Amy Cappellanti-Wolf: “Be open, honest, and real”

Be open, honest, and real. Paint a picture of your company’s mission and purpose and be the chief guide and communicator of aligning people towards your vision. Tell stories, fail fast, be accountable, tell the truth, good and bad, and have data to back up your perspective. Hire great leaders that will represent you and […]

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Be open, honest, and real. Paint a picture of your company’s mission and purpose and be the chief guide and communicator of aligning people towards your vision. Tell stories, fail fast, be accountable, tell the truth, good and bad, and have data to back up your perspective. Hire great leaders that will represent you and help you cascade and operationalize your vision and objectives. Be accessible to leaders, middle managers, and the peeps — take care to manage your say/do ratio. At the end of the day, it is about trust and belief as there are lots of choices for talent to consider in the marketplace.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Cappellanti-Wolf.

Amy Cappellanti-Wolf is an accomplished senior human resources professional, business transformer and executive coach with expertise in working with startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. Her capabilities focus on developing high performance leadership teams and guiding organizations through complex and challenging business transformations, including pre-IPO, rapid growth, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, and culture changes. Her management roles span high-tech (Symantec, Silver Spring Networks, Cisco, Sun Microsystems), entertainment (The Walt Disney Company), and consumer goods (Frito-Lay). Amy’s specialty areas include Business Transformation and Change Management, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Organizational Design and Process Management, and Total Rewards.

Amy holds an M.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations and a B.S. in Journalism and Public Relations, both from WVU. She sits on the Board of Directors for Softchoice, an IT solutions and managed service provider, and Betterworks, a performance management platform, and is an HR Advisory Member to Betterworks and Hitch, a company focused on an end-to-end talent operating platform. Recently named one of the top 50 most influential women tech leaders by the National Diversity Council, Amy has been a Forbes Human Resources Council Official Member since September 2018. In October 2019, Amy was named to the Roll of Distinguished Alumni at WVU’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

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 started your career?

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 in revenue down to 12,000 employees and $5B 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.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times, when people quit their jobs, they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

Today, with all of the turmoil…Covid, remote work, home schooling, racial injustice, political drama…it is incumbent on leaders to be empathetic and take an interest in how their employees are feeling and managing through these unprecedented times. Managers need to listen more and be authentic and transparent in helping employees navigate business priorities and uncertainty. Employees will remember how they were treated during this time. Being thoughtful, treating employees with respect, and offering programs to support employees and their families, such as health and mental wellness, will be critical for long-term retention.

How do you synchronize large teams to work together effectively?

It is all about alignment. Now more than ever leaders need to ensure their teams are aligned towards the most critical priorities. Creating alignment requires a strong operating cadence including constant and clear communication, two-way dialogue, check-ins on progress against goals and achievements. We can no longer walk around the workplace and have casual collisions with one another, catching up on business priorities or answer that “quick” question. A new level of rigor and discipline needs to be in place while also ensuring employees have downtime in their day to rejuvenate as work is at home and home is at work.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Manage a Team Successfully”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

The first thing to understand is your team’s priorities so that you can align everyone’s’ goals to the most important deliverables. Ensure you have well-stated goals, key performance indicators, timelines and contingency plans as priorities shift. Always take the time to share business context, so employees have a line of sight to how their work contributes to the company’s success. One other important point is to ensure you are connected with critical stakeholders that rely on your output to achieve their goals or for whom you need to complete your objectives. Cross-functional and organizational collaboration, understanding upstream and downstream impacts, is critical to your team’s success.

The second success factor would be to understand and get to know your employees. Understand what motivates them, what they have passion for in their work and personal lives, what they aspire to be, their talents, and how to best exponentialize their gifts and minimize their weaknesses. I recall attending a Gallup Leadership program while I was at Disney, and they reframed an old saying from “Do on to others as you would like to be done upon” to “Do on to others as they would like to be done upon.” You can’t do that unless you know your people and what inspires them.

Managers have to be comfortable giving positive and constructive feedback and they also need to ask for and be open to feedback from their team. Two-way dialogue, constant conversations on performance and priorities, and the ability to manage the whole person and not just the tactics will help build a trusting and connected relationship. I had a manager who believed that you should not expect feedback once you get to a certain level, and thus you win or fail on your self-awareness. I completely disagreed with this notion and believe everyone deserves honest and actionable feedback regardless if you are an individual contributor or senior executive. Feedback is an investment and gift, and there is always something we can learn and internalize.

As a manager, you also have to be able to advocate for your team. Many managers don’t invest the time to showcase their teams. As a manager, it is incumbent to ensure your leaders and peers understand the value your team is generating and the challenges the team is facing to remove obstacles. I always think about when budget cuts come into play, and suddenly decisions are made in a vacuum. Being proactive and data-driven about the value your team produces can mitigate impacts from budget reductions or at least bring you into the conversation to address budget gaps with minimal impact to your team.

The last capability managers need to invest their time in is creating a culture of recognition. When employees are empowered to recognize outstanding work, they feel like they matter. And that moment of being appreciated or showing appreciation drives a sense of belonging and being included. Identifying the two core human needs, appreciation and inclusivity, can create a sense of community and encourage your employees to go the extra mile for themselves and their teams. Study after study shows that diverse teams outperform, and through recognition, a manager can build the bridge between diversity in the workplace and helping employees feel included.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Be open, honest, and real. Paint a picture of your company’s mission and purpose and be the chief guide and communicator of aligning people towards your vision. Tell stories, fail fast, be accountable, tell the truth, good and bad, and have data to back up your perspective. Hire great leaders that will represent you and help you cascade and operationalize your vision and objectives. Be accessible to leaders, middle managers, and the peeps — take care to manage your say/do ratio. At the end of the day, it is about trust and belief as there are lots of choices for talent to consider in the marketplace.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount 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.

Thank you for these great insights!

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