My interview this week is with Anja Monrad, prime responsible for the Dell EMC region ‘Central and Eastern Europe’. Anja also oversees the Dell EMC’s entrepreneurship initiatives for Europe, Middle East and Africa and is an ardent promoter of diversity. As one of the top inspiring women in the Nordic tech scene, she is actively engaged in attracting girls and young women to STEM and female entrepreneurship. In our conversation, we discussed the difference between diversity and inclusion, situational leadership and how focussing on problem-solving can help to spark interest in technology.
7 January 2018, 15 min read
Written by Sarah Wagner
You are a lead responsible at Dell EMC, board member of the Danish IT association and chairwoman at the Danish IT association’s steering committee for Female IT Executives. How has your upbringing shaped you as a person today and to what extent has it triggered your interest in tech?
“Being an immigrant has definitely shaped me a lot. As a little girl, I emigrated with my parents from Poland to Denmark. Growing up with parents that spoke a different language than Danish made me feel different from an early age onwards. My parents were not different in the sense that they were not educated – on the contrary, my mother was a doctor and my dad was an engineer. But they came from a different country and cultural background. At the same time, my parents tried to infuse into me that being different and standing out was not a bad thing. Their encouragement was personality-defining, building my self-confidence to differentiate myself for the better. It also created a lot of competitive spark in me. I felt an obligation to prove myself to my family.
On the IT side, my dad was an engineer and worked very early with information analytics and information management. He got interested in databases and the internet before it was even known as the internet. Hence, I had my first PC in the 80s when other school kids did not have a computer. I think, from that perspective, I grew up with technology. Working in technology was never something I planned but it was very natural to me.”
You mention that your parents fostered a competitive spark in you. Do you think women have to be competitive in IT?
“Being competitive definitely helped me at a time when there were not many females at my level and the corporate surrounding was probably still a bit tougher than it is today. From that perspective, it was probably very helpful, indeed, but I think in all leadership positions – and that is gender-unrelated – you have to have a bit of this competitive spark that drives you. It helps you overcome this fear of always being at risk of failing to be successful. Yet, given that females are the minority in many cases, they have to fight a bit more.”
"I am stereotyping a bit here but in general, females are a bit less interested in technology for the sake of technology but more in the outcome of technology."
A propos leadership: What is good leadership to you? I read that you consider yourself an empathetic leader. What do you mean with that?
“I think good leadership is based on situational leadership. I don’t think there is one model that fits all situations. I rather think you need different styles for different situations. There is always a part that you control in different situations and how you are going to address things and then there is probably the more personal leadership style.
My main interest as a leader is achieving results through others. That is, I am actually interested in developing people; setting a team in the right way and then getting the most out of them individually and in combination. I think that having the right balance between the interest of the individual and the business outcome drives the best results.
Empathetic leadership style means the following to me: It is about really understanding the people I am dealing with, identifying their challenges and dreams and how I can help them to achieve their best, while benefiting my own business. I think the individual plays an essential role in business. It is not just about the outcome and business alone. Let me reiterate this very basic circle: If your employees and team are happy they smile into the phone and the customers will feel their satisfaction. If the customers are happy, then they buy more, which in turn benefits the business and the team earns more money. Employee satisfaction is important and it can be achieved through good leadership.”
Do you think there is a difference between female and male leadership?
“I do think there are differences between women and men as much as there are differences between women and between men. There is not necessarily a gender leadership: I have met a lot of women leaders without empathy and many men with a lot empathy; I have met many females that are bad leaders and many men that are good leaders. From that perspective, it is not that black and white. But I do think that if we have to generalize and use stereotypes, there is an overage of a little bit more sensitive women than men. I think the balance between EQ and IQ is the best for good leaders.”
Less than two in ten ICT specialists jobs in Europe are held by women (Eurostat 2016). Do you think it is a problem that there are not that many women in ICT and if so, why? Do you have any solution for increasing the number of women working in ICT?
“I think it is a huge issue, indeed. It is an issue in the sense that you have IT people in all industries developing digital solutions with a huge impact on how we will live as society in the future. After all, the digitization of both private and public sector we are currently experiencing is just the beginning and will be more important in the future as AI and IoT develops. Hence, unless we have a good balance of gender, cultures, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds etc. in developing those solutions and applications, our solutions will not be suitable for all people in going forward.
I do believe it is difficult to manage diversity in a team, compared to very similar personalities in one team. Yet, once a discussion leads to an outcome, the decision is much broader and insightful as it includes so many different perspectives. Unless we get those perspectives included in IT development, I do not think we will develop the right solutions for the digital transformation that our society is undergoing.”
“Unless you have true inclusion in your team, it doesn't really matter if it is diverse. (...) I think inclusion is much more important than diversity by itself.”
So how can we enhance diversity in IT companies?
“Unless you start focussing on the issue and measuring it in some form you will not get any results, I believe. I don’t think that just talking and saying we need more diversity will bring anything. I am convinced we need to put measures in place that e.g. encourage leading interviews with females that are potential top candidates to keep the focus on the topic. That said, I think it is much more about diversity rather than gender. Gender is just one aspect of it. It is also much more than a number game. Unless you have true inclusion in your team, it doesn't really matter if it is diverse. For instance, I have been in settings where more than 40 or 50 percent of a team were females but unless the leadership style of that team is inclusive and valuing and trying to utilize differences of opinions you do not get anything out of diversity but just comply with numbers. To this extent, I think inclusion is much more important than diversity by itself.
The other thing that is critical is understanding the unconscious bias we all have to what success and the ideal candidate looks like. Oftentimes when we have discussions about diversity, one of the arguments of not having females as new leaders or other diverse minorities is that the talent pool is not there to choose from. However, I am convinced that it often comes down to how we define success and what an ideal talent is. There is a lot of research that shows that our unconscious bias drives those decisions: Today, the average perception of a successful leader is a tall, white, male around 50. Hence, in interviews, we would speak out and judge all candidates towards this unconscious bias of what a successful leader looks like rather than looking at what the things are that should really be done in the jobs and evaluating whether these things would matter in that job. Here is an example: A friend of mine, a chairman of a board of global oil and gas companies in Denmark was looking for a person to sit in his board. The board did not have any females, hence they really wanted to have a female member. They started by looking for females in that industry with relevant CEO experience in the oil and gas sector. However, there are few women globally that fit that description. There are two options in going forward. One can say that there is no suitable female talent for the position. The other option is to look at the value chain of the company. The board discovered that a big part of their business was selling to gas stations, which made up a big part of their customers. If one looks at females with retail experience there are actually many. Understanding the customers can be just as important as coming from the oil and gas industry. It is about bringing a general skills set rather than fulfilling specific job descriptions. With this changed mindset, it was very easy to find an adequate woman, after all.”
How do you create inclusion in a team and leverage having different opinions?
“Inclusion is about allowing people to express their opinions and feeling comfortable in doing so even so if disagreeing with their management/peers. So, ensuring everyone is being allowed to speak up, is being heard, and to encourage disagreements. It takes patience but is very enriching.”
Can you give us some practical examples of how you seek diversity at Dell EMC?
“Dell EMC realized that a lot of things can be done around language. Again, I am stereotyping a bit here but in general, females are a bit less interested in technology for the sake of technology but more in the outcome of technology. In order to attract talents, for many years we said something like ‘Join us as as head of sales and you will sell xyz products; we are number xyz in the market. The product is so and so got’. That is a very male-oriented job posting. Some men do want to say that they work for the number one company with a cutting-edge technology etc. Again, I am stereotyping here. However, a lot of females prefer to hear something like ‘This company sells a product that helps save kids with cancer and decrease the time to find the cure from weeks to days to hours and it can save xy lives per year etc.’. It may be the same product but it has a totally different impact on many females that want to have a purpose-driven job. It took us a long time to understand how we could address those things in a smart way and say that it is not just about being the fastest and biggest but about how a certain position can help driving human progress.
To the same extent, universities are the places where we should stop talking about technology for the sake of technology. If we rename some of the courses e.g. from coding and language to ‘create something that can benefit society’ we will have a totally different amount of females and girls apply to the courses.”
“What is critical is understanding the unconscious bias we all have to what success and the ideal candidate looks like.”
And does the theory play out in practice?
“We definitely increased the retention of females in the last years. Moreover, Dell is organizing many unconscious bias trainings for its staff. We try to train the men in understanding how they are looking at successful talents and identify what bias they may have so we can help females being promoted in the system. I think it is working but there is still a long way to go.”
Talking about ‘inclusion’ and 'diversity’: Dell just passed the one year mark after merger with EMC - What lessons for successful inclusion and leveraging diversity did this teach you?
“I think it is important to keep reminding ourselves that combining such big entities as Dell and EMC in what is the largest combination in the history of IT, is not a trivial thing. It requires focus and hard work to be successful. We were all from the very beginning clear that this is a combination of 2 great companies and not an acquisition or takeover of one culture over the other. That requires an even distribution of heritage talents, knowledge and insights. It is critical to appreciate that things are changing and not everyone will like to join the new company that is being built and created from the best of the two foundation entities. But that is okay – it’s about the future combination. So forget about us/them, used to our/their way – focus on building a new culture together appreciating the greatness from the past – from both entities.”
Different sources are alarming for years that Europe is suffering from a lack of people with ICT education. One of the latest forecasts estimates that by 2020, the shortage of ICT professionals will amount to 500.000. Is the skills mismatch also a problem visible at Dell EMC? Does your company undertake any actions to encourage Europeans to pursue a career in ICT ? If so, how do you do that?
“Dell is very engaged in the Danish IT association with which I have been doing a lot to persuade young girls and women to get into IT. The association here has done a lot in schools in particular.
Moreover, Dell has a program called ‘IT is not just for geeks’, which is a program where we go out to school children. While it is not just for girls, it is primarily targeted at getting girls interested in IT and STEM subjects. It is a one-day program where we present the essentials of IT and give many examples of role models and what IT does and then the classes get to do some coding as well. The IT association in Denmark is organizing coding classes in several schools and has helped to establish full-year curricula with coding on the plan. Thereby, we really seek to get girls interested at an early age because we know they make up their mind early and then it is difficult to switch at a later stage.”
“Many women are not clear in articulating in what they want to do, contrary to many men. (...) I like the Pippi Longstocking quote, which sums it up very nicely: ‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.’”
Digital skills are a ticket to the digital economy, to full participation in modern society. As for citizens, according to Eurostat (2016), only 56% Europeans have adequate digital skills for the digital world they live in. What can be done to boost the digital skills level of the broad society (all ages, gender, professions) ?
“That is probably a longer discussion. Firstly, we need to define what digital skills means. There is a huge difference - whether digital skills is coding and programming or whether it is actually being capable of living in a digital world. We need to address those issues very differently. I think there is a need of developing more digital skills in terms of coding and programming but then there is also a huge need to increase the whole level of the society in terms of digitalisation. I also think the latter will become easier in a couple of years. A lot of things we ask people to do today with all of the new digital solutions will become more intuitive and easier in several years. Moreover, you must differentiate in whether you try to get e.g. the average rural Romanian to have higher digital skills of living in a digital society or whether you have a retired person in Denmark and suddenly does not get any written letters from the government anymore.”
How difficult is it as a woman to become successful in IT and reach higher positions? What are your recommendations to younger women?
“I think it is always more difficult if the few of the successful leaders are different from what you are but it is also far from impossible. You need drive and passion to succeed because there is a limited amount of leaders in any organization. It is a natural race. Not everyone will become the top leader. There are some stakes in doing your job and doing it well to leave good results behind. Be clear in what you want to do, be outspoken. Tell your boss and mentor etc. what you want to do. If you do not ask for help in achieving your goals nobody will help you, anyway. Many women are not clear in articulating in what they want to do, contrary to many men. Moreover, never be afraid of taking risks. I like the Pipi Longstocking quote, which sums it up very nicely: ‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.’”
You have worked for Dell EMC for many years now and experienced both the boom and Dot Com Bubble of the 90s as well as the crisis of the 2000s. How has the tech industry changed over time?
“Dell EMC has changed like the rest of the tech industry and the society. In the beginning, the industry tried to fix female talents by teaching them to behave like men. Over the years, the attitude changed by trying to bring a balance by adding KPIs to things to really look at the benefits of inclusion and diverse organization. We have developed into the state where we actually believe that difference of minds adds to the mix in a positive way. We need to continue doing that. Yet, I do not think we are there yet. It is important that everyone can be himself, regardless of his cultural, sexual and religious background. An employee should be able to be herself and still be able to drive in that organization.”
Thank you for the interview, Anja!
Discussion: "Women and girls in tech – mission (im)possible?"
(Anja Monrad speaking at 27.45 min.)
Anja Monrad leads the Dell EMC Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) region, covering 27 countries, including countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Czech, Ukraine, Greece, Israel.
Having joined Dell as Marketing Director for the Nordic countries in 2000, Anja has since pursued an international career within Dell, holding various regional and global roles. She has been in charge of Dell EMC’s CEE business since 2013.
Prior to this Anja led Dell’s European Demand Generation’s activities, was responsible for the building of Dell’s CRM activities in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), managed the EMEA Services marketing organization, run the European Online Marketing organization and not least directed execution of Dell’s global marcom activities within Dell’s international Marketing organization.
In addition to leading the CEE business, Anja oversees Dell EMC’s entrepreneurship initiatives for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She is an ardent promoter of diversity, attracting girls into STEM and female entrepreneurship, has been a strong supporter of the Dell Women Entrepreneur Network (DWEN). She is recognized among the top inspiring women in the Nordic tech scene, and the top 100 business women in Denmark.
Before joining Dell, Anja worked in Sales and Marketing leadership positions at Unisys, Compaq and Digital.
She is a member of the Danish IT association board and Chairman at the IT association’s Steering committee for Female IT Executives. She holds a Business Administration & International Marketing degree from Copenhagen Business School. A Polish national, she lives with her family in Copenhagen, Denmark.