I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Dearborn. Jenny is an HR professional and co-author of “The Data Driven Leader.”
What is your “backstory”?
Looking back at my career path, I feel very lucky. Until I was 18, I had undiagnosed severe dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When I was a kid, these disorders weren’t as commonly diagnosed as they are now, and teachers didn’t know how to see my potential.
I was put in special education classes and barely graduated from high school. Yet, I believed in myself and gave community college a try. Thanks to one very observant staff person there, I was finally diagnosed and started turning things around. I was 20 when I finally learned to really read fluently, using books on tape.
I eventually earned an AA, BA, MA in Education and later an MBA. I’m also able to recognize that my disorders can be a strength. It takes me longer to read emails, but my ADHD also allows me to turbo-multitask and my brain wiring overall helps me to see big picture strategic complexity more easily.
Because of my personal experience, I’ve always sought out opportunities to help people identify their true gifts and fulfill their potential. I was a high school teacher at first, but wanted a faster paced environment so took my teaching skills to the corporate world.
Since then I’ve spent my career at global technology companies, first in corporate learning and development and now in human resources. It’s still all about empowering people and it’s great to see that more companies today pursuing the benefits of all kinds of diversity. I am passionately committed to generating equality through economic opportunity, not just as a moral obligation but also as a means for companies to excel in the marketplace by bringing in the best talent for every role.
Why did you join your company?
Working in tech gives me the opportunity to be a part of changing the world for the better. That’s especially true at SAP. Our purpose is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives.
That may sound lofty but as the market leader in enterprise technology, SAP touches 77 percent of the world’s transaction revenue, we serve more than 400,000 businesses and organizations worldwide and impact the lives of billions of people daily. Our promise is to innovate to help our customers run at their best, and for my teams in HR we deliver on that promise by helping SAP become the #1 talent magnet and an employer of choice. That’s very powerful to be a part of.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Another reason I feel lucky about my career is that I get to work with so many SAP customers, and that gives me both a window into the key talent concerns of leading companies around the globe and opportunities to share what I feel passionately are concerns we should all have about the future of work. Our education system urgently needs an overhaul.
A strong 21st century economy requires a 21st century technology science curriculum. For example, there’s a very big gap between the number of jobs that require Computer Science skills and the number of people with those skills, in the US and around the world, with IT occupations are growing at a faster pace in the US than all other job categories. Coding should be taught like typing used to be.
More tech companies need to invest even more in computer education efforts and non-profits if they want to fill jobs. Individuals can get involved, too, to lobby their government and local schools to drive curriculum changes and to volunteer their CS skills teaching kids and/or empowering educators. Code.org is a great organization working to advance these goals through initiatives, information, advocacy and volunteering ideas. Changing this could transform our society by strengthening our economic future for everyone and broadening the opportunities available to historically underrepresented groups, who are currently less likely to study computer science and earn CS or STEM degrees.
I’m proud that SAP contributes significantly in cash and in-kind services to U.S. schools, universities, and training programs for STEM education and training. Among our many initiatives, we maintain an industry-leading University Alliance Program with over 500 U.S. institutions, focus attention on disadvantaged populations through our Project Propel and six-year tech high school initiatives, and sponsor hackathons and coding events that stimulate young students to pursue STEM education and training. SAP also provides $2.5 million in grants to NGOs to promote STEM, Entrepreneurship, Design and Computer Science education and programming for over 140,000 students annually.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
Karie Willyerd was my manager at Sun Microsystems (2006–2009) where she was Chief Learning Officer (she’s now CLO at Visa), and she has continued to mentor and influence me since then. Karie is incredibly goal-oriented, focused and brilliant and taught me so much about how to motivate people to do great work.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I want to change the conversation around what it means to develop people. To me, I see a manager’s responsibility as preparing team members to leave them. Great managers groom their employees for bigger and better roles, whether that’s within or even outside their company. It’s tough and it takes discipline to encourage a terrific performer to try something else, but it’s what we all want our managers to do for us. Stretch assignments are gifts we give team members once, but they keep receiving that gift for the rest of their careers. That’s a great way to make work meaningful.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
- Give people purpose. We spend more waking hours of our lives contributing to our company or organization than doing anything else. When we can see and feel that these efforts are worthwhile and can tie what we do to the value our employer is trying to bring to the world, we’re motivated to innovate, to collaborate effectively, to make a difference and work toward meaningful goals.
- Learn all the time. My mentors have all been voracious readers who are endlessly curious about the world. Today especially, it’s critical to know your industry, what matters to your executives and most importantly how changes to the world around us will impact our career trajectories. And being inundated with information all the time isn’t the same as being intentional about staying informed: develop discipline and commit to yourself.
- Fight for yourself. At the end of the day, no one will push you the way you need to push yourself. You are responsible for your career and your success, and when people in positions of influence see you taking that seriously, they are much more inclined to take your future seriously.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?
A highlight of my week is the four hours I spend with The Economist every Sunday afternoon. It is a brilliant publication. I get the magazine in hard copy and also listen to audio versions of articles via the app on my phone.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I so admire and respect Madeline Albright. I’ve read all her books and follow her perspectives closely. It would be a dream come true to share a cup of tea and chat with her about geopolitical events.
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