Debra McCowan on the Key to Transformation

NetApp’s Debra McCowan shares the importance of balancing progressive organizational design and cultivating diverse talent to win in a highly competitive global market

Debra McCowan, NetApp Photo: John C. Matuk

Fast-moving technology trends dictate change in nearly every industry. The response to this change must be equally fast, and yet future-focused at the same time. In many cases the response has called for full-scale organizational transformation that can make or break a multibillion-dollar company. Every function has a key role to play, but it is the human resources executive who perhaps has the most unpredictable and vital asset to work with: people.

To weather the storms that come with the territory of transforming a business and to successfully navigate change with purpose, “you have to be brave and bold,” says Debra McCowan, chief human resources officer at NetApp. “Inspire your people and carry them with you on the journey as it will help them feel that they are part of change, not subject to it.”

NetApp, a Silicon Valley-based data company with a large global footprint, started its journey twenty-five years ago in storage hardware and has since been transforming to continue its mission to help companies holistically manage data in a hybrid cloud world. Like many other tech companies, NetApp is at a critical junction of needing to leap into the future or risk being left behind.

Determined to thrive and recognizing the importance of having the right organization and talent profile to evolve, NetApp made the conscious decision to bring in a CHRO who is a change agent and an established, transformational leader focused on driving evolution through progressive, business-aligned HR strategies. So, a year ago, McCowan came on board with a license to rebuild and reposition the HR function to be a catalyst for change.

McCowan focused on three key areas: driving an enterprise mind-set and removing silos, gaining deeper clarity on the alignment of the business and people strategies, and ensuring the best and highest use of all employees to drive execution and delivery while ensuring they thrive through growth and impact.

She quickly immersed herself in NetApp’s raison d’être—harnessing enormous volumes of data to create value, innovate, and optimize business operations—with limited time, skills, and budget. After conducting an extensive listening and learning tour to better understand the business and its employees, she found there was real opportunity to better engage, cultivate, and leverage talent globally.

McCowan is a firm believer that designing for employee experience and cultivating a company’s existing culture is a critical aspect of the business strategy. When focused on growth and diversification, she explains, a company must understand and evaluate the capabilities and experience of its talent and how to best build and invest in it. The right diverse talent mix is crucial to building capacity, driving change, and results, as well as representing NetApp’s diverse global customer base.

Buying all your talent from the external market is not the answer, nor does it create the right mind-set, McCowan says. “We have taken the position of balancing the buy versus build talent strategy to both inject new skills and capability where needed and to cultivate, develop, and deploy talent that already exists in the company,” she explains. “This ensures an environment of learning and growth.”

“Inspire your people and carry them with you on the journey as it will help them feel that they are part of change, not subject to it.”

This balanced approach has also helped NetApp’s employer brand become a strategic differentiator through three focus areas: having a commitment to a clear vision and strategy, celebrating diversity and inclusion as core to the business, and doing well by doing good and focusing on developing the social enterprise. NetApp has created a sense of purpose for its employee base through its robust volunteer and giving back program, which gives the company a competitive hiring advantage.

“As NetApp’s strategic resource for contingent talent management for nearly ten years, Workforce Logiq is fully partnered with Debra to achieve a consistent candidate experience that leverages the important work she is doing to enhance her employer brand,” says Jim Burke, CEO of Workforce Logiq, a global Managed Services Provider. “Because Debra and her team embrace a balanced approach to their holistic workforce management, NetApp must look and feel like one brand with one Employee Value Proposition whether talent is being recruited for full time or contingent work. Debra’s clear vision for talent planning ensures that NetApp and Workforce Logiq deliver an organizational architecture that gets the right outcomes and talent globally.”

Balancing optimal, progressive organization design and the right diverse talent mix is both an exciting and daunting challenge. McCowan and her team work with business leaders to project the talent strategy three years out based on the direction and desired performance. It means HR must anticipate industry trends, changes in customer landscape and needs, changes in employment landscape, and what favorably drives employee experience.

The strategic role of a CHRO is to ensure the business is agile and that it remains so through transformation without losing the hearts and minds of the employees. While formulating an integrated plan and selling it to the C-suite is critical, McCowan says that HR must also continue to evolve and be “fit for purpose” to meet the business where it is and to design for its needs. HR must add value by driving the right outcomes, ensuring it is easy to work with, engaging openly at all levels of the business through strong partnership, operating efficiently, and expertly using data and employee listening mechanisms to provide insights and drive decision-making.

“HR must think of themselves as business professionals who bring their HR experience and expertise to the table to provide perspective and to create opportunity,” McCowan explains. “As thought leaders, we provide data and insights and offer a clear point of view to help business leaders balance taking risk and manage exposure to become a more innovative team. It’s about being adaptive, in service to the business and our employees.

“In today’s world, nothing stands still for long, and change is constant,” she continues. “Embrace it and turn the journey into opportunity as part of the company’s unique story.”