How humility, steadiness and an attitude of usefulness have made AVG’s Chief Legal Officer, Harvey Anderson, a Silicon Valley success.
It’s one of the first pieces of proverbial wisdom your parents impart to you, nearly contemporaneous with one’s initial rudimentary understanding of the line between right and wrong: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. While a simple enough concept when unpacked in the abstract, the practical application of perhaps life’s most all-encompassing virtue, selflessness, is elusive to say the least.
The deftness and dexterity required to stay steady throughout the often circuitous beginnings of one’s career, to remain humble through the continual development of one’s inherent gifts, and to be steadfastly pragmatic and empathetic in keeping a constant ear open to the needs of those around you represent an almost impossibly high bar to reach. With that being said, there are those for whom these attributes are recognized, valued and cultivated—whose attentions are naturally more altruistic, or at least less inward.
Along the road of a decorated career that has traveled from engineering through the law and public policy, and primarily based within the technological hub of Silicon Valley, AVG’s Harvey Anderson has cerebrally embodied unselfish principles. Even after speaking with him for just an hour, one cannot be effusive enough about his approach to business and life in general.
Coast to Coast
After initially graduating from Marquette University in 1984 with a degree in Engineering, Anderson, who had seen through what he described as some “graduate-level political science courses” toward the latter stages of undergrad, took his piqued interest in policy down to Washington, D.C., to work as a Capitol Hill Staff Aide. He went on to work as an Engineer at Pacific Telesis and Pacific Bell, and finally landed at San Francisco University School of Law in 1989.
“The policy work around infrastructure and engineering came really easily to me,” he said. “I started off as an Engineering major, and I liked it because it explained how the world worked together. It wasn’t because I was in love with math or science, but I liked how things worked. I didn’t even know you could [change your major]. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know.”
Once he traveled west to work in his field, having improved his analytical skills and information management abilities, Anderson went where he’d imagined he’d end up once undergrad ended: law school.
“I knew I was always going back to graduate school of one sort, whether it was a master’s in Public Policy or law school,” Anderson said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Three years are gonna go by anyway,’ and then it all became really clear.”
Working at Pacific Telesis in the Government Affairs Group, many of Anderson’s colleagues were lawyers, and his move to law school was originally intended to support his career in the public policy and government relations area. It was in school that he was exposed to intellectual property and antitrust legal matters, which are “very policy driven” and garnered his interest.
Like a Coach
As his interests in policy, information management and analytical understanding of how things work have coalesced into executive roles at companies such as Netscape, Flywheel, Mozilla and now AVG, Anderson has led his respective teams not by being a megalomaniacal domineer, but rather through empathetic attempts to understand and discover what he calls people’s “strength zones,” where they truly excel and will be both happiest and most productive.
“I like to hire the more athletic types of professionals, meaning those who have really good analytical skills, they really like problem solving, and they’re driven. The ones who are not looking for a boss; they’re looking for an environment. The other thing I’m looking at is, I like to hire people who could replace me. How can I ultimately not be needed?”
In terms of putting his team in position to play to their strengths and work freely in the pursuit of ultimately benefiting and growing the company, Anderson explained, “Not everyone is equally skilled in all their areas.” That said, he wants people focused on their strengths, not their weaknesses.
“We try to shape people’s activities to make sure that their efforts are focused on the strategic goals of the company,” he noted. “I don’t want to occupy the middle, so to speak. I think of myself more as a coach that tries to let the team members play. You prep them, train them, you pick the right ones, but then you’ve got to let them play and you educate them and give them what they need. I really like them to develop their judgment. Sometimes, based on their experience and maturity, all you’re really doing is giving them a little bit of refinement. I know I thrive when I’m given the opportunity to do it and take control, so I try to do that with our team members.”
Although he has been in California since the late 1980s, Anderson only recently moved from the longest stint of his professional career—at Mozilla—to AVG, which he joined as Chief Legal Officer in February 2014. In describing some of the challenges of being the “new guy” or “new boss,” Harvey talked about a need to absorb more and observe.
“Just because it’s new to me, that doesn’t mean there’s not a long story that exists from beforehand. Taking time to understand the dynamic and the context of what’s happening—I’ve seen other people step in and start to run over things, and I’ve never felt good about that. You want to be a leader, but you want to lead out of confidence and strength and an understanding of what’s really going on,” Anderson advised. “I might take a little bit more time and I might be a little bit more deferential now until I understand what people are comfortable with, because it can backfire if you ask people to do more than they’re capable of or what they realize they’re capable of at the time.”
He also stressed the concept of “owning” one’s own work, similar to the way one takes notes in college classes but then returns to reorganize and individualize, or “own,” them in preparation for future exams.
How Does This Affect the Internet?
In a discussion of his ultimate professional passion, the public policy surrounding intellectual property and Internet regulation, Anderson described the disturbing disconnect between members of Congress and the tech community in Silicon Valley, not to mention users of the Internet amongst the general population. Highlighting ill-conceived, poorly designed pieces of legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Harvey pointed to two of the key reasons why the Internet can be so carelessly and sloppily regarded in the policymaking process: First, the fact that it is not a first-order issue or question for most voters, even now, and second, the false dichotomy of “Internet versus brick-and-mortar businesses.”
“Policymakers don’t intuitively think, ‘How does this affect the Internet?’ They think of it as this faddish thing, the way they used to think about it because it was new to them. Compare that to jobs. When you tell a congressional member, ‘I’m relocating my plant from your district to wherever,’ the first thing they think of is jobs and economics. When you think of the Internet, you need to think of jobs. It’s not a separate economy. The other challenge is that these issues aren’t first-order to most Americans. There are things like jobs and health and my neighbor’s jobs and health, but [Internet issues] are never atop the list of things congressional members are going to hear from their constituents.”
Nonetheless, in the SOPA protests that were led by Mozilla and a coalition of tech companies (Fight for the Future), the tech and D.C. Beltway communities were brought together to understand the problematic nature of that ill-fated piece of legislation: a sequence of actions Anderson referred to as one of the things he is proudest to have been a part of in his career.
Attitude of Usefulness
Lastly, in terms of career advice, Anderson reached deep for that worth applying to sectors of one’s life far beyond the professional realm. In terms of pursuing jobs, Harvey referenced a Woody Allen quote about being persistent—“Eighty percent of life is showing up”—and W.E.B. Dubois’ anecdote about working hard—“Before the temple of knowledge swing the gates of toil.”
Then he tied together what might well encapsulate his whole career and the primary focus of his life, professionally and personally, in what he calls “an attitude of usefulness [to a higher purpose.]” “When I take myself out of the equation,” he said, “I do better at what I do. All the fear and anxiety I have is self-centered.”
Anderson’s humble method here is like a biblical principle. All the fears and doubts melt away when he simply takes the time to shift his focus away from himself and onto others. Whatever supernatural name or title one applies to that phenomenon, there is one thing about Anderson’s attitude of usefulness that cannot be denied or ignored: Every company or organization could use a leader like him.
Tamer Abouras is a freelance writer based in Williamstown, New Jersey
Harvey's Key Partners:Allen & Overy LLP (International Law Firm)
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