The Page Role Models: Barry Caldwell

Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs & Chief People Officer

Waste Management, Inc.

Tell us a little about your personal journey. Where do you come from?

I was born in Los Angeles and I grew up in Pasadena, California.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Dartmouth College, where I majored in history. Then I earned my law degree at Georgetown University Law Center.

What attracted you to a career in public relations?

I got involved with public affairs and government relations when I was in Law School. I worked with a consulting group, The Keefe Company. They were doing public policy and advocacy work on Capitol Hill and that was fascinating to me.

How did you reach the position you now hold now?

I practiced law for about six years, then went to Capitol Hill to work for United States Senator Arlen Specter, first as Counsel to the Senator then as his Chief of Staff. From there I went to PhRMA, the trade association for the research-based pharmaceutical companies, to head Federal Affairs. Afterwards I moved over to the Fortune 500 company, Cigna, to run their state and federal government affairs department. A couple years later I received the proverbial offer I couldn't refuse to join the senior executive team of a Fortune 200 company, Waste Management. I've held various portfolios during my time at WM, with public affairs and communications being a constant. I've been Senior VP, Corporate Affairs and our Chief Legal Officer since 2014.

What particular professional challenges did you face as your career progressed, and how did you overcome them?

Probably my biggest challenge was being side-tracked by a company restructure, treating it as failure when it wasn't, regrouping and then having patience when moving forward. My career is long enough now that I've been on both sides of restructures. Neither side is easy. There's a range of emotion when you're on the structured-out side. But you take the time to re-group and gather yourself, then work your networks and develop new ones; maybe even do an interim gig to stay fresh or learn something new. Eventually, you land another job that's stimulating and rewarding. That's been my experience as it has been for others that I've helped or seen recover from a restructure.

Were there personal challenges as well?

Of course! One was experiencing a restructure and recovering from it. Another has always been the pressure I've placed on myself to be the best I can in each role -- whether as a young or mid-level law associate, staffer to a US Senator, middle manager or senior executive. Overcoming or managing these challenges has involved a combination of hard work, luck, patience, introspection and seeking advice and counsel of others – including urging my team to challenge me when I feel like I'm making it up.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in attracting more people of color to careers in public relations and corporate communications?

Honestly, I reject the notion of "challenges" of hiring more people of color in this space. Those of us with hiring authority – and there are plenty of us – we just need to do it. There are plenty of high quality, capable candidates of color and different ethnicities available. I have hired them, and some I haven't. The thing is I've been purposeful in working with my hiring partner to provide me a rich diverse slate of candidates, and I've pressed my direct reports with hiring authority to make sure they have the same. Over the years, I've taken great pride in having diverse teams of communicators, lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals to lead and drive value for the organization. On the retention side, I just think it's less about the diversity of their look or thought – that's table stakes – and much more about the value my teammates drive plus their own development, growth and sense of achievement within the organization. As managers, we have all that responsibility to our people if we want to keep them.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young professional today what would it be?

Don't be afraid to make a mistake, otherwise you won't be able to perform. I learned that from my high school basketball coach, Cleveland Buckner, who played against Wilt Chamberlain the night Wilt scored 100 points, and I've tried to live by it ever since. Look, I never want to fail, none of us do. But if I'm afraid to fail, then I won't be able to perform; I won't be able to drive value for my organization; and I certainly won't be able to grow. That's what's worked for me and that's how I try to lead teams. So far so good.