Interviewed by Hanna Müller
Ever wonder what people say when you leave the room? In this interview our Member, Charlotte West, Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo, talks about corporate reputation and its link to business purpose, including how to infuse Diversity & Inclusion into company culture.
You are Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo promoting the reputation of complex global businesses across diverse markets and audiences. What does your current role entail and what set you off on this career path?
Lenovo is a big technology powerhouse, operating in 180 markets around the world with $60 billion revenue each year.
In my role as Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications, I represent the company on the global stage. That includes two aspects: building and protecting our reputation. The building part is about telling great stories and launching new products, while the protecting part is trickier in terms of issues and crisis management. We step in when the company's reputation is possibly being tarnished. I came to this career path after studying business between the UK, Germany and Singpore. I quickly realised that I liked communications the most and accounting the least! So I knew where I was heading. After that, I gained work experience in marketing, communications and PR and tried to build a career out of it. Interestingly, I had already written my dissertation on crisis management. I pulled it off the bookshelf the other day and realised that, even back then, I was already passionate about issues, reputation, and how I could help corporations build it and protect it. My path was probably established quite early during my university days.
Stakeholders are no longer only interested in a company’s product but also in the values that they stand for. In a nutshell, how would you define corporate reputation? Do you think it is a vital asset to a company or it is only a “feel-good” concept?
The easiest way to explain corporate reputation is thinking about it like your own personal reputation: things that people say about you when you leave the room. When it comes to corporate reputation, it is similar: what are people saying about our company? Keeping that in mind, corporate purpose is massively on the agenda of businesses today although it is not new. If you look at companies from the early 20th century like Cadbury's and Bourneville in the UK, many of them had purpose at their core. They established towns for their workers and pushed improvements in health facilities.
Even if purpose and values are nothing new, they are more critical than ever. We have seen that in particular over the last two years during the pandemic. Companies are expected to stand up and protect their employees. Now, more than ever, consumers want to trust in the companies they buy from. Research tells us that consumers are willing to pay more for a product with better environmental credentials behind it. Edelman’s trust barometer shows us that also employees want to believe in the brand for which they are working. That is a new trend we’re seeing.
Now, more than ever, consumers want to trust in the companies they buy from.
As a member of Lenovo’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Oversight Committee, how do you infuse Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) into your company?
The ESG Oversight Committee is made up of various stakeholders from around the business. We basically help force the discussion, debate, and action around ESG in the company. Lenovo’s heritage was built up on Chinese and American roots, so in that sense, we developed a diverse approach to the way we think about leadership and the work together from day one. A few years ago, we initiated the company's first D&I report. That means we made our business publicly accountable. Through that tactical move, we established a forcing function for change, something I’m incredibly proud of and that I believe is our role in comms to drive, i.e. real business change.
Since then, there has been more investment in and clear KPIs for D&I. We also look at it in our own teams, how we build the makeup in terms of diversity and culture. As I sit in a worldwide job, if everybody is American, or if everybody is British, we are not diverse. We are always looking at every opportunity to think about how we can bring our D&I story to life.
You are committed to empowering underrepresented communities through your Directorship of the Lenovo Foundation. What are some strategies implemented by the foundation to promote access to technology and STEM education?
The Lenovo foundation has been around for several years now, and I am very fortunate to be on their board. It is very easy to look at the big halo NGO partnerships of other companies. Our strategy is a bit different. We tend to look at smaller partnerships that are based in our own communities. For example, supporting women returning to the workforce, giving access to technology so that they can build their skills after having children, or offering coding classes for younger women. These small partnerships mean can create lasting impact in a different way – a small amount of money can go a long way.
Small partnerships can create lasting impact in a different way – a small amount of money can go a long way.
With more than 20 years of experience in PR, what do you wish you had known at the start of your career?
This is a hard one, because you pick up so many bits of advice along the way. One thing is to listen more and speak less. As a woman in the workforce, I feel we often have to force ourselves into conversations or be a loud voice to get heard. Sometimes that brings us to speaking too much. Working in a company like Lenovo that has a culture originating from Asia, I got used to a style of listening and being considered before you respond. That would be the one bit of advice I would give to my younger self. It is probably easier once you have established your own profile and people know you, but even in the early stages, listen a bit more than you speak.
Listen more and speak less!
We like to close our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. The one we have chosen for you is: what do you consider your greatest achievement?
This question is impossible to answer. This might feel like a cop out, but it is true to who I am; there is no one great achievement to put on my epitaph when I die. There have been lots of achievements along my career that have helped me. It is the cumulative impact of each piece on my journey.
One example I am particularly proud of: at Lenovo, we regularly put on major media product launch events where we typically have executives to speak on stage. In the past, nine times out of 10, those executives were white, middle-aged, and male. But I wanted to transform things and show up on stage in a way that reflects our customers. It wasn’t popular, but I pushed and drove change and since then we have had a different lineup of speakers on stage: a mixture of different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and ages. Putting those voices on stage and doing things differently may seem small, but it might be one of my greatest professional achievements.
Video edited by Tessa Robinson