How Dell Created a Great Place to Work

How Dell Created a Great Place to Work

Dell has been known for its productivity; however, behind productivity are people, and Dell is learning what it means to be a great company and a great place to work.

Dell has been a results-driven company for a long time—almost to the exclusion of everything else! In many ways, that has accounted for Dell’s success. One thing I discovered is that when your stock is going up 300 percent a year, no one pays much attention to issues like “effective management” or “creating career tracks for your people.” People willingly work very hard for long periods because the payoff is so huge.

Dell’s crisis of conscience came in 2001 when, for the first time, Dell had to lay people off. In late 2001, Dell went through a self-discovery process where Dell started to ask, “If we aren’t going to be a company where you can come in and be rich by noon tomorrow, what are we? What do we aspire to? What kind of company do we want to be?” Dell’s president, Kevin Rollins, and CEO Michael Dell began a dialogue about what it really means to be a great company and a great place to work.

Creating a Winning Culture at Dell

In the end, Dell came up with what probably looks to outsiders like a beliefs-and-values statement. Dell called it “The Soul of Dell.” It is a statement of Dell’s aspirations as a company. There are five aspects: the Dell team, customers, direct relationships, global citizenship, and winning. Dell shared early drafts of the documents with all of Dell’s vice presidents, and had some great dialogue about what Dell leaders and employees together aspired to become.

The biggest gap was between where Dell were and where Dell wanted to be with the Dell team. So leaders and employees started to talk about what it would mean to be a winning culture. Leaders soon realized that they would have to broaden the definition of what they cared about, beyond financial results. They continue to care very much about what they accomplish, but also how they accomplish it. After focusing more on performance for 15 years, when they came out with a beliefs-and-values statement Dell’s employees were a bit skeptical. In the first year, Dell had a series of programs, town-hall meetings, brown-bag sessions, and other discussions to talk about what Dell aspired to do—all of which were met with great enthusiasm and great skepticism at the same time. The enthusiasm was driven by the view that Dell needed to do more to become a great place to work over time. The skepticism was driven by a concern about whether or not Dell believed and were committed to what it’s leaders were saying.

Dell's Improvements to Management Quality and Organizational Culture

Dell’s Improvements to Management Quality and Organizational Culture

Last year, Dell’s leaders put some teeth in Dell’s effort to improve the quality of management and improve the culture. We decided to administer Dell’s employee opinion survey, “Tell Dell,” twice a year, and they asked every vice president, director, and manager to get 20 percent better results than the year before. We wanted to send a signal: The results are important, but how you get results is also important. At first people said, “That’s nice, but will they really pay attention?” The major change they made was to identify metrics, based on responses by employees, that measured how well Dell’s managers managed and how well leaders led. In short, they decided employees would vote on whether or not they had made any progress.

The results were interesting. First, they got 90 percent participation worldwide, which is amazing itself, and over 90 percent the second time they did it. When they first did the survey, they didn’t show much progress from earlier years, which was to be expected. But Michael and Kevin talk about it every time they get together as a senior management team. They direct the senior team to share the results, in front of their peers. And they discuss their own scores. That’s what caught people’s attention. Slowly but surely, we’re getting better—as are Dell’s managers throughout the company.

There are about 30 statements on the survey, and they use five of them as core metrics for measurements: My manager is effective at managing people. My manager gives effective feedback. If you had an opportunity to work some place other than Dell, would you take it? I feel like I can be successful and retain my individuality at Dell. My manager helps me manage my work/life balance.

When they did the second survey, it was fun. We did get 20 percent better! I think they were all surprised at how much progress they had made. What was even more amazing is mat this happened across the board—they got better everywhere.

This has been a very positive experience for everyone. Dell’s leaders are reminded that if they put Dell’s minds to it, they can get better at a lot of things—even things that seem intangible. For Dell’s employees, it has been positive because it has driven far more conversations about issues between managers and their people. We’re using simple metrics to measure change, but are broadening Dell’s definition of what it means to be a great company.

Dell's Leadership Development

Dell’s Leadership Development

For three years they have had a company-wide leadership program. It’s one-day long, and all leader-led (they never use consultants). Each year, they focus on a different facet of leadership at Dell. Each year, they advance what it means to be an effective leader at Dell. And every year it starts with Michael and Kevin. They devote one day to teach Dell’s strategy committee—Dell’s senior-most decision-making group—about what it means to be a good leader. Then each of us repeats that leadership training with Dell’s direct reports, and on down the company. We all share Dell’s expectations with Dell’s teams about leadership. It is a powerful change mechanism—to stand in front of your team and discuss what you expect them to do differently, and then have them tell you what you need to do to improve.

'Direct from Dell' by Michael Dell (ISBN 0060845724) First, it’s powerful that Dell’s chairman and president are willing to spend a day to talk about this because it is a very revealing process. They talk about things that they did well and poorly. It’s powerful to stand in front of your own team and lead a discussion about leadership. Personally, I feel very exposed during those conversations. I know that they know what the leadership issues are with me, and so I have to fess up and say, “Well, here’s what I think I need to work on.”

We have also used 360 assessments more with Dell’s VPs and directors. We have put together a consistent worldwide management-development curriculum that defines expectations as well as builds skills. We also have short tutorial workshops for anyone who scores below 50 percent on any of the five items.

So, where do they go from here? We will do the survey again this year, and this time everyone will be expected to get at least 50 percent favorable responses on each question. If you’ve got an approval rate of higher than 75 percent, we’ll ask you to stay at that level; it’s hard to ask those people to get a 20 percent improvement when they are already doing so well.

Dell’s European team, in addition to doing what we’ve done, asked their entire management team, “If you were going to teach one lesson in leadership to the people on the Dell Europe team, what would that be?” Then they were asked to develop a 45-minute approach to teach that lesson. Every time they meet with a new group or visit a new country, they take an hour and teach their lesson in leadership. It puts Dell’s leaders up in front of Dell’s employees more consistently.

Almost every culture change has a back-to-basics emphasis because people tend to lose their focus on the business. We came at this from an opposite position. Dell’s business continues to do very well. Two years ago, they set a goal to double the size of the company in five years—and we’re already ahead of pace to do that. So, I’m proud to say that for a company on top of its game, they still want to be better—not just on Dell’s business results, but also in the way they manage Dell’s people.

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