On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders

4. Facing the Uncomfortable - Anthony Williams & Susan Hunt Stevens

July 01, 2020 MassTLC & Matter Season 1 Episode 4
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
4. Facing the Uncomfortable - Anthony Williams & Susan Hunt Stevens
Show Notes Transcript

A conversation with Anthony Williams (EVP & CHRO, Akamai Technologies) and Susan Hunt Stevens (Founder & CEO, WeSpire).

Boston has a level of intimacy (2:15)

Enriched by difference and diversity. (3:35)

Leading corporate social responsibility and social issues. (6:50)

Engaging people in these questions of equality and social justice (9:33)

Being comfortable being uncomfortable. (12:28)

Recommending Boston (14:12)

Making sure that we're fostering an inclusive culture (16:05)

Hi, thanks for joining us as we take a journey… On the Tech Trail. I'm MassTLC CEO, Tom Hopcroft, and this podcast series takes you inside the minds of remarkable leaders to better understand their journeys and to gain insights from their strategic decision making to help us along our journeys. In today's episode, we're On the Tech Trail with Anthony Williams and Susan Hunt Stevens.

Hi everyone. I'm your host, Susan Hunt Stevens. I'm thrilled to be joined today by Anthony Williams, EVP and chief human resources officer at Akamai technologies. Tell us the story of how you decided to make the move to Boston and to come to Akamai?

Well, Susan, first of all, thank you for your time and attention. It's a pleasure to be here. my family and I have been in Boston for just over five years and we moved here to take the opportunity with Akamai. And it's interesting, very interesting story. And that we've got several close friends in Atlanta and we moved to Boston from Atlanta. and we were all excited to share with them the fantastic opportunity to move here to Boston. And that we were in for a pretty significant surprise when our friends who many of which are from Boston, really tried to encourage us not to move here. And to our surprise, the thought was, Hey, Boston is not necessarily the most diverse city in the country. And isn't actually as welcoming, especially for people of color. And we were quite surprised to get this sentiment from people that we trust and close friends of ours. And interestingly enough, Susan, as you can tell, we decided to still move here. And the interesting part is we viewed the lack of encouragement to move here from our close circle as actually encouragement and more of a challenge. We felt like if the city isn't as diverse, that pose an opportunity for us. And that we would come here and really see and try to influence making a difference in what we feel like is a really amazing city.

So what is your favorite thing so far about Boston? What do you love?

I like the fact that I feel like it's definitely a major city, but it has a level of intimacy to it. So I think while still being a major city that has a tremendous amount of culture, great entertainment, great restaurants, it's still fairly intimate in my opinion. And the education system and, or the level of intellect and knowledge, I find it very stimulating. You've got more colleges in the Boston area than most places. And I think that fosters a certain type of intellect and stimulates creativity and thought. And I find that people that I meet in the way they think in the way we innovate here to be fascinating. 

I had the exact same experience when I moved here. It really is a city where we invent the things that matter in this world, the things that make the world a better place. And you had lived all over the world. So it wasn't like Boston was your first move. You'd been in Paris and Hong Kong and Akamai itself is an incredibly global company. How do you think being a global citizen has influenced you as a leader and influence this transition?

Yes. We lived in France and in Hong Kong and have traveled the world. And the thing that I would share that we have taken from our experience is that we've been really enriched by difference and diversity. I would encourage anyone if you haven't gone to or traveled outside of your home country to do so. It's a really humbling experience to understand what you really don't know. And for me personally, it's really significantly influenced my perspective and how I lead. How I listen and how I've grown and evolved into understanding how significant culture and values play into who a person is, and how they actually engage and how they perform in the workplace.

Now you became CHRO at Akamai in January. That's an interesting time to have taken on a people leadership role for a global company, just as the pandemic is starting in Asia. How has that shaped your first six months on the experience and what are you most proud of over that time?

Yeah, so January 2020, is when I was officially appointed or transitioned if you will, into chief HR officer position here at Akamai. And I had no idea moving into the position this January that within the first, I'd say 60 days we'd be working toward transitioning 95% or 96% of our employees around that are in roughly about 58 or so locations around the world to remote work. And then we'd be in a situation where we've got unrest in a number of different challenges around the country that started here in the U.S, and has really evolved a lot of unrest around the globe. So yeah, needless to say it's been an extremely event full six months as the head of HR for Akamai. It's been a tremendous learning experience. The thing that I've had to really accept is that in a situation that's truly unprecedented with a pandemic. And then you layer on top of that, some of the protests that we've had around the U.S relative to racial inequality. And once again, things that have happened globally, you're not necessarily afforded the time to really troubleshoot the situation and evaluate what your best options are. 
Make sure we're grounded foundationally in doing what's best for our employees and their families and their safety. And if there's an opportunity to redirect based on any steps that we may have taken, that we would prefer to do differently, do that very quickly. So far it's worked out well. I think our employees are fairing quite well. I've had a number of late nights over the course of the last six months, but all in all we're faring well.

Lots of 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM conference calls all over this world. And you mentioned that we are experiencing now a very large social movement that's demanding more equality and justice. And it started in the U.S but you mentioned that this is seeming to become almost a global movement. How is Akamai thinking about or responding to employee passions and concerns both here in the U.S and abroad?

Yeah, great question. And I would say one of the things that I started preparing our leadership for maybe two or three years ago, was that we're in a very different day and age. And in this day and age there is an understanding or at least an expectation rather, that companies more than any other time in history are expected to respond and expected to lead from the front relative to corporate social responsibility and social issues. And for us, we've been building that muscle over time over the last few years. And I feel very comfortable that we're in a very proactive mode and have really focused heavily on trying to make sure that we're extremely sensitive to what's going on around this globally, are much more communicative about what's important to us and our values. And the situation we're dealing with in the U.S here in 2020 is no different relative to racial inequality that we're seeing around the U.S and as you indicated to is around the globe.
And how we've handled it is first of all, we're leaning in from an inside-out perspective. And so we're taking and using this as an opportunity to make sure that we're fortifying our values and the communication of those to our employees and making sure that we're listening, learning, and understanding. ? Secondly, we are resisting the urge to focus on things that are what I would consider to be short-lived or fashionable relative to reacting to what's going on around the globe. And really taking not a lot of time, but focus on really being thoughtful about involving our time and treasure and things that are going to create sustainable change. Obviously these issues have surfaced based on significant challenges we've had in the U.S but have also motivated, encouraged and really inspired a movement across the globe based on people really wanting to make a difference. And lastly, we've really been focused on how can we empower our employees? How can we amplify their voice? How can we solicit their input and how can we encourage and engage them in making a difference in their community. And what we're recognizing is that how people feel in the U.S may differ from how they specifically feel in a different country, but all in all people want to make a difference. And equality is something that is not necessarily a U.S issue. It's a concern of every one of our employees and something that we stand behind. And we're not perfect. We've got lots of opportunity to lean in more in other areas, and we're evaluating how we do that. But yeah, we're engaging our employees heavily and leaning in.

Well as you know, that's a topic near and dear to my heart. What are some things that you've done that employees have responded really, really well to recently? I think every leader is wrestling with both on the COVID front and remote work -  How do we keep people engaged and really connected to the company and even larger challenges of, how do we engage people in these questions of equality and social justice? So what are some things that you're doing that have really worked?

There are two things: One is, increase the level of communication. What we've got specifically in a COVID-19 situation is we've got a significant population of our employees that are at home. And what we want to do is we want to make sure that we're fostering facilitating the right level of connectivity, engagement, inclusion. And being home and being outside of the office. The second thing is we've surveyed employees. We're asking questions. What do you think, how are you doing? How are you feeling? Do you need assistance? Do you need support? How can we help you? 

One of the things I've read is that leaders need to consider that the vast majority of their employees, are facing some sort of mental health challenge related to this and the stress and anxiety. Are you seeing that in the workplace? And what kinds of things are you doing to keep a response front and center around health and wellbeing that's more mental in addition to physical health and safety.

It's actually, I'd say one of the top two to three things that we're focused on is our employees health and wellbeing. And very specifically what we've recognized is that many of our employees are experiencing grief. And so that's either a loss of the normalcy that you were used to, that's loss of certainty. We've got a number of our employees who have significant others that are on the front lines, in the healthcare field. We've got employees who are homeschooling children who have aging parents at home. And there are a significant volume of circumstances that our employees have been thrust into. And so what we're doing is asking how are you. We've actually created a specific training and development program for our leaders and we call it sort of our flex culture.And the flex culture is really training our leaders to actually see beyond a purely work productivity and performance, but take the time to recognize and understand how your employees are doing, and actually making sure they're briefed on opportunities and avenues to encourage or recommend support. 

And one of the things I also noticed is that you not only supported employees internal, but you've engaged the employees publicly and with others to help them feel part of the solution. We are both a little unusual relative to the typical workforce makeup of the tech industry. What do you think that tech and other tech leaders should be doing to make our industry more inclusive and more diverse? Particularly for women and underrepresented minorities? What kinds of things should we really, as leaders be digging in on right now?

And what I would say first and foremost is we've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The reality of the situation is that we haven't necessarily moved the needle as fast as we'd like to. So I'd say be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that really correlates to being willing to make big and bold moves that you haven't done in the past. We've got to commit to listening, learning, making a difference and that starts with once again, not necessarily doing the things that we've done in the past, but being willing to essentially look at how we're hiring, developing, and advocating for diversity and equality in our companies.And very specifically, I do believe organizations should be much more focused on advocating outside of their organizations for a much more diverse tech. 

And you've worked in different companies across different industries. Have you seen other industries tackle this topic in a more proactive or more deep way than tech? Or have you seen something that you really admire that you think are the tech industry, particularly the tech industry in Boston should consider?

I think there are a number of other industries that I believe are a bit further ahead. I think most industries still have many lows to lift and some road to travel, but I think accountability and being willing to be held accountable, putting your information out in terms of your numbers and your progress is a step in the right direction toward making more progress and tech is emulating other industries that have been more accountable.

You got certain advice when you were considering moving to Boston. Now that you've been here, what advice as a tech leader of color would you have for someone considering moving to Boston?

The experience that we've had in Boston personally and professionally have been very enriching and I would absolutely recommend it to people of color. And the thing I would say is that the volume of diversity may not necessarily match other markets around the world, but the level of support and how tight knit the community is here. I've it to be extremely welcoming and supportive. And for me, I'll take welcoming and supportive over pure volume of diversity in most any day. So I would highly recommend it for that reason. And probably the most significant reason why I would recommend coming here if you're a person of color is, there's an opportunity to make a difference. The city is I think, prime for continuing to evolve from a diversity standpoint. And I think that fosters and nurtures tremendous opportunity for people of color to come here and be wildly successful.

It is amazing the networks that do exist here. And I think that gets back to one of the comments you made about the intimacy of Boston. And so what we may lack in volume, I think is made up for by really strong connections. I see the same thing among women, CEOs of tech companies. There's not a lot of us in this world, but boy, we're tightly connected.

That’s right.

So we talked a little bit about how you're engaging employees in social justice and tackling the issues of systemic racism. What guidance would you have for tech leaders, particularly white tech leaders about what they can be doing to be active on these topics. Both as an ally and as tackling active anti-racism?

I think there are a couple of different ways. First and foremost, I would say if it starts internally. And I would say looking at your own house first and assessing, what are the programs and initiatives that we've got set up to make sure that we're fostering an inclusive culture, a culture that reinforces belonging and one that is welcoming to all people. And so it really boils down to really getting outside of your comfort zone, and really asking yourself, are we actually being open-minded? Are we exercising the growth mindset? Are the people that we have internally diverse? And working there and then from there trying to match your endeavors and your time and treasure with the diversity that you'd like internally. And sort of making sure that you're spending time and treasure in areas that you aspire to develop and grow.

Thanks for joining us today On the Tech Trail, we hope you've picked up some new insights to help you on your journey. Please tweet your keys, the ways with hashtag #techtrail and be sure to subscribe, to get the latest episodes special. Thanks to our production partner, Matter. We'll be taking our next journey with Aaron Ain and Gail Goodman. I look forward to seeing you out there, On the Tech Trail.