Tell us a little bit about who you are and how you came to be where you are now.
I’m Claire Thomas, and I live in London with my husband and my two boys who are four and two. They take up a large proportion of my life outside of work. I’m the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Hitachi Vantara, which is a subsidiary of Hitachi Limited. We focus on helping companies use their data and technology to drive competitive advantage and sustainable business models, amongst other things.
I graduated from university with a Business Management and Spanish language degree. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I applied to marketing jobs at some fast moving consumer goods companies in the UK like Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Tesco. I got nowhere in those applications despite my first class honors degree, so I had to rethink my strategy. My Dad suggested I apply to one of the big tech companies. They had good graduate programs, provided training, and had jobs that require travel, which is one of my other passions in life. It seemed like that was a better fit, and after a couple of offers, I ultimately joined Microsoft in 2007. This was my first entry into the technology market. I understood the power and impact of technology but I didn’t write code or have a computer science background, so it was an incredible experience to actually learn how deeply technology influences our lives. I joined the sales team and did account management and sales at Microsoft for five years.
After Microsoft, I wanted to continue in sales in a services business to help companies use technology better. I joined Hitachi and did sales for ten years, in between a year of travel and two children. The opportunity to career switch into the world of diversity and inclusion came up. The role — Chief Diversity & Inclusion officer — was new to the company and I went through the application process whilst on maternity leave. Now I’ve been in the role for a year.
We find that leaders who begin on the business or revenue side bring a different perspective about what’s needed in Diversity and Inclusion and can be very impactful in this space. How has your past experience in other functions informed the work you do now?
It helps to have first hand experience and empathy for the challenges that front line teams face on a daily basis. Client facing roles, sales or delivery roles, account management and other positions where you provide a service to a client is incredibly high pressure. Their top priority is always meeting client expectations. They’re often trying to manage multiple teams internally and get everyone aligned into whatever they’re proposing to the market. It helps to understand how demanding these roles are. I’ve been there, I understand the work they’re doing, and that has helped me make connections with business stakeholders about why diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is important. I’m not a trained HR professional by background, so there are aspects of this part of the business that I’m still learning, but when I’m having conversations about making DEI a business process, it helps to understand the work they do and the workload they carry. I know how to make this work part of their routine rather than an extra burden, and I think that’s where my sales experience has really helped.
You spent several years in sales- an area that often struggles to hire and retain diverse talent. How can more women and diverse talent go into sales and how can companies hire more diverse talent in sales?
I fell into sales, it’s not that I grew up thinking sales was what I wanted to do. The lack of diversity in this space is fascinating to me. Sometimes, when people think of sales, I think it elicits a negative response. They think of the worst sales experiences they’ve ever had, one where people are trying to sell you things that you do not want — the aggressive, hard selling, unempathetic sales person trying to close a deal and move on. That has not been my experience of sales at all. In the professional services world and the technology industry, sales is all about building relationships, listening, problem solving, asking good questions, and working hard to understand the person’s or business’ objectives. Good sales takes creativity, teamwork and the ability to present solutions in a way that is compelling and also really shows a person that you’ve listened to them. If you want to be gender stereotypical, many of these skills — empathy, building relationships, caring about other people — are traditionally traits we associate as women’s strengths. One thing I also feel can turn women off to sales is the negotiation aspect. There is real fear about negotiation; so many women feel like they can’t negotiate for themselves, let alone for someone else. Negotiation is not the worst thing in the world, it’s actually really good fun. There isn’t anything women need to do differently to get into sales, we simply need to make sales more attractive to women. There is some storytelling that needs to happen to show people what a job in sales actually is.
Companies also need to change their language around how they write job descriptions for sales. They list skills like ‘confidence’, ‘assertiveness’ and ‘rockstar’ among others. This language turns women away from these opportunities. At the end of the day though, selling is about meeting the needs of another person. Unless you really understand that need, which you can only do by listening well, asking good questions, and being genuinely interested in this person and their organization, you can’t sell. As companies, we should also look in other places for these critical sales skills, like relationship building and how to understand an organization. We should consider that someone who hasn’t come from a traditional sales background might be a great addition to a team.
Hitachi is so multinational- what have you found most effective in promoting DEI in different geographies?
The most important thing is having people in those geographies. Because when you say “diversity” in the US, the UK, India, Vietnam, Poland or Portugal, it will mean something different, so you need someone on the ground who understands the culture and what diversity means there. Language is key as well. We often take for granted that English is the business language but this is a very nuanced area and you need to make sure people are all understanding roughly the same things. It’s critical to have people locally who can help get messages out, get people involved, manage all the little cultural nuances, and really just understand how to land something in that specific culture. It’s also important to have people in each geography who have relationships with influencers and leaders who will drive change.
What can companies be doing better to help more women and diverse talent make it to leadership positions? What is Hitachi doing?
Companies need to rethink what a leader looks like. They should also find ways to measure success beyond financial results. Results are important, you still have to deliver, but many people do so much other work to keep companies running, work that builds culture. This includes making sure that birthdays are celebrated, that having children gets recognized, helping someone find a mentor, and much more. Underrepresented groups shoulder an unfair amount of that work that’s not often recognized through formal processes like performance or progression reviews. Companies need to get smarter at recognizing this extra work as leadership traits, and seeing the people who do it as potential future leaders of the business.
At Hitachi Vantara, we run a number of leadership development programs that are open to all employees. This year, we’re piloting a female leadership program focused on public speaking and storytelling with the aim to help women share their authentic story and give them visibility across the organization and to our executives. We’re working with our HR leadership team to reexamine how we assess potential and what our career progression processes are. We’re also launching a reverse mentoring program so leaders can talk to people in the organization, and specifically to those in our employee resource groups, in order to better understand their lived experience. We work hard to ensure that our environment and our culture is welcoming to people who have different experiences, backgrounds, and different responsibilities outside of work. I have two children aged four and under — I’ve got a whole life that happens outside this job that I have to be there for. There are many others like me, and we have flexible work policies to help support those with significant demands outside of work
Who helped you rise to this level and how do you pay it forward?
I had a manager who once told me that I needed to look elsewhere to find what I was looking for in terms of career progression and the type of work I wanted to do. I think that is the sign of a great manager, someone who supports you, cares about your journey, and understands that it’s okay if that journey is elsewhere. It’s okay to tell somebody that their next best opportunity might not be in your organization. David Brindle, who was an EMEA leader at Hitachi Vantara, was an amazing sponsor of mine. He helped me navigate different spaces, gave me some pretty candid feedback that I needed to hear, and championed me in rooms that I wasn’t in. It’s incredibly important that people have sponsors and not just mentors.
Amy Woolf, an executive headhunter in the tech space, has helped me with advice, guidance, what’s going on in the market and general discussion about being a woman in tech. I also went to Sharon Peake, who is a gender equity specialist, for advice when I was up for a promotion while pregnant. I wasn’t sure what to do and how I could possibly take the job because I would be taking leave. She was very helpful in making sure I took the opportunity and did not hold back. There have been so many other people along the way.
How do I pay it forward? This role is part of me trying to pay it forward to as many people as possible. I am an active mentor for a number of people within and outside of our organization. When people reach out to me for support or advice, I make time for them. I am very open about my career journey and also my journey into being a parent and the challenges I’ve faced. I work hard to make sure there are safe spaces for people to have those conversations. Just saying that it’s okay to talk openly about hard topics like infertility means someone might come to me and say I’m going through the same, or at least feel comforted that they aren’t alone.
Any advice for people looking to make a career in DEI?
The most important thing is to know your ‘why.’ There are so many reasons to work in the DEI space. It is incredibly rewarding to see your efforts paying off, to see things changing in organizations. You get to see new programs launched, new resource groups being created, people will come to you and say, “Hey, I got this opportunity because of something organized by the DEI team.” And it is also very demanding work. DEI is about behavior change, empathy and things that are hard to measure and take a long time to change. You need a certain level of resilience. If you know what your ‘why’ is, it can be a driving force behind maintaining your motivation, in rewarding times and in more challenging times. I also encourage everyone to find ways to get involved. Before I applied to this role, I'd been the co-chair of a resource group. I led our Corporate Social Responsibility team for a number of years. I was already involved in the mentoring program. I go to schools to talk about joining the tech industry. So when I was in the application process for this role, I'd already shown my commitment to this space. There are tons of ways to get involved inside your organization or in networks outside of your organization. Go find something you care about, find a cause, know why it’s your cause, and get involved.
How do you hire? What do you look for in people?
I look for the right attitude. I look for someone who has the ability to build relationships in short periods of time. Some people are very good at creating a connection quite quickly and that’s amazingly important not just in sales but in DEI as well. I had the pleasure of spending some time recently with John Amaechi and he was talking about how the journey people go on rather than the outcome of that journey is a much higher indicator of potential. I also look for curiosity and willingness to learn. I always ask people to tell me about a mistake, not because I’m focused on failure but because I want to see how comfortable people are with owning the fact that not everything goes right all the time. Some people are very humble and open and some people try to give a very small example that clearly can’t be the only time they’ve failed. Let’s be honest, we’ve all failed at one point or another in our careers and that’s perfectly fine.
I see you’ve traveled a lot, even taking some time off of work to travel. What inspired you to do that and how has your international experience shaped your views on the work you do now?
I got the travel bug when I was seventeen. My school had a partnership with World Challenge, a company that creates travel experiences. You work to self-fund the trip then you go to do some volunteering and some recreational travel in the country. I went to Vietnam. It was the first time I’d been anywhere outside more economically developed countries and it blew my mind. The traffic, the chaos, the energy, the amount of people, and more importantly, the food, the culture, the sights, the completely different way of living. It was fascinating. I loved learning Spanish in school so I took some time before university and went to Latin America to volunteer, travel, and take language courses. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to travel whenever I can. I went abroad during my third year of university. I did six weeks around Eastern Europe before joining Microsoft. My husband and I decided to take a year off and go backpacking together before we had kids. We’re still trying to travel as much as possible. I’ve been to 81 countries and am trying to get to 100 by the time I’m 50.
What has travel taught me? People who have the least in a capitalist sense are often the most generous with their time, their resources, their stories and their willingness to help. I’ve been in many countries that are very poor compared to the UK, and people have paid for buses, they’ve invited me into their homes for meals, they’ve helped with directions, and taken time to talk. It has made me realize the gift of time and investing time in other people without any expectations of something in return. Travel has also helped me be more culturally aware, adventurous, and excited to learn about people’s cultures, religions, families, food and way of life. That curiosity has served me well in the DEI space. I can never stop learning about different cultures and countries. I’ll be the one eating street food in a plastic chair soaking it up because people are fascinating. And when you layer on all the diversity people bring, the world is an incredibly interesting place full of people trying to live good lives.