Kelly McGinnis is the senior vice president and chief communications officer for Levi Strauss & Co. She shapes the company’s corporate affairs strategy and managing stakeholder relations.
Previously, McGinnis served as the vice president of global communications at Dell, Inc. Before Dell, she was the general manager of Fleishman-Hilliard’s San Francisco office and led corporate communications for drugstore.com.
March 22, 2012
New York City
INTERVIEWERS: Cinda Kostyak and Dick Jones
Videographer: Karen Mozley-Bryan
INTERVIEWER: Well, it is March 22, 2012 and we’re in New York City, sitting with Kelly McGinnis, who is the Vice President of Global Communications at Dell. Welcome, we’re so glad you could spend some time with us. I’d like to just start out with you telling us a little bit about the development of your career; from your educational experiences to where you are today at Dell. What happened and how did you get where you are today?
MCGINNIS: Well thanks for having me. You know, how do you get there? You get there on the shoulders of some really generous sponsors and mentors and other folks.
For me, I actually started out as a social worker and was very committed to doing that type of work. After a few months of doing that in East St. Louis, it was not what I anticipated, and was very disappointed that it wasn’t going to be what I was going to do, so I hightailed it off to graduate school. Really, the issue for me was getting to know the folks who had been doing it for a long time. What they taught me was that it was really ‘work around the system’.
It wasn’t a situation that was straightforward, so I got committed to figuring out how to become part of policy and changing things, and I went to graduate school and quickly joined local government and had an amazing time. Loved it—the immediacy, the fact that you could see the stuff that you were working on in real time. The fact that decisions happen, and they happen in your local community, it was very exciting. The only thing about that is, you can move—if you’re relatively quick and engaged, you can move really quickly, but then you hit a ceiling really fast. So basically, the folks who were in the positions that would be next, had been there 15-20 years, and were going to keep doing that.
So really there was little outlook for growth opportunities, and the experience in government gave me a lot of breadth of experience. It was a time when public relations, particularly agencies, were really diversifying into new areas, so since I’d done some labor work and had the opportunity, and since a lot of policy work is the same as communications in a lot of ways, I went to Fleishman-Hillard, having been exposed to them through a leadership program that I’d been in. And some very generous, former journalists taught me—here’s a style guide, here are the mandatories, learn all of this, and then you can come with us.
It was a time when the agency was growing exponentially and had a very deep relationship with what was then SBC, as they went through deregulation. I saw all the things that it grew into, and so had a chance to work on almost every piece of business from employee communications to the corporate M&A [mergers and acquisitions] team. I worked with them in Europe, and San Antonio and was on site. Just really had a breadth of experience there. After those opportunities, I really wanted to test myself and say, is it just this environment, or could I do this at other places? It was a time when the dot-com boom was bubbling for sure, and I went back to Seattle – having gone to graduate school there – and was head of communications at a company called Drugstore.com.
I always say that my .dot- om experience was very atypical, so while the business model reflected a lot of the things that came about with the bubble, the executives were all Microsoft employees—former Microsoft leaders. And so the experience inside that company was very consistent with the discipline and the other things that I’d come from…but I learned a lot and had a lot of fun. It was a time when our communications strategy was very diverse, so we had lots of privacy issues that we had to deal with, in terms of dealing with people’s medical information online. But our communications strategy, at least on the consumer side, was to go and get very accessible pharmacists to talk about any embarrassing topic on the news. And it was great fun. We had a great time, but as the business started to get really, really focused, it became about developing insurance relationships. It got much narrower, from a communications perspective, and so Fleishman called again and I had a chance to go down to San Francisco and move to the Bay Area, and help to build the consumer Internet practice.
I worked on Netflix, Yahoo, and Expedia, and got to be exposed to a lot of the defining entrepreneurs at that first wave of the web. It was great, because we had a level of flexibility and autonomy to just build the business, but always with the net of incredibly smart senior leaders within a company the size and scale and with the history that Fleishman has. And so it really wasn’t that risky even though we were playing way above our game. I was with Fleishman for about 10 years and it was time to do something different. As often happens in our world, clients and colleagues and colleagues and clients end up being the same folks.
A former good friend and client of mine was internal at Dell, and it was at a time when Dell went through one of those experiments that happened in our industry. They consolidated all of their marketing dollars with WPP, created a fully integrated agency to cover all of their marketing aspects. Public relations was always a part of that, but not the center of it. We had a breadth of time to go through that transition, to build essentially a purpose-bred team, to take advantage of the scale of that engagement with WPP, without the pressures that hit some of the other parts of the marketing team. So we were able to build an amazing team of folks who were hand selected to work on the Dell business. Over time, that integrated marketing agency model didn’t work, and they diversified using multiple agencies. We’re still working with that agency though, and it’s changed a lot over time. I was on that for about 2 ½, almost 3 years, and then with internal changes; people growing into bigger jobs and moving on to other things, we built a good strong relationship—particularly with the chief marketing officer. As a consultant, it can always happen that at some point they say stop consulting and come in and see if you can deliver, and a couple years ago I had the chance to come in and help to drive the reputation transformation that we’re going for within Dell. So that’s kind of how I got there, but mostly at the hands of a lot of other people’s generosity.
INTERVIEWER: Wow. Okay. What are the challenges and the opportunities that you face when you manage Dell’s reputation on a global scale?
MCGINNIS: I hear the emphasis on global, but let me give you a little context on where Dell is today. So, Dell has an incredibly strong heritage. We are defined by something very specific related to our business model, the direct model, the innovations that Michael brought to the supply chain and really democratizing access to PCs. That’s our history, that’s not today. The industry caught up to us after many years of a lot of growth, and today we are an end-to-end IT solutions provider. We believe very strongly that it matters, that device that’s in your hand. But the connection to the data center, and being able to carry that all the way through is what’s going to define us for the future.
There are a lot of aspects of what Dell is today that aren’t known, so we’re still building our credibility in the enterprise. We have more than 40,000 services employees who are really ‘on the ground consultants’, who are helping to build IT infrastructures on behalf of our clients and creating that understanding—building our credibility and creating awareness for where the company is changing and transforming is the challenge that we face.
For us, that started internally, as I think anyone would say it has to, we had a few fits and starts I will say, so we’ve been on this trajectory, where the company has been very clear about what the growth strategy is and where we think it’s going to take us in the future, for about 3 years. In parallel, with defining that growth strategy, we took a really hard internal look at our brand. We said, what does that brand mean and how can we use that and leverage it to carry us through this transformation that we’re trying to go through as a business? There were some surprises along the way. First and foremost, we thought that because we were in the consumer business, and we’re growing and are very big in the enterprise business, we were different things to IT decision makers than we were to consumers. We really quickly learned that IT decision makers are sending their kids to college. They’re reading the Sunday paper and they think of Dell in one way. They think about us in terms of practicality, access, really being able to rely on technology to help them achieve what their goals are. It’s not about the technology, it’s what they’re trying to achieve. And that was a big aha moment for the company and to say, well we can align behind that. We’re one of the few technology companies that’s still run by our founder. Michael came back several years ago and from the very beginning he said, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the potential that we can unleash on behalf of our customers. Whether it’s individuals or organizations. When we looked at that in a fresh light, it was more true than ever for us, and has continued to be what really drives us, in terms of purpose, for helping organizations, and companies, and individuals achieve what they want to do with technology.
And so for us, in terms of a challenge, first and foremost it’s getting an engagement with a workforce that started out there before. We’ve seen a lot of different changes. We’ve seen a lot of changes in getting that level of engagement, we’re really proud of the work we did. We saw the hardest groups were our managers. I guess we should have known, but when you see it in the stark numbers, that your managers are 20% off of everybody else in believing the company’s best days are ahead, it’s a really strong wakeup call. Three years later, we’re up to best in class, but when we saw those numbers early on, it was concerning.
Since then, we’ve worked very, very hard to continue to define the company and to show the proof points of how everything we do each day—both for our employees, for our external stakeholders and for influencers—ladders up to what the company is going to be in the future as an end solutions provider. So, you know, 8-10 acquisitions every year for the last few years, trying to diversify the portfolio, really strong presence in the data center today, and continuing to push and define that and build that credibility.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, well having said all that, what about the global…is it difficult? Are there challenges to—keeping in mind everything that you’ve just talked about and all those experiences but, getting that…maintaining your reputation in that global…
MCGINNIS: Yeah, I think the global aspects of our business have actually been a huge opportunity for us, so a lot of the growth in our industry is happening in emerging markets. It also means that we don’t have as much of the legacy that we’re changing. I talked a lot about what we’re doing in communications, is using the reputation to lay the groundwork for the transformation, operational transformation that’s happening at the company. In many markets, we are starting from a place with much less definition of what the company is about, and so we’re able to leapfrog to the place that is very real for us. So when I look at strengths, we’re one of the number one brands in India in our space. The strength and the benefit of the doubt that we get as a brand in China. Those are reflections of the fact that we don’t have to redefine what expectations are, but the people are open to their experience with the brand today.
I think the other piece is that Dell has embraced social media from the very beginning, and really been open to the transparency that it pushed forward. So there are lots of war stories to share of how we got there. We were one of the first companies to launch what we called IdeaStorm, which was really crowdsourcing, an invitation for our customers and other folks to say what they would like to see in our products. What are their experiences with the brand, and what would their suggestions be? Today, the backlit keyboards that you get in a notebook are a result of some of those things. There are lots of examples that we have of how embracing what’s available with that transparency, on a global basis, has made a big difference for us.
INTERVIEWER: Well, talking about that transparency, and looking at social media, do you think that has made public relations and the whole public relations industry more or less ethical? What are the challenges now with social media?
MCGINNIS: I think from our perspective, it has—I can’t speak to more or less ethical, but what I can say is transparency is a good thing, in our experience. For us, social media is stitched into every part of the fabric of the company, and we’ve done that very deliberately, from a communications perspective. We use it to help amplify our programs, but also to identify where things are going sideways, and to try to address those issues quickly and specifically. We have a very deep monitoring system in place that works hand-in-hand. In fact, it’s located with the customer service staff, who are addressing customer issues that are raised through social media. And then in addition we also have loose councils of folks all around the company. We have more than 8,000 people who have been trained in our social media practices, in terms of employees. About half of those are certified to actually represent the company as a spokesperson, and we engage them as advocates to work with our influencers. We have asked our employees to be out there and help represent us through social media.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think that this technology, the new media, will influence public relations in years to come? Where do you think it’s going to take us?
MCGINNIS: I think the biggest change for us is that no one looks to you as the functional expert, to say, what is the communications perspective anymore. I think that the democratization of the media has put it in a place where everyone has an opinion on what the communications implications are going to be, and you have to earn your voice at the table, based on your knowledge of the business, how you can contribute to the issues at hand and your willingness and ability to collaborate and to build advocates. So what I see in a company like Dell, where it’s fast moving, highly entrepreneurial, driven by results, is more than ever, the ability to collaborate and to have a shared set of allies on a single point of view. That influence is incredibly important to our folks. You earn that by being able to toggle between strategy and execution, all day every day. But just being a business partner makes a big difference. We can’t just say well, communications says … everybody has an opinion at this point for sure on that.
INTERVIEWER: Generally, what are the greatest challenges facing public relations executives today and how do you address these challenges?
MCGINNIS: I think for us at Dell, it’s really about focus. There are so many opportunities, so many possibilities and so many threats on a daily basis, that really figuring out where we can have the biggest impact on the business and channel our resources against those activities—that’s the biggest challenge for us. I think that what we’ve seen is just the proliferation of opportunities. There’s traditional media, there’s online media, there’s going directly to your customers, or being able to create your own media channels and to think about influencers and new and much more direct ways to—one of the things that’s really clear, is our leaders have seen the power of communications with their employees. Figuring out how you do that in an organization of the size and scale of Dell, and to do it in a way that’s still efficient and focused and can be driven against very specific results, because we’re a data driven organization first and foremost, all comes back to focus. And you have to keep enough room to experiment and learn along the way, but to make sure that we’re focused on the right things, that’s the hardest thing that we focus on.
INTERVIEWER: The aim of the Arthur Page Center and the Arthur Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role?
MCGINNIS: I talked about, I think the thing that you earn with our business leaders is an ability to toggle between understanding the business, understanding the strategic direction of what you’re trying to achieve and then actually being able to execute in real time. That’s how we earn it. I think the way that you get there as a counselor takes a huge amount of courage. You have to really get comfortable with the uncomfortable places. No one is an expert and you just have to be willing to engage and jump into that. I think for us, one of the things that our internal stakeholders expect of us is to bring an outside perspective. So one of the great things in today’s environment is that that’s more immediate and closer than it’s ever been. Really being able to channel and understand what the possible implications are and the reception that we’ll hear from external stakeholders is something that we’re relied on for. I think those are probably some of the big ones, and then I think the other piece is like I said, being able to build the network and relationships so that you can be able to effectively drive change within your organization. For us, the people that are really successful are the ones who are passionate from day one. It takes a level of optimism and energy to be able to do that every day, and I think it’s really hard to underestimate how much a really positive attitude and a strong sense of passion and energy—and bringing that to a conversation—how compelling that can be to an organization.
INTERVIEWER: Talking again about the counseling role, what’s the status of it in the corporate world today? Do you think it’s growing in importance or diminishing? Was there a difference in that role, the counseling role, between when you managed the agency teams versus when you became the Vice President of Global Communications for Dell? What are the differences that you saw?
MCGINNIS: I think for us, we’re at a stage in the company’s development where the need for strategic counsel on communications and reputation issues are more important than ever. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been important in the past, but for us to successfully navigate both a brand and reputation transformation, to become defined as something different than we are so widely known, we’re relied on in a way, and there’s an extra level of expectation that is incredibly important to the company today. What that translates to in terms of expectations for us, is to really understand the business, to be very, very close to the data in terms of our sentiments—and to be able to share that, to translate that into what our choices are at different junctures in terms of key issues. So what is the appropriate role for our key executives? How many messages can we effectively deliver in the market to build the credibility? How quickly do we migrate through the evolution of our story and doing that in really close partnership with the IR team, with the HR team, and have an alliance around the folks who are helping to manage all of the stakeholders.
INTERVIEWER: Is it important for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or code of ethics or credo?
MCGINNIS: I think for us, it all starts with our purpose. And our purpose is about enabling individuals and organizations to achieve their potential to grow and thrive. What that translates to in terms of what we expect of our employees, is that they respect our customers first and foremost. I think that if you bring that level of respect and authenticity to your customer interaction, that answers so many other questions around ethics and other things. Now, we do annual training. It has a very high focus. Every one of our executives, starting with Michael Dell, our CEO and founder, will bring it up at each of our leadership team meetings, so there is a very, very high expectation of reminders. But at our core, it’s about our purpose, and rarely do we get ourselves in trouble if we follow first and foremost, what’s the right thing in terms of delivering for our customers. That’s really been the message. And it’s so closely aligned with the history of the company, where we were built on a direct business of really responding to and trying to make PCs affordable and accessible. Continuing to follow that model, we don’t really stray if we follow that.
INTERVIEWER: I’m going to ask something about you personally.
INTERVIEWER: What’s the biggest challenge that you face during your career?
MCGINNIS: In my job today, the biggest challenge that I face or the one that’s evolving and on the horizon is, demonstrating a tighter relationship between communications as an effective marketing tool and being able to show that in very measurable results. I think we’re well beyond the place where people understand how important reputation is, and how we’re actively managing the reputation and reinforcing the overall corporate intent, and where we’re going from a growth strategy. I think the next level is…we’re in a place now where the tunnel doesn’t matter—I said that in a conference today or it just isn’t relevant. People are much more distributed in how they make choices of where they turn to for information. Communications has such a valuable contribution in that ecosystem, but being able to demonstrate that and have the skills to be able to demonstrate that in terms of an immediate ROI and explain how we play within that ecosystem. That’s a hard question to answer and I know a lot of people are trying to answer it and certainly in an organization like ours, that’s heavily data driven, it’s top of mind. We’re getting there, but it’s one of those areas that for me personally is super challenging. You know it’s the right answer, can I tell you exactly how I’m going to get there? Not yet, for sure.
INTERVIEWER: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
MCGINNIS: I think I’ve had the opportunity at least three times in my career to build a team from scratch, or to have a major impact on transforming a team. I’m proud to say that in several cases, people have followed team to team to team, and I’m grateful for that. But also, just being in a place where you can see that all the pieces come together, and you can see people playing off of each other’s strengths, and the way that gives an organization the opportunity to have greater influence within the company. To have a greater influence on the business, and the direction, and for people to really see their own careers growing in that model, that’s incredibly rewarding. It makes it a whole lot of fun for sure.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. How important is mentoring to the fostering of ethical decision making in the workplace?
MCGINNIS: I think it’s incredibly important. I think about it in two ways; there’s mentoring, which are those folks who are there to give you guidance and counsel and to ask you those really uncomfortable questions, to push you beyond those areas where you feel comfortable and successful. And then there are the sponsors who are there and who are really advocating for your growth and other opportunities along the way.
In my experience, so much of learning communications has been an apprenticeship. I’ve gotten to learn from very, very smart and accomplished people. Some of them have played that mentor role, to be that really tough coach who pushed me really hard. Some of them have been the ones who put really big opportunities in front of me and I said, ‘I don’t have any idea how to do that.’ But, it’s really been watching them make decisions day in and day out, and to see how they can influence a conversation, how they can influence the direction of a decision being made—that’s where I think learning how to be able to be effective at that piece of it, the softer skills, and really those counseling skills—that’s where you learn how to impact.
You’re asking the question around ethics, but you know, it’s really how you learn to be influential. And that really happens at the shoulder of someone else who’s doing it really, really well.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any perspectives that you could share on issues of diversity in the industry today?
MCGINNIS: Yes, I think within our company and within our industry there’s certainly a focus and a challenge on helping women and women in science and technology, to have a greater impact. Personally, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my mentors have been men, but they’re men who have worked for very strong women. And so it’s been a real opportunity. I think that’s unique in marketing and communications that we find those folks. When we look on a broader scale at what are the opportunities for women in science and technology, I think we all see that there’s still a lot of room to grow. It’s an area of real focus and commitment within Dell, so you know.
Our CMO is actively involved. It’s a personal passion area for her. We work very closely in terms of trying to develop women to come into technology, to grow their careers there, to really help support each other, particularly at the executive level within the company. So there is widespread employee groups that are supportive and focused on those efforts. Similarly for other diversity groups, that just happens to be the one that I’m closest too.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you very much for stopping by and having a talk with us, we really appreciate it.
MCGINNIS: Thank You.