Former HP Talent Chief: ‘The Culture of HP Was Not an Inclusive Culture’

Don Tennant

For all I know, HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the two companies that comprise the former Hewlett-Packard, are bastions of diversity and inclusion. But if they are, they would have to have undergone a remarkable cultural transformation over the last eight years. Because as of 2009, “the culture of HP was not an inclusive culture. In fact, many people there didn’t even want to talk about what the culture was.”

That’s the assessment of Linda Sharkey, who served as HP’s chief talent officer and VP of people development from 2006 to 2009. In a recent interview, Sharkey, now an organizational and leadership development strategist and co-author of “The Future-Proof Workplace: Six Strategies to Accelerate Talent Development, Reshape Your Culture, and Succeed with Purpose,” spoke candidly about her experience at HP, and about her efforts to change the “good ol’ boy” culture there.

Those efforts, Sharkey said, involved finding white male leaders who were open to change:

Let’s be honest, at the top of HP — and since I’ve left I’m not sure that this is still a truism, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t — it was predominantly white, and male. Even with Meg Whitman [as CEO], it’s still predominantly white and male. In areas where we were able to find some white males who had a global and inclusive attitude, we were able to move the needle considerably. We made it part of their whole promotion and hiring approach. The guy who we put as the czar of diversity was European, and I don’t believe he’s with the company anymore, but we worked with him to create a place where people would get to know the diverse talent, and build relationships with the diverse talent, so that when jobs became open, they knew these individuals, and they were willing to put them in the role. And actually during that period, we increased the number of women who were promoted from mid-level professional positions to higher-level professional positions by 36 percent. That’s because those leaders had what I would call a trans-global leadership perspective of the workplace, and not every leader did. We also had leaders there who were intractable [whose attitude was,] “It’s a natural phenomenon, and it’s going to happen, and I don’t want to look at the stats and how we’re doing at the senior level.” In a couple of places I had to really twist somebody’s arm to hire a woman as a senior vice president who was on the slate and was as qualified as everyone else. And you know what? They drummed one of them out of the corps — she ultimately left the company because she wasn’t like the good ol’ boys. That’s what drove it back to my recognition that it’s an organizational culture issue. If you have a culture that is aggressive, that’s non-inclusive, that really doesn’t believe in collaboration, you’re not going to have a culture that embraces diversity.


Sharkey went on to highlight a secondary factor that she explained this way:

You walk into any company in the world, unless you’re in China or Japan, you see diversity at the lower levels everywhere. The issue is not that we don’t have diverse work forces, we do. The issue is the promotion factor, the career factor. And the root cause, in my mind, is unconscious bias that people carry with them. At HP, we had the traditional approach, where every six months or whatever, you had to report how many diverse direct hires you had within the organization. And it was a numbers game — a quotas game — and if you didn’t meet your quota, you got nicked. That was the common way that companies did it. I think GE [where I had previously worked] had a more focused approach, and I carried that GE experience to HP. But the culture of HP was not an inclusive culture. In fact, many people there didn’t even want to talk about what the culture was. The fallacy was, as we started peeling back the numbers, sure they were meeting quotas, but all of the women were in administrative positions. Businesses were patting themselves on the back and saying, “Isn’t this great, we’ve increased by 3 percent the number of women we have in our organization.” But look at the jobs they were in. So what I started to do was use real data analytics, which most of these companies don’t have. You’d ask them who’s on their list of diverse top talent that’s ready for the next promotion, and they’d look at you like a deer in the headlights. They didn’t know that, because they hadn’t been paying attention to it. They’d just been paying attention to their quotas — they hadn’t been making it a value of the company, and holding the leader accountable for the value of having a diverse and inclusive work force. I think it’s more about inclusion than it is about diversity.

Sharkey said that because the issue of diversity globally is more about gender than it is about nationality or color, she focused on creating a women’s network:

Managers and leaders came to those network meetings, talking about aspirations, career next steps. Then, the leaders created hiring councils in their regions, where they had a regular list of all the women who were at a certain level in the organization, and at a certain performance level — all the women who were ready for promotion. And rather than just allowing the hiring manager to make that decision, the candidates were brought before these hiring councils. The councils would get to know the various candidates, and the slates were put together with women that were ready for promotion. That made it a lot more personal — people knew who these women were, and it really made a huge difference. But it required a lot of energy, a lot of work, and people who were willing to do that. And there were parts of HP that were not willing to do that.

I mentioned to Sharkey that I was editor in chief of Computerworld at the time, and that I editorialized that Ann Livermore was the right choice for the CEO position, rather than Mark Hurd, who had taken over as CEO in 2005. I asked her if she thought her experience at HP would have been different if the board had appointed Livermore rather than Hurd. She said often, very senior women won’t support diversity efforts, and that she wasn’t sure why that’s the case. Sharkey said she therefore didn’t think it would have made any difference:

I think Mark supported diversity — he was not anti-diversity. He could have been more aggressive about it. But I think Ann was a product of the culture at HP, and I don’t think she would have handled it any differently. Evidence seems to show, from my experience, she wouldn’t have handled it any differently.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

 


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