Zendesk Senior Vice President and General Counsel, John Geschke, talks about the importance of bringing intellectual curiosity and honesty to your work and your team
A seemingly endless topic of discussion in the business world is the debate over the value of specializing versus generalizing. Each argument has its respective merits; a specialist, by definition, is understood to have something approaching a mastery of their specific discipline, while a generalist is seen as a complete, balanced professional with competence across a variety of areas.
For in-house and general counsel, the title itself implies a preference for the former, but any lawyer who’s honest will tell you there are certain types of legal questions they prefer and others they do not. At the same time, that realism is by no means an excuse to rest on one’s laurels.
For John Geschke, an experienced attorney who spent fifteen years in private practice before taking his first role as a GC, his position on the spectrum is somewhere in between. While honestly acknowledging that the so-called perfect “generalist” very likely does not exist, he contends that there are skills a lawyer can develop which are transferable over a wide swath of issues.
Moving In-House and Building It
During a long and successful tenure in private practice at Cooley Law, LLC that saw him working for a number of entrepreneurs and specializing in a number of areas of business law, John described his transition to in-house and general counsel one that was progressive, rather than rapid.
“Obviously, it took a long time for me to convince myself that moving in-house was something that I wanted to take on, but I was interested in growing closer and having a greater impact on how the business I was working at was run. As a general counsel, you’re tackling a broad array of areas and issues, but as senior vice president and GC, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of having more strategic input in the direction of our company.”
In terms of how he has built up his legal teams, both at Norwest Venture Partners and now at Zendesk, John articulated his perspective on the generalist-specialist dichotomy.
“At Norwest, I was basically alone in terms of full-time counsels on staff and worked mainly through outside counsels as needed, but at Zendesk with a still small but infinitely larger team, we’ve put it together through a combination of things. Obviously, when you’re looking to hire someone, it’s usually to fill a need that’s fairly specific, but insofar as who to hire when you’re looking at a number of impressive resumes, it comes down to more than just who the absolute expert on a particular thing is.”
“I don’t want to hire someone who expects to be doing the same thing five years from now. I’d rather suffer a very small short-term loss and hire someone who has the intellectual curiosity to take on numerous different things and has really exercised that critical thinking muscle, as opposed to a person who’s an encyclopedia (on a subject). Short-term investments typically yield short-term results. And of course, there’s that whole idea of hiring people who could eventually replace you. No one who focuses on only one thing is going to be able to do that.”
Thinking Globally to Act Locally
As stated, John is one who has familiarity and comfort with utilizing outside counsel for projects. Especially for Zendesk, which is a company founded in Copenhagen and has offices in far-flung, diverse locations around the world, the need of counsels with knowledge and facility in their countries and regions is essential. Yet, as with any type of contracted and commissioned work, the reference network and the seamlessness with which one can fit with respective companies’ goals is paramount.
“Obviously, with laws and regulations that can vary wildly from place to place, the need for outside counsel anywhere in the world in places and offices where we don’t have members of our legal team, for instance, is crucial. You aren’t always going to be able to have extensive interviews with people, either, but if you can really trust your network and your references and use it judiciously, that can lead to bringing in the right help for given tasks. Most importantly, I never just throw someone a project and say ‘okay, here’s when this needs to be done’. You want to know someone is going to be a good fit, so you have to stay with them early on to find that out and also, it helps to make things somewhat more uniform for us as a company, regardless of the location.”
One question of interest was how John has handled and handles the challenge of commuting and traveling for what has been a very successful career while also remaining a very present father and family man. Instead of carving up a proverbial pie chart of days or weeks, he gave a much more down-to-earth answer about this inexact science, saying “I think whatever I’m doing, whether it’s spending time at work or with my family, I have to be totally focused on that. A lot of people, if they’re honest, understand that trying to split everything up leads to a half-baked effort in both.”
As someone whose legal background had crossover ties to business and entrepreneurship, John has stated on a number of occasions the value of not forsaking business for law or vice versa. And although he himself took a fifteen year journey through private practice before moving in-house, his recommendation for new law school graduates and young lawyers wasn’t that they necessarily needed to spend quite so much time in practice before making that switch.
“The main thing about private practice is that it helps you to learn and develop skills you won’t acquire anywhere else; not in law school and probably not going straight to an in-house counsel position. The relationship-building with clients, for one thing, is something that can serve no matter what kind of legal capacity you’re serving in. You don’t need to spend fifteen years doing it, maybe, but a few at the beginning can really set the stage for how you’ll practice for your whole career. You won’t learn everything, by any means, but you’ll develop tools and skills that will stay with you and be really helpful as you progress in your career.”
John Geschke’s approach to his own role and to what he seeks in the members of his team is holistic and refreshing. He’s honest, practical, and much more focused in one’s development of critical thinking and reasoning skills which can be used to address any kind of legal query. For any company to thrive there is an understandable reliance on special, unique, and particularized talents. Making that collection of ability work cohesively with a vision that is much grander; it’s equal parts realistic and idealistic and it is really quite Zen. ♦
Books I recommend…
Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (but PLEASE don’t see that movie)
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Things I carry with me…
Only my phone. I can’t manage much else without losing it, but the phone must always be close by.
Apps on phone I can’t live without…
I start my day by…
Exercising if at all possible. I’m not a morning person and I dread getting up early, but unless I do get up and exercise, the day is shot. I’ve long since given up on the fact that I’ll get anything done after work.
I don’t consider my day done…
Unless I get my inbox down to a manageable number of messages. I’m fairly obsessed with making sure I’ve read and considered questions and issues that come to me quickly. Nothing means more to your clients (internal and external) then knowing that you are thinking about their concerns and questions. It doesn’t mean I’ll always have a quick answer, but I do want to make sure my colleagues know that I’m thinking about the issue and developing a plan to help them. I have a dream of getting my Inbox down to 0, though I’m pretty sure I’ll never make that happen.
My favorite leader is…
Earl Warren. I suppose today he would be demonized as an “activist judge” – though I’ve never really understood why that should be a criticism. I’m a firm believer in the need for society to institute safeguards for the protection of the minority against the absolute power of the majority and the Warren Court is one of the best demonstrations of that working for the betterment of our society that I know of. A true leader has the power to move society toward necessary reforms and improvements far in advance of public sentiment. Earl Warren demonstrated that kind of leadership.
Definition of Retirement…
Not needing to carry that phone.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is…
Own up to your mistakes early and often. Especially in our profession, there is such a stigma to making errors, but mistakes happen and you have to accept it. Once you acknowledge that, you can think much more clearly about solutions rather than short term fixes.
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