Uncertainty about the future is something many businesses have felt in recent months. While this can make many uneasy, Adam Philpott, President EMEA of cybersecurity firm McAfee, believes that a path can often unfold for us if we’re able to step back, look at the information available to us and act upon it.
His career journey is an example of how different experiences and interests can make sense later on, even when we’re unsure of what they are leading to at the time. Here are seven things we learnt during our conversation with him.
“Like a typical young man, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he laughs. “I wasn’t even going to go to university. I was on holiday with my pals in Ibiza and just decided to do it and went to study marketing. That was the first time I really started to take an interest in studies and academics.”
He says it was at this time he started creating different business plans, even though he still wasn’t sure what direction he hoped to go in after he graduated.
One such plan led to him launching his own streetwear company with a friend. Although the business folded, it also showed Philpott that selling was something he enjoyed and was good at, leading him to spend the next few years in distribution until he felt ready for a new challenge in 2000. “I felt that I could offer more in a consulting-led value proposition role,” he explains. “I quit my job and moved to Australia without anything lined up and then ended up working for Cisco.”
While he had a clearer idea of what he wanted to do, he still had to prove himself within the multinational technology company. “I started there at the very bottom of the ladder,” he says. “In fact, I started below the bottom of the ladder, working as a bag packer on a two-month contract.”
He soon secured a permanent sales role and the company sponsored his residency in Australia before he gained citizenship. “I then moved to Singapore and then relocated back to my native UK – all with Cisco,” he says.
With the experience of leading sales in various countries under his belt, alongside 15 years of service in one company, Philpott was again ready for a new challenge and it was at this point that he found himself joining McAfee.
“I didn’t want to just be seen as the guy who can do things in one company. I wanted to demonstrate that my skills are effective regardless of company and I knew the CEO of McAfee pretty well, so I came to help him drive the transformation here.”
Philpott’s change in direction coincided with McAfee’s own, as the company moved from a software-focused strategy, to a cloud-first offering. With his sales background, Philpott understands better than most the risks of failing to meet customer needs, and it was exactly this that drove the change at McAfee.
“Our customers were using more and more cloud services, whether applications, storage or anything else to more dynamically run their business,” he explains. “If we want to be relevant to our customers, to help them face the risks they’re exposed to and assist them in accelerating their strategy securely, we have to be more cloud-centric. The money was going in that direction and our customers needed us to go in that direction to support them.”
Of course, this change in direction required a change in the company’s talent strategy too, and Philpott says that McAfee focused on three areas: “I like replicable models – little things I can use to remember a structure when dealing with external challenges – and the one I use in this area is the three Cs: capacity, capability and commitment.
“When you look at your talent, have you got enough capacity? Are there enough people with the knowledge necessary to go and do this thing? One particularly important area for us is to continually enhance our consulting-led skillset, both at an operational and executive engagement level, and across technical and go-to-market resources.
“In terms of capability, you might have enough people, but are they used to building or selling legacy technology rather than cloud products? If so, how do you build that capability?”
The commitment, he says, has to come from colleagues, but also from the organisation. This means rewarding people for adapting to new ways of working. “It’s great if you’ve got enough people and they’re skilled, but if you’re not rewarding them for supporting change, they aren’t going to do it,” he says. “From a sales side for example, if they are going to make their quota selling old products, they aren’t going to sell new ones. It’s harder, so they’ll find the easiest path to revenue that they can. But if you blend these things together, it gives a nice framework for how one takes talent through that process.”
He says that once this framework is established it is vital to communicate it effectively and frequently. “The saying ‘repetition is the mother of learning’ is completely true. It takes time to sink in, but if you put all those things together and make people competent, you can then remove some of the safety nets until the risk of not doing it is greater than the risk of doing it.”
He adds that not being afraid to fail is also key in moving quickly as an organisation. “We pride ourselves that we will call out quickly where we’re failing, because we’ll recognise it quicker than other people and that is actually a competitive advantage.”
In order to give colleagues confidence to flag up things that are not working, Philpott says that McAfee has created feedback channels that allow concerns or ideas to be shared across the organisation.
“At a leadership level, on a weekly basis we have an extended leadership meeting of 90 minutes where marketing, HR and all manner of different leaders participate and have the opportunity to share updates on their domain.”
He also hosts quarterly meetings called ‘Post-It Sessions’ to allow frontline staff to feedback to him directly. “I’ll talk for five minutes and then I’ll shut up and let people ask any question they want to. I have built some trust with them by being candid and transparent and non-judgemental, and they feel they can ask questions and get an honest answer.”
Customer voices are also added to the mix of feedback, with all leaders going out to see clients, listen to them and alter their plans as a company accordingly. “We talk about diversity a lot and I think this is a good dimension of diversity,” says Philpott. “There’s no point in listening to one type of individual otherwise you’ll get a narrow breadth of input.”
Of course, being open to hearing diverse voices is only half the battle. Like any technology business, the talent McAfee requires is scarce as it is, even before trying to ensure the organisation has a diverse workforce. A 2020 report from S&P Global examined IT departments in 550 companies worldwide and found that just under half of them said women accounted for less than 25 per cent of staff, while 9.5 per cent reported no women in their company’s IT department. It’s a challenge that Philpott says they are only too aware of within McAfee, but one they are working to address.
“I’m a big fan of facta, non verba – deeds not words – which is an appropriate phrase for diversity,” he says. “I think it’s important to contribute to the debate, but I’m really interested in the actions that we take as well. So, our primary focus when I joined was to put in place a gender diversity programme. That’s where we felt there was the biggest gap at McAfee.”
McAfee took steps to retain their existing female tech talent, such as implementing pay parity for all employees working in the same roles at the same level and location. “We felt so strongly about this cause at McAfee that we achieved full pay parity in just one year,” he explains. “This marks McAfee as the first cybersecurity company to reach pay parity for women globally and for under-represented professionals.”
However, they also worked to improve the numbers of women interviewing to join the organisation. From altering the language used in job descriptions, to ensuring there was always a minimum of one female candidate that made it to the interview stage of roles and putting women on each interview panel, McAfee has taken several steps, and Philpott says the numbers are going in the right direction.
“We massively increased our incoming female talent pipeline. It was around 23 per cent when I joined in 2017, and last year 39 per cent of our hires were female. That doesn’t mean that we’re at 39 per cent female talent overall, but it shows actions can drive results.”
He says that, more recently, he has begun focusing on ethnic diversity within the organisation, following the killing of George Floyd in 2020. “I’m from Bristol, a diverse UK city, I care about humanity and I wanted us to do something on ethnic diversity and inclusion as well. We’ve started working with a society college in London that has a very diverse population. We’re about to launch some of the things that we’re doing with them.”
Prioritising tasks is a big part of technology development, and Philpott says that this approach can also be helpful for organisations not sure where to start on improving diversity. “It’s not always about doing something global and massive, it’s about doing small things as well,” he adds. “Big things are made up of small differences, and that’s what we seek to do.”
While McAfee has made its transformation to a cloud-first organisation over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic means that many other businesses have had to adopt similar approaches, some for the first time.
Philpott says that McAfee’s products were well placed to support their customers in this transition, but that they have still altered their approach slightly. “The strategy we have in place is robust because it was seeking to drive this change, and the pandemic has simply accelerated it,” he says. “That said, some things have changed, like how we prioritise different technologies working together. There’s definitely some change there that we’ve had to react to.
“Again, it comes back to early warning systems and being quick to recognise something has changed, understanding it and addressing it when we go to market. I think of it as a factory floor; the toolsets that we use to create a quality product are no different to that. We have telemetry in place that understands the quality of what we’re doing and the impact in the marketplace as well. That means we recognise where we need to improve as rapidly as possible.”
There was also a sharp spike in cyber attacks during the pandemic. Philpott says this is something McAfee was very aware of as customers faced these new threats. “In order to allow organisations to thrive, our role is to ensure we help them manage the dynamic risks to which they’re exposed,” he says. “These grow in both volume and sophistication, whilst the manpower required to address them is insufficient on its own. Ensuring efficiency, visibility and control, augmenting human capacity with intelligence and AI has been a key dimension of how our security architecture and its components have evolved.”
More widely, Philpott is considering which of the changes brought on by the pandemic will affect McAfee’s own operations in the longer term. “For me, one of the interesting things is what it will mean for how we consume real estate services in the future,” he says. “Life is about balance. We’re not all going to be working completely virtually, but equally we’re not all going to completely go back to the office because of pollution, the lost productivity in commuting and mental health challenges that come with that. Those things don’t make sense and nor does paying for real estate which sits there idle most of the time.
“Flexible consumption models – driven by data – can understand what we are using, what we can use more of and how we can tweak our real estate investment profile to reflect what we really need. I’m really keen to see what happens in that area.”
Aside from organisational goals, Philpott also has his own ambitions. But, as with taking a late decision to pursue higher education, or taking a chance on a new career in Australia, they are broad and are likely to leave him with many different options to pursue in the future.
“While most of my roles have been about go-to-market leadership, I have never, ever conducted them as that. I have always taken a general management approach to them,” he says. “Having a good comprehension of trends and insights and toolsets that one can use across functions is of huge interest to me.”
To gain this insight, he has joined one board and is in the process of joining two others. By doing so he hopes to expand both his knowledge of cyber and of other functions, and allow his path to reveal itself to him. “No one can be an expert in everything, but broad leadership really interests me as an area to grow in,” he concludes. “Sometimes our skills lead us in the right direction, whether we know it or not.”
James Milligan is the Global Head of Technology at Hays, having joined in 2000. In his role, he is responsible for the strategic development of Hays ‘ technology businesses globally.
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