Pivoting, questioning and always learning: Amy Cappellanti-Wolf

If there’s one secret HR leaders can learn from Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, it’s that knowing when to pivot is key.

After a three-decade HR career that began with Frito Lay and the Walt Disney Co. before she joined a who’s-who of tech giants–Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Silver Spring Networks and then Symantec–Cappellanti-Wolf decided to leave her CHRO role when Symantec agreed last year to sell its $10.7 billion enterprise-security asset to Broadcom.

It wasn’t her first pivot; that was as an undergrad at West Virginia University, when she switched from pre-chemistry (“I wasn’t passionate about periodic tables”) to journalism. Then, after the economic downturn of the mid-’80s, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations at her alma mater. She got straight As and realized she’d “found her calling.”

Amy Cappellanti-Wolf

Fast-forward to August 2019, when the Broadcom deal went through. “I signaled then that, after the transition was complete, I would move on,” she explains. “I’d been there for five-and-a-half years and the business was much smaller. I thought I would probably do something different and it was a chance to get the next team to step up and take on this role. I named my successor, who worked for me for several years–Kara Jordan, a high-potential, commercial and smart business partner who is now the head of HR for NortonLifeLock, Symantec’s former consumer cybersecurity division.”

During the coming months, Cappellanti-Wolf says she plans to take some time off for the first time in her career. “You can’t count two pregnancies and staying home for four months,” she quips. She’s also visiting family, including one of her life’s biggest inspirations who taught her she could do anything she set her mind to: her 92-year-old mother, who still reads the New York Times every day and stays very current with politics. She’ll also be doing public-speaking engagements and writing articles for the Forbes Human Resource Council.

HRE: What did you learn early in your career about succeeding in HR?

Cappellanti-Wolf: Frito Lay taught me all about business acumen. If you’re going to be a really good HR practitioner, you’ve got to understand the business, how they make their money, how profitable they are, who their market competitors are, how they’re perceived by their customers and what shareholders expect. I learned very early on that business becomes absolutely a priority, and then you can help represent what the employees need because you understand the business.

I got a job with Disney’s real estate development company [when] they were doing a start-up called the Disney Institute, which was a new concept around adult learning in Orlando for Disney visitors. Then, I moved into Imagineering, which designs all the theme parks, which was merging with the Disney Development Co. I worked with super-creative folks and also with project management and estimators. I had to help those two factions work well together because they both need each other in order to deliver memorable experiences through rides and shows.

HRE: You’ve said you got into the tech sector after you and your husband decided to move to California, which was more diverse than Orlando and where you could grow your careers. Your husband got a campus-development job at Apple and you decided not to stay with Disney and commute between L.A. and San Jose. What happened then?

Cappellanti-Wolf: I said, “I really think I need to get a job in the Valley and really understand this thing called Silicon Valley.” A lot of the folks in HR at the time had been supporting the business or running TA or were an admin of sorts, and they had these rocket careers because they were in the right place at the right time. I came in with kind of an academy background of human resources with larger, more stable companies, in terms of the old economy.

My learning agility was at peak powers because I had to really quickly learn [about the business]. The dig on me was, “How are you going to understand technology if you came out of the consumer-products and entertainment industries?” I said, “I think you can apply cross-industry experience, as long as you understand the business.” So, that’s how I stepped into technology, and Sun Microsystems was my first place.

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Cappellanti-Wolf: First of all, speak the language of the business. Really understand the economic value of what is happening in relationship to these transformations. Is it about a huge acquisition that requires lots of integration? Is it more about a tuck-in, where you’re [adding in] a small team of technology? Is it about cost optimization from the transformational perspective, or is it about innovating and marketing new products? Once you understand the business thesis and economic thesis, it makes being able to communicate and think through the change that much easier because you’re speaking the language of the business. You know what levers to pull from a human resources perspective.

The second thing is you have to influence–absolutely front-and-center–the employee experience as they’re going through the change process. Sometimes, the employee experience is going to suck. [If the company is] going to lay off 1,000 people, to tell people it’s a good thing for them is inauthentic and it’s not true. So, sometimes, the employee experience may suffer, but I think you have to be upfront with people about what to expect and then do your best. If it’s going to be around restructuring, be transparent and timely in your communications. Commit to what you’re committing to; your “say/do” ratio needs to be high. And then you have to, as best you can, treat people with dignity and respect and move through it pretty rapidly.

The last thing is that it’s not only HR’s job to manage change–it’s the business’. Create a joint responsibility around how you’re going to move to the change, around quick decision-making and around what the criteria is that’s going to be communicated. Very often, the change has to come from the leaders and HR is there to help craft and stand them up so they can be effective in doing that.

HRE: What advice would you give to others about how to succeed in their strategic HR leadership roles?

Cappellanti-Wolf: It’s a long game. It’s that notion that you’ve lost the battle, but you win the war. As an HR professional, you’re going to have days where you have lots of influence or are able to enact some really great outcomes and others where you have got to take another stab at it. I always likened myself to the queen of the 16-point turn. In my role, you have to pivot many different ways to get to the right solution and sometimes it requires going back or trying a new approach. So, don’t be shy about that.

You’ve got to have courage. I think sometimes HR people are in service to–versus in support of–and I think sometimes you have to say, “Is that what you want or what you need?”, “That’s a bad idea” or “That’s completely unethical.” You have to be OK with conflict, and you have to be able to not only dish it out but take it.

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HRE: What’s your next step?

Cappellanti-Wolf: I don’t know if it’s going to be a big job as head of HR–it would have to be the right CEO, the right business model, the right opportunity and mission. And/or I’d also like to get on some public boards. Right now, I’m on a few private boards. I think I could contribute a lot and experience something new since I’ve only been on the other side of the management team. That would really be inspiring for me.

HRE: What about your life outside work?

Cappellanti-Wolf: I’ve got two daughters and a fantastic husband, and we’re very active. We are snow skiers and water skiers. I run a lot. One daughter plays lacrosse, and one’s a dancer. I’m on the parish council at St. Simon’s and I’m involved in my daughters’ schools. So, there’s always something we’re doing. I’m also on the board of a nonprofit for foster youth, which I’m a big supporter of and believer in. I feel like I’ve learned so much in my day job so, how can I give back? And, how can I stimulate my thinking? When you stop learning is when you die, and I want to continue to learn and make mistakes and pick myself up–that’s worked for me in the past and I will keep doing it.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].