Q&A with Brian Reaves, Chief D&I Officer, Dell Inc

Brian Reaves has taken his years of experience as a technologist and software developer and adapted the same innovative mindsets and strategies to the topic of Diversity and Inclusion, bringing a new playbook to a field where others have failed.

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Over the years, the subject of diversity and inclusion (D&I) has evolved greatly, leading to drastic shifts in perspectives and approaches to the topic. From a corporate perspective, what was once a concern only found in HR departments and the beneficiary of token and short-lived efforts, has since radically transformed into a business imperative – recognized by industry and thought leaders as a core business strategy.

One such industry leader, Dell Inc., has adopted this mindset, acknowledging the importance of D&I as a business imperative and has positioned the company at the forefront of D&I by bringing innovation and customer-centric mindset to the space. To this effort, Dell appointed Brian Reaves to the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer to further innovate Dell’s global D&I strategy. AmCham China recently spoke to Brian to learn more about his career as a technologist, a D&I professional, and the innovative strategies Dell is bringing to D&I.

Can you tell us about your journey to Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Dell?

I’m an engineer by trade, who was given the opportunities throughout my career to lead businesses. Based on my background, I always thought about putting the best talent in the room, and not just by the traditional, “Let’s go to the best schools.” I know there are a lot of people like me that, given the opportunity, could definitely make tremendously positive impacts to business and society. In leading development teams, I was always looking for, “Who else are we missing?”

When I was approached to do diversity and inclusion more formally, my first thought was, “I’m already innovating with technology, and studying the topic of diversity and inclusion.” I wondered, “Is there an opportunity to innovate in this space – same mindset, same concept that you would use for technology? Can you apply it to this concept?” And, I sort of convinced myself and was convinced through various conversations that it was possible. So, that’s when I formally made this jump from engineer, as I believe that to evolve this topic for greater impact, we can’t have the same playbook.

Why is D&I important to Dell?

It is as important a business driver as anything else we do in the business. So, bar none, if you want to be an employer of choice, you need to create a diverse and almost more importantly, inclusive environment. That is how you continue to win. If everyone feels like they belong, you can attract the best talent, best minds, therefore creating the most innovative products and services as well as you’ll have the most innovative ways to engage customers. It’s an interconnected global market place that we live in, and it’s changing around us all the time. The only way we can keep up with this is by bringing in diverse talent.

What are the challenges that you’re facing? What are the challenges you see others facing? What are the opportunities?

Like anything in innovation, this is new ground for a lot of people – different ways of thinking. And that’s the thing, I think a lot of people think it’s a magic bullet. They throw lots of money at it, and then it’s like, “Oh! We spent US $50 million, US $100 million, and nothing’s changing.” And that’s some logic, but you wouldn’t run any other part of your business like that.

If you were smart, you would test some things, stop certain things, and do more of other things until you start getting the success that you want – if you have a fundamentally strong strategy. So, getting people to view D&I, and operate it and execute it the way they would with any other strategic imperative is the opportunity. People who think it’s just a thing you do as opposed to who you are, it’s not going to work. That’s just where you have to continually say, “No. This is who we are, not what we do.”

Anything in the past five months of programs that has brought a unique challenge?

I’ve been very pleased with a few things in my five months. As you start going down the layers of leadership, you wonder, “Where am I going to find the layers that are not so enthusiastic.” As we’ve gone, and even traveling here, I’ve been very, very surprised. People might not understand fully, but there hasn’t been one day where I don’t get an email from someone asking how they can help. People want to figure this out. They can feel something is going to happen, and it’s going to be different. The team is getting a lot of energy out of it. And, with this spin of the business imperative, it’s a lot easier to have the conversation about the business outcomes.

Differences between SAP and Dell?

SAP is a phenomenal company and continues to do well, but there is a very unique opportunity when you get the chance to work for an individual like Michael Dell. He is one of the very few original founders running an organization of this size. I find the opportunity at Dell is to help impact this man’s legacy. For someone to say, “This is important to me. This is important to the future of the company – to my legacy,” there is no greater honor that you can have. That’s the difference for me. Other companies might be great, but Dell is different and significant in that way. And the impact – no different than SAP – it’s a complex business, and I like complex problems. We do have a hardware business, we have services business, we have a cloud business, we have other businesses in our portfolio that work together to drive this digital transformation message. So, it’s a more complex business in a way. It gives an opportunity for even greater impact.

With a background in computer science, do you now take a similar approach with solving issues in D&I as you did in CS?

Absolutely. As I see it, a lot people look at diversity and inclusion as a very difficult problem to approach – especially when you think globally. And, as you’ve seen, a number of companies have done a lot. It’s not like there is any lack of interest in the topic, but some do better. That’s why my belief is in looking at the opportunity of driving the business imperative. I have five business imperative principles that I bring to the topic where I think a company can advance:

1. Driving the topic deeply into your business narrative. Most companies when they think of diversity and inclusion, it’s a set of programs or something you do, not who you are. For us, it has to be who you are. When people speak about Dell and what makes Dell different, D&I has to be, and will be a great differentiator for the business.

 2. Driving and attaching D&I to a strategic imperative that everybody already knows. For us as an example, it’s digital transformation. Most people think of digital transformation as innovation – we’ll talk about machine learning, we’ll talk about VR, big data and people believe transformation is what customers will need. I would argue and submit that without the talent transformation to support innovation, companies will not reach the sort of goals that they have. Being able to know that D&I is an enabler to the talent transformation that will make your company and your employees more innovative, that is what is required as much as the technology assets to drive forward. So, tying those two together and talking about them in that way, the average employee who may or may not get D&I can get that, because you start piecing it together.

3. Measuring D&I the same way you would anything of strategic importance in your company. So, most companies measure top-line revenue, they measure bottom-line margin, employee engagement and retention. All of these KPIs, you can tie them directly to some kind of monetary value – both positive and negative. D&I needs to be measured the same way. When we implement these programs, we look at them and measure them the same way so someone can know that this activity, this strategy, this tactic in this area is accretive to the business, and not dilutive.

4. How you approach D&I – for many employees or many companies – you have your own set of programs, and you try to get employees on board with these programs. And, some employees understand it. They are allies. And, some aren’t. You have to be able to flip it around, and be able to articulate to an employee what actions are they doing that are inclusive and driving the company toward the imperative of D&I. Everybody wants to help and be in a healthy company, but very few companies have tied and threaded what you do in D&I to the individual.

5. If you have some core competence in technology, leverage that core competence (for us its next generation technologies such as AI, machine learning) in the context of D&I. Maybe leveraging those technologies to identify, sort of neutralize, and defeat unconscious biases as an example. That’s where you’re actually thinking about AI and machine learning in all of these other contexts. Can they be used to help talent? Can they be used to help the way you hire the talent? To the way you onboard the talent? To the way you provide upward mobility to the talent? The answer is yes. And, if people think more broadly about it, they can make the connection as to the importance of such a topic in the context of what they already know. So, that’s where I think significant growth in this topic will go.

Where does D&I sit within the Chief Customer Office as opposed to HR?

It is the business. My belief is that unless you tie diversity and inclusion to the business in some way, it’s really hard to drive it. I spend a lot of time with our sales leaders, sales makers, and customers. And, I spend a lot of time helping them understand strategies.

What they are finding is that in [sales] relationships, you can get beyond to the CEO, COO, C-suite, and CXOs with this topic. Because these companies themselves are trying to figure out how to be more diverse, and how to be more innovative. There are a bunch of things they are trying to do. And, if you are seen as a thought leader, or leading from the front on these topics, they will open up a whole bunch of conversations that selling servers, or PCs, or selling cloud doesn’t bring you.

Companies want to do business with companies like themselves – people who have beliefs. So, having it here at Dell in the Chief Customer Office is the natural relationship. Because it’s about driving the business. It aligns us directly with the business.