VMware’s Vice President shares his insights into cultural reform and building diverse teams

VP of Technical Services for EMEA at VMware, Alan Barber

As VP of Technical Services for EMEA at VMware, Alan Barber is in a position to effect real cultural change regarding female representation and inclusion, to the historically male dominated tech division.

Here he shares the successes he’s achieved along the path to a more gender diverse business—and some of the surprises he’s uncovered en route.

VMware’s focus on diversity and inclusion has intensified in recent years. What prompted that and what are your goals?

We know that diversity leads to increased innovation, better talent attraction and employee engagement—and benefits the company’s bottom line too. When I joined VMware back in 2007 we had been growing very quickly—virtually doubling in size every year, and consequently we were hiring quickly to keep up with customer demand, without paying enough attention to the diversity coming into the business.

Then, suddenly, we had a moment to take a breath and realised we’d created an imbalance. Our focus came to be about creating a culture that not only attracts female talent and allows them to be represented in leadership roles, but also about everybody working in that culture being free to be themselves. That’s when you have people performing at their best, and where VMware’s Inclusion policy tagline Dare to be yourself comes from.

I've worked in some organisations that are heavily male dominated and some with a good gender balance. The former is disempowering and never results in the best work being done; in my experience, being amongst a diverse team is significantly more fulfilling.

What’s worked and what hasn’t in terms of getting more women into the business?

We’re getting there but we still have work to do, and attracting more women continues to be a challenge because the talent pool we’re drawing from is so male biased. At the start of our journey we set a goal of having at least one female candidate on every interview panel and one female in every short list. But to be honest, little change took place. What I’ve found is that we see more change happening by having a number of strategies, and over time, with continued effort, those incremental steps lead to change.

At VMware, we’ve launched a referral bonus for staff members who recommend a female candidate we end up hiring. We also run a 24x7 recruiting scheme whereby we ask managers in our tech team to spend an hour on the phone with recruiting managers. During the call they look through their LinkedIn networks and think about who they know that could be a good company fit. Another initiative implemented at VMware, which is incredibly simple but at the same time very powerful, is give people more time to recruit. Historically we’ve placed an importance on hiring managers getting people in; by removing that pressure we enable them to explore more options.

As a direct result of a range of strategies, we’ve gone from an entirely male leadership team to having four female leaders in our tech division. VMware’s graduate intake is now 50% female, and last year, the vast majority of those female graduates went on to find jobs in the organisation at the end of the programme. Still lots to do, but a good start.

Have you done anything around diversity and inclusion that’s benefited you personally?

As part of my own personal development, I attended a two-day MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) workshop. During one exercise the women in the room sat at the centre of the group and shared some of their experiences, while the men listened. That’s when I understood what it means for us as a business to be asking women to travel a lot, to arrive in a strange city in the dark and late at night. There were a range of other things that, as a man, I hadn’t considered. Following the workshop I realised we had to change a lot of our job descriptions to attract more women.

I’ve also been taking part in reverse mentoring with one of our female managers in the business, who offers me feedback about my communication style and provides advice on how we can become more inclusive as an organisation. The result has been a powerful, bilateral relationship from which I’ve learned a lot that I’ve been able to turn into change. We set ground rules upfront that meant she could say whatever she wanted. She has pointed out when I’ve said things to groups that I could have presented in a better way, and given me insight into how leadership decisions are perceived throughout the organisation and the challenges they result in. It’s not always easy to hear that kind of feedback; sometimes you need to simply listen and then go away and think about it, but there’s always a lot to learn and reverse mentoring is something I’m advocating we roll out across the business.

Through working in a diverse team, I enjoy my work to a greater extent. I’ve witnessed teams and individuals become far more enthusiastic, energised and passionate, and more likely to raise their hands and try new things. It’s simply a pleasure to come into work and be a part of all that, and of course there is a direct knock-on effect for our shareholders and revenue growth.

What’s the key to getting more men to become committed champions of change?

For me, diversity isn’t about men or women specifically; it’s about respecting everybody and being inclusive in a way that enables an amplification of power and difference. Having said this, we do need to get more men involved. VMware sponsored and spoke at the 2016 everywoman Forum: Advancing Women in Technology Forum, and 50% of the delegates we took on the day were men. We’re also creating ‘power of difference communities’ across the business. Each pod is tasked with looking at the challenges of an inclusive environment and what we can do organisationally to accelerate our goal of enabling everyone the freedom to be themselves.

VMware sponsors the Male Agent of Change category at the upcoming 2018 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. What does the business hope to achieve through the partnership?

As a company, we are passionate about attracting more women into technology. We believe men play a vital role in changing the landscape, which is why we are keen to sponsor the event. It’s also about raising awareness both internally and publicly. Internally because we want to show our teams how important a role men play in creating a powerful a diverse and inclusive business, and publicly to those outside the organisation about what we’re doing, in the hope that new talent, who might otherwise have overlooked us, would be interested in coming to work here.

To discover more about inclusion in tech and the organisational solutions that can help close the gender gap, download your free copy of our 2017 research study, Examining the pipeline: what has the biggest impact on gender parity in Tech?