· 5 min read · Features

Interview with Alison Quirk, VP and chief HR and citizenship officer at State Street


In 2005, singer songwriter Katie Melua’s 'Piece by Piece' debuted at number one in the UK album chart.

And buried in the lyrics of Melua's song is a reference to diversity: "The piano keys are black and white, but they sound like a million colours in your mind."

If this implies there are a million strands to race and diversity, the words resonate with US-based financial services holding company State Street (founded 1792), which has no less than 26 networks for diversity strands. These include an Asian professionals group, Jewish professionals network, Bible study group, black professionals group, Latin American group, Muslim network, women's network, Chinese employee network, disability awareness alliance, executive assistants network, PRIDE, Indian employee network, military employee and family member network, Italian-American network, working parents group, Irish-American professionals network and a Zhejiang professional network.

The company's executive VP and chief HR and citizenship officer, Alison Quirk (pictured), caught up with HR while, in the spirit of diversity, she was visiting European offices and had an hour to spare during her trip to London. "Our diversity networks and mentoring schemes have been around for 15 years and have done a wonderful job to help us from a commercial point of view," she smiles, stating a claim businesses in the UK - not least the financial sector - have struggled with for years, as if she's commenting on the weather.

She continues: "Diversity features deeply in our talent pools - but diversity needs to matriculate right through the talent pipeline.

"The business case is that 60% of graduates in the US and the EU are female and 50% of our professional positions are taken by women, but this drops for senior positions.

"But we have future needs for the business and we can't source fish in ponds if they are exclusively male. It would be a disadvantage to us." The message, according to Quirk, is "plain and simple". She says: "You can't compete without a diverse workforce. There is great research around this, but it is a tough message and it's hard to communicate."

But the networking groups are a sound grounding for a diversity strategy and Quirk and her team - a modest 450-strong worldwide to cover 29,000 employees - are taking the strategy forward.

"We are looking at the organisation and its make-up," she explains. "We are looking at how we hire staff, how we promote them and how we address unconscious bias.

"We look at the challenges of diversity and we explore how we can make goals realistic for managers."

For example, State Street has adopted and promotes a flexible work programme, which benefits working parents and carers, but managers are able to deploy schedules so they can optimise their workflows and use space in the office more efficiently.

This allows staff to book a workspace online and then come in as and when appropriate, reducing the cost of real estate, commuting time and carbon footprint.

In May 2010, the company launched its 'leading women' programme. Spearheaded by a group of 12 female executive vice presidents (EVPs), including Quirk, the scheme provides mentoring, training and sponsorship to EVP women to deepen skills, expand visibility and focus on individual development areas.

Quirk picks up the story. "The group of EVP women originally started getting together to network themselves and over time decided we had a responsibility to the company to take on a focused initiative to help the advancement of women," she says.

"Upon 'graduation' of the first group of mentees, we asked the mentees to 'pay it forward' to VP-level women - which they have through further mentoring and programing for women deeper in the organisation.

"Through two cycles, we have already created a broad and deep network of women helping women."

The company also offers a global mentoring programme for all employees, which allows staff to teach, coach and guide one another to make the most of personal and professional growth opportunities. It also helps employees create connections and strengthens the work community across diverse locations, functions and business lines. In 2009, it launched its 'voices of inclusion' programme. It provides a forum for members of State Street's senior execs to hear directly from groups of employees in informal settings.

It sponsors a number of organisations focused on diversity, which in the UK - where State Street has 2,500 employees - include Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, Opportunity Now, Race for Opportunity, Stonewall and Working Families.

The reward and recognition programme gives a financial fillip to employees who show best-practice inclusion behaviour. All staff are given a personal development goal on inclusion-related behaviour as part of State Street's performance-management system.

And the company has extended its diversity policies outside of its own workforce, pushing its efforts into the organisations it deals with. In 2005, State Street began capturing vendor corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts: in procurement, suppliers have to comply with State Street's inclusion policies.

There can be no discrimination in selection of suppliers; they are covered under State Street's equal employment opportunity policy. But the supplier diversity programme, set up in 1983, provides opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses to establish mutually profitable relationships with State Street. The company invests $44 million annually with minority- and women-owned suppliers in the US - and this is increasing.

Quirk believes this investment in diversity has been worthwhile. "This inclination, correlated with our culture of engagement, has led to lower employee turnover, and a measurable ROI," she explains.

But the institutional investor, which employs 30,000 staff in 29 countries, is diverse by its very nature and running a diversity strategy - or an HR and people strategy - across borders is not without challenges.

Quirk, who after she meets HR is planning to fly straight back to the US to attend two of her children's graduations in two different states - on the same day - is not afraid of a challenge. She explains: "We have a central HR department. But, with global variability around employment, and some markets much more robust than others, we do worry about moving jobs and we have to recognise a global heat map, apply our strategy and respond accordingly.

"We have to create a global infrastructure and realise this in the regions. But from a US and European perspective, we are rapidly evolving and monitor regulations and adjust regularly. We set ground rules centrally and regional heads of HR interpret these."

Quirk describes the company as "a global force with local citizenship", giving employees forums and networks to empower them to make decisions. Diversity, especially for female leadership, is close to her heart. She is a board member of Massachusetts Conference for Women and an executive sponsor to the State Street black professionals group. From a UK perspective, a female global leader, developing female leaders and with a passion for diversity and the positive impact it brings, could be smashing both the proverbial glass ceiling and the City banking stereotype in one fell swoop. But Quirk, who this year celebrates 10 years at State Street, concedes that while she is the driving force for diversity and culture, she was able to do this by being seen as a businessperson rather than HR campaigner.

"I had to get smart to everything in this business and if there is something I'm not sure about, I make damn sure I learn," she laughs. "I am familiar with being close to the business and I am seen as a businessperson here.

"In order to enact HR change, you need to think commercially," she smiles. As Katie M would say: 'There's gold in them hills.'