An Interview with Debra McCowan of Equinix

September 30th, 2019

The role of the CHRO in business growth and transformation

When Debra McCowan was approached to take on the role of CHRO at Equinix in 2013, the company was looking for transformational HR leadership to scale and design its explosive growth. They needed someone in the role with management skills and broad business perspectives who could strategically think about the impact of human capital on the business, driving an employer brand, and talent architecture. The data center business was already the industry leader as a $2.2 billion company with around 3,300 employees and 95 data centers in 31 markets. Today, it has grown to more than $4 billion in revenues, 7,900 employees, and 200 data centers in 52 markets. McCowan is at the forefront of the discussion of how Equinix talent will drive business outcomes for a company that continues to evolve.

“A company cannot achieve this level of growth and success without a robust and healthy culture,” she says. “Part of our success is the integration of the HR strategy with the business strategy; they act as one and directly impact the overall success of the company, setting a foundation that enables agility.”

CHROs are an integral part of the company growth and Debra spends a lot of her time being a thought partner and advocate for where the Equinix business needs to focus.

Equinix is now 20 years old and Debra likens the organization to a teenager going through the same trials and tribulations as a person maturing and finding their way into a more complex life. Understanding what challenges the business needs to be solving as it evolves to future-proof the company requires the CHRO to lead with confidence, be a risk taker, and to remain a change officer. There will never be one HR program that can address the complex nature of a growing business, or help it develop solutions at an appropriate pace. McCowan looks to strategy, not a series of programs, as Equinix explores how to drive organizational effectiveness, design talent architecture, and make sure the business has the right capabilities to execute the strategy and drive growth.

Equinix has grown organically as well as through 20 acquisitions during its 20-year run, and they did so with organizational health front and center. This has been a testament to the strength of the business model and HR has been involved in M&A from the deal stage, to the all critical integration of people and culture. This strategic capability of HR has led the smooth transition through integration, where a lot can go wrong, and statistically where many deals fail.

“Drawing the connection between the human capital strategy and the business strategy, and how HR engaged, have been key to our success. We made a continued and concerted effort to ensure the talent strategy was fueling the business strategy. We changed how the business engaged with HR, and the way HR engaged with the business.” she explains when talking about not just integration work, but codifying the company culture and values.

Per Talent Tensions Heads: A CEO Briefing, published by McKinsey Quarterly, by 2020, the world will have 95 million too few skilled workers. This means attracting, developing, and retaining talent will no longer be simply about who pays the most. Creating a seamless employee experience that mirrors the world’s best consumer experiences will become expected, and top talent will not have to wait around in the hopes a culture will get better. Equinix is designing for this differentiated employee experience today to ensure they reap the benefits of 40% lower turnover, 4 times more profit per employee, and 12 times more often to be on Glassdoor’s Best Places To Work list according to multiple studies conducted on the topic of employee experience.

HR as a strategic partner: Aligning company strategy with people strategy

Designing for scale and growth at a global company must be a deliberate focus of the organization, spearheaded by HR. As leaders of the function, and as the CHRO, Debra and her team understood that they had to bring a high degree of business acumen, deeply comprehend how the business delivers results, where they needed to grow, and how their revenue is generated. She advises that all HR organizations would benefit from this level of business knowledge and ability to come with the same ability to deeply comprehend the business to truly influence meaningful strategic decisions and understand where and how to create leverage.

“Before I started at Equinix, I asked some tough questions about the role of the CHRO and the nature of the business to that point,” she says. “I knew I needed to understand the business model end to end, and wanted to bring the business acumen I had developed to benefit Equinix and elevate the role of HR. My team was built with the same goals in mind and the leaders on my team partner more effectively, and strategically because of it.”

With the CHRO role properly positioned from the start, Debra made change leadership a priority. It is always a unique challenge, especially where a business has a track record of success. Creating the platform to change and bringing a growing organization along on the journey takes teamwork of a new level. Some of the results that have come out of the strong partnerships and equal footing at the executive level have included; driving an ambitious agenda to further evolve and scale, organization design being directly linked to claiming additional market share, and expanding the organization’s capability to innovate and adapt for further growth.

Debra’s career growth, especially in the step from SVP of HR, a role generally focused on optimizing people, programs, and processes, to CHRO where there is an expectation for her to understand business and its drivers as well as the issues around people strategy, has been thoughtfully grown. She’s often asked how she balances her priorities and one of her mantras rings true as a career-long practice. “Time is your most valuable resource, it’s not refundable, so use it wisely.” With a long history of success on HR programs, it’s important to level set from the start, and ensure you build the right team to focus on the keeping the engines running, while the CHRO remains focused on innovation and business strategy. Her parting words from our interview reinforced this for other HR leaders looking to grow into the C-Suite, “Understand the business inside and out, and focus your energies on strategy that will deliver the biggest impact. Do not forget to bring the organization along your journey”.

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