To succeed in your function, Robert Guttman, SVP and General Counsel of Ulta, recommends immersing yourself in the business.
It is pop theory that the right side of the brain is the part where the creative side flourishes—where music, art and emotions reside; while across the way, the left side of the brain controls the ability to think critically, use logic, apply reasoning and process equations. Though a small modicum of that theory is true, in actuality, people utilize both sides of their brains equally. Likewise, those functions aren’t exclusive to one side or the other.
With that knowledge, the fact that Robert Guttman headed to college to become a musician but later became a lawyer isn’t so surprising—that he isn’t the leader of a band, but rather Senior Vice President, General Counsel (GC) and Secretary at Ulta Beauty, one of the largest beauty retailers in the U.S.
After working for a few years at an insurance company and interacting with a number of lawyers, Guttman began playing a different tune. He decided to put himself through night school and become a lawyer. The long and arduous task of working by day and attending school by night paid off.
“My initial plan in law school was I was going to be a litigator. But, like everything else in life, sometimes it leads to something else,” Guttman said. He worked in litigation for five years before moving on to an in-house position. This switch, too, paid off.
Since, he has been GC for three impressive corporations: CCC Information Services, The Reynolds and Reynolds Co., and Ulta. Previously, he was Associate GC at Sears, Roebuck and Co.
“Where you can add the most value in any setting is by being a problem-solver.”
Law Technician to Businessman
As an in-house lawyer, Guttman had to really get focused on the business and learning numbers, “the language of business.” “When I started to work my way up the business in Sears, I worked as a lawyer supporting several different areas of the company,” he said.
By diversifying, he was able to become a business player. He began to see himself in yet another light.
“I became a businessperson who happened to also know the law,” Guttman said. He attributes his success as a GC to his willingness to learn the business. “I started out just being a legal technician. You talk to almost any good GC or senior business lawyer working for a company or organization, and they will tell you that the better you understand the business, the better you are able to connect the dots and be a more effective risk manager and a better problem-solver. Where you can add the most value in any setting is by being a problem-solver.”
Guttman learned the business through immersion, and he left nothing to chance by again attending night school to work on his MBA.
Walking Through Fire
Guttman moved on to The Reynolds and Reynolds, which had some “pretty significant legal problems.” The experience helped him fine-tune his abilities to problem-solve and contribute to the business. “I had to make some strategic decisions fairly quickly regarding how things would be handled,” he acknowledged.
While his decisions weren’t popular with some of the executives, Guttman did have the support of the board. The work at Reynolds, he said, “gave me the ability to say that I am confident in my judgment. I was fire tested, and I went through these things and was able to resolve the issues facing the company and have a successful outcome.”
The Principles of Problem-Solving
While Guttman doesn’t follow any prescribed steps when trying to solve a problem, he does have a set of principles he uses as a guide which have “generally proven correct.”
“I know that I will never have complete information,” Guttman started. “A lot of problems you deal with at high levels, you never have all the information. Executives make decisions all the time with incomplete information. The trick is to make [sure] what you have is enough information to make an informed decision.”
The second principle, he advised, is to know the risks. “At the end of the day, executives and people like me are really in a risk management role. We are making decisions and trying to minimize risks.”
The third principle is utilizing one’s assets. “Try to talk with people and listen to those people that know the most about the situation. ‘What do you think is the direction we need to go in? How do you think we should resolve this?’ I try to get a lot of input from people and cross-pollination of subject matter experts,” Guttman said. “I have judgment and discernment, but I need to listen.”
Lastly, he prescribes being open-minded. “Try not to have a preconceived notion.”
Winning at Ulta
At Ulta, he was hired as the corporation’s first GC. Ulta was making the transition from private to public, and he provided the leadership that was needed on the legal end of the IPO.
“I was brought in to help the team get the public offering across the goal line,” Guttman said.
The external legal team was in place, but his “value-add” was bringing the internal leadership to get the thing off the ground. Guttman also brought forth change in how the other Ulta departments viewed the in-house legal function. He made the rounds to each department, not only to demonstrate his team’s desire to help, but also the necessity of including in-house counsel in its decisions.
Guttman describes Ulta in his early days there as “a gangly teenager.” Now that gangly teenager has grown into a successful adult by increasing its presence from 100 to approximately 700 stores, and with plans to expand to 1,200.
Guttman has excelled in nurturing a legal department from the ground up. Part of that excellence must be attributed to his ability to hire and lead great talent. He sets a high priority on intelligence, and feels taking care of customers and clients is one of the most important things he and his team can do.
“I expect very high-quality lawyering and services,” he said. “I have high expectations, but I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do. I am looking for problem-solvers, someone who can understand their role and who is OK with that role.”
Guttman attributes a great deal of his success to Mike Levin, who served as GC at Sears from 1996 to 1998. Guttman saw and learned from how Levin handled his at-times “rocky” and “tumultuous tenureship” at Sears, which was mired in certain business scandals that Levin was able to resolve.
“[Levin] made a lot of changes in the law department in a short amount of time,” Guttman recalled. “He was a very shrewd judge of talent. He helped convert me from a technician to a problem-solver.”
Guttman learned not to accept mediocrity in himself or in his team, as well as the importance of understanding all aspects of the business and being an asset to the business.
“[Levin] got me to think in a different way,” he said. “There are not a lot of people in a person’s life where you can say, ‘That person changed my life,’ but he is one of those people I readily point to as having definitively changed my life in a positive way.”
While Guttman has traded in his inner musician for the law, he is no less of a so-called right-brained thinker. “I am not saying I am the poster child for it,” he said, “but it allows me to be creative. I have always found that the lawyers I like to work with the most are those ones that are out-of-the-box thinkers.”
And while practicing the law is his day job, listening and following his favorite musicians balances out both sides of his very productive brain. ♦
Understanding Business & Litigation
Guttman has solid advice for young lawyers looking to go in house: “If you want to go inside a business, a corporation, you have to make sure it is a place where you want to work. You should understand that business, and it should be something that you can believe in.”
Likewise, he advises those aspiring to follow in his professional footsteps to develop some understanding of litigation and litigation management skills. “You don’t have to become a litigator. But you have to be able to understand how to litigate and use it as an effective tool and appropriately react to it.”