This year’s HROA Man of the Year, EquaTerra’s Lowell Williams, offers up thoughts about HR’s evolving needs, the looming talent crisis, and the aging effects of trans-Atlantic flights.
Career changes can be unsettling for most people, but Lowell Williams has made an art of it. A one-time small-town boy who’s made a big name for himself in the HRO industry, he is a lawyer-turned-HR executive-turned-HRO pioneer-turned-sourcing advisor, and these days he not only keeps clients on track in their transformational efforts, but Williams also has a hand in helping the industry mature.
At 60, Williams has worn so many different hats that he might have permanent hat hair—although the modest and soft-spoken Tehachapi, CA, native might just crack a joke about his thinning mane. What’s remarkable about his occupational transformations, however, is that each new turn seemed a natural extension of the previous one. And with each new identity, the Ivy League-educated Williams, now a senior advisor with EquaTerra, has enjoyed substantial successes.
Need validation of his credentials? Well known in the HRO industry, Williams in April was named the HRO Association’s Person of the Year, only the fourth
recipient ever to receive the nod. Williams was recognized for a number of contributions he’s made to outsourcing during the past decade, including his work on the OpenDoorHRO standards initiative, speaking engagements at numerous industry events, and his work with myriad stakeholders including buyers, providers, and others.
“The Person of the Year Award is supposed to recognize someone who is committed to the growth and development of the HR outsourcing industry and the HR profession as a whole. We should not be focused on business projects, but instead on the usefulness of sourcing as a business lever and the integration of sourcing into HR service delivery to make all aspects of our service better,” he said. “That is what all of my background has been about. Human resources, law, and technology services have all been, at the end of the day, about serving employees and customers, and that is why it was wonderful to have my colleagues in the provider, advisory, and HR service businesses recognize the value of using all our various tools to better serve our clients.”
Williams can often be found speaking at industry events, penning articles and, most of all, on-site at a client’s headquarters engaged in profound transformational discussions. His unique professional background and skills afford him a perspective from all quarters: as a buyer, a provider, and sourcing and legal advisor—a trifecta of outsourcing knowledge. But while you might assume Williams harbors wanderlust in his career goals, he said the truth is that over the decades, he’s always been interested in protecting and nurturing workers. It’s the reason why he began his professional life as an attorney specializing in ERISA issues, why he then took on the role of HR leader, and why he continues to help client companies improve the delivery of HR services through outsourcing and other transformational efforts.
He explained that when he first began in the legal field, he often encountered cases of workers charging unfair treatment by managers. In some cases, the complaints were just; in others, the employer had failed to communicate a very legitimate reason for what seemed to be arbitrary actions. Compelled by his own experience with immigrant workers while growing up in rural California, he took on an advocacy role, helping to resolve issues for workers and employers alike.
“Often, misunderstandings at all levels in an employment setting can occur. I thought it was valuable for people to understand whether they were fairly treated and not to be captive to a particular circumstance,” he pointed out. “I wanted to make sure people are treated fairly on both sides. I thought that was very much a worthwhile effort.”
From Legal to HR
His advocacy of workers’ rights, balanced by the needs of the employers, has been a constant in an otherwise evolving career. As a former labor attorney who began his professional life looking after their legal interests, Lowell eventually found himself in a role of nurturing workers. After having reached a senior legal position at Elf Aquitaine, the French oil company that merged with TotalFina in 2000, he was asked by his bosses to streamline and modernize the company’s North American HR operations. Williams recalled that at the time, in 1986, senior management felt that its 9,000 North American employees were not properly served and that some services such as compensation planning did not measure up to those of other businesses. So for the next 10 years, he helped transform HR operations there without outsourcing as a tool or today’s technology as support.
It was during this time that Williams cut his teeth on an even bigger role—HR leader for Honeywell Bull, now part of the French IT group Bull. Responsible for HR for 30,000 global employees, his role not only grew by sheer number but also by geography. For 19 months, he recalled, Williams commuted every week from the U.S. to the company’s global headquarters in Paris. While the experience was rewarding, he joked about the toll it took on him.
“I’m only 27, but I look like I’m 60,” he deadpanned. “I have so many [frequent flier] miles that I actually own my own American Airlines 747.”
In both HR leadership roles, Williams said he honed his skills in people development—whether through compensation planning, career counseling, or other ways of engaging the workforce. He recalled advising the chairman of Elf that the company lacked diversity and, as a result, suffered from diminished creativity. He also told the chairman that he needed to reach out to the rank and file, “walk the office and invest in humanity.”
At Bull, he took the open-door policy to an extreme by having the doors of his office removed to demonstrate that he was accessible to employees. And in a culture that shunned breakfast meetings, he offered to meet with managers at 7:30 in the morning to help them resolve their people issues. He said these were all the strategic activities that HR should be doing.
“I think the most exciting thing is helping to find the right people and getting them in a place where they can really show how good they are, getting them in the right business setting, and getting them on the right team. There are tremendously talented people who with a little bit of coaching can really flower,” he added.
Creating an Industry
After a five-year stint at Bull, Williams got the itch to change direction again, this time after being recruited to help a little-known startup get off the ground. It was actually a seminal moment in HRO, and the company, Exult, was acquired later by today’s enterprise market leader, Hewitt. He recalled during the heady days of HRO that a lot of cash was being pumped into the sector based on outsourcing’s promise, and for talented, experienced HR insiders, it was akin to a gold rush.
“Exult was a pot full of money looking for a business solution,” he said, recalling that the service provider signed its first client, British Petroleum (BP), on December 7, 1999. “I was at the time back in Europe, this time living in London and helping to build solutions and showing clients how to do this. It was a wonderful time. We were creating a new industry.”
Williams was no doubt one of the pivotal stakeholders who helped Exult break new ground, and those who stood with him then recalled his contributions in germinating HRO across today’s business process outsourcing landscape.
“Lowell has a unique and broad set of competencies, including HR strategy, HR operations, legal, and line management. Lowell was one of the early practitioners of HRO. He was simultaneously educating novice clients at the time he was teaching a brand new HR outsourcer (Exult) what HR was all about,” said Mark Hodges, chairman and a founder of EquaTerra who also played an instrumental role in creating Exult. “Lowell knows more about the HRO industry and HRO deals than the next five advisors combined.”
Williams said the launch of Exult was one of the highlights of his career, and it also solidified the reputations of a few industry legends—pioneers such as Kevin Campbell, who now heads up all outsourcing for Accenture; Jim Madden, the former CEO of Exult and current partner with private equity firm Accretive; and Hodges, who has worked with scores of HR organizations as a sourcing advisor. Even private equity firm General Atlantic ensured its place in HRO’s history for having conceived and funded Exult’s launch.
Helping to found anything—especially an entire industry—is fulfilling enough for most professionals, but Williams didn’t cling to Exult. He left in 2002 to help start up EquaTerra, today recognized as one of the top sourcing advisory firms in the world. After watching his Exult efforts take root across many industries, he wanted to guide practitioners further in their outsourcing endeavors. Just as he had done many times before, Williams traded in his provider business cards for consulting ones.
But why give up a sure thing? Exult was on an upward trajectory, culminating in a 2004 buyout by benefits administration giant Hewitt. Yet Williams left two years before the landmark acquisition. Again, he was driven by his desire to create something new, a shift that offered him a chance to work with clients in various industries.
“Frankly, one of the reasons we set up EquaTerra was because we wanted to be really active in the marketplace in HRO,” he said, acknowledging that at the time it was a risk for him to make the change. Nevertheless, he welcomed yet another challenge and occupation.
As a sourcing consultant, Williams’ mission at EquaTerra was markedly different from his goals at the service provider. While Exult customers needed to be finessed, sourcing advisors are tasked with giving their clients straight-up assessments of HR operations. That means telling HR leaders bold facts that they might find difficult to accept.
“We’re very straightforward with our clients. We don’t do a lot of dodging and weaving. We tell people if something might be a mistake,” he said. “In the consulting world, you have to be somewhat careful of how you say that. We always felt that you have to be perfectly honest with your client.”
As he had done so many times before, Williams knew he wanted to continue to help HR evolve into a better performer. He wants organizations to focus on how human capital needs are evolving, as many businesses face a talent shortage in the years ahead. That means talent management has emerged as one of the most important HR services. As demographics shift, he added, HR professionals with particularly strong business background and an understanding of the talent needs of businesses will be most likely to lead their organizations in the near future.
“I think today’s senior HR executives in larger companies have to focus on talent: acquisition, hiring, training, rewarding, and getting them in the right job. It’s a looming crisis,” he said, noting that many mid- and senior-level managers today lead more by instinct and less by documented process. It works well in most companies until the forthcoming wave of retirements begins to occur. Then he added, “It’s a titanic problem.”
He foresees nationwide declines in worker productivity, following a string of increases over the past six years. And this is why HR organizations need to aggressively examine succession planning, talent management, and other strategic HR functions to help them protect their most valuable asset: people. To support them in this campaign, outsourcing may be a necessity.
“When it’s done comprehensively, it can give HR executives, COOs, and CEOs the real tools to manage the business and to manage the people who grow the business,” he added.
As he reflected on his career journey, Williams said he has enjoyed every one of his occupations, even those preceding his law school days. “There is no wasted experience. Before I got to law school, I worked as a translator, and before that I worked as a respiratory therapist at a hospital,” he added, noting that all of his previous experiences have helped him in his current endeavors.
What will Williams gravitate toward when he’s ready to put consulting behind him? He’s not sure, but you can bet it will probably be yet another chapter in his storied career. One possible clue points to a life in academia, as he currently teaches a business course at alma mater Columbia University. There is even talk about setting up a curriculum on outsourcing. If that’s the case, you can be sure Williams will leave his indelible mark on yet another profession.