AHRI chairman Peter Wilson talks to IBM’s managing director Andrew Stevens and HR director Robert Orth about what it takes to build an inclusive culture.
Peter Wilson: IBM was a winner at the 2013 AHRI Diversity Awards for Inclusive Workplace of the Year, and Andrew for CEO diversity champion. What do those awards mean to IBM?
Andrew Stevens: Winning these awards are important milestones on the diversity and inclusion journey, but they are not the destination. I have a healthy level of frustration that
we’re not moving faster than we are, and we at IBM are not alone. In my other group, Male Champions of Change all of those CEOs and board directors share this frustration.
Robert Orth: We do put in the hard yards and to be judged by an external group is great. The existence of awards such as these send a message to the business marketplace that this is an important issue.
PW: One of the impressive features in your application was the importance that you place on IBM’s diversity council. What are the major challenges in each area of diversity?
AS: Having a commitment to inclusiveness is important. I think that having each of these components (gender, sexual orientation, disability, cross-cultural, indigenous, work-life integration and inter-generational balance) adds value. I think the major challenge in each area
is bias. Helping people to understand their biases and overcome them is the secret ingredient to making progress.
RO: Diversity is not where you choose a priority for a couple of years, because that can be to the detriment of other agendas. So we always have all aspects of diversity as an ongoing practice.
PW: What are the characteristics that define the partnership between the two of you?
AS: I would like to think that I have an open management style. I encourage people to come and tell me things if they are concerned and Robert picks up on that.
PW: Does Robert’s role include ‘confidential counsellor’ on how the top teams are performing?
AS: Absolutely. Robert is not just on our senior leadership team, he’s also one of the six members on our IBM Australia board. It is a very open relationship.
RO: First of all, the partnership is strong, because that’s how you make progress. I think it’s based on my clear understanding of my role and how my team contributes to the business objectives that Andrew has set. I think the discussion is open and we’re both passionate on topics like diversity. We also have the ability to have a healthy argument.
PW: Andrew, what are your expectations of the HR director and where do you expect to see progress in the next three years?
AS: A business such as ours defines our brand through the behaviour of our people, and therefore, the HR function are very central and can add enormous value to the achievement of the business strategy by working with the skills and capabilities of the workforce. Given that we are in another wave of rapid change, looking after the people in light of that transformation is key.
PW: When times are tough one of the first areas to get cut back is training and development. How do you go about that while you’re still trying to build your investment in people?
AS: For us, learning and development tends to be the last bastion of items to go when it comes to trying to control expenses, because we’re highly committed to the investment in people’s capability.
PW: Where would you like to feel you’ll be able to see the most difference in the way the HR function performs in three years’ time?
AS: The behaviour of your people will define your brand far more than advertising. Over the next three years there will be a focus on the engagement of people and the translation of that engagement into the client experience.
PW: Robert, you’ve worked for a number of managing directors at IBM. How have you been able to manage the transition with each MD?
RO: The first thing I always do is be clear about the business objectives, outcomes or direction that a particular MD wants to take, and they are all different. Secondly, I believe it’s important to build a relationship and adjust to style. Leaders come in all different flavours and as a HR practitioner I should be able to read where someone is coming from.
AS: One of the hallmarks of the tech industry is a new, very aggressive chief executive coming in, sacking the team and stamping their impression on the place. They might last five years and then there’s a whole new set of changes. IBM is quite different because we talk about other leaders and the major changes and achievements that they have encouraged and reinforced.