Exit Interview: Gabi Zedlmayer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Exit Interview

Exit Interview: Gabi Zedlmayer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Jeff Singer/Georgia State University Magazine

At the end of Novermber, Gabriele Zedlmayer— Gabi, as she is known — stepped down as Hewlett Packard Enterprise's vice president and chief progress officer, perhaps the only person in a Fortune 500 company with such a title. In that role she oversaw HPE's Living Progress initiatives, a suite of sustainability programs aligned with HPE’s business strategy. Previously, she was vice president of sustainability and social innovation at HPE.

On one of her last days on the job, I spoke to Zedlmayer from her home base in Zürich, Switzerland, about her tenure at HPE, how the company measures progress, and how she kept programs going during a tumultuous period at HPE.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: First, tell me what a chief progress officer is. And are you the only one who has that title?

Gabi Zedlmayer: I think I'm the only one with that title. I don't think there's another progress officer.

It is very closely linked with our Living Progress framework and this is really how we thought about the name for the job. It's how we utilize the skills and our technology to improve people's lives around the world. Living Progress is a more modern way of thinking of citizenship because we think citizenship is maybe a little bit old fashioned. Some people still think of citizenship as a compliance function.

Compliance is very important but it's just as important to look at future innovations, future opportunities positioning the company globally with new market segments and speed, geographical areas, technology areas and looking at this as an innovation hub.

Makower: I think it's still challenging for a lot of people to understand the linkage between citizenship and innovation, and to not just see it as "doing good." How hard has it been to explain that this is core to Hewlett Packard's business?

Zedlmayer: It's an ongoing discussion. Some people totally get it and they really understand that there are many different aspects to Living Progress. A lot of people understand that we come up with ideas and solutions, like our e-Health centers in India. We're an incubator for future technology solutions. They can see how we come up with an idea, we get all of the players in the same boat, whether it's an NGO or the government and own business groups.

We always look for ways to get employees engaged. We think that makes a tremendous difference in everything that we do because it's not just about our technology. It's not about handing out checks. It's really about our folks with skills deployed in ways that really make a difference.

Makower: How have your metrics for success changed over the past few years?

Zedlmayer: I got this job about six years ago, in 2009. At the beginning, we were focusing on education, working closely with universities around the world. It was very cash-heavy, with some technology deployed.

We then reviewed our business strategy and the skillsets and the opportunities that we have. We looked at the Millennium Development Goals and said, "We think we can do better."

We came up with different projects, the HP Life project on entrepreneurship training, the eHealth centers in India and the environmental project we do with Conservation International. Each of these has different metrics associated with it because they have different objectives. We realized that deploying our technology makes it easier to get data because we can see, like at the health centers, how many people we've treated.

We can also find out that there might be an outbreak of an infectious disease, what percentage of people are suffering from specific diseases and how we feed that back. You might have seen with Conservation International, it's all about utilizing Big Data to save the rainforest.

Makower: I imagine that if you looked at how Living Progress is doing there must be some higher-level ways of measuring progress that enables you to see how you did this year versus last year versus five years ago.

Zedlmayer: Absolutely. Living Progress is not just the three initiatives that we have been running in the past or the future initiatives that we are going to be announcing sometime in the next month or two. Living Progress is the framework of how we operate so we have goals across our entire value chain.

You might recall that we were the first company to come up with a CO2 footprint, including the supply chain, including our operations, including our products and solutions. We were the first ones to have a supply-chain goal. Then we came up with a products and solutions reduction goal as well and then we did a water footprint. So these are our absolute critical metrics that we track as a company as well. So again those will hold and year after year we will take a look at how well we've done on those for example.

Makower: Those are mostly internal metrics. I was thinking more of the metrics for progress from the work you're doing in Kenya, India and other places. Beyond the individual project goals, is there some bigger objective that you measure and track?

Zedlmayer: We did not have a goal like providing health centers for, say, a million people, because we had a number of different projects and we had project-based goals like in Kenya on how many children we wanted to reach for HIV treatment, for example. We had clear goals there. We had clear goals with the European Commission on how many people we want to reach with our learning programs forth. So every program had a very strategic goal associated or a number of them with it and we tracked against those.

Jeff Singer/Georgia State University Magazine

Makower: Over the time you've been doing this Hewlett Packard has gone through a number of different configurations. You came from the Compaq side during that merger. Now the company has been split into two. In between were probably a half-dozen CEOs. What have you learned about keeping the momentum going amid changes?

Zedlmayer: When I came from Compaq I had to openly admit that Compaq did not really have a lot of global citizenship programs. And Hewlett Packard at the time was really best in class. You’ve seen us go more to this education focus, then back to social innovation and business progress, which has gained momentum again. So it's gone through different kinds of phases.

But what's critical to us now is that management understands that business as usual cannot be done, and that we have a big responsibility overall. So I'm very positive when it comes to how this is going to develop with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and with Hewlett Packard Inc., and the role that they play as big companies in society.

Makower: Has it been that way all along during the leadership changes?

Zedlmayer: It was not exactly linear. It's an evolution but it's not always the same approach.

Carly Fiorina did a lot from a company point of view because we had a foundation inside a big company. She did a lot of development and put a lot of emphasis on potentially developing specific products for specific markets. She had some specific incubation centers, one in South Africa and one in India where products specifically were developed just right there with a specific team that just looked at those specific needs.

Mark Hurd looked at it philosophically differently and said, "That needs to be integrated into the business." He also wanted to shift some of the responsibilities to the foundation.

Meg Whitman is very much about also how we can deploy skills and technology to make a big difference, and that's why we've gotten together with some of the senior management to take a look at how can we make a difference as the new company, so stay tuned. I think you'll be impressed with sort of what we've come up with.

Makower: I want to go back to my previous question about holding your ground on sustainability programs amid different leaders with different levels of commitments. What have you learned?

Zedlmayer: You need to work very closely with employees and show them that they can play a role. You've got to be good about telling stories. Storytelling makes a huge difference when it comes to the resources that you get because more and more people want to jump on board when they understand what is being done. In the past people thought, “Do good and don't talk about it. Don't make a big splash about it.”

I disagree. The more people know about it, the more people you get on board. I think everybody sees nowadays that the world is at an inflection point where you just simply cannot move on the way we have in the past. You need to highlight the impact that you've made in many different dimensions, such as being able to attract the best and the brightest.

We've seen studies that correlate people who volunteer at Hewlett Packard with those that say that they would stay with the company and would recommend the company. I think it only works if people know what it is that you do. Otherwise, why would people be attracted to the company?

Makower: You come from the marketing communication side of this. What is the role of marcom in social innovation and sustainability and corporate citizenship?

Zedlmayer: Marketing is often about saying the same thing often and often and often. And it's the same thing for sustainability. We need to go out there and basically not get too complicated but really make sure that people understand what it is we're trying to achieve and give examples. Storytelling is how you get people's interest.

And you need to get out there and use the new channels where people actually are. In the next two or three years the majority of the workforce is going to be millennials. And in another 10 years they're going to make up 75 percent of the workforce. It's the same thing of course for our customers.

Makower: As you step away, what are you going to miss?

Zedlmayer: My colleagues for sure, all of the great people that I was able to meet. It's going to the conference where you always walk away feeling enriched because of the great work that people do.