Leading Equinix from the Inside Out

Equinix’s Debra McCowan integrates human capital into a global branding strategy, redefining human resources and building talent from within

Debra McCowan knows the evolving role of human resources firsthand. With more than twenty years of experience, her proven track record and distinct knowledge of global markets secured her position as chief human resources officer at Equinix in 2013. The global interconnection and data center company operates in thirty-one markets around the world, requiring McCowan to intertwine human resources with the value structure of a fast-growing company. Prior to Equinix, McCowan and her husband co-founded Accelerance Group, a consulting firm that provides leadership and executive training. Now McCowan and her team develop Equinix’s talent by keeping the company’s overarching business goals in mind.

What was it about human resources that captivated you?

Debra McCowan: Early on, I understood that if you can get people to invest in what the business is doing—not the business model, but the strategy—then they can really drive the company. Early in my HR career that was a battle. I’ve always liked the discipline of organization design and finding the best way to enable business strategy.

What made you the right fit for Equinix?

McCowan: When Steve Smith, the CEO of Equinix, interviewed me, he was looking for a head of HR who had worked in large global companies—someone dynamic who could take what was a traditional fragmented HR model and turn it into a highly functioning, global institution. In the sixteen months that I’ve been at Equinix, I’ve not only formed a global HR organization, my team and I have put together a very aggressive and competitive HR strategy that will allow us to build the brand and compete for talent that we need for the company.

It seems the human resources team plays a major role in shaping Equinix’s value.

McCowan: It’s about building a compelling value proposition, both for the talent that we are trying to attract from the market and, of course, retaining and engaging the right talent that we have inside the organization. For us, getting the right talent is not just focusing on the skill set for the one particular role we are recruiting for, it’s recruiting with an organizational state of mind. We are recruiting these individuals to join Equinix as an organization. Therefore, they have to be a cultural fit to our values.

What are some current initiatives in place to develop and recruit talent at Equinix?

McCowan: One of our success stories is that we’ve been doing amazing work with the leadership team. Basically we got the CEO and many top executives to come together and really define the magic of what Equinix is. What does our secret sauce look like? There’s been a highly engaged process with the executive team, and we are now about to take that to the next level of leadership and our employees. We are calling it the “authenticate and amplify process.” We want to make this part of everything we do: how we hire people, how we coach and develop them, and how we progress them from a growth standpoint.

Is there a larger message of alignment that you think human resources
delivers on?

McCowan: My message to the executive team and the HR team is: it’s integration. We’re not just chasing alignment; we’re working on full integration with business strategy. With alignment, you’re always on the back foot, you hear the business strategy and you’re trying to develop programs and initiatives that align to that. We’re very fortunate that the CEO and top leadership absolutely believe in integration in the business strategy and the human capital strategy because they depend on each other.

How does human resources deliver value to the company?

McCowan: Going back to what our human resources strategy is, we will create a compelling value proposition for talent culture, and that’s how you add value. Everything ties to the value of the people that we are bringing into the business and how we keep our talent, focusing on the culture and driving it forward. It was a big education process for our executive team, to tie that strategy to concrete outcomes of building Equinix’s brand, helping us recruit people with the right fit, and helping us develop top talent.

What’s unique to the work you are doing at Equinix?

McCowan: We have started to “Equinize” the environment—that’s a term we created. We “Equinize” our leaders by providing them with coaching and training, as well as redesigning our reward strategy. We are also in the process of overhauling our performance management system. We want to move away from the old numerical scale and into more of a growth mindset and coaching environment. Here at Equinix, we’re cultivating our employees on an ongoing basis.