Panelist Interview: Brandon Atkinson, AppNexus

Our third panelist interview features Brandon Atkinson, Chief People Officer at AppNexus. Read on to learn Brandon's thoughts on diversity, inclusion and challenges in the workplace before our April 20th Changing the Conversation event.

Describe a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career.

Brandon Atkinson Chief People Officer, AppNexus

Brandon Atkinson
Chief People Officer, AppNexus

In October 2015, our CEO at AppNexus asked me to consider becoming the leader of our People organization.  I had been leading our Global Services organization for the past five years, and had no experience in HR.  The team wasn’t keeping up with the needs of the business and had toxic distrust within itself.  While there were many talented people in the organization, it needed to be substantially rebuilt with new leaders, a new culture, and new priorities.  While I had a solid reputation as an organizational leader coming in, there was a fair amount of skepticism and fear about my placement in this role among the team.  Plus, I was a male in an organization of almost all women.

I started by doing talent assessment – speaking to each employee about what was and wasn’t working in the organization, and learning about their career aspirations. Then I worked with leaders on the team to define on paper the culture we wanted to create.  We introduced that to the broader team and kept talking about it over a period of time. 

I also reached out to my network to identify People leaders from whom I could learn.  I recruited three of them to be informal mentors for me, and I hired one of them to be a formal coach for a period of time.  The support network not only helped me learn from a functional perspective, but also helped me keep the self-confidence needed that I could do this job!

Meanwhile, I had to define the organizational design that we needed to achieve our business goals, and what leaders were needed within that organization design.  So I focused on that, gradually transforming the organization and getting new leaders in place over an 18 month period. 

After we made some progress there, I started to focus on getting the organization aligned around a defined set of goals.  Some projects needed to be terminated; others needed to be launched.  We drove this process by training employees in the OKR framework (objectives and key results) and regularly visiting progress against key results over time.

Fast forward 2.5 years … while we still have work to do, we are much more effective at achieving our mission of supporting AppNexians in envisioning and developing into their best, most authentic self at work.  And, we are having a lot more fun!  I don’t know of anything more exciting than working with talented and passionate people who are committed to working together to achieve hard and important things.  That’s what we do on the AppNexus People team.

What is a piece of advice that you wish you could give your former self? 

Embrace your achievements with humility.  Actually, my wood shop teacher wrote that in my 12th grade yearbook!  However, I wouldn’t say I totally got it until later in my career.  I try to keep top of mind that I don’t know much more than I know, that almost everything of importance I have achieved has been due to the contributions of others, and that I don’t actually have control over outcomes.  So, I surrender to recognizing that and focus on how I can create conditions for outcomes.

What fires you up re: diversity and inclusion? Why is this a passion?

I need to go super meta on you to answer this question … I believe our purpose, the reason we are on this earth, is to develop the self-awareness required to make the impact on this world that we are most uniquely capable of making.  I also believe that work at its best is a form of self-actualization.  The biggest blocker I know to developing self-awareness and self-actualization is the lack of psychological safety.  We cannot focus on those higher level needs if we don’t feel safe. 

I also believe a diverse workforce with an inclusive culture is essential for employees to feel psychological safety.  If we don’t believe we have equal opportunity, that we are respected and valued, or that we can bring our whole self to the workplace, we cannot feels totally safe.

So, I believe D&I fosters psychological safety, which is fundamental to leveraging the workplace to foster self-awareness and self-actualization, which helps us to align with our purpose in life.

While I know (and research proves) that D&I is also required to create better business outcomes, I’m being honest that while it’s important, this doesn’t personally get me fired up.  What I’m most passionate about is creating a workplace that helps AppNexians align with their purpose in life.  Great business outcomes will naturally follow from that.

For more information on the event, visit our website and purchase tickets here!