How a Detective Solves Companies’ Greatest Mystery: People

J.R. Ball Human Resources, Issue 10 - March/April 2014 Leave a Comment

As senior vice president and chief human resource officer for Cumberland Gulf, former gumshoe John McMahon looks for evidence of an engaged and motivated workforce.

By J.R. Ball

Enter, the hardboiled detective (preferably through a squeaky door into a dimly lit room, with light slashes from venetian blinds framing his silhouette). From film noir gumshoes like Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon” and Lt. Dan Muldoon of “Naked City” to pulp institutions like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the hard-living characters that typify this genre—with grizzled, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later demeanors, and hard-drinking, heat-packing, no-nonsense personas—are the stuff of legend.


At home on the mean streets, you might find this salty avenger leaning against a lamppost outside some darkened alley, wearing a wool fedora pulled tightly over the brim of his smoky black eyes; his thoughts swirling about the gangster that got the best of him and the dame that will not be ignored. Where you would not expect to find this rough-around-the-edges antihero is leading an Human Resources (HR) Department inside one of the world’s largest corporate retailers.

But that is exactly where you find John McMahon, Senior Vice President (SVP) and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Cumberland Farms, the parent company of Gulf Oil and operator of more than 600 retail stores and gas stations, based in Framingham, Massachusetts. Long before McMahon hung his hat in a VP’s office, he stood behind a detective badge for the Westchester Public Safety Department in White Plains, New York.

“I grew up in a family of police officers and fully expected to have a career in law enforcement,” said McMahon, who studied Criminal Justice while obtaining his undergraduate degree from Mercy College.

“After spending six years with the department, three of those years with the Narcotics Unit, my wife, who I was dating at the time, thought my life of kicking doors down, doing wire taps and getting shot at wasn’t all that conducive to starting a family,” McMahon said. “So I decided to make a change.”

After finding his footing in the business world, McMahon netted his first leadership position in an HR capacity at Raytheon, the global aerospace and defense corporation, if somewhat unwittingly.

“One day my manager approached me and said, ‘Hey John, you used to be a detective. Think you could help me screen some prospective employees?’ I said, ‘Of course, I know how to interview people, although you might not agree with my methodology.’”

Soon McMahon was tapped to join the HR Department in a more formal capacity. On the beat, he learned the ins and outs of HR, from compensation and benefits to recruiting, even going so far as to obtain a master’s degree in Human Resource Management from Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey.

“I still know how to get information out of people,” McMahon teased.


Transcending Trade Lines

Prior to joining Cumberland Gulf, McMahon had established himself as a leader in the HR discipline as SVP of Global HR at Arrow Electronics Inc., as well as SVP and CHRO at UMass Memorial Health Care System and Fisher Scientific, a subsidiary of Thermo Fisher Scientific, a provider of laboratory equipment and services. Of his well-rounded and diverse experience within HR, McMahon fully embraces the journey that led him to Cumberland Gulf.

“I feel like the poster child of ‘does human resource experience transcend industry lines?’” McMahon jested. “In all seriousness, if you have the subject matter expertise in HR and the basic business acumen and a desire to learn the business—because you won’t be successful in HR if you don’t understand the intricacies of the business in which you operate—you can be successful as a human resources leader in any industry,” McMahon said. “As I said, I’m walking proof.”

Part of the acumen that McMahon believes is particularly important to success in HR is an understanding of and ability to influence an organization’s corporate culture.

“Culture starts at the top, and it varies by company,” he conveyed. “Some of the companies and CEOs [Chief Executive Officers] that I’ve worked with were primarily focused on operations, efficiency and cost containment, and viewed people as a commodity that you could get more or less of, but overall, not that important. At Cumberland Gulf, we have established a core set of values that we are weaving into the fabric of our culture. They are simple, elegant and powerful, and we measure our success as a company not only by what you accomplish, but by how, as they must be consistent with our values, which are the following:

Never settle. Have passion to be the best.

Tell it like it is. Communicate honestly the good and the bad.

Own it. Be accountable, and deliver on

your commitments.

Succeed together. Respect, value and support one another.”

McMahon says the essence of having a strong corporate culture is never to be cavalier with the company’s bottom line, but to view those within the organization to be as vital as anything the company produces or manufactures.

“A lot of leaders go on and on about people being their most important asset, but I’m not always sure they fully understand what that means,” McMahon said, noting that within Cumberland’s leadership team he has found partners who share his belief that people are the lifeblood of the company.

“We really are in the people business,” he said, “And if we don’t have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time—people who are engaged, motivated and believe in what the company is trying to accomplish—we will not be successful.”


Change Is Good

On a granular level, McMahon strives to play key a role in shifting his HR team’s focus from business as usual to being a people-centric business partner within the organization. One example of these efforts is the Cumberland Gulf Operating Principles, a list of 14 action-oriented items authored by McMahon over the course of his career.

“The most successful teams I’ve led have mirrored these thought processes,” he said. “If you adopt the mindset of being open to learning from those around you, you’ll be that much better—that much stronger as a team.”

For McMahon, growth and the ability to be made stronger is not limited to any given list he has compiled, regardless of how insightful or how impactful it may be. Rather, growth and strength come from seizing opportunities and pushing oneself forward, according to McMahon. These are lessons he shares with his team as well as his family.

“I’m a firm believer that this life of ours is no dress rehearsal, therefore if you see an opportunity and you want to take on the challenge, you’ve got to go for it,” McMahon said. “I’ve never been afraid of taking a chance, and I tell both of my sons, ‘Don’t sit and wait for change to wash over you. Embrace change, and be an active participant in shaping change. If you want something, go for it. And when you do, go for it with everything you’ve got.’”

Judging by McMahon’s career trajectory, it does not take much of a detective to see that he lives by his own sound advice.

J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.

John's Key Partners:
Ultimate Software (HR Software) | Total Clerical Solutions (Staffing)

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