The CEO title will always walk through the metaphoric door ahead of you, but it’s important to remember who you are. That’s the CEO that people will respect. There will always be somebody who believes that because you are CEO, you should dress and act a certain way. When I was first promoted to president of Aptum, I was told my new office would be in the “power corner” next to the CFO. I quickly realized it was the office that had the least amount of footfall and that people couldn’t tell if I was there or not. I quickly found an alternative space that was on the route between the main desk area and the coffee machine. I keep the door open and say hello, smile or wave to everyone who walks by and I purposefully spend the most amount of my time out and about with everyone.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Bowen, CEO of Aptum Technologies.
With over 20 years’ experience in the technology industry, Susan understands the importance of transformational leadership to stay at the forefront of customer needs and expectations.
Throughout her career, Susan has earned a reputation as a trusted advisor and leading voice in the technology industry. Creating partnerships around technology helps businesses adapt to change, spur innovation, and create value. She would say, “That’s when things truly happen”.
While her passion for technology has helped guide her, Susan’s strong focus on sustaining revenue growth and driving operational efficiency has helped create an organization devoted to enabling its customers to run their businesses.
Spurred on by her experience as one of the only women in her Computer Science classes in the early 90’s, Susan is a passionate advocate for the advancement of diversity and inclusion. During her time in the UK, Susan was a Founder & Chair of the Skills and Diversity Council for techUK, a founding Director for The Tech Talent Charter, and in 2017 was named among the top 50 Most Influential Women in UK IT by Computer Weekly magazine.
Prior to taking on global leadership at Aptum (formerly Cogeco Peer 1), Susan was Vice President and General Manager of Cogeco Peer 1, EMEA, where she spearheaded strategic direction. Susan has also held the role of Chief of Staff UK & Ireland at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) following her tenure of over 16 years at HP UK Ltd.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born and raised in South Wales, UK, in a hardworking family.
Growing up, my father was a police officer, my mother was a bookkeeper, and my older sister became a science teacher. From a very early age, we were taught the value of hard work and curiosity about all things science, technology, engineering and math.
Encouraged by my father, my sister and I loved all kinds of gadgets and enjoyed working on our family car, learning to fit a new muffler, change a flat tire, and check oil all before being taught to drive, giving us the confidence to remain calm in case we broke down on the side of the road.
I picked up an interest in gaming around the age of 10, copying code from magazines for games like Frogger on the BBC computer, and enjoying Munch Man and Pac-Man games. My all-time favorite, which I still own to this day, is the 1983 original Nintendo Donkey Kong on a split screen.
I was always curious, and my natural creative leadership skills and logical problem-solving aptitude began to emerge. It was inevitable that I would pursue a career in the technology industry.
My technical journey began at Digital Equipment Corporation who hired me as an intern, followed by a System Engineer role at Electronic Data System (EDS) before taking a role at Hewlett Packard. During my 16 years at Hewlett Packard, I worked in nearly every business unit and was continually seeking new, innovative ways to develop myself and the company. This constant effort, alongside a series of non-executive board positions, led me to take a leap of faith — accepting a newly created role at Cogeco Communications (a Canadian Telco), culminating in my current position as CEO.
I was promoted to President of Cogeco Peer 1 in September 2018. Shortly after, I led the divestiture to spin off the business into a standalone global company with private equity owners, Digital Colony, ultimately rebranding the company as Aptum Technologies in August 2019. Now, I am CEO of Aptum and have thoroughly enjoyed the adventure this position has taken me on, despite the challenges that come with the role.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
If I were to describe it in only a few words: public, private, two spins, the upside down and a pandemic.
Being a CEO demands continual evolution and learning how to do better, resulting in my ultimate takeaway: this is a continuous journey.
These past couple of years have taught me that being an adaptable leader with poise, clarity and focus enables you to maintain balance. Since being appointed CEO and President, I have led the organization through two spin-offs; the first was to exit Cogeco and transition from Public to Private, the second was to divest off one of our business units to help focus the rest of the organization.
As CEO, I’ve been able to pivot the organizational structure from a regional model to a global approach. During this time, I’ve also had to play offense and tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on with a five-year strategic plan. It is safe to say that it has certainly been a busy two years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of my early meetings in this role was at the start of our divestiture activity, whereby we were deep in due diligence work with our new owner. The meeting took place over the weekend, and I planned to drop into one of our Toronto offices while my family went to a local play area. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of assuming my pass to the shared building access would work and nobody from security was around.
I ended up conducting the meeting from my car, which I strategically parked close to the office to benefit from WIFI connections. The only issue was that a group of local car racers were using the parking lot, and you can only imagine the scene. Pimped up cars with high energy, loud bass music, wheel spins… and, then there I was, sitting in the car with my laptop, two phones, no power, trying to concentrate on providing a best-in-class presentation for our potential new owners.
I learned that even with the best of planning, you can still find yourself in an unexpected situation, needing to find a different way to make it work. I also learned that instead of focusing on what is in front of you, concentrate on what you are trying to solve, the objective, and ultimately the outcome. I guess if our new owners read this article they are now finding out about it as they would never have known on the call. I kept it together, remained focused, and stuck to the plan, poised and calm.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s a cliché, but if I had to name one person, it would be my father. He and my family are huge influences in my confidence and always provided support, while also showing compassion and recognizing that life throws many curve balls.
My father passed away from medical complications when I was in my 20’s; he was only 55. It completely changed my outlook and made me realize that working hard is good, but enjoying the journey, learning, laughing (a lot!) and taking time for self-care is equally important. And, most important of all is putting family first.
We are a close family, filled with strong, independent women. My grandmother is 93 and still living on her own, and my mother, sister and aunt had inspiring 30+ year careers in retail management.
Many others have encouraged me along the way, trusting in me and opening doors that I could have never anticipated. I am a huge advocate of reverse mentoring. Many people who have come to me as a mentee ended up being my mentor too. It truly is a humbling and rewarding experience.
Also, let’s be honest, there were others who didn’t support me or were naysayers along my journey. They only further encouraged me to give them a reason to prove them wrong!
Today, my husband is my biggest supporter. Six years ago, he was open to leaving his career of 23-years in the motor industry to support our son and me, partially because my job demanded a lot of travel.
Because of his selflessness, we were able to travel the world together as a family, rather than me constantly being away on business trips. This experience has been enormous fun and has challenged the notion that being extremely involved in business means you’ll be away from your family. For reference, our son went to San Francisco, Milan, France, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore all before he was 2 years old.
I am grateful for their eagerness to go on new adventures, learning to adapt and explore together along the way. We are currently living in Canada, with our son just finishing up first grade. The first half of his school year was spent in the classroom, and the second half was spent with my husband as headteacher and me as deputy headteacher. Those were the hardest jobs either of us have ever had.
As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
For me, prepping for a high-stakes situation involves ensuring I am well rested. Being a parent of a young child, you can imagine how difficult that can be. I’ve certainly learned how to adapt through parenthood, though.
I’m also mindful of what I eat, paying particular attention to the key nutrients my body needs. Juices are a favorite of mine, and often I will go on a 3-day juice cleanse. As I get older, I am also mindful of limiting my alcohol intake, particularly when traveling.
Taking walks to break up my day has been key, and I’ve incorporated a lot of decaf tea into my diet. The process of stepping away from work, making the tea and going for a walk helps center me, clear my head, and helps me avoid the mid-day brain drain. I also find it beneficial to walk around the entire office and in different directions while visiting new coffee spots. The small adventures help me get a feel for the office and general vibe, which has been difficult to incorporate into my current daily routine because of the pandemic.
Given the coronavirus outbreak, my family has rooted itself in a calming strategy. During the early morning hours, my son and I will get up and take our dog out for an hour-long walk. This new routine has provided him an outlet to release some of his high-energy when preparing to be at home for the rest of the day. A small task we created initially to get moving has also provided some of my favorite conversations with him, completely disengaging my mind from all things work-related, preparing me for the workday ahead. I also think there is a certain kind of inspiration that comes from listening to the innocent thoughts of a child, oftentimes providing an inspiration that I would not have been able to source on my own.
The focus for an important and intense meeting comes down to envisioning what you want to gain from the meeting, while simultaneously anticipating what the other attendees are seeking. Sometimes these two goals do not align but preparing for a baseline outcome is crucial. Indeed, if it is not agreeable, you are left with a few more moves. It’s a bit like playing chess.
Finally, I cannot emphasize the importance of downtime enough. I enjoy putting photo books together to bring out my creative side, while being able to relive memories. I also toss on my latest favorite series on Apple TV or Netflix. I focus on maintaining a good work-life balance.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There is an unconscious bias in all of us, stemming from our history and experiences. We owe it to ourselves and our society to critically self-reflect on how we each behave, really honing in on how we acknowledge the issues at hand, and how we can make strides toward becoming more open and comfortable with understanding and discussing the issues.
At Aptum, our customers and users are diverse, so it’s important that as a company reflect the world we live in.
Having taken Aptum on a transformational journey this past year, I am delighted that our executive leadership team is now 42 percent female, and we have a mix of backgrounds and cultures with 50 percent of our recent manager promotions and hires being female.
However, becoming a truly diverse and inclusive organization is an ongoing commitment and as a global company, we are committed to maintaining open communication about our diversity and inclusion goals, opportunities, and challenges. I will say that I am not a fan of quotas to drive inclusion. For me, it will always be about getting the best available talent.
A diverse executive team and workplace is vital because the diversity of thought leads to increased innovative problem solving and ultimately business growth.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We have always polled our employees during engagement surveys to share their thoughts on Aptum being a diverse and inclusive organization. That said, we had never really had the conversation openly beyond gender. So on Black Tuesday, I took the time to write to all of our employees and have subsequently addressed diversity in our employee communication to share our intent and focus as a company to ensure inclusion is at the forefront of business operation decisions.
I favor discussions on the value and opportunity that inclusion creates, be it about talent or creativity or just viewing the world through a different lens instead of applying KPIs or metrics on diversity. Although, tracking and reporting hold us to a measurable standard, it is more important to focus on the meaningful outcome of acting as one inclusive global community.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
There are two primary functions that I have that are different from others in the team:
- Overall responsibility for engaging with our Shareholders / Owners and the Board. This means I wear two hats. A hat for our Owners and achieving shareholder value, and a hat for our Leadership team and running of the company operation. The primary aim is to align these or have a short, near and long-term commitment.
- Holding the organization to account. Helping to ensure we remain focused and aligned to our plan and realizing when the plan needs to adapt. Strategic direction needs to be balanced with the tactical, operational steps and the market demands. It will also be about achieving plan (ideally better than the projected budget!).
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I have experienced two myths that probably need to be addressed; one is that an executive is not pushing down on the organization how something should be done. An executive aims to understand the what and enable and empower the how of the company. If individuals feel they are being told how (as opposed to being coached or developed to achieving the how), we have a real challenge.
The CEO is not always responsible but will and should always take responsibility. it is important to listen, to inspect what you expect and remain consistent. Different CEOs will play to their strengths. For example, I am a transformation CEO, very hands-on, involved in the details. Equally as important is being able to step out of the detail and focus on strategic direction. Some CEOs are more technical, and others are more strategic and less involved in the day to day. The appointment of a CEO will depend very much on what the company prioritizes and needs. The best CEOs are adaptable to what is needed at a given moment. I aspire to be that CEO.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It is the unconscious bias in all of us that leads us to see and hear things differently.
For many years (and it still happens today), if a female responds to a question directly and then passes the matter back to the individual to ask them for additional thoughts, they may be considered “too direct” or threatening.” If a female CEO is vocal, then they may be viewed as “emotional” or “aggressive.”
I saw a great initiative recently, which showcased how unconscious bias can lead to how female leaders are considered and described. For example, a female is viewed as “pushy” as opposed to being persuasive, or abrasive instead of assertive. Let’s face it, women leaders are often referred to as “bossy” instead of the Boss.
There are also social standings and conversations that have a natural unconscious bias. During a recent meeting with a potential supplier in the UK, for example, the conversation quickly shifted to football (soccer). As the CEO of the supplier company went around the table asking everyone’s favorite football club team, he quickly skipped over me and went to the next (male) person in the room. In case you’re wondering, I do have a favorite. We are proud season ticket supporters of the Southampton Football Club for more than 20 years.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference was how much an organization tries to keep things off your desk.
I have never viewed the application of strict hierarchy as a positive institutional asset. While I am also not suggesting a company needs to make decisions by committee, I strongly believe that the best leaders and CEOs are the ones who are generous with their time, ask questions and are curious and seen at all levels in the organization.
Sometimes, the CEO can help solve a problem because they can see all aspects of the company and help make decisions quickly by weighing the balance or impact of the decision. Therefore, transparency up through the organization is as vital as it is coming down. I work hard to create a reachable and open personal style.
Meg Whitman, former CEO at Hewlett Packard and eBay, is a prime example of the approachable CEO. I learned a lot from her and welcomed her transparency and open communication style. In the 16 years I was with HP, I experienced a number of CEOs and took notice of those who didn’t take time to connect with the organization, and the struggles faced as a consequence.
In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Key traits for any leader are adaptability, positive attitude, collaboration, grit, compassion and commitment.
The role of an executive is not easy. There are many uncertainties, and there is often a lot of pressure. It is important to walk into an executive role with your eyes open. You will more than likely be judged from all angles and need to be prepared to listen and determine the relevance of this judgment on company success.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be yourself. Do not try to be anyone else.
Over the years, I have noticed the times when I was being held back or told I was disruptive. One time, I even started to dress like everyone around me, wearing tailored black and grey suits to camouflage myself into the rest of the workforce, which was mostly men. It is only now when I look back that I realize that I was always intended to be in a leadership role where you can stimulate creative thinking and lead this mindset forward. I now work to stay connected with other female leaders and give my time to support them.
Stay true to your values and your talent will shine through and expect that often you will look at things from a different angle to your male counterparts, which should be celebrated not criticized.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I advocate for girls and women to see STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as exciting and a career to strive for. I volunteer and donate to initiatives such as Speakers for Schools, Tech Talent Charter, along with Black Girls Code and Code First Girls.
I believe the more we can encourage females at a young age to see STEM as stimulating and impactful, the greater our society will be.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Whatever you do, somebody will not be aligned with your approach. Try not to get distracted by this. For example, I’ve received personal critiques or comments on my leadership style from individuals in the past. And, while I evaluate what this might mean for me and how I could improve, I strive to not get fixated on the negative. Instead, I shift my focus to the overall team and how I can better support them.
- You are not going to transform an organization if you do not face the systemic problems within — understand them, highlight them, work to tackle them. In every organization, there will be people who can’t see beyond what they have always done or known. Sometimes it is necessary to call the problem out and bring it to the forefront. In my experience, once teams can see the problem from a different lens, they can typically buy-in to find new ways of working. It is about taking the time to facilitate the discussion and highlight the issue that needs to be solved.
- Have courage. For every person aligned with you, there will be somebody who doesn’t and you will need to have courage to provide the clear direction that everybody will be seeking from you.
- Stay the course of what you are trying to achieve. In the role of CEO, you can see the bigger picture of organizational health and future goals to achieve. Courage is needed to help people go on the journey when they can’t see the wood for the trees.
- Be generous with your time, even if it’s just saying hello as you walk around. Your company will only be as great as your people and the heart and soul that they pour into it — so put your heart and soul into them. For me, this means dropping individual notes to team members at all levels, hosting site-based conversations, sending a happy birthday note to employees, and more. Be available on collaboration channels, even external ones such as LinkedIn. Taking time to network across the industry and in other industries helps you remain fresh and informed. At the same time, you are supporting and enabling others.
- The CEO title will always walk through the metaphoric door ahead of you, but it’s important to remember who you are. That’s the CEO that people will respect. There will always be somebody who believes that because you are CEO, you should dress and act a certain way. When I was first promoted to president of Aptum, I was told my new office would be in the “power corner” next to the CFO. I quickly realized it was the office that had the least amount of footfall and that people couldn’t tell if I was there or not. I quickly found an alternative space that was on the route between the main desk area and the coffee machine. I keep the door open and say hello, smile or wave to everyone who walks by and I purposefully spend the most amount of my time out and about with everyone.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to help people recognize what good mental health looks like and the steps they can take to achieve it.
The reality is that while we are all focused on fighting SARS and COVID-19, there’s been another pandemic running rampant for years when it comes to mental health. And, while it is encouraging to see mental health talked about more freely, I know the pain and the impact of suicide, and recognize that there is a multitude of silent sufferers in the world who do not have access to resources to seek help.
With that in mind, I would endeavor to create an app that utilizes AI and medical knowledge and expertise to read our behaviors and provide support for those individuals who do not know how to do so, letting people know that it will be ok.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is a series of choices, not regrets.” My Nana said this to me many times as a teenager, and I continue to hold it close. It’s relevant in everything we do. We make choices every day; some are incidental, while others are impactful. The key is to remember that we had the opportunity to do or not do something. We can’t live with regrets. Instead, we should recognize that we made a choice and that we have the opportunity to make a different one next time.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!
Can I be cheeky and ask for a dynamic couple? If so, I’ll take Mr. and Mrs. Obama, please. I would love to learn from their generosity and graciousness in what they have achieved both individually and in their support for each other. It is commendable and inspiring. For me, it is not about the political landscape of their contribution, but more about their leadership style, approach, as well as family focus and societal innovation. I think we could all do with bringing out the Obama in us.