Marie Moynihan is Senior Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition, Dell EMC. From a Dublin base, she leads a 500-strong HR team servicing the company’s operations in 180 countries. Dell EMC has 140,000 staff globally and has a number of gender balance initiatives which have grown the cohort of women in leadership roles. Currently the gender split in its executive leadership team in its commercial business for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) is 50/50. Marie was a WoW mentor.
This interview was conducted by Aileen O’Toole in September 2017.
Why do you believe there hasn’t been more progress in females progressing to leadership roles in business?
For me, it comes back to inertia. People “get” this in a theoretical fashion but, in reality, we're all programmed to stay in our comfort zones. Leaders will say: "Absolutely, we need to improve the gender diversity of our organisation." But when it comes to them filling a role that reports directly to them, it's all about “fit”. It's all about the person fitting the environment that has been created and actually this often means in people's minds, fitting with them.
So, they’ll show a preference for someone that they’re comfortable with or they know. They’ll say: “By the way, I know someone over there in my network who I think would be just amazing for this role." Leaders are often not coming at it from the perspective of wanting something different, someone who'll challenge them and approach issues from a different perspective. I think the fundamental challenge is that intellectually people get it, but emotionally, it's different.
How do you address that?
Education is critical. It's actually about sitting in a room, talking about where all of this comes from. Why are we all programmed in this particular way? What would be the value in looking at it differently? One of the exercises, for example, that we do in MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) training, which I find just so powerful, is around gender stereotyping.
We use videos around stereotyping for women and men. And then we get them to do an exercise on the messages they heard as children when they were growing up. We put the men in one group and put the women in another. The women tell us that they were told to "be a good girl," "be kind," "be nice" and so on.
And the messages the men get are like "go for it," and "don't cry". And then we look at what we’re looking for in leaders and the words we use are: "go for it," "take risks", "have courage.” It’s not about being nice or being kind. When that happens in the room, it is quiet opening for both men and women, they had never thought of it that way.
How much does that type of awareness training change behaviours?
It’s a very slow burn but when you do that type of training you do get more buy-in. When a new position is opened, a member of my hiring team will meet the manager and ask him (or her) about the diversity of the team, how it’s made up and whether they’re happy with the current diversity levels.
Then it may lead to a proactive conversation with the leader about trying something new or different. So that's then where you get the two (the training and the hiring) coming together. You're hoping then that the person who's been through this awareness training says: "Yeah, here's my opportunity. Now I'm going to really push the boat out."
Who’s championing this agenda at the top of the business?
We’re a private company now, so we don't have a board in the same sense as a public company would. But Michael (Dell, the CEO) is himself is a strong advocate of diversity.
Twice a year, at his executive leadership team meeting, they review the diversity stats by business unit to see where we are, and what has changed. The data and the review are taken down to the next level where there are similar conversations. And all the data is put out there in terms of what progress have we made or not made. Leaders are challenged to sign up to goals that will move the needle over time.
You absolutely need to have leaders shining a light on it at the top of an organisation and leaders need to know that they're being held accountable. And without that, honestly, you make no progress. But you then also need this education all the way through the organisation because otherwise, it becomes a “check the box” thing.
If it’s a business priority, it gets into the psyche of the business.
Why is Michael Dell so committed to creating better diversity?
Michael is very entrepreneurial. He's very focused on the end game, on the customer. And whatever can contribute to that, he's interested. It's not a rights issue. It's just hard business.
We've got to know what customers are looking for. We’ve got to get inside their minds in terms of the kind of products and services that are of value to them. So women make up 50% of the population and a higher percentage of the buying power in many instances, so there’s a key business element right there.
Michael knows also that a lot of our customers are looking for balanced teams. And when it comes to procurement and big contracts, we've had feedback from customers where we’ve been in and our competitors have been in. There was very little between us in price or offering terms except we had a more engaged, balanced team, and we won the business. Fundamentally for him, it's about what's the best for the business.
What are the learnings from Dell EMC that could be applied to other businesses?
I’d advise them to start with the purpose as a company and what's of value to their customers. A business ultimately serves and innovates to meet their customers’ needs. Any company today that is not innovating and changing will probably go out of business. They’ve got to say: "What we did in the past, that was great, but that's actually not going to get us where we need to be in the future."
Everything is changing and you need to be looking at what customers are looking for, what the best outcomes are. And you need to try and weave the diversity agenda into that context.
To what extent is gender balance more of a business issue than a rights issue?
People may sign up to something about having more gender balance because it’s the right thing to do. But in a business context it’s unlikely to get a sustained attention if it’s “a right’s issue” – it has to be a revenue and profitability issue if it is to get real traction. That's the bottom line.
What about women themselves? What do they need to do to advance their careers?
There is an absolute requirement if you want to move up the ladder that you are able to package what you do, brand it, and make sure the right people know about it. And I think women are really bad at that. It’s an awareness thing. When you put that out there with women they really recognise it and will often say: “You're right. I've never thought of it like that."
And once people are more aware, they may start to change. But it's hard to do, as it doesn't come naturally. It comes much more naturally to the guys.
Women don’t speak up. I see this all the time at meetings; there's a reluctance by women more so than men to be forceful, not in an aggressive way, but to speak their mind, to have the courage to say what they are thinking. I think as women we were all socialised to be very concerned about what other people think.
Also I find women less likely to take risks. We often overthink, whereas the guys will often just give things a go and not worry too much about it. It comes back to realising where all of this is coming from, about being a nice girl, not upsetting anyone, not rocking the boat. When you realise that that was the origin of it, then you can be much more aware and catch yourself doing it.
And the other thing I see is the amount of focus that women put on the detail. I often talk to women about this and say that for all the work they’re doing they would be better to get it all to 80%, not 100%. And then spend that extra 20% of their time on advocating their point of view, making connections with the right people – ultimately this gets you a much better result.
Finally, the thing I see that gets in the way is communication style. Men have a very short fuse on detail in my experience. And the higher up you go, the shorter the fuse is. So everyone wants to net it out, get it in two sentences. Women by nature, with this contextualisation thing, have a habit of making it a long-winded story. And you kind of lose your audience in the process.
What do leaders need to do to improve gender balance at senior levels?
It’s not about signing up to something and saying: "I want to see more of this in my organisation." That's the easy thing. But actually signing up to educating yourself as a leader, that's a bigger thing, I think, because it's about constantly educating yourself and re-educating yourself.
That's what good leaders do anyway. They're constantly reinventing themselves and not living off past glories. Everything is a learning and they're thirsty for that kind of knowledge.