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