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Being open to risks, change leads to opportunity

May 2, 2013 | Alumni

Michael A. Womack ’93 has never been afraid of change. Change has created his opportunities.

“In order to take advantage of opportunities, you need to be willing to move,” said Womack, the senior vice president of human resources at AutoZone in Memphis, Tenn.

Growing up, Womack moved all over the globe, living in Michigan, Canada, Belgium, Haiti, Egypt, and Germany before graduating from high school. He decided to come back to the United States to pursue a college education, but he has relocated several times since then for career opportunities.

“Some people can’t relocate for personal reasons. For others, they want the opportunity to see new places and have new experiences,” he said.

Prior to his position at AutoZone, Womack worked as the vice president of human resources at Cintas Corp. in Cincinnati. Before transitioning into human resources, Womack was Cintas’ vice president and deputy general counsel of labor and employment. Prior to Cintas, Womack was a partner at Littler Mendelson in Columbus, focusing on employment law. His experience at Littler Mendelson gave him a unique and advantageous background for human resources work.

“HR issues transverse legal issues in a number of ways, so it was a very logical transition from a legal role to an HR role,” he said.

As a lawyer, Womack knows when to get a company’s legal department involved in employment issues and what constitutes an issue that’s strictly human resources. His education at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law taught him strategies for identifying the problem and then deciding how to pursue a solution, he said.

Womack said it’s important for him to understand how the company has solved the problem in the past to decide if policies need to be reformed for the future. “If we make changes to a policy we know what the history has been,” he said.

This creates an element of consistency throughout the company.

Womack’s ability to look at employment issues in a globalized sense has made him an asset to every company he’s worked for in his career. “I don’t have a filtered lens,” he said.

At AutoZone, Womack is able to find the best talent in a variety of countries to meet the needs of the international company while taking into consideration possible cultural differences. AutoZone has more than 5,000 storefronts throughout the U.S. as well as Mexico and Brazil.

“When you go into a new country you want to make sure your company’s culture can be translated into that country as well,” he said.

Womack can view situations objectively and without assumptions that could come with being a longtime resident of one location.

“Objective thinking to get to the right answer is one of the biggest things I learned in law school,” he said.

In order to create the most effective policies possible, clear communication is key for Womack.

“I think people underestimate the value of communication in both the written and verbal fashion in HR,” he said.

Womack tries to keep his communication as simple as possible with his employees. “For some reason people try to be more complex with their communication,” he said, cautioning law school students against using big, complicated words to make a point when a clear and concise argument would be much more effective.

His experiences in different parts of the U.S. and the world have given Womack the tools to communicate well with employees of different backgrounds or personality types.

Although Womack is ideally positioned to work as an executive in human resources, he does struggle to find a balance between serving as an advisor and taking legal action. “I still utilize my legal training, but I need to make sure I’m not practicing law and not getting into the space where the legal department has to be involved,” he said.

However, his legal training and willingness to relocate for opportunities in both law and human resources have helped him reach the executive level. They have allowed him to make his own opportunities and challenge himself to be in an unfamiliar place with new people. While he can sometimes find himself in uncomfortable situations, the rewards are worth it.

“You need to take risks,” he said.

This article was written by T.K. Brady.