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A Conversation with Polly Pearson of EMC: Trusting Your Employees

February 2, 2011

At our 2010 Leading Diversity Summit, I had the good fortune to sit down  with Polly Pearson, Vice President of Employment Brand and Strategy Engagement at EMC.

Give me the broad corporate overview of EMC.

The tagline is “where information lives,” so if you think of all those digital bits that run our world today – the Visa card transactions, the swipes, the ATMs, the texts, the emails, you name it – you’re creating digital bits.  We’re where all that information lives at the end of the day.  We manage, share, protect and secure the world’s important information.  A little bit on the consumer front with brands like Iomega, but, largely, our business is done by the global 1,000.  Literally, all the trades on the New York Stock Exchange, all the major credit cards, all the airlines, all the telecommunication companies, the banks, those are EMC’s biggest customers.

How many employees?

85 countries, 43,000 employees and growing.

What’s your role within the company?

I have a funky, made-up, modern role. The objective is to engage the workforce with strategy and really turn on that emotional passion and connection and feeling of community; then, the other part is the employment brand.  This is relatively new, recognizing that the way our workforce operates today, they are consumers of a place to work more than ever. A place to work cannot rest on its laurels.  It needs to recognize itself as a product.  It needs to understand the value proposition, the core messages, and to be able to portray that in a way that it attracts the right type of talent—it’s almost like matchmaking and dating.  You’re going to be right for the right talent, and the right talent’s going to be right for you.

How do you portray your true self in a way that’s very attractive to the right talent? I look at the employment brand as having two sides of the coin:  It’s the external talent market to help with the recruiting and the brand awareness, and it’s the internal talent market – your employees themselves.  Do they feel the culture and the values, and are they portraying that?

What tools do you use to convey those feelings and to really build that sense of trust?

The company deploys all the classic stuff: You have your emails, your webcasts, your town halls, your internet.  But where I get very involved is the layer of the new model on top of that. I interface with every organization at the company.

The model is based on a conversation – two-way communication.  The company can share, but it enables the employees to share back.  When we do now a company wide email – a memo – on a new strategy or a cost-cutting change or anything that you normally might do – financial results—we’ll send it in email, but we will also post it on our internal social network. We ask questions at the end.  “What did you think of this?  What could we do better?”

For example, we have a very active string now that started well over a year ago on ideas we could save cost.  Heading into the recession, we said, “Our first priority is not to lay off any people.  Make that an absolute last thing we want to do.”  In order to do that, we need to find a way to take an awful lot of money out of our cost structure – $300 million to save 2,000 jobs.  So, a very vibrant string happened inside of our social network to say, “Do you have any constructive ideas to help the company save cost,” and, as a result, last year we didn’t save $300 million; we saved over $500 million.

These are ideas that come from your employees?

The people.  Our head of HR, Jack Mullen, has a great phrase.  He says, “We’re out to leverage the global genius of our workforce and then some.” What you find is when you lead with trust, and you treat your people like adults, they will know what’s appropriate inside and outside.

It’s not about internal communication alone, and your people really become your brand and your best brand ambassadors.  They’re connecting also with customers and partners and developers and neighbors.

This is in an age where there are so many new ways that your employees can communicate with other people, and the line has really been blurred as to when are you communicating as a representative of your company, and when are you communicating as an individual.

This sounds great in theory.  How does it work in practice? Is there discomfort with actually implementing it?

Absolutely.  It’s a journey.  You can’t just flick a switch and have your company be 2.0 savvy and ready and deployed.  At EMC, we started our journey inside and decided that it’s important that we have a workforce that’s proficient in these new tools.  What we could get everybody to agree on is that we needed our workforce to be proficient in how to use these 2.0 conversation collaboration tools, especially as we operate in 85 countries.

You can’t depend on the physical meeting anymore to get work done, and we were also finding that we were drowning in meetings and emails.  It doesn’t scale.  The only way we could break the scale model and actually accelerate on the gas pedal was to figure out global collaboration that crossed silos.  I don’t know about your company, but we were finding that we were increasingly divisionalized, and one division didn’t know what the other division was doing.

I had an executive in 2006 when I started experimenting or understanding this strategy engagement mission.  He said, “The vice president in the office next to me could be spending millions of dollars on an initiative that counteracts what I’m trying to get done, and we would not know.”

The communication can get very siloized.  In this world of collaboration, how do you collaborate across silos organically and rapidly and globally?  That’s when we said, “We need to be proficient because this model is shown to do that.”  How do we leverage it?  We learn how to do it, and we decided to—let’s learn inside of our firewall among our family, knowing that mistakes will be made.  This is new.

We started an internal social network, and the mantra was, “Fear not.  We’re going to teach you how to swim.  We’re going to catch you.  We’re not going to allow anybody to drown.  We’re all in this together.”  In the 2.0 model, it’s very rich with peer mentoring and giving before you get and behaving in a trusting, thoughtful way that—it really satisfied a lot of the human needs, I think, of recognition as well.

What are the metrics that you’re looking at when you’re trying to determine whether your efforts are successful?

In our last employee satisfaction motivation survey—we did this in July [of 2009], and 92 percent of our workforce participated – over 30,000 people – and the scores that they said was their personal satisfaction was at 95 percent.

Their “enjoying working with their coworkers” was at 93 percent, and the “manager integrity” was also in the nineties. We measure that all the time.  For the pure employee engagement number, that was at 86 percent.  That was another all-time high.  You can also feel it in the hallways.

There’s a great book out there called Fired Up or Burnt Out, and Michael Stallard, the author, points out that most business leaders are of a particular Myers-Briggs type—right—the thinking, the judging, the systems thought.  Yet, they point out that most decisions human beings make—and human beings are social creatures, emotionally based.  You need both.

Businesses, by and large, have been heavily weighted on the judging, thinking, systems without that emotion because work is personal.  Work is done by human beings, especially in the knowledge era. The biggest drivers of satisfaction and motivation are being able to do what they love, skills alignment, being recognized, being heard, enjoying the people they work with, and making progress for them—for the company and their own career development.  It’s not pay and benefits.  All of those human satisfier needs are met with this new model.

If there’s one thing you could tell diversity and inclusion practitioners – one piece of practical advice that they could take away – what would it be?

That this is a journey, and it’s hard.  But it’s free, and it’s going to have wonderful benefits. It’s hard because it takes a behavior change.  We’ve all grown up in a command and control environment, especially in HR, and this model requires you to lead with trust.  That’s really hard to do, but what we’ve found is that your employees are adults.  They’re well-educated adults, and they really don’t want to be fired.

Allow the ideas to flourish and bounce off and get collaborated.  Don’t lock them in email with a small distribution list.  Share, and watch the engagement go through the roof.  Watch organic inclusion happen and business results that will exceed your expectations.

Last year, in 2009, we entered the year trying to avoid layoffs, looking at one of the worst recessions in recorded time, and we ended the year with a lot of records – records such as record revenue, record free cash flow, record customer satisfaction, record employee engagement, record market share, record best places to work awards. Beautiful, wonderful things start to happen when you stop trying to control everything because you can’t be everywhere in the day.

Let your people be there for you, and they’re going to help you.  They want to help you.  They want you to be successful.  They want the company to be successful.  They want their careers to be successful. They want goodness, and if you let them create goodness, they will.  Goodness is contagious.

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