Retired general counsel Jeff Christianson shares management wisdom gleaned from his tenure at six different tech companies.
By Jill Laybourn
Editor’s Note: We spoke with Jeff Christianson about his experience at F5 Networks. A time of press, he has now retired from the company.
Jeff Christianson humbly attributes much of his success to good fortune. If luck is a force created when hard work meets opportunity, he may be on to something. Although in surveying Christianson’s achievements, certainly accessibility, solid management skills, hard work, humor and many of his other attributes have played a part.
Fortunately for Christianson’s employers, luck has been a two-way street. During his seven-year tenure at F5 Networks, a Seattle-based networking technology company, the organization saw its annual revenue increase from approximately $400 million to more than $1.3 billion. Not that Christianson takes the credit, but through his revision of the patent process and incentive program, F5 went from five to 150 patents worldwide, with 10 to 15 new patents being issued each quarter. It took some time, but according to Christianson the key “was literally bringing some focus to it, putting some structure around it and putting some incentives in place—and boy, now it’s like a [well-running] watch.”
Clearly, luck is not the only key to Christianson’s success. He has effectively fulfilled the role of General Counsel for six different technology companies offering six different types of technology. No matter where he hangs his hat, his ability to run ahead of the learning curve and adapt to each unique business and its product offerings has made him successful.
Management By Empowerment & Support
Christianson’s achievements, including a 2013 Executive Excellence Award, also can be attributed to his ability to apply management strategies he gleaned from partners in the private law firm where he spent his first professional years. He also credits a series of “terrific CEOs” he reported to during his career as a General Counsel. He learned from these role models that “your boss is going to hold you to high standards, a high level of performance, but they are going to support you if you stumble along the way.”
Christianson puts that ideal into practice wherever he goes by “making sure that his legal team feels empowered and supported, and is centered on a single goal of providing high-quality and timely legal service to the company.”
Christianson does not believe in finger-pointing and makes it very clear that he and his team are in it together. “I try to create that kind of collaborative environment,” he said. “Everyone knows I’ve got their backs.”
Small But Mighty
Christianson also knows how to do a lot with a little, showcasing experience getting great results from small teams. “I try to create a department where the whole of the group is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said. “We are efficient, we work well together; there is no friction, which allows us to cover more ground.”
His ability to motivate his team, especially in an economy where many have to do the work of multiple attorneys, is a testament to his capabilities as a manager. “I believe in a close team in terms of getting along very well,” Christianson said. “We have fun at work. Looking back, there wasn’t a day that I didn’t enjoy coming into the office. I’ve tried to expose everyone on my legal teams to a wide range of different matters.”
When he builds a department, Christianson said it is essential that the entire team collaborate. “In many ways,” he said, “we need to be interchangeable.” And he is not talking about only his subordinates because Christianson is just as willing to get in the trenches. “When projects come through to the Legal Department, it is up to whoever is available to take it up—that means me also. I typically spent a fair amount of my day doing just normal blocking and tackling legal work, drafting and negotiating contracts, reviewing documents, working on litigation matters. I was fully engaged in the general legal issues that the rest of the team handles, and I think that it helped promote a sense of unity.”
Maintaining Humor & Approachability
While a little luck never hurts, Christianson offers some concrete advice for young lawyers: “You just can’t take yourself too seriously.” Likewise, Christianson advises budding professionals to be approachable, a lesson he learned early in his career. “People will enjoy working with you,” he advised, “and they will come back again.”
Furthermore, he encourages new lawyers to be service oriented. “We are a service organization,” he said. “I really stress that I want them to do client development work and reach out and develop strong relationships within the company. And, particularly with the young attorneys, I know that they are developing valuable skills when I start seeing employees in the company go directly to them with legal issues.”
Wherever Christianson’s path has taken him, companies have seen terrific results. With solid leadership and great service, his success seems to be less about good fortune and more about good business.
Jill Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.