SurveyMonkey’s General Counsel explains why buy-in from every department is essential
By Fred Jerant
Sometimes what you see as the brass ring is really lead. At least that is how it once seemed to Eleanor Lacey, now Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary at SurveyMonkey.
After earning her J.D. from Yale Law School, Lacey became a litigator at a San Francisco legal office “because I thought that’s what lawyers did,” she said. “But I didn’t like it. Being an associate is a tough lifestyle, and I wasn’t happy at the end of a case, even when I won. If I had had more advice, I probably would have steered away from litigation and gone right into corporate.”
What did appeal to Lacey was the regular interaction with the clients she represented during litigation. “I liked talking with the clients, learning how their companies worked and helping them resolve problems,” she recalled. “As a litigator, I handled only litigation problems. I realized that an in-house attorney would encounter other legal situations and be focused on working toward the same goal as the company all the time. It was not just about winning and losing, but about removing barriers to growth and helping to move the company forward.”
So in 1997, she crossed over to Autodesk Inc. as a Corporate Counsel. Since then, Lacey has held senior legal positions with Niku Corp., Computer Associates’ Clarity Div., SupportSoft Inc. and Corel Corp. She joined SurveyMonkey in 2012.
Unique in Lacey’s experience is SurveyMonkey’s open environment: one that does not just encourage collaboration, but practically requires it. No one, not even Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dave Goldberg, has a personal office. Instead, related functions are grouped throughout the building and work in open areas where information is exchanged within easy earshot of the other departments. (When privacy is needed, meetings occur in conference rooms or phone booths.)
“It’s an incredibly useful arrangement,” Lacey said. “If you’re working alone, you might think you’ve satisfactorily resolved a particular legal issue. But getting a different viewpoint from someone whose legal knowledge and analytical ability you respect is invaluable. They might bring up aspects you’ve overlooked. I really don’t know many people who should listen only to themselves.”
And it is certainly not a group where everyone agrees with each other. Some of the discussions in the Legal Department can get a bit heated, but according to Lacey, “We’re all comfortable with disagreements by email or in person because it starts with a foundation of respect. SurveyMonkey is a data-driven company, and it’s hard to have your ego involved when you’re talking about data and its interpretation.”
“Earlier in my career, I wasn’t as aware of how the Legal Department can have a companywide effect, whether it’s through someone you hire or an announcement you make,” Lacey said. “But I’ve learned that it’s better to get others involved, so you can consider all of your choices and the impact that your choices could have on others.”
For example, if you are considering new software that you think will benefit the Sales Department, bring them into the discussion. You could also create a written argument that supports your position and share it with the appropriate colleagues. That way, everyone will be aware of the product’s scope and limitations, which might be acceptable for the moment, or not. If you simply mandate using a new program, you may find resistance. But if everyone is in agreement beforehand, you are likely to be more successful.
This really sounds like the obvious path to take, but when people are trying to get things accomplished, it is easy to forget to involve others. Ultimately, you will be more successful if you have buy-in from other people. Again, obvious, but often overlooked.
As in-house counsel, Lacey says she must think about “issues our industry can trip over—issues such as collection and storage of data, copyright law, child protection, privacy and data security.”
That is precisely why her group collaborates so often with the Product Management Team. “For instance, we recently launched a product to collect HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]-protected data,” she said. “During its development, we discussed the U.S. and international requirements for data security, both from product and non-product standpoints.”
Because these issues go across all departments, “You must clearly understand what you’re committing to, and then follow up to ensure that everyone is aligned,” Lacey said.
Even employee development is collaborative. A CEO once told Lacey that it is impossible to give too much positive feedback, and she agrees.
“Positive reinforcement helps people feel more sure of themselves,” Lacey said, “and it makes it easier for them to improve their performance. When you hear only about the things you need to improve, it’s discouraging. You tend to overlook the fact that there are many other things that you are doing well.”
She adds that it is important to be specific in your praise: “I really liked the way you handled that contract,” for example, goes a lot further than a bland, “Good work.”
And Lacey encourages routine input from her staff. “Many employees don’t offer feedback on their manager’s performance because they’re not sure how their manager will respond to something that’s not always positive,” she said.
That said, Lacey often will discuss workplace situations with an open-ended, “How is that going?” Or, “Is this process working well?” Just asking outright for feedback will not always make employees feel safe and comfortable. Asking for specifics that are related to tasks or processes is more likely to elicit genuine responses.
Focusing on the Positive
An executive coach once told Lacey that trying to turn weaknesses into strengths can be a fool’s errand, and she calls it some of the best advice that she has received.
“You’ll have more success building on the strengths you already have, while striving to minimize your weaknesses,” Lacey said. “Otherwise, you can spend an inordinate amount of time on trying, and often failing, to turn a negative trait into a positive one. And that time could have been spent making your good qualities even better.”
Frederick Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Eleanor's Key Partners:SimpleLegal (eBilling provider) | Skadden (Tax/Securities law) | Woodside Counsel P.C. (Corporate legal services) | ZwillGen PLLC – (Privacy & Security law)
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