In­ter­view Ais­ling Kee­gan Dell EMC chief striv­ing for fresh peaks af­ter sum­mit test of lead­er­ship skills

Irish Independent - Business Week - - BUSINESSWEEK -

A life-chang­ing moun­tain ex­pe­ri­ence has in­spired Ais­ling Kee­gan to bring oth­ers with her and ‘leave a legacy of good’, she tells Group Busi­ness Editor Dearb­hail McDon­ald

WHEN she took the first steps to reach the sum­mit of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, Africa’s high­est moun­tain, Ais­ling Kee­gan car­ried with her the grief – and re­lief – of a par­ent who al­most lost a child.

In 2007, the lives of Kee­gan and her hus­band Cre­van were thrown into tur­moil when their son Zack was di­ag­nosed with a se­ri­ous kid­ney con­di­tion at birth.

Zack bat­tled for sur­vival in his first few months at Dublin’s Tem­ple Street Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal and, at one point, the now thriv­ing 10-year-old was sent home to die.

For Kee­gan, the in­au­gu­ral vice-pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of Dell EMC Ire­land – the en­tity that was formed af­ter the global merger be­tween the two tech be­he­moths – reach­ing the sum­mit was an “in­cred­i­bly emo­tional” and spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence that changed her life – and the way she leads.

It was Kee­gan, who was turned down by a gym five weeks be­fore she scaled Kil­i­man­jaro – a sec­ond gym re­lented, de­spite the in­sanely short train­ing win­dow – that the guides from the lo­cal Chagga peo­ple turned to her to help con­vince as many of the 12-strong team as pos­si­ble to scale the last 150m from Uhuru peak to the sum­mit.

Through­out the 11-day trek through “hor­rific” ter­rains and cli­mates, Kee­gan spent a full day with each team mem­ber, learn­ing their back­story – and shar­ing her own.

Over­come with ex­haus­tion at Uhuru, only two – in­clud­ing Kee­gan – were in­tent on crawl­ing the fi­nal 150m.

In the end Kee­gan, armed with a picture of Zack and one of his con­sul­tants – and grat­i­tude for those that saved his life – con­vinced nine of the 12 to reach the sum­mit with her. It took over an hour and a half to reach the top and they cried a val­ley of tears when they reached it.

“Ev­ery­body came to the moun­tain with their own ‘ thing’ and some had ex­pe­ri­enced some re­ally painful tragedies,” says Kee­gan for whom the mem­ory of her son’s ill­ness still catches her, 10 years on.

“I had grit, de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience – that’s what I learned about my­self.

“There was noth­ing go­ing to stop me sum­mit­ing. I am a high-en­ergy in­di­vid­ual with a keen in­ter­est in an­thro­pol­ogy and psy­chol­ogy and what makes peo­ple tick.

“That is an im­por­tant part of lead­er­ship: re­al­is­ing that when you are lead­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion or a busi­ness, you have got to bring the team with you.”

Man­ag­ing teams through change has be­come Kee­gan’s métier: it was the Dubliner who was se­lected as chief in­te­gra­tion of­fi­cer for the Dell EMC merger in the UK and Ire­land.

Her ap­point­ment as GM of Dell EMC Ire­land co­in­cided with the on­set of the merger, the first an­niver­sary of which falls to­day.

The mam­moth merger was it­self pre­ceded, in 2013, by the clos­ing of a $25bn deal fol­low­ing a de­ci­sion by Michael Dell, one of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s orig­i­nal tech prodi­gies – who went pub­lic with Dell at the age of 23 – to take pri­vate the epony­mous com­pany he founded in his dorm room.

Kee­gan, who spent the pre­vi­ous five years as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor and GM of com­mer­cial busi­ness for Dell UK, says the merger has been a huge suc­cess in Ire­land, al­beit on the back of pain for many.

The 2009 an­nounce­ment of 1,900 job losses at Dell’s Lim­er­ick plant was a ma­jor blow for Lim­er­ick and the mid-west re­gion.

The shock re­dun­dan­cies, which are still fresh in the re­gion’s mem­ory, fol­lowed a global re­view of Dell’s op­er­a­tions in an ef­fort to cut $3bn a year.

De­spite the hard yards en­dured at Lim­er­ick, Kee­gan says Ire­land is key for Dell Tech­nolo­gies, the US par­ent con­glom­er­ate that in­cludes Dell EMC, and for other multi na­tion­als (MNCs) in­vest­ing in the EMEA.

With 5,000 staff the Ir­ish arm has more staff than any other Dell EMC com­pany in the EMEA re­gion. It re­cruits some 200 grad­u­ates a year and is in the mid­dle of a hir­ing spree. “Ev­ery sin­gle global func­tion is rep­re­sented in Ire­land,” says Kee­gan, who has traded an av­er­age four flights a week in her pre­vi­ous UK role with rou­tine trips from her Cher­ry­wood, Dublin base to staff and cus­tomers across the is­land.

Lim­er­ick is home to the merged en­tity’s sup­ply chain, along with IT and ecom­merce. The Dublin cam­pus is home to sales, ser­vices and fi­nan­cial ser­vices staff, whilst Cork is host to its key man­u­fac­tur­ing and in­fra­struc­ture tech­nol­ogy as­sets.

“The fact that we have that global func­tional pres­ence on this is­land is a re­flec­tion of the teams’ work,” says Kee­gan, who has just taken part in Dell EMC’s in­ter­na­tional fo­rum for IT de­ci­sion mak­ers and ex­ec­u­tives from more than 40 coun­tries.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, as Brexit un­folds, the event was held in Dublin ahead of an­other in Lon­don later this year. “Ire­land is very much seen as a strate­gic hub for Dell EMC. Right now we’re con­tin­u­ing to in­vest – we are hir­ing now for the is­land of Ire­land.”

For Kee­gan, who started in Dell 17 years ago on the same day as her men­tor and now Dell EMC EMEA Pres­i­dent, Ir­ish­man Aongus He­garty, the merger has pre­sented huge op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth for Dell Tech­nolo­gies’ is­land of Ire­land arm.

De­spite lead­ing Dell’s UK divi­sion in the run-up to Brexit, Kee­gan, who also has an 11-year-old son Jake, didn’t make a call on the con­tro­ver­sial vote at the time be­cause of the dif­fer­ent feed­back she was re­ceiv­ing, de­pend­ing on which in­dus­try or re­gion she spoke to.

“I didn’t place any bets ei­ther way,” says Kee­gan.

“There’s no ques­tion that Brexit has cre­ated un­cer­tainty amongst busi­nesses in Ire­land and in the UK.

“In terms of the re­sults, what it means for busi­nesses and what we can do, Dell EMC Ire­land is fo­cused on up­skilling our peo­ple, at­tract­ing, ac­quir­ing and re­tain­ing key tal­ent and – hav­ing been on a jour­ney of trans­for­ma­tion in the ca­pa­bil­i­ties and skillset on the is­land of Ire­land.”

In­deed, it is up­skilling to ac­com­mo­date rapid dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion, rather than Brexit per se, that Ire­land needs to hone in on, ac­cord­ing to Kee­gan.

“If any­thing, I would place a huge em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of look­ing at your busi­ness, look­ing at your em­ployee ac­qui­si­tion rate and the ca­pa­bil­i­ties that you are re­quir­ing and fu­ture-proof­ing your own or­gan­i­sa­tion in readi­ness for five to 10 years from now,” she says.

It is the fu­ture of work where Michael Dell is fo­cus­ing his ef­forts – and his money. Dell Tech­nolo­gies in­vests $4.5bn in R&D an­nu­ally, as its cap­i­tal wing in­vests $100m an­nu­ally in in­no­va­tive star­tups in fu­ture tech ar­eas such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing, au­to­mo­tives and ge­nomics.

Kee­gan says that Ire­land must also em­brace dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion and pro­vide the nec­es­sary in­fra­struc­ture for it.

“We all have a role to play in build­ing Ire­land up as the ‘Is­land of In­no­va­tion’,” says Kee­gan who is a passionate ad­vo­cate for chil­dren’s char­i­ties and for women in busi­ness – 2017 was the first time that fe­male en­trepreneurs from Ire­land at­tended Dell’s pres­ti­gious women’s en­tre­pre­neur net­work (DWEN) in San Fran­cisco.

“That means mak­ing sure we con­tin­u­ally at­tract key tal­ent from over­seas”.

Does that mean ag­i­tat­ing for lower per­sonal tax rates and cling­ing on to our 12.5pc cor­po­rate tax rate for dear life?

Like al­most ev­ery ex­ec­u­tive work­ing for a US multi­na­tional, Kee­gan adopts a mas­ter­ful diplo­macy when it comes to the thorny is­sue of tax – I’m con­vinced there’s a special school they go to to nav­i­gate it.

“Cor­po­ra­tion tax is one fac­tor, but it’s not the core,” says Kee­gan who high­lights Ire­land’s ed­u­cated work­force, ge­og­ra­phy and track record on ac­cess­ing tal­ent.

They are fac­tors that last week saw Ire­land named the best coun­try in the world for at­tract­ing high-value for­eign di­rect in­vest­ments for the sixth year in a row ac­cord­ing to IBM’s 2017 Global Lo­ca­tions Trends re­port.

“It’s in­cum­bent on the busi­ness com­mu­nity to en­sure that we are con­stantly fu­ture-ready­ing our­selves,” adds Kee­gan who says the big­gest par­a­digm shift for Dell has been mov­ing from a tra­di­tional-think­ing com­pany to a soft­ware com­pany.

As we meet, the na­tional iden­tity card de­bate is raging.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Kee­gan is a digi­ti­sa­tion devo­tee, es­pe­cially re­lat­ing to health data. She con­cedes a “healthy de­bate” is re­quired on the im­pli­ca­tions of tech on pri­vacy and se­cu­rity, but in­sists “we can’t be left be­hind”.

The ac­ci­den­tal trekker is work­ing on her own legacy as she climbs fur­ther through Dell EMC’s ranks.

“What makes me sleep well at night is leav­ing a legacy of good.

“Whether it is be­ing au­then­tic and treat­ing peo­ple with re­spect, be­ing as trans­par­ent and open as you can or be­ing with my chil­dren and putting ev­ery­thing that I have in to them so they be­come great young men.”

I learned I had grit, de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience. Noth­ing was go­ing to stop me

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