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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Marie Moynihan, Chief Diversity Officer and VP Talent, Dell


Marie Moynihan is Chief Diversity Officer and VP Talent at global computer company Dell. She is an experienced global HR leader and talent executive whose goal is, in her own words, to create an environment that is uniquely open and inclusive, where individuals and teams are challenged to be their best, and do their best work, and deliver a fantastic outcome for customers.

Q: How have the expectations of the board and the CEO changed with regard the HR function in the last two or three years?

A: Generally, I think they have shifted. Certainly if you look over the last five or ten years I would say they’ve shifted pretty dramatically and I think it’s really because talent now is seen to be much more critical to the success of any business.

You might say ‘look, people are always at the centre of business’ but if you look at the environment we’re now in, from a global economy standpoint, the speed has changed, product cycles are much shorter and companies are literally getting wiped out with new innovations.

Talent are at the centre of it all now and you have a lot of skills that are needed now that are completely new, they’ve literally come on the map in the last ten years. Ten years ago we didn’t have IT security or big data gurus and we didn’t have some of the bio-tech fields.

All these things have become skills that have just emerged and I think that’s what’s driven this sudden interest in HR. Businesses are thinking, ‘to attract and retain the top talent I’ve got to have help with this agenda’ and now, of course, it’s a strategic part of the agenda rather than some kind of tangent.

Q: So talent is a whole business activity now, yet in the past it’s been seen as an HR initiative?

A:  Yes, and what we find is that almost every single meeting, every HR leadership team meeting, there’s a huge part of the agenda that’s centred on that enablement of the business. 

So it isn’t a tangent, it isn’t ‘let’s talk to HR once every three months.’ Every conversation is around things like, ‘are we structured in the right way?’ or ‘have we got the resources in place?’ or ‘are we directing resources at the right opportunities?’

So it’s all kind of a people agenda in a way – and that’s why all our HR people would be in the room for every business meeting now, not just occasional meetings.

Q: From the other side, the organisation is expecting HR to be more strategically-focused and HR realises it needs to be more strategically-focused. Is that why they’re involved in these meetings and that their agenda is more linked in with the overall organisational agenda?

A: Definitely. It’s coming from both sides. But I think in the past HR would have been aspiring towards becoming more influential – a push from HR leaders – but now it’s very much a pull from the business as well as a push from HR leaders.

Q: And you mentioned earlier that you know one of the biggest tasks facing business is ensuring you have the right people at the right time, do you still think that environment is still a ‘war for talent’ environment or do you think we’ve moved on from there?

A: No I definitely don’t think we’ve moved on from the war for talent.

Again, I suppose looking at it from a technology sector point of view, it’s getting tougher rather than easier. Take a look at something like software skills, or security. These kinds of skills are becoming in shorter supply than they were in the past but it’s mainly because the demand is so intense.

If you look back five years ago or ten years ago IT was a group in the corner, whereas now technology professionals are in every element of peoples’ business because it’s become so intricate to how we operate businesses, including how we look at business intelligence, business information, so we’re looking for those skills in a whole range of different areas.

I saw some data recently from CEB where they estimate that the supply-demand gap in the whole STEM area will be above 1.3 million by 2020, that we’ll have that much of a dent between supply and demand.

Many universities are responding pretty quickly too and they’re trying to get more and more people into these fields but interestingly we’re not really seeing what you would expect from students of these programmes. And that’s scary.

Q: But do you think that’s a lack of understanding from students as to why these skills will allow them to prosper in the future workplace?

A:  I do. I think it’s a lot to do with the portrayal of technology skills and standard subjects in general as being kind of techy and boring and not up front and not sexy and that image unfortunately is still persisting out there.

Now you know there are lot of organisations involved and Government and others are trying to change this image. Even in the tech sector we go out ourselves to schools and we do these programmes about IT not just for ‘geeks’ and we try to show the variety of careers that you can have in IT. But it takes a long time to change these perceptions.

Q:  It does. There’s a huge amount of people-focused data that we’re finally getting in HR and one of the things that the profession and the wider business should be selling in terms of STEM is that you can actually have a huge opportunity to change the future workplace and ensure that the types of decisions that we are making are based off the right data. Actually there are opportunities there to improve the workplace from both an employer-centred point of view and an employee-centred point of view and the intersection of those is going to be in science. But you have to read the data the right way as well.

A:  You’re absolutely spot on there and that’s an interesting trend in HR,  that it’s becoming a much more data-centric type of business. It’s still people-centred but the data element of that and the skills you need in the people that you’re bringing in has changed. You have a big data dimension – some of the big companies like Google have invested massively in their HR innovation in this area and they have all sorts of scientists effectively involved in the HR function now.

Q:  Part of your job title is Chief Diversity Officer and this isn’t a job title that’s around that much. From my point of view it’s great to see but what does it mean to you being Chief Diversity Officer and why do you think it’s important to have that role?

A:  I guess why Dell has chosen to have a role like that is because, we’re a global company, we’re trying to attract a lot of talent and retain that talent and to do that we really believe we’ve got to create the right kind of environment internally in the company.

That’s the easiest way to attract talent in – it’s when you know people inside are telling others what it’s like. And it’s about creating an environment which will by its nature attract a diverse audience because people will feel, ‘you know I can come in here, I can be myself, I can do great work, I won’t feel uncomfortable in any way because the company is supporting people like me.’ That’s the environment in its essence that we’re trying to create and that’s why we have this role.

Q:  So that kind of diverse and inclusive open culture is in itself a talent acquisition strategy and I’m hesitant to use this phrase, but a ‘passive’ talent acquisition strategy because I don’t mean passive in its common sense. It takes a huge amount of work but it’s very different from going out to job boards and directly posting open positions.

A:  I totally hear you. It’s targeting passive candidates proactively. Talent acquisition is part of my remit as well. I’ve been in this role for four years now and even in that time I have seen a dramatic shift away from what used to be called ‘post and pray strategy’ of posting a role and hoping people apply or even going out to job boards. Now we’re using much more social media, we’re using LinkedIn, we’re using all those social media as a way of not so much hiring people but more branding what our environment is really like and creating communities. With social media, your entire environment will speak for itself and it will speak externally to candidates and that’s who candidates want to hear from. They don’t necessarily want to hear from Dell: they want to hear from people in Dell.

Q: Is recruitment still a broken art? We still base job offers on things like past performance which isn’t really a very strong indicator of how people are going to do in the future. It seems what you’ve just mentioned around employer branding and inclusive culture are ways to improve the ability to hire on attitude. Is your approach to recruitment changing in other ways away from the ‘traditional’ model?

A:  I think we are. Social media has given much more power to candidates – it’s allowed us to brand ourselves but it’s also given candidates the ability to find out what a company is really like, what the environment’s like, even speak to the people on the front line in the company.

What we find now is candidates come to us and they’re much more articulate about their views, they know much more about the company, they ask a lot more questions.

Questions are really good things because it allows a two-way dialogue. It’s like, “well does this suit you and does this suit us?” So I think that whole opening up of the environment internally and allowing much more of that dialogue is a really positive impact ultimately on filling roles.

Q:  Both the two-way dialogue angle and viewing the recruitment process as going both ways are progressive ways of seeing recruitment. I do think there’s been a lack of confidence on the part of job seekers for a long time to ask questions, delve under the skin of the company and the job, and I guess what you’re doing around the inclusive culture feeds into that of providing that confidence base so people do feel empowered.

A:  Absolutely. We really encourage people through the process and the interview to ask whatever they want. We have a candidate commitment thing on our website and we want to be really transparent across the process about what it’s really like. We’ve found that if you don’t do that, you get people in and then it doesn’t work out for them and it doesn’t work out for us. And it’s highly expensive for both sides.

Plus, it’s highly damaging for an individual if a career move doesn’t work out and equally it’s a cost process for companies. So we think it’s in everybody’s interest to be a lot more open, not just sell your role but actually have a good discussion about what’s involved.

Q:  And it seems like reading your LinkedIn and having a look at a couple of interviews done in the past that you are primarily a business leader that works in HR so you understand the business side of things. For strategic HR Directors who have perhaps come from a very HR background and are now required to think about how HR does align with the wider needs of the business and become more commercial, what advice would you give to them?

A:  Just to be clear my background is actually HR but – up to about five years ago –it’s always been in business partnering HR roles so I was very connected to leadership teams

So I’ve moved into what I call more of a functional HR role and that has been a really interesting transition because, exactly to your point, there’s a lot of people who work in what I do now who have not been in front-facing HR business partnering roles.

What I say all the time is that if someone comes and asks you for something, the first thing you have to find out is why they are looking for this thing, what it will contribute to the business, where does it fit into the strategy and if you think they’re asking for something that doesn’t really make sense then you need to push back.

You need to be that expert adviser, be the challenger and you need to take that attitude to everything you do, whether it’s spending money, hiring new resources for your own team. You’ve got to keep that blend [of commercial value] in your mind all the time – if this was my business, would I do this? That’s what will add value in the long-term.

Q: And I guess you have to understand the customer then and be very clear on what the business is doing for its customers?

A: Yes, exactly, and this is the end customer, not just the customer that’s sitting in front of you. That’s the key. Often people fall into the trap of being the service provider to the internal customer but this can take them away from really understanding the end customer.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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