Equinix’s Culture of Authenticity

Equinix’s Larry McAlister on what it takes to build a meaningful culture and how it has been a key differentiator in attracting top talent to the company

Larry McAlister, Equinix

Larry McAlister is quite familiar with a common problem presented to human resources, regardless of the industry.

“I’ve been at other companies when leadership comes and asks, ‘Can you work on the culture?’ What they mean is the culture is bogus,” McAlister explains, adding that typically he’s asked to repackage the existing culture and sell it back to the employees. It’s a strategy, he says, that isn’t designed to work from the outset because not only will that strategy not achieve buy-in from employees, but it’s also not an authentic approach to solving the real problem—engagement.

But the vice president of global talent management at Equinix, the global interconnection and data center company, faced an altogether different challenge upon coming to the company in 2014. “Here, we really liked the culture, and we felt that it was strong,” McAlister says. “If we didn’t have it defined authentically, then it would be diluted because we were growing so quickly.”

McAlister and the leadership team felt it was necessary to define all of those qualities that made fast-growing Equinix such a desirable place to be and use it to further inspire both current employees and potential talent looking to join the dynamic company. In the process, McAlister helped reshape a litany of HR approaches that have affected more than his department. Being multinational, they’ve impacted the company culture worldwide.

Throughout that strategic process, McAlister routinely returns to the word authentic. He says it’s the only way any culture can be allowed to thrive. “I feel like people have talked about culture as a way to make employees feel differently about the company,” McAlister says. “My vision was let’s make it as authentic as possible and bake it into everything that we do so that it’s not just something that’s on a poster or employee badge.”

As a result, McAlister elected not to go the usual route of working to market culture back to employees. He instead worked to move culture “off the wall and into people’s lives.”

“It started with more or less a one-page handwritten document,” McAlister recalls. He met with executives to lay out exactly what made the culture at Equinix special. McAlister then took the ideas to about five hundred different Equinix employees all over the world to get their feedback. Once completed, this one-page document—The Magic of Equinix—was launched at the strategic leadership off-site and then at an all-hands meeting. As a result, they had cultivated the blueprint for the successful culture.

McAlister says the values in The Magic of Equinix are inherent in the rest of his responsibilities at the company, and they also made it apparent that some restructuring of processes were needed. “We believe the most powerful connection in the company is between the manager and employee. So, we took away all of the things in the way of those two having an actual conversation: rankings, ratings, and forms,” McAlister says. “We absolutely trust you to have real conversations and plan together for the future.”

Instead of what McAlister viewed as processes that weren’t value-added, managers were asked to talk to each of their employees quarterly to focus on growth and making career progress. Every six months, employees take a Perceptyx pulse survey that takes less than ten minutes and has been invaluable in charting company engagement.

“We’re able to show that when people have quarterly conversations about their alignment and future growth, then scores go off the chart,” McAlister says. “We really feel that quarterly conversations are the true north of engagement here, and that really feeds into our culture.” McAlister says the goal is working to reestablish the idea that conversations about performance don’t have to be inherently punitive. Instead, they can be focused on growth and development.

“Quarterly conversations are a great example of how Larry has effectively maintained consistency of purpose while incorporating learnings from new data to drive meaningful actions that improve the business,” says Brad Wilson, SVP of professional services at Perceptyx. “Larry has been a great partner over the last four years.”

That focus on relationships has also crossed over into talent acquisition. McAlister says finding people who fit with Equinix’s culture is just as important as finding high-performing employees. “We really believe fitting in and adding to the diverse culture makes the whole company successful,” McAlister says. “One of our values is ‘Put We Before Me,’ and that means succeeding as a team.” Those high performers who also align with Equinix’s culture excel at lifting up everyone around them, not just themselves.

Equinix also took recognizing employee excellence to the next level with its Magical Mentions program, which aims to recognize excellence in values and culture. At quarterly all-hands meetings, one employee is recognized and allowed to fly to any location in the world where Equinix has an office. They make a video and report back about how the “Magic” lives there. Employees have recognized each other more than 14,000 times using Magical Mentions, and McAlister says keeping culture front and center is yet another way of demonstrating the authenticity of the company’s values. It also illustrates that they’re embedded in the company’s DNA.

Additionally, ensuring that employees understand what Equinix is about is an initiative that the company considers vital. The Equinix Ambassador Program “serves as an amazing platform for people, especially new members, to learn important facts about the company, culture, and customers through a training session,” McAlister says. It’s the most important and popular class that the company offers to its employees.

“This is the business. This is the culture. You should feel free to be able to talk about us and share it at a dinner party, grocery store, or on social media,” McAlister says.

The company-wide focus on culture seems to be paying off exponentially for the rapidly growing data center and cloud company. Equinix has steadily increased its number of hires over the past few years, and McAlister says potential hires are taking notice of the company being a destination place.

“Our brand and awareness have really been off the charts the past four years,” McAlister says. “Our Glassdoor and career site is 600–700 percent more popular than four years ago.”

The talent processes are also infused with that culture. “We had a 91 percent response rate in the last pulse survey and an increased number of people responding,” he says. “Our engagement and belonging index is higher. That’s really telling us a good story. Those key indicators are all trending in the right direction.”

Looking ahead, McAlister says the company is focused on better defining what it truly means to belong at Equinix. And he and his team want to build on that from the inside out. But McAlister says that no matter the initiative or push, it’s the homegrown nature of the ideas at Equinix that are responsible for its success. “We’ve said from the beginning that any competitor can copy our business model, but they can’t copy our culture and that’s our strategic differentiator,” he says.

Photo: Niko Kitaoka