An Exclusive Interview with Suzanne McGovern, Chief Diversity Officer at Splunk

In this interview, we spoke with Suzanne McGovern, Chief Diversity Officer at Splunk where she shared some of her struggles with work/life integration years ago, and how she defied those who said she was on the “B-Track” when she moved to an internal position at her company.

“Success to me is when you don’t need to have a Chief Diversity Officer in the future. That’s just part of having a business.”

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • How to create more inclusive leadership models
  • The difference between work-life integration and work-life balance
  • The three-pronged strategy for diversity and inclusion – workplace, workforce, and marketplace
  • Culture add vs culture fit

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Suzanne McGovern. You can also listen on SpotifyiTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

FIONA: Our guest today is Suzanne McGovern, the chief diversity officer at Splunk, a multinational big data business based in San Francisco. And actually she just got off a plane from San Francisco, so that is huge kudos to you for being here. Suzanne originally hails from Scotland and began her career at a big four management consultancy firm, working with clients in multiple industries in London and across Europe. She then moved to the Bay Area to continue consulting in tech companies and discovered a passion for talent development and diversity and inclusion. Suzanne is hugely passionate about bringing it together and engaging teams of people from all different backgrounds, and like me, believes this is absolutely critical to our success as businesses and as a society more broadly. Welcome, Suzanne.

SUZANNE: Thank you so much for having me, Fiona. It’s a pleasure to be here.

FIONA: Thank you. So Suzanne, can you give us a quick overview of the work you’re currently doing at Splunk and what you’re trying to achieve?

SUZANNE: Sure. As you say, I am the chief diversity officer at Splunk. I’m honored to do that role every day. So essentially what I do is look after our representation at Splunk. So we try to make Splunk look as much like society in general as we can. Also our culture of inclusion, right? So make sure that everybody feels that they can bring their whole selves to work and be successful. And then finally to work with our community partners, and more broadly, with our industry to make social change, both, as I say, with our community and also with the world. So in general that’s what we do.

FIONA: Thank you. And so first up, I want to ask you something which we ask all of our guests on Inclusion Works. Can you tell us what personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues and led to your work at Splunk?

SUZANNE: That’s a good question. So as you mentioned, I started off in Scotland, many years ago now. I started my university career in history. I realized quickly I could get job with history and I went into IT. And from there, I moved down to London from Scotland. I joined a company called Coopers and Lybrand, which was management consultancy back in the day. So I started my career in consultancy, did that for about the first half of my career in London and across Europe. And that’s where I met my husband at the BBC in London, actually. He was client and I was consulting at the time. And we got married and then we moved from there to San Francisco. So he’s not actually Scottish, she’s west African, he’s actually in Nigerian. And we had our first child. And then fast forward from there. We had a another two. But I must admit when I’d had my first child, I took a very conscious and intentional decision to move internal, to do some work on the learning end of things and on talent development and then deeper into HR. So really change careers there. And I firmly believe that as much as I’m honored to do my role, that I’m really looking to help change the industry and indeed the world so that my kids when they grow up have completely equal opportunities as biracial children. It’s deeply personal important to me that they have a completely open and a democratized opportunity for whatever they do. And success for me means that you don’t have to have a chief diversity officer in the future, that that’s kind of part of how we do business.

FIONA: Yeah. And I know you struggled to juggle work and life when you first became a mother. Can you share a bit more about that and also how it ended up really shaping your career? You kind of alluded to it in your intro.

SUZANNE: Sure. So, yeah, I was consulting, I was in the Bay Area. And even though my client was local, I was on the highway at 7:00 in the morning, home at 8:00 in the evening, and I started on a Sunday at midday, which meant that my six year old … Six month old, rather, at the time, Sophia, I didn’t actually see her awake very often. So it was like I’m  my child, and I have tremendous respect for the women who do it. It just wasn’t my choice. So took quite a difficult decision to go internal and was told quite categorically that I’d be on a B track from a career perspective, that this was not the way to go to be successful in my career. But nonetheless, it was my choice and I did it and went into sort of learning and then leadership development and then talent development and then diversity and inclusion, and really found my passion around the people agenda. So very pivotal moment for me from a career perspective, but an absolute blessing when I think back on it now.

FIONA: I mean, I’m shocked to hear like people saying, “Oh, you’ll be on the B track shifting into this sort of role.” Which obviously someone who’s super passionate about this stuff too makes me really angry to hear. What do you think this says about our expectations for leaders? And in your view, how can we create more inclusive leadership models?

SUZANNE: It’s another good question.

I think employers have to be much more attuned to their most precious commodity or resource, which is their people and think about their life changes and particularly skills that are transferable, like core skills.

So for example, in my case, being in consulting for 10, 12 years at the time, there were a lot of core skills that I could take and apply to, for example, HR and understanding that …

We move around, move across, and then take the opportunities. So I think from an employer’s perspective, they have to think about flexible working at times when employees need it. But I think there’s also onus on the employees themselves to be intentional and to manage your own career. No one else is going to do that for you. So it wasn’t like there was an opportunity given to me, I actually went and sought it out and was very intentional about doing that, irrespective of what folks said, and just being very thoughtful about what you do and really thinking about work life integration. So I don’t really believe in work life balance. I don’t think that’s a thing. But I do think about at times in your life, specially when you have younger children or whatever it is, there’s all sorts of different life changes that you come across that you integrate that with your life. Always family first. There’s no other number one, family first.

FIONA: I’d love to hear what you mean about the difference between work life integration versus work life balance. It’s subtle isn’t it?

SUZANNE: It is. Because I think that work life balance was this notion, I don’t know, maybe a decade or so ago, that you could kind of stupid phrase about having it all. I don’t think anyone can and you can balance or whatever. I think for me, I absolutely love my work. I love my family, but you know honestly, as a female and as a mother and as a working mother, it’s not just motherhood that defines me. It’s being a contribution member of society and working and stuff as well. So it’s really kind of making sure that it fits with your life and you can do it together. I think in most professions, gone are the day where you kind of clock in and clock out. And it doesn’t have to be a set number of hours. It can be whenever, wherever, remote working, whatever you want to do, but making it work for your life, whatever that schedule is and wherever those hours are.

FIONA: Yeah, I like that. I like that term. I haven’t heard it before. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about Splunk. I know that at Splunk you have a three pronged strategy for diversity and inclusion, which is focused on workplace, workforce and marketplace. Can you talk us through this?

SUZANNE: Sure, absolutely. I’d be happy to. So workforce is usually the first one that we go to, which really is around our diversity representation. And that’s, at its core, making Splunk look like society in general, making sure we have the right kind of representation. And for example, last year we focused a lot on gender diversity, so people who identify as female, and we’re thrilled to say that we kind of moved the needle 1.7%. It doesn’t sound like a lot when you say it like that. It’s actually quite hard to do that people in the industry know. So very, very intentional around moving the needle. And we want all aspects of diversity at Splunk. The next part is the real fun part and what makes Splunk completely unique, which is marketplace. So that’s really around our culture of inclusion. We’re absolutely really, really blessed and lucky to have such a beautiful culture at Splunk. And it’s synonymous with something called our million data points, which is a campaign. And it’s really the thought that everyone is unique and very special. And given that we can turn data into doing, we kind of turned that on ourselves and thought, “What can we do with this? What’s the kind of play here?” And we’ve created this great campaign and it’s just around the fact that diversity isn’t just about gender, it’s not just about race or ethnicity. Diversity can mean many, many things. Whether you’re a veteran, a musician, whether you’re LGBTQ, I mean we want it all, need it all. And we feel that every splunker is unique and essentially really special.

FIONA: Yeah.

SUZANNE: And then the final one is marketplace. So that’s where we kind of go a bit broader into the community. So working with our partners and our customers and really using Splunk for social impact and social change. So we provide Splunk licenses to a number of nonprofits, whether they be humanitarian, disaster relief, we give free Splunk licenses to veterans or active military and their spouses, et cetera. So really trying to drive change at Splunk and making a difference to industry in the world.

FIONA: So going back to your culture point, you’ve said before that Splunk has the nicest culture you’ve ever experienced. What makes it so great?

SUZANNE: I think it’s the people. It really is. I mean, we’re very, very intentional around hiring. I mean, even though we’re in hyper-growth, we’re quite patient and we really try to hire the best. And it’s really all about cultural adds, not cultural fits, so people who are going to add something with their diversity. We know that the best ideas come from diverse thinking and we’re really, really intentional about, I don’t know if I can say this, but I’m going to anyway, not hiring assholes.

FIONA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

SUZANNE: It’s kind of an unwritten rule. And that if we do, the body kind of tends to reject the limb. So we’re working at such a pace and growing so rapidly that folks really need to not just get the work done, but get on with each other. So there’s a tremendous amount of work to do, but we have … I mean, it’s one of our values is fun. It’s part of the culture is that it’s a given that we’ll work hard but actually enjoy doing it and work with a bunch of people that you’d like to have a glass of wine with or something or hang out with it. It’s really quite a special place.

FIONA: So to your point about not hiring assholes, I heard one of the FTSE 100 CEOs, sort of ex CEO of a large business in the UK speak, and he made this statement, it was so brilliant that actually the worst people, the most toxic people in the business are the high performing assholes, HPA, is because they’re hard to get rid of because they’re so valuable to the business on one hand, but actually they’re so toxic that you just, as you say, you have to cut off the limb to sort of save the body, right?

SUZANNE: Right. Exactly. Yeah.

FIONA: And going back to your point about culture add versus culture fit, I just, I love this concept. I think it’s Adam Grant who’s written a lot about this and it’s a concept I’ve been trying to spread far and wide in our own business. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit for listeners who haven’t heard about this concept, about what is … Typically we talk about culture fit interviews and trying to hire for culture fit and why is that misguided and why do we instead need to focus on culture add?

SUZANNE: I think it’s really underscored by diversity again. Because if we hire more folks like ourselves, then we’re not going to come up with innovation and we are at the cutting edge in big data. We need that diversity it’s absolutely essential. And you know that we are a data company. The data’s irrefutable that diverse companies, diverse workforces rather, really impact the bottom line. So to be successful and to stay in technology and innovate the way that we’re going, and this pace, and the rate and pace that we’re going at, we need that kind of diversity of thought.

FIONA: And just going back to the million data points campaign, so I’ve seen the video that you produced for this, which I think is public and on YouTube for anyone who wants to look that up.


FIONA: Can you tell me a little bit more about it and how it came about and what is the result been in the organization?

SUZANNE: Sure. Well, I think it’s one of our most downloaded pieces of content actually, and like some of the best ideas, it came out of a couple of folks from our wonderful volunteer army. We have this amazing volunteer army at Splunk who do DNI for fun in their spare time, but over drinks and cocktail napkins. The first idea was sketched out, and it’s really this concept of intersectionality, which sounds like a very big word. It’s a very simple concept. And really, so for example, I am a cisgender female. My pronouns are she and her. I’m an immigrant. I’m a mother, I’m a worker. I like soccer or football. I can say that, yeah?

FIONA: Yeah.

SUZANNE: So just what is it that makes you uniquely you? So we are really thinking about the intersectionality and different data points and folks having everything together, making themselves unique. So that’s really where it stemmed from. And it was kind of brought to life by our really courageous splunkers who, if you’ve seen the videos, they’re not kind of trite, corporate, really squirming kind of thing. They’re deeply personal. And the things that people share, it never fails to surprise me.

FIONA: Vulnerable.

SUZANNE: Just the courage. Yes, yes. Courageous and vulnerable. And it really makes a difference. And so it’s become kind of a way of doing business for us, the way that we introduce ourselves and stuff. I mean, I will tell people that my husband’s African, my kids are mixed race. My sister’s gay, I helped her come out, and I’ll do that quite early. And it’s really hard not to build a very deep and different relationship with someone if they’re kind of real and authentic and inclusive in that way, especially when we’re hiring at this rate and pace. It makes a big difference.

FIONA: Yeah, that authenticity.


FIONA:  Yeah, totally agree. So thinking about the 80/20 role, what’s the 20% of stuff that you’ve done at Splunk that you think has given you 80% of the value?

SUZANNE: And I’ve got to be humble about this because I inherited a lot of beautiful things at Splunk. I mean, there’s very, very few pieces that are all my doing. One of them in particular and the reason I joined is transparency. So that’s one of our values. We post our data and I think it’s really important for all tech companies nowadays. We’re honest about where we are and we’re honest about where we’re having successes and we’re having challenges. And I think it’s hugely important, I think as again, as a data company that we post our data. So that’s a big one for me. The second I think we touched on it is that culture of inclusion. It’s great to kind of hire the best talent, make sure they get promoted and make sure we retain them. But having this beautiful sense of belonging and culture inclusion is really, really important. And it’s really synonymous as well with our employee resource groups. So we have tremendous grassroots movement. We have six, pretty mature now, employee resource groups, another two in the making. And they really provide community for our underrepresented groups, which is amazing. And then the third one, I think we touched on this, is our Splunk For Good, our community and our partners and really trying to drive social change, whether it’s disaster relief or humanitarian aid, et cetera in the not for profit space and really kind of what do we stand for as a company. So I think those are the three things that are really important.

FIONA: What really comes through in that too is kind of the alignment back to your values. And I think that’s so important with businesses. It’s like for instance, thinking about making your data public, you’re being totally transparent, which is in line with a D and I issue, which is totally aligned with your values, which doesn’t happen actually that often with D and I. I think many businesses are afraid to put this stuff out there. They’re afraid that, “What are people going to say? What are people going to think? This is only going to be portrayed negatively.” They’re thinking about PR. But actually, to me, it just sounds like that just props up your culture, right?

SUZANNE: Absolutely. And we’re not one of those organizations that has our values written up and posted in places. And it’s actually something that we live and we have cultural awards every quarter when we do our all hands and stuff. And it’s really, again, kind of by the people for the people who vote for each other and stuff and they get awards and people kind of celebrate it and they’re not the usual values either. They’re not kind of … I mean, there’s not many people who have fun as one of their values [inaudible 00:17:32]. So yeah.

FIONA: So just to finish up, what are a few simple things anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their workplace?

SUZANNE: I think being very transparent and open about who they are. So we say a million data points, but whatever that means to you and however that translates is actually … It’s very difficult to refuse someone who’s completely open with you as a human being and really wants to connect with you on that level. It gives you a deeper level of relationship and understanding. So I think being open, modeling the way, you doing it first and being courageous. I think secondly, if you’re in a workplace and you see microaggressions, if you see things that are not in line with your culture or your values to call out, to be brave, it’s not good enough to sit on the sidelines or maybe think about it when you go home that night. And it’s hard and you have to practice, but I think calling it out when you see it, but in a nice way, in a respectful way. And then I think just be curious, be really curious about other people. Make sure that you bring everyone’s voice to the party. So we rolled out unconscious bias training to almost every splunker. We’re actually doing round two now for all of our new splunkers. And that’s kind of led by new leadership and the thinking that if you have a brain that you’re biased. And it’s really taken hold at Splunk. So oftentimes people will say, “Oh, am I exhibiting distance bias here if I’m not speaking to Fiona first, who’s in London while I’m in California?” So stuff like that, it is really being intentional so that everyone’s voice is heard. And I think if you embrace somebody and introduce yourself in the right way so that they can bring all of themselves, it just brings a whole different culture and a whole different feeling of belonging and safety in work.

FIONA: Thank you. And thanks so much for sharing all those insights with us. I’m sure there’s a lot for our listeners to take away from today’s chat.

SUZANNE:  I hope so.

FIONA: And if anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

SUZANNE: Best way for me is Linkedin. Just my name, Suzanne McGovern, Suzanne with a Z. And that’s the best way to get ahold of me.

FIONA: Great. Wow, you’re so American now. Suzanne with a Z, not with a zed.

SUZANNE: I know.

FIONA:  Gosh. I’m in the reverse. Wonderful. Thank you.

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An Exclusive Interview with Suzanne McGovern, Chief Diversity Officer at Splunk

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