I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bruce Owen, Vice President, Employee & Community Impact at Equinix. Although he started his career in finance, Bruce found himself gravitating to projects that focused on diversity and company culture, which eventually led to his current role.
Diversity and inclusion are not new topics, but they are receiving a lot of visibility in our current climate (and rightfully so). As I’ve spoken with other business leaders, I’ve realized many of us have the same questions around prioritizing these issues in our own businesses and how we can make a company-wide impact.
In this knowledge-packed interview, Bruce talks about hiring for diversity, seeking impact in your career, how to make a difference no matter what role you’re in, and much more.
Leslie Boudreaux: First of all, tell us about your role at Equinix and what this means for the company?
Bruce Owen: Sure. My role is to think about the impacts we have on our employees and our communities. There are three elements of my role: the first is around diversity, inclusion and belonging. We have this vision of ensuring that all employees can say, ‘I’m safe, I belong and I matter,’ and that our workforce represents the community that we work in. The second is around employee well-being. That’s thinking about our physical health, our mental health, and our emotional health at work. The last element is community impact. That’s how we use our business and our purpose to make an impact in the communities that we work in.
This is a really unusual role for a Finance person. I’d love to hear how you became interested in this topic in the first place?
I grew up in South Africa, so I was always acutely aware of the impacts of racism, segregation and seeing difference every day when you walk out of your door. I’ve always been drawn towards people, but I also enjoyed Finance. I didn’t know how to study people at school, so Finance seemed like an easier thing to study. I began my career in Finance at Equinix, but naturally gravitated to things like community impact, culture or belonging. Whenever there was a project that had something to do with one of those topics, I put my hand up to get involved.
Finance is such an awesome place to sit in the organization because you have access to every function. You build relationships across the business and you understand how the business really operates. It puts you in a unique spot to have a different lens on things.
I used that as an opportunity to engage and connect with people. That naturally gravitated towards this role. I’ve also been at the company a long time. I’ve worked in two different regions here and I have trust and deep relationships that positioned me to spend more of my time in this, even when I was mainly responsible for other things.
How long have you been at Equinix? This is your fourth or fifth role there, correct?
I’ve been at Equinix for over 10 years. I started in London and I worked in Lead FP&A in London for the EMEA region. After that, I became a controller and then I led the shared service center. I left EMEA in 2013, came to the US, and I was leading the global financial planning and analysis organization. Then I did the role as Chief of Staff for the CEO, I worked in a role leading instrumentation of business operations, and now I have this role doing employee community impact.
There’s no way that anyone is going to be able to replicate that! It’s an unusual journey, and clearly the company and the leadership team have a lot of faith in you to support this move into this uncharted territory. What has been the most challenging part of your transition from Finance?
On a very personal note, it’s self-confidence, because stepping away from something that I know as well as Finance and into something where it’s like, ‘What right do I have, as a straight white man, leading diversity and inclusion in a company with 10,000 employees? Am I going to screw things up?’ That was probably the biggest hurdle. But I came to the place of realizing that it has to involve people from majority groups taking action and using their influence to bring change.
Secondly, it was waiting for permission. To do this work, you need the permission of those that you serve to step into it. That was probably the biggest hurdle and still is, because it’s such a weird place to lead from. I was asked by people from historically underrepresented groups that are my friends and colleagues, who said, “We really think you can make an impact in doing this.”
“It’s not the kind of job you apply for, it’s something you just start doing and start finding opportunities to engage in.”
I don’t have all the answers, and it’s a very strange spot to be in. In Finance, you typically know the answer, so you can lead. In this role, I spend all my time listening, and then really looking through a set of eyes other than the set of eyes I was born with. Once I can see things differently, then I can take action and use my influence to bring about change.
It’s a really vulnerable place to be, because I feel like people who don’t know me will think, ‘What the heck is he doing in this role?’ And people who do know me really expect a lot; I don’t want to let them down.
That says a lot about you, to be willing to put yourself out there for something you believe in. How do you meaningfully walk in other people’s shoes?
It starts with doing the work, and by that I mean, you can’t expect someone else to educate you, you have to educate yourself. This role is not something you just step into, because you think, ‘Well, that sounds like fun.’ I really think you have to do the work upfront and challenge yourself and be really open to realize that maybe you’ve had a skewed view, even though you think, ‘I always treat people fairly, I always show respect, I don’t understand why this is such a big issue.’ That’s what I hear from so many straight white guys like me, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know why we need a special focus on this. Surely, if we just treat everyone respectfully, things will happen.’
Really taking the time to see and ask questions and to look through someone else’s eyes, you start to realize that’s not the case, and that even though you treat someone respectfully, it may not yield the results. Looking at data, speaking to employees, reading a lot of articles, just being hungry for information and doing the work upfront, is where it started for me. That started to change my perspective in realizing that it requires deliberate action.
What advice would you give someone who is wondering how they can get their entire company, including their leadership team, on board with prioritizing diversity and inclusion?
It’s cliché, but it is so true that the CEO creates permission for this to happen. And it’s not just verbally giving permission, it’s living it and breathing it and demanding it and holding everyone accountable to it. Our CEO is not prioritizing diversity and inclusion because it’s a fad. He holds us to a strategy, and we hold ourselves accountable to enduring change and not just a knee jerk response to what’s happening. We believe in long-term sustained change. That happens only with creating permission from the CEO.
We also run things on the principle of New Power. There are two power models that I play: The first is Old Power, which works like a currency. Whoever has money has influence, and they sit in control, like a typical hierarchy within a company. That’s how power flows.
The second, New Power, works as this principle of electrical current. It moves through the system, and it doesn’t have to start at the top. So, what we do is we create energy. We find where there’s energy in the system and where there’s employee movement. We believe that our employees know what the right thing to do is, so we find employees who are doing great things, and we take that energy and we move it all the way through the system. It’s a very conscious way of creating movements.
Our Equinix Women’s Leadership Network is a great example that was started on that basis. The three women who founded our Women’s Leadership Network now have over 2000 women who are participating in it.
The way we think about community impact was founded in the same way. We find employees who want to make an impact in a community, we give them the tools and resources that they need, we push energy towards it and that energy moves all the way through the system. So you create the power of people having a movement, and we’ve realized that you can do things at scale and engage 10,000 employees.
Two weeks ago, we created this event called We Connect. It was a 24-hour event, where we engaged in really uncomfortable conversations about race and difference, and we also mixed in wellbeing as a part of this.
We had our CEO lead the first hour with a yoga session, and then we had 24 hours of conversation around topics like what does it mean to be black at Equinix, what does it mean to be gay at Equinix, what does it mean to be an ally, and what does it mean to face barriers as a woman in the workplace. We had 4,300 employee hours committed, and everyone participated in really honest, vulnerable conversations.
You can’t do an event like that without the sponsorship and support of the CEO. He participated 18 of the 24 hours, I believe, and so did the executive team. The employee movement is also crucial, because the answers don’t come from the executives, they come from their employees. Then, we create the movement. That’s our philosophy of how we make it happen.
That’s no small feat! You guys have put an incredible amount of passion and energy into this.
Diversity and inclusion is not a new topic, but it’s obviously getting a lot of visibility right now. What do you think is going to make it “stick” this time? How’s it going to take hold?
We have this mantra where we do the work before we talk about it. So many people want to tell the story and put this poster in the elevator and say, these are the six things that you’ve got to check off this list. I actually feel like you have to listen to your colleagues, you have to do what they ask, and you have to set out a long term strategy to deliver measurable progress.
The human side is just: listen. Listen and don’t turn away from uncomfortable conversations. At Equinix, we’re really creating space to have a dialogue that is so awkward and so uncomfortable, and I don’t know the answers to it. I sit there almost embarrassed that I don’t have the answers, but it’s so necessary.
Employees and shareholders and customers are going to look at companies to do what governments aren’t prepared to do. It’s our obligation to step in and answer that, and to actually create a space where everyone feels they are safe, they belong and they matter.
“It starts with a commitment to say, ‘Have I done everything I can to find diverse perspectives, diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences, and to think a little outside the box?’ You have to get creative, it does require effort and time.”
So many people in majority groups say, ‘Is there a place for me in diversity?’ The answer is absolutely. All of us should be able to say, ‘I’m safe, I belong, I matter,’ not just some. One of the biggest things that will make it stick is when people in majority groups realize that they have a really important role to play in this, and that they have real influence to bring about change.
It is so unfair to expect change to be driven by people who have been underrepresented, mistreated and ignored. It doesn’t make sense to me. How can you expect the people who have always been marginalized to be the ones who are going to bring about change? Most people from historically underrepresented groups don’t want to be a troublemaker. They don’t want to be the one speaking up and feel like they’re constantly complaining.
Therefore, I think real allyship is putting your neck on the line and saying, ‘I’m going to speak up, along with people from historically underrepresented groups, and I’m going to use my influence to bring about change, because it’s unfair to leave it to anyone else to do so’. That’s what will make it stick.
People are afraid to have this conversation, especially if they’re in the majority group. They don’t want to put the burden on the other person or make them feel tokenized. What advice would you give somebody who wants to learn more by having a conversation, but without making the other person uncomfortable? How do you even start that conversation?
First, I find the best way to start is to do as much self-learning as you can before you put the burden on someone else to educate you.
The second way is to ask people about their experience as a human being. By that I mean, if I have a conversation with a woman I can’t expect her point of view to represent all women. Or, if I meet someone from the LGBTQ community, I can’t expect their opinion to represent all of the LGBTQ community. But I can say, ‘Hey, Leslie, what is your experience here at Equinix?’ And you could share your experience as a mom, as a woman, as a professional. So, ask people about their experience, and then just listen.
I feel the best way to approach the conversation is to ask someone you have a position of trust with about their experiences, and see where they want to take it.
It’s incredible and very inspiring to see how you guys are prioritizing this issue at Equinix. What advice would you give a smaller company or someone who’s just starting out? This is a new priority for many and it’s coming from a real place, but there are a lot of different angles and places to go.
First, I think you need to get the conviction that if we are able to bring our best selves to work, it leads to greater business performance and greater outcomes and greater innovation, so it becomes a business imperative. Business imperatives bubble up as company priorities. Even though it’s not a dedicated role, it becomes mission critical to everyone. So, I really understand that we’re not doing this because it’s unfair or because society’s putting pressure on us to do it, we’re doing it because it drives real business value. When your mind clicks into that, it becomes more natural and you find opportunities to step into it because it makes sense to do so.
Second, it’s not the kind of job you apply for, it’s something you just start doing and start finding opportunities to engage in. You challenge yourself constantly to say, ‘Am I getting the most diverse perspective, the most diverse point of view, and the most diverse experience on my own team?’ If not, do something to change it. Then, that journey will lead you to say, ‘Okay, well, how do I change it?’ Well, maybe we need to change our hiring practices, or maybe we need to create a sponsorship opportunity for great talent in my team that hasn’t had exposure to projects or to promotions or to opportunities.
I spend a large part of my time trying to ask leaders what they want their legacy to be, and I challenge them, ‘Why don’t you have a set of commitments that you commit to as a leader?’ Because so many people struggle with the practical side of this, they say, ‘Okay, what should I actually do?’ My response is to come up with a set of commitments. It might be, ‘I commit to have diverse candidate slates for every role that I hire, and I commit to have diverse interview panels, and I commit to taking underrepresented talents and giving them access to projects and opportunities within my team’.
Every one of us can do that as a leader, whether we sit in Finance, whether this is a dedicated role. The more you do it, the more you’ll see business performance improve, and outcomes increase, and it will become more a part of your DNA. For me, it gravitated into a full-time job, but it started with actually doing it and living it as a part of my role within Finance and then the other roles that came after that.
It seems like there’s a lot we can do to prioritize diversity within our organization without an official program, but many people don’t know where to start. How do we address that?
I believe that when we talk about diversity, inclusion and belonging, diversity is difference, inclusion is how you include everyone in something, and belonging is a feeling. So when you focus on belonging, and everyone has a place where they belong, diversity can thrive in that environment.
If you focus only on diversity and you bring someone from a historically underrepresented group into an environment where they’re the only one, they feel like they’re a token and it’s not going to stick. Instead, you’ve really got to get the ‘belonging’ part right. You want to create a culture where everyone has a place to bring their best selves to work, and then deliberately focus on bringing diverse perspectives and experiences and expertise into that culture.
So many people think about it like, ‘Oh, so we just need to hire diverse talent’. No, we need to hire the best person for the job. We need to remove every barrier that could possibly exist that prohibits us from finding the best talent.
Most of the time, the first barrier is actually ourselves and looking through the set of eyes we were born with. Because we want to gravitate toward someone like me who went to a similar school, who has the same background, who plays golf, etc. At Equinix, we really focus on creating a culture of belonging and then removing as many barriers as we can to bring talent into the organization.
It’s important to note that we’re not where we want to be. We haven’t arrived, we’ve got so far to go. But it’s more about, can you demonstrate progress towards where you want to be, and then really allocate time and money to it?
You mentioned, ‘I just want to hire the very best person for the job,’ which is something I hear all the time in the recruiting world. How do you actually do that in your organization?
One of the most eye-opening things for me was when I previously posted a rec on my LinkedIn profile, and then I took a step back and looked at my connections. Eighty percent of my LinkedIn connections are straight white guys. So the shot I have of finding a diverse candidate is immediately so reduced.
The second tactic is slowing down. When you want to really find good talent, it takes a bit of time, so pushing pause and realizing that an extra month within the search process, despite the urgency of trying to get something done, will pay dividends in the long term. Having diverse perspectives on your interview, and really listening to what they say, matters greatly.
“We have to find a way of thinking about our mental, emotional, and social health as a part of our jobs. ”
Finding non-traditional paths is also important. Ask yourself, ‘Is the pool that I’m looking at diverse? If not, can I think creatively about other avenues to find access to talent?’
But most of all, I feel like it starts with a commitment to say, ‘Have I done everything I can to find diverse perspectives, diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences, and to think a little outside the box?’ You have to get creative, it does require effort and time, and it does, at times, mean you have to endure the burden of having someone missing on your team while you search for the best candidate.
How do you feel about a specific effort to hire a diversity candidate for a position?
I don’t feel great about it. I believe it’s really unfair to say, ‘This has to be a diverse role.’ It’s unfair to the person who gets a role, because even if they are the best, they feel it was tokenism.
Personally, I really believe in the idea that you have to find the best person to do the role. I think it’s okay to say, ‘For this position we specifically want to have at least 50% of the candidates come from historically underrepresented groups,’ and then it’s a fair shot for everyone. But I would focus more on the development of your underrepresented talent in your organization and the retention of that talent, because that’s equally as important as hiring talent.
It’s something I’m hearing a lot right now, and it feels counterproductive to the whole initiative of having an unbiased viewpoint. I feel like there’s a conflict there between those two missions.
Completely. We try to do things, like when we post jobs, we use a technology that removes gender language with the way the rec is written, so that it would appeal to a wide range of candidates. We try to remove video as the first option when a candidate’s applying, and we want to move towards removing names from resumes. Because, to your point, you’re trying to remove bias, not inject it and say, ‘Well, suddenly, we’re going to go the other direction’.
I do think you’ve got to have aspirational goals that you aim for in terms of where you want to be from gender parity, to ethnic representation, to all forms of diversity, but it shouldn’t be in a specific role. You may end up making a bad business decision by putting someone into the role who may not be the best fit.
Is there anything else you think other people could benefit from, or something to think about that’s outside of what we’ve already covered?
I want to talk about how important the conversation I had with you was, when I phoned you about taking this job doing an IR role because I was on the CFO track. You encouraged me and said, ‘Sometimes it’s good to step away, take the skills that you have within Finance, and go and test them somewhere else.’ It was a great confidence boost hearing it from you, someone that I got to know and trust over the time that we had worked together. That was the final decision point for me to go and do it.
It’s important that other Finance professionals know that the skills that you learn in Finance are really transferable. Collaborating and working cross functionally, being organized, really being able to deliver against a set of priorities, partnering, all of the things you learn as a Finance professional become transferable into other areas. So in setting up an analytics function, or in running a business operations team, or doing this work around community impact or diversity and inclusion, I draw so much from that.
If I hadn’t had that conversation with someone like you, I may have done the traditional thing and become the CFO, because it felt safe. The biggest part was I actually feel freedom in coming to the point of saying, I don’t care what I become, honestly, I don’t care if I don’t become a CFO or CEO or whatever. I found that I can really make an impact in what I love to do every day. It took the confidence of a conversation with yourself, so thank you. Keep encouraging people.
Thanks for saying that. That makes me feel really good and I’m happy to do it. It is interesting that if I reflect on the CFOs and CEOs that I know the best, the common thread that enabled them to get to where they were was really leaning into the business and then, stepping way outside of the box of the scope of their responsibility. They saw a problem and wanted to be part of the solution. So whatever you end up doing with your career, all of those experiences you’ve had make you so well rounded and a better leader regardless.
One other thing I was thinking about, because I’m self-reflecting as I go, was something that happened in my career. For the longest time, I prioritized my family and my job over myself. I was grossly overweight, I didn’t take any care time for self-care, and I worked nonstop because I needed to do my job and provide for my family. I started looking around at executives I really respected and I was like, ‘How do they find time to have a family, to take care of themselves, to stay on top of their work, and be really successful?’
So, I started to take little steps along the way to make a change and being really deliberate about where I spend my time and effort. My passion for well-being as a part of my current role came through the fact that I lost 70 pounds, and I realized that I came from a family history of alcoholics, and I was on track to go down that path, so I quit drinking.
I have a real passion around diversity and inclusion, but also for well-being, because there’s a place in the workplace to talk about these things. To talk about depression, and about alcoholism, and about being unfit and unhealthy and unhappy, because you haven’t found the place in the workplace to have permission to take care of yourself.
“When you have someone who is trusted and known and seems to have it all together, and they’re actually saying, ‘I don’t have it all together, I am like everyone else,’ it creates permission for others to realize, okay, I can be human here. ”
Over the last 10 years at Equinix, I’ve sort of grown up in this place, and people have seen me grow up. It’s been exposed, and I don’t shy away from talking to people about it, because I think it creates permission for others to realize that self-care is so important. We have to find a way of thinking about our mental, emotional, and social health as a part of our jobs.
That’s another part of my story where I feel like I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m growing up in this. And by doing it as a job and sharing my story, it’s creating permission for other employees to say, ‘Okay, if he’s able to do that and change, this is a place for me to do, too’.
What would you suggest for a business that really wants to make a company-wide impact on the wellness side?
We’re still early in our journey at Equinix, but one of the biggest things I want to evolve is a real well-being strategy. It starts with leaders being vulnerable enough to talk about their own journeys and their own struggles, so that people can identify with it.
It’s the same when you look at the diversity issue, if you see someone who looks like you in a much more senior role and is willing to talk about the experience in getting there, you can identify and say, ‘Wow, there’s a place for me there, I can see myself there’.
The same happens with well-being when you see a leader talk about their struggle with depression, but they are still a leader within a business being very successful. Or you see someone talk about addiction and say, he still has a senior role making an impact, I don’t have to hide away from it. You have to create space for that dialogue to happen, and then more naturally, you will create this movement because employees will start feeling comfortable enough to tell you what needs to happen.
We have a company blog called “Nothing Left Unsaid” where we have really hard, honest conversations and leaders talk about hard things. We had a leader talk about depression. I’m talking about the struggle with alcohol. We have someone talking about being at the later stage of your career and people seeing you as high COVID risk because of your age. We have people talk about the struggle of parenting.
When you have someone who is trusted and known and seems to have it all together, and they’re actually saying, ‘I don’t have it all together, I am like everyone else,’ it creates permission for others to realize, okay, I can be human here.
Which also leads to belonging.
Right. The reason we have these three things together – diversity, inclusion, and belonging – is this idea of personal sustainability. You can have sustained human performance when you are able to bring your best parts of yourself to work, when you’re able to say, ‘I’m safe, I belong, I matter,’ when you’re able to work on a team with diverse perspectives and point of views, when your physical, emotional, and mental well-being is taken care of, and when you’re able to make an impact in your community.
All of this allows you to have sustained performance, because so often, we think, ‘I’m just going to do this job, I’m going to burn myself out, and then I’m going to get to the next level, and then I’m going to resign, and then I’m going to go to the next place, etc.’ With sustained performance, we want people to build careers here, we want them to have long lasting enduring careers, where they can bring all of the best things about themselves into an environment that allows them to flourish. That’s why we see this thread that weaves across these three different things that we have in my team.
If there is somebody out there right now, who is hearing your story and they’re inspired to do more within their company, what advice would you give them?
I would say, seek impact. It’s probably the biggest advice that was given to me by a CEO who is in so many conversations with people that want to progress to the next level or think about what their career would look like. He told me, ‘All you need to do is seek impact’.
Whatever role you’re in, look to make a difference. Don’t just talk about it or think about it, take steps to make it happen. It actually leads from one thing to the other. Everything in my career happened because I’ve taken little steps along the way, and when you look back, you realize ‘Wow, I feel really grateful for that progression to where I’m at in my career’.
Wonderful. I’m so inspired by you. You have so much wisdom and I know it’s going to be meaningful for people to hear it. You’re doing good things out there, Bruce.
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you. I loved it.
Me too. Thank you so much.
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