HOW HR MANAGERS CAN RISE TO CEO – An Interview with Larry Washow

Meet the HR Manager who became a successful CEO: Larry Washow was COO (1998 – 2000) and then CEO and President (2000 – 2010) of Amcol, a $1.5 billion (market cap) global company in minerals, oil field services, environmental services, and transportation.  What is unusual is that Larry was an HR manager from 1977 until 1985, and then a general manager (up to CE0) from 1985 until 2010, when he retired.  The performance of Amcol when Larry was CEO was terrific (although he shows humility saying those were the growth 1990s).  How did he do it – transition from Human Resources to general management, and all the way to CEO?  Read Larry’s keen insights and practical advice about using initiative and leadership to not just elevate talent management, but to drive successful company strategies.

Larry:  I graduated high school in 1971 and attended Miami of Ohio, graduating in 1974 in Communications, hoping to become a famous sports announcer.  In college I was the local broadcaster for football games, but researched job prospects, and concluded that only a handful of would-be announcers ever succeed.  So, I decided against pursuing that dream.

Lesson:  Learn public speaking – I’ve used my public speaking skills in every job, to convey a vision and motivate people.  Managers with very good public speaking skills are more promotable.

Lesson: During your school years, study what businesses are creating the most jobs and study what those jobs are.  It’s [easy these days with Google].  And be realistic about career opportunities.

Larry:  Evenings, weekends and summers I worked for a tiny (12-person) chrome-plating company, so small that every employee had to chip in and be flexible, doing what had to be done.  I loved the experience of learning and being able to contribute to the company, even though I was young and working part time.

Lesson: Consider joining a smaller company to be able to learn, grow, and make changes not possible in large companies with a program to teach college grads “their way.”  But this makes sense only if you’re a ball of fire, super flexible (work any hours in a crisis), and if you’ll have ideas the owner will actually implement.

Lesson:  Always have a career plan.  I didn’t until much later in my career.  Expect it to change over the years, but in retrospect (in spite of the note above), I might have been better trained for general management had I worked for a large company that rotated college hires through various jobs to see if a person is best suited for any particular function (HR, sales, or whatever) or general management.  However, the advantage of working in smaller companies is real, too – more opportunity to participate in significant decisions and learn from a broad range of experiences.  I guess the point I’m making is this:  It doesn’t matter a whole lot if you join a big or small company early in your career.  The important thing is to put points on the scoreboard – work really hard and accomplish a whole lot so that you’ll be promotable and your references will be outstanding.

Larry:  From 1977 – 1978 I worked for a 100-person screw and nut company, using my minor in psychology to get a job in HR.  I worked for Jim Gray, a major influence on my career.   He constantly showed me how to connect even the most basic HR work to overall company strategy.

Lesson:  Master hiring best practices, perhaps the most important HR skill.  Topgrading has the most proven hiring success.

Lesson:  Constantly connect HR strategy to overall business strategy; do not stay in your office looking at your computer all day. Whatever your role, spend time learning about the business. Be curious, ask questions, and develop an understanding about what really impacts the total business.

Larry:  Jim Gray was also consulting at the company that became Amcol, and introduced me to the management team.  I thought it would be a good move to join Amcol, because my resourcefulness and energy were becoming stifled.  For example, I offered to create training programs I felt were sorely needed for productivity and safety reasons, but was told no, because new hires can “just learn while doing the job.”

My boss at Amcol, the head of Industrial Relations, was terminated and initially I didn’t think of applying for the position.  Another major career mentor, John Hughes, encouraged me to write down my strengths, what I’d need to learn, and go for the job.  I did, and got it.  I still didn’t have a career plan, so to broaden my perspective and credentials, I attended Northwestern’s MBA program nights, completing the degree in 1981.  I’m happy I did.

Lesson:  Prepare for promotions well in advance of likely opportunities; but even if you aren’t fully prepared, apply for promotions and say how you will get up to speed quickly — and then do a great job.

Lesson:  An MBA from a respected school provides opportunities to learn, not just from professors, but from other students, to develop your network, and to add to your resume.

Larry:  When the oil boom collapsed in the early 80s, we had to let go 300 out of the company’s 600 employees.  It was a horrible experience, but I immersed myself personally … to try to help those leaving, and to keep in mind that these are real people with dreams and expectations, making the consequences of layoffs very real.

Lesson:  Don’t just send out releases – empathize and really feel the pain of people who are devastated.  It will be a constant reminder that HR is not just an office function, but a function that, if done very well, can support the strategy of the company and minimize pain in downturns.

Lesson:  I’m repeating myself, but … learn the whole business.  Ride with sales people, ask financial managers to explain complex numbers, talk with Marketing about future products.  Riding with a sales rep, you might decide sales is for you … and you might hear sales reps marveling at how competitors are coming up with better innovations than ours.  You might sense that sales reps are emphasizing (or incentivized toward) total revenue when the finance manager said just last week that without higher margins, the future of the company is in jeopardy.  Share your insights with other functions and they will be surprised and encouraged that you care, you learn, and you can reach out to help the whole company succeed.  Every HR professional or manager should think like a CEO – understand the whole business, never stop learning, and convert your growing body of knowledge to make HR a driver of total business strategy.  It will make you more effective in HR, and if you are interested in general management, it will make you more promotable.

Larry:  In 1986, a new division was being created that was completely different than our primary business.  I did not have any experience in building a new company from scratch, but my mentor, John Hughes, encouraged me to take on the role.   I would not have applied for a general management job because of so much I didn’t know – finance, marketing, operations, etc.  He provided support and tolerated some pain as I sometimes learned through trial and error, but the end result was a great team — creating a company called Chemdal ,starting from $0 and growing to $250 million in sales.  Later, I became COO of Amcol and, finally, CEO.  Since retiring, I have served on several boards of directors.

Lesson:  Again, in retrospect, I could have done a lot more to prepare for a promotion into general management.  If you’re interested in becoming a CEO, please consider my advice to do a lot of things I would not have done had I not had such wonderful mentors.

Lesson:  Seek out mentors – A Players who believe in you and will support you.  I was just lucky, having two wonderful mentors.

Lesson:  Don’t necessarily do what I did — stay with one company.  But don’t be a perennial job hopper; maybe switch employers every 6 or 8 years just to broaden your horizons and see everything with fresh eyes.

Larry:  Since having HR report to me during the last 14 years of my career, I’ve learned some more lessons:

Lesson:  Don’t be a “flavor of the month” function.  Don’t try to show you’re important by experimenting with this initiative or that, to see if something sticks.

Lesson:  Lead, lead, lead change.  Settle on initiatives that will drive company strategy, and then go out and sell managers at all levels on following through.  HR has too few leaders; become one!

Lesson: Do not fear being held accountable.  Quality of hire is a one of the most important measures, but I’m guessing only 5% of HR managers have ever offered to be held accountable for hiring high performers.

Final Lesson:  Don’t associate with just HR managers and only attend HR conferences.  If you can, go to industry meetings and conferences for CEOs, general managers, and strategy gurus, even if you have no interest in general management.  HR is too inbred with very, very little true innovation that really drives overall business strategy.

CONCLUSION: Sorry, this got longer than I expected but I truly believe that HR should be a great source of strong general managers.  However, you need to really understand business and be an active participant and contributor across the entire company.  Hopefully sharing my experiences may help some of you enjoy more successful and fulfilling careers.

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