catch up with my old school friends in Ripon in the next few years. We did have a reunion back in 2013 which I enjoyed thoroughly. We are now overdue another.

The wise words I have never forgotten

Being at an academically excellent, selective school like RGS means you are surrounded by a lot of great academic talent. That’s a good thing for sure, but it can be overwhelming for some who, whilst being intelligent, may have attributes that make learning far more difficult such as autism and ADD. I was one of those.

I have never forgotten wise words from a fellow boarder who was older than me, called Robbie Constance. I believe he went on to University of Oxford and the Army. I was in awe of him, really. I asked him once how come he was so good at academia/studying and he told me that he was always thinking of questions. He would ask questions all the time. It helped him learn to such an extent that he didn’t really revise for exams as hard nor as long as everyone else. He was super-efficient with both learning and his time through this technique, and I recognized it at my early age. Sadly, I only started to apply this once I got to university. I should have applied it earlier given my challenges and I urge anyone else like me to really try to do this as much as possible.

However, I do remember, that often I didn’t know what a ‘good’ question was. I learned much later in life that it is perfectly OK to say to whoever is in front of you presenting and/or teaching etc: “I feel I should be asking a question here, but I can’t think of a good question to ask. Please can you help me out?” That question has facilitated many of mine over the years and I still use it to this day.

When I was in the Army Officer Training Corps at university, they taught me that after every statement about a plan, I should always ask “So what?...”. Again, that questioning approach has never let me down, especially when working out the nuts and bolts of how a sale/deal was going to go down.

In my sales career, I’ve found that the best salespeople don’t sit and wax lyrical about their products and services. In fact, contrary to popular myth, having ‘the gift of the gab’, does not lend itself to being a good salesperson. Truly great salespeople (those that earn more than one or two million dollars per year in commissions) ask questions and good questions at that and moreover they listen well. They always remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion. For a quick simple example, they understand the difference between open and closed questions (there are more types of course). They know when and how to ask them (and when not to).

I have found in my life that questions are the common denominator in all successes. Don’t be afraid and learn how to question from the earliest age you can. Be bold and question everything.

*Kuno is chief revenue officer for Meeting Protocol Worldwide in addition to being on the board of a publicly traded company and working as a consultant

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