As a leader with 30 years’ experience in PR and communications, HP’s chief communications officer Karen Kahn has an understanding of how to create an inclusive and empathetic company culture.
Her message to the women and men on her team is that balance is superficial, meaning they need to appreciate their own priorities and understand that a good company will always support them. In this respect she describes HP as a “really egalitarian brand” that does away with titles, noting that even the executive leadership do not have their names on their office doors.
“We are the designated driver,” she laughs. “It’s not a glitzy or showy company, it’s very much a brand for the people. Where the people and the state of the world are at right now, it’s a really good time for egalitarian brands that can reflect who they’re selling to.”
Kahn hires for diversity of thought and seeks to open her team up to anyone from new graduates to single parents to grandparents. She explains that while millennials are important to every company, brands also need people with life experience who reflect the real people that buy their products.
HP believes a big part of the reason it has been performing strongly financially is down to the fact it is a diverse company focused on purpose. The latest figures from the second quarter of 2018 show HP’s net revenue rose by 13% year on year to $14bn (£10.7bn). The company made $331m (£252m) in profit from its personal computer systems sector and $839m (£639m) from its printing division during the second quarter alone.
While people always have an affinity for great companies that make a profit, Kahn believes that to recruit and retain the best talent a brand needs the right level of mentoring and leadership so everyone feels they are continually learning and growing, and that they have a purpose.
She references HP global chief marketing and communications officer, Antonio Lucio, who ends all of his talks by saying that you need to have purpose and meaning in your life, some of which is derived from work and much of which isn’t.
“If there’s a disconnect you’ll just never be happy and if you’re not happy you’ll never do your best work. It really is incumbent on companies and the people they hire to make sure that you connect purpose in the work,” says Kahn.
She describes herself has having an “enormously healthy respect for marketing” and studied for an MBA in order to understand the entire product lifecycle, the impact of data and how the sales process works.
However, unlike other communications specialists who have gone on to become CMOs, this is not an aspiration for Kahn. She explains that she has always been more attracted to corporate reputation and the impact reputation has on the brand, looking at the brand in 360 degrees from the customer journey and user experience to the visual design.
Her team, for example, help the marketers define what the HP perspective is on anything from equal rights and human rights to the future of data security.
“Marketing is wonderful to help sell products and at the end of the day we exist as a business to sell products, but you have to understand what rides above marketing,” says Kahn.
“It has to be reputation and the narrative, because if you don’t have reputation then you’ll never have marketing as you’ll never be able to have an authentic view of the marketplace and people won’t respect you.”
Kahn defines character as what a brand does when people aren’t looking. Therefore, while she acknowledges it’s good that HP’s work around the Agency Scorecard and #MoreLikeMe pilot are being recognised, the company would be focusing on its diversity agenda if people were paying attention or not.
Inclusivity is at the heart of HP’s work both internally and in the rallying call it issued to its agencies to improve their representation of women and minority groups.
“When I talk to a lot of chiefs of diversity they always say that people think that it’s about hiring more people you don’t have, but it’s really creating more of an inclusive workforce,” Kahn explains.
Creating an inclusive workforce was the goal when in 2014 HP split into two entities, Hewlett Packard Enterprises selling servers and systems, and HP Inc, focused on PCs and printers. Kahn explains that when Antonio Lucio joined the marketing organisation HP Inc in 2015 it was not particularly diverse and therefore the team realised they needed to make a change.
“It took 12 months to really diversify and change the way we hire, retain and promote to make sure that we don’t just have 50% women in marketing, because that’s not hard, but women in leadership and racial diversity in leadership. That’s the hard one,” she states.
After having made the change internally HP broadened out its inclusivity mission and in September last year reported the results of its Diversity Scorecard, an invitation to its five main agencies share how they were improving inclusivity.
“With some of the agencies their teams where not that big, so if you have a team of 10 and you hire two diverse creative leaders all of a sudden it looks great, but if you lose a person or two that looks terrible, and so it’s like every hire becomes extraordinarily meaningful,” explains Kahn.
“When we did the Scorecard review in September the improvement on women in creative leadership in most agencies went up by almost 20 points across the board and that’s great progress, but the number of leaders that were diverse, meaning African American and Latino for example, were really not good.”
Rather than issuing an ultimatum HP decided to work with its agencies to improve the situation by introducing #MoreLikeMe. Launched at Cannes Lions 2018, the programme is designed to “turbocharge” the careers of high potential people of colour working across HP’s agencies.
To qualify applicants needed to have more than five and less than 15 years’ experience, making them well placed to become a creative director in the next three to five years. Of the 300 applicants, three candidates were selected from each agency to take part in the programme, which includes a year-long mentoring scheme.
With projects like #MoreLikeMe gaining in momentum Kahn is pleased to see diversity climbing up the collective agenda, particularly in what she describes as a “fractured world” where every company has a different take on what purpose-driven marketing looks like.
She is happy to say that defining purpose is at the very heart of her role within HP.
“I lead communications and it’s kind of a different purpose because the marketing overlay is nice, but fundamentally your company’s narrative and messaging, the way you walk in the world from your CEO and down, that’s not marketing that’s your reputation,” Kahn adds.
“To me reputation and marketing need to have synergy, because marketing is wonderful but marketing can be campaign-centric and things like diversity and inclusion are not marketing campaigns. Any company can commit money, that’s not really the hard part. Committing your brand, your values and ultimately your purpose is.”