Dell's Karen Quintos: 'Stop trying to be perfect all the time'

The tech giant's chief customer officer on sponsors, 'knuckleheads' and juggling family with work.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2017

Karen Quintos remembers the moment Michael Dell – founder of the eponymous tech giant and one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs – called her and offered her the job of chief marketing officer.

Quintos had been working at Dell for the past decade, with roles spanning supply chain management, services and support. But this role was a biggie. Reporting directly to Dell, she’d become the most senior woman in the company (and the only woman with a seat at its executive leadership team table).

‘When Michael Dell offers you a job, it’s very hard to turn it down,’ says Quintos. ‘But my immediate response was: "Why me?"

‘Michael told me, "You’re the most customer-centric executive we have at Dell. You get things done. You can work across teams. And you always do what’s right for the company." He saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.’

She became chief marketing officer in 2010, heading up the company’s branding, advertising, and customer data analytics. In 2013, she helped to steer the company through the largest corporate privatisation in history (‘that period was pretty stressful’), earning her the title of ‘one of the most influential CMOs in the world’ from Forbes. And then, two years later, came the sequel: a $58.1bn merger with IT giant EMC, otherwise known as The Biggest Tech Deal Ever.

‘We treated the merger as a marathon not a sprint,’ says Quintos. ‘Candidly, we had a huge advantage in being private. We weren’t beholden to the expectations of shareholders; the 90-day shot clock of Wall Street. We could handle things thoughtfully.’

And with the merger came another promotion for Quintos. She’s now chief customer officer. ‘There hadn’t been a CCO in the company before. It was a Dell first,’ she says. ‘Michael gave me the opportunity to design the role myself and figure out what responsibilities should be in there. Alongside customer satisfaction, acquisition, retention and profitability, I also head up corporate responsibility and diversity and inclusion.’

Quintos is passionate about diversity and helping more women get to the top in tech. ‘Companies need to create a culture where women can be themselves,’ she says. ‘Dell was the first in the IT industry to implement the Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) programme, which helps to create a more inclusive environment and stamp out unconscious bias.’

She says the majority of sponsors in her career have been men. ‘You need to be aware of your advocates. They are the ones who will open doors for you.’

She describes Dell as an ‘amazingly humble leader’. ‘Despite all his success, he’s not a big ego guy,’ she says. ‘I was once 15 minutes late for an important conference call with Michael and a colleague because my daughter had arrived home from school in floods of tears. The minute the conference call was over, Michael called my cell to check everything was ok; he was worried about me personally. How many other CEOs would bother to do that?’

Quintos admits that juggling a high-flying career and three kids isn’t easy. ‘You have to stop trying to be perfect all the time and accept that you’re going to have to make personal and professional tradeoffs.’

‘And marry the right person!’ she adds ‘Make sure you’re with someone who’s supportive of you. When I took on the CMO role at Dell, my husband stepped back from his job so he could be around for our kids during their teenage years. It takes a certain kind of man do that that; someone who is confident and secure.’

Not everyone has been so supportive throughout Quintos’s career. ‘You’ll always come across the occasional knucklehead,’ she says. ‘They’re in every company. They won’t respect you and they’ll marginalise you.

‘You just have to figure out when to ignore them – and when to fight back.’

MT and the Women’s Business Council will be revealing the top 30 men promoting gender equality in workplaces across the UK. The Agents of Change power list will be announced at our Inspiring Women event in Edinburgh (book your tickets here) and published on managementtoday.co.uk on 9th March.

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