The New Corporate Diversity: Beyond Race and Gender

Pat Russo, chairman of the board for Hewlett Packard Enterprise discusses corporate diversity

In August 2015 the progressive Rainbow PUSH Coalition lauded the two new companies formed by the HP separation, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc., for creating “the most diverse boards of any tech company in America.” High praise, indeed, especially for the industry, which all too often is taken to task for its lack of diversity (whether perceived or real) in the highest reaches of both established powerhouses and startups.

But for Pat Russo — who was the CEO of Lucent Technologies and its successor, Alcatel-Lucent; served on HP’s board of directors from 2011 until the company’s separation; and now chairs the Hewlett Packard Enterprise board — building diversity is not simply a metric to chase and then tout in public, but a strategy for success.

In this interview, Russo talks about her own experience in the technology industry and why fostering genuine diversity, in the broadest sense, might just be the ultimate and most productive form of disruption we have.
 

You’ve been in leadership positions and have served on boards of directors, at HPE and elsewhere, for years. How has the conversation around diversity changed in that time? Or has it?


From my perspective, the tech industry — which, of course, is one that has been criticized for its diversity deficit — has often been more welcoming of diversity. The boards I’ve served on and the senior teams I’ve worked with have been quite diverse. In fact, it’s been my experience that tech companies have always valued diversity in its broadest sense — that is to say, in terms of experience and perspective. Back when Lucent was launched, we had women and people of color in key senior jobs. So more than a decade ago, in a major American tech company, diversity was more than just a goal. I am not suggesting there isn’t more opportunity; certainly there is, but there are also some companies that are bright spots.

Once people experience the positive impact of diversity, they fully buy into how important it is.

Even if your own experience has been one where diversity has been both valued and evident at the highest reaches of a company, do you ever have the sense that it’s still, today, something of an uphill battle?


You have to distinguish an intellectual understanding and acceptance of the value of diversity from the reality of actually making it happen. In that regard, the battles have tended to be more around questions of results, rather than intent. Let me give you an example. In one company on whose board I serve, we include in the compensation of the most senior people their progress on building more diverse executive and middle-management teams. We track that and results are reflected in the short term bonus.

Now, you used the word “battle,” as if there are fights over this very topic. But there isn’t anyone who sits around the boardroom and says, “Wow. You know what? I don’t believe in diversity.” There just isn’t. When discussions are held, they’re usually around questions like, How are we doing, and are we making real progress as measured by numbers? Who’s coming onboard? Who’s leaving? Who’s getting promoted? How diverse is our senior team? How many women do we have? How many people of color do we have? How many people from outside the U.S. do we have? That’s what the discussion ends up sounding like. But battles in the boardroom over diversity? They don’t happen.
 

Earlier, you used the phrase “diversity in its broadest sense.” How important is it to emphasize that we’re not merely talking about gender or race, but about something much broader and far-reaching?


When I talk about diversity, it’s not just about gender or race, even though those are definitely key elements of any discussion. It’s also about where someone has lived. Where were they born and raised? If you’re a global company, you want to have people around the table who have lived and worked outside the United States, people who understand different markets and, of course, different cultures. Diversity is, in essence, about inclusion where everyone brings a unique perspective to any conversation or planning meeting. I guarantee you, the more diverse those engaged in the dialogue are, the better and broader that discussion will be, and when you have those discussions, you’ll have better outcomes.

Think about it. If you have a group of people who all grew up in the same company and share the same assumptions, and you bring in people from outside the company, chances are pretty good that those new people will have utterly new ideas about how to address challenges. Pretty soon, any “we know best” attitude that might have been common at that company is going to evolve. People will see that there are other ideas, other ways of doing things that hadn’t been considered before because they’re outside the realm of how the company’s leaders think.
 

So, all things considered, are you optimistic?


Yes, I am. And the reason is because I’ve seen firsthand that once people have the emotional experience, the practical experience, of the positive impact that diversity has on a corporation’s culture and its ability to compete, they fully buy into how important it is. We’ve moved way beyond “This is the right thing to do” to a situation where it’s a must-do. You must have people with different experiences and perspectives if you want to be competitive, if you want to have the best ideas, if you want to have the best outcomes and if you want to attract and keep the best talent. That doesn’t mean that there’s not more work to do. We will always have a lot more work to do when it comes to having our workforce, at every level, accurately reflect our society. But it’s gratifying to know, with certainty, that a lot of progress has been made.