…Leverage your ability to collaborate, to problem solve, to build strong and trusting relationships, to listen, and to advocate for and provide access to under-represented talent. We have so many incredible talents and for too long, we have been trying to emulate dominant male attributes in order to fit in and be successful. Use your innate talents and distinguish yourself by empowering others to develop and grow, admitting mistakes and learning from others, putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done and showing confidence in your team by holding them accountable for their performance.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Cappellanti-Wolf.
Amy Cappellanti-Wolf is Former SVP & CHRO for Symantec, the world’s largest cyber security software company. During her career, Amy has led human resources teams in the high tech, entertainment and consumer products industries. She has extensive experience in organizational effectiveness, leadership and talent development, and business transformations including complex mergers, acquisitions and divestitures.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Amy! 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 did not wake up one day thinking I should build a career in human resources. Quite frankly, I stumbled across this unique opportunity to align business and people thanks to a poor economy back in the late 1980’s. I had just graduated with a degree in journalism and was aspiring to move to Washington, D.C. to take a job reporting on politics and the like in a city so filled with stories to tell. The market was not the strongest when I graduated, and after much job (and a little soul) searching, I decided to apply to graduate school. I happened upon a Masters of Industrial and Labor Relations program that was part of the business and economics school. I was immediately drawn to the opportunity to study the cross-section of human and organizational behavior and its impact on company success. I was recruited to join Frito-Lay upon graduating to a fast track HR Associate program and was assigned my first role in a manufacturing facility in Atlanta. I knew after only a few short months working in the plant and being exposed to a strong HR academy program at Frito-Lay, that human resources would be my calling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In my most recent role, I led human resources and real estate for Symantec, a global cybersecurity software company. Within a month of joining in July 2014, we announced we were going to break the company practically in half and divest our storage business known as Veritas. This meant we were going from 20,000 employees and 7B dollars in revenue down to 12,000 employees and 5B dollars in revenue, and all of this had to be done in 12 months. Being new to the company, I had to immediately step into my leadership role to drive organizational modeling, people alignment, and carve out global sales and infrastructure teams in over 48 countries, while helping to build the new team that would lead Symantec as it repositioned itself as a solely-focused cybersecurity company. I had worked on mergers and acquisitions but never a divestiture and certainly not one of this magnitude. It was an amazing learning experience and a great way to demonstrate my leadership capabilities so early into my new role.
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?
I don’t know if this story is as much of a mistake rather than an exercise in not jumping to conclusions and making it all about you. I was working in a manufacturing plant, and with this particular workforce, there was no lack of drama. Many of the employees had worked together for decades and were often related to each other. We had three shifts at the plant and when there was a shift change, it was a bit chaotic as people came and left in quick order. In this instance, there was a 2nd shift change and as I came back to my office, I found a bag of chips on my desk that was filled with something not even close to an edible salty snack. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what was in the bag. I immediately reacted, thinking someone in the plant had it out for me. I spent the next hour working through my hurt feelings and wondering who could have done this. Later in the afternoon, I was paged by one of the workers who left after the shift change. I came to find the bag left on my desk was not intended for me but was placed in her locker by a fellow disgruntled worker. The employee had to catch a bus home after her shift, and she had dropped by my office to raise a complaint, but instead just left the evidence on my desk with no sticky note!
I learned to resist automatically jumping to conclusions, to take a step back, and not overanalyze the situation. There will be plenty of days when things will occur outside of the ordinary, and you have to remain calm and detached. Although it was a funny learning experience, I never quite looked at a bag of chips the same way after that interaction.
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?
I’d have to say my parents were a huge factor in my success. They were always there to support me, whether it was to hold space for me and just listen or help me solve a problem. They encouraged me to participate in sports, social clubs, and music, while also expecting me to be diligent academically. They owned their own restaurant called Cappellanti’s Grill and through their amazing work ethic, they were able to send their three daughters to college and graduate school. They also raised us with strong values, brought us up in faith and love, and expected great things from us because they truly believed in us.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. 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?
I focus on ensuring I am grounded through meditation, which gets me into a state of inquiry versus judgement. There’s a zen saying, “Drop the conceptual mind with both hands.” If you’re listening to someone and you hold assumptions about them — their motivations and their angle — you won’t be able to fully hear them or see past your own prejudices. It’s not that people don’t have hidden motivations-they do. However, judgments about them simply create noise in the mind. Again and again in meditation, you drop your thoughts, your worries, your avoidance of discomfort, and you are able to simply be with what arises. That skill becomes available in conversation as well. When we hold our assumptions lightly, we lighten up. We can listen to both our counterpart and our own inner dialogue, without imagining the worst. It makes us more forgiving and courageous, thus enabling us to brainstorm and create.
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?
I find it ironic that often we have to make the case why a set of diverse leaders makes better decisions than the 5 white guys sitting across the boardroom table. In study after study, the research consistently shows that there is a substantial positive correlation between diverse leadership teams and financial performance.
- A diverse leadership team will not fall prey to group thoughts, and instead will provide a multitude of insights and ideas on how to size and solve business problems.
- A diverse leadership team will foster inclusive and equitable environments and will increase retention of high potential employees, while reducing turn-over and yielding higher returns on investment in talent.
- A diverse leadership team will better serve a diverse audience by adapting and learning to connect across cultures.
- A diverse leadership team will better reflect the needs of global and emerging markets and customers.
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.
The three words that come to mind for me are inquiry, empathy and access. Too often we are in transmit mode, driving advocacy for our own opinions and positions. We fail to fully listen and operate in a state of inquiry and curiosity. If we took the time to seek to understand other’s position or circumstance, we would be much more empathetic and better equipped to understand how others view and experience the world.
Not only should we embrace these behaviors, but we need to take action and provide sponsorship to those who do not have access to leaders who can help them navigate their career and gain exposure to development and growth opportunities. This requires more than just mentoring, but truly investing your time, leveraging your relationships, and committing to helping someone thrive and grow.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?
When I think of the truly best executives I have worked with, they set a compelling vision and set the vision after deeply listening and understanding the opportunities at hand. They focus on aligning the organization on the critical few priorities, so everyone has a line of sight to how they can contribute. They have a high say/do ratio, and are known for being super transparent, approachable and not afraid to share when they got it wrong. They advocate for and support others while driving performance and accountability. They see the world through an opportunity versus a problem lens.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
We are human and perfectly imperfect. There is an enormous amount of complexity to juggle, and people think the CEO or executive is a superhero and omniscient. While it is incumbent on every leader to have well-laid plans in place and to see around corners, things happen (think Covid-19) that you could never have predicted. In addition to being measured on the plans and outcomes, they should also be evaluated for how they respond in crisis and turn a problem into an opportunity.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
While “traditional” family roles have shifted over the last three decades, I believe women are still burdened with the bulk of the responsibility in running the household — birthing and raising the children, ensuring they are getting the proper education (and are studying!), making sure healthy food is served at the table, while also providing financial stability. While I don’t think there is such a thing as work- life balance, but rather work -life integration, women are the most challenged in trying to find this equilibrium.
At work, while studies show women have attained higher degrees of education, we still have to work harder to prove ourselves and are held to higher performance expectations. Relationships and networks mean a lot in building your career growth, and very often access to key leaders can be limited as many of the c-suite positions are filled by men. Without mentors and sponsors at the top, it is even more challenging for women to progress into executive ranks. There is also the pay equity gap, which is a result of systemic gender bias but also illuminates the opportunity for women to better realize our worth and negotiate for our value.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Long ago, when I worked for leaders more experienced than me, I often thought they spent their days in deep strategy and planning. I perceived that they weren’t bothered by the small things and were there to lead and work above the fray. I soon found after I crossed into the executive suite, that your time is spent in a variety of ways, and certainly not sitting in the corner office ruminating over strategy and future thinking. In a given day, you can be facilitating a leadership meeting, dealing with an employee relations issue, designing a new compensation program, approving procurement requests, evaluating employee survey results, hosting a Diwali event, and mediating disconnects between peers on the executive team. I never realized how agile and fluid you need to be, swiftly moving from strategy to tactics throughout the day as priorities shift. Constant prioritization, seeing around corners, remaining present and not getting caught up in the outcomes are critical to my leadership effectiveness.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. 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?
There are so many traits that make up a successful leader, but the ones that come to mind are perseverance, courage, humility, curiosity, collaboration and authenticity. Leaders who think they know it all and bring the same playbook to each role they take on, rarely succeed or inspire others. My best learnings have been when I failed or things didn’t turn out as planned — one’s ability to take risk, fail fast, learn and pivot is a key differentiator for top leaders.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Leverage your ability to collaborate, to problem solve, to build strong and trusting relationships, to listen, and to advocate for and provide access to under-represented talent. We have so many incredible talents and for too long, we have been trying to emulate dominant male attributes in order to fit in and be successful. Use your innate talents and distinguish yourself by empowering others to develop and grow, admitting mistakes and learning from others, putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done and showing confidence in your team by holding them accountable for their performance.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It first begins with my family. My husband and I have raised two amazing teenage daughters and we have taught them to advocate for themselves and for others without a voice, to be both confident and humble, to always say “thank you and please”, and to pay it forward. I also believe children are our future and I have devoted time serving on boards for my daughters’ school and a non-profit foster youth organization, Pivotal. I have much more to do on this planet, so stay tuned!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “Always stay present, never get caught up in the outcome”: I practice this mantra frequently because very often we lose site of the path we are on and get too focused on the end result.
- “Asking questions is a sign of strength”: I remember taking my first CHRO role and while I thought I knew a lot, turns out I had a lot to learn about, regarding executive compensation and equity plans. I was embarrassed to ask for help, but I realized my learning curve would be much faster if I sought help.
- “Fall seven times, stand up eight”: After you have been around the block a few times, you begin to realize that you’ve seen this fact pattern before and problems that seem insurmountable aren’t.
- “Be clear about the problem you are solving”: It is so easy to jump into action and show your value, but what looks to be the problem may not be the root cause. I always reference Albert Einstein when I think about successful problem solving, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
- “It is better to be respected than to be liked”: Growing up, I remember hearing my mom share these words, mostly to coach me as a teenager dealing with mean girls. But as I became a young professional, these words really resonated with me as too often, we want to please and be liked, and in life, you have to rely upon your personal value system and not those of others.
You are a person of great influence. 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.
Great question and an extremely hard one as there are so many levers to pull for the greater good. In the U.S., I would suggest we need to completely overhaul our educational system, starting with paying our teachers what they deserve for teaching our children. Quality education needs to be accessible, regardless of economic status, and we need to offer paths to higher education and also invest in vocational education. Education is the great equalizer and I fear without modernizing our educational systems, we will never realize equality in this nation.
Can you please give us your favorite „Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” This quote, from Winston Churchill, has always resonated with me as it puts into context what we are here on earth to do, and that is to help others — our youth, our underserved, our communities, our veterans, our environment — the list goes on and on. I always think when I am struggling to prioritize my work and personal commitments, in 10 years from now, is that meeting or call so important or are there other priorities to help others that I have been too busy to focus upon? That reflection helps me to make good choices and balance what is most important in how I want to live my life of helping others without a voice.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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
Personally, I would love to sit down with Dr. Anthony Fauci. For me, he has been a beacon for truth and leadership during a very dark time with the pandemic. I admire that he is a scientist and uses data and facts to form his perspectives. Not to mention, I am very impressed with his courage, fortitude, and grace under fire.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.