General Counsel Scott Maples of Ruckus Wireless compares effective leadership of a Legal Department to coaching a sports team. The winning approach? Adapting to staff needs.
By Nancy Flagg
Coaching a sports team and guiding a team of lawyers are not all that different. Scott Maples, General Counsel (GC) at Ruckus Wireless, has done both and finds that good leadership principles work well across most settings. The driving principle underlying his leadership is his focus on creating high-performance teams.
Coaching a Winning Squad
When Maples coached youth baseball teams, his approach centered on helping each and every player continually improve their skills. With his legal team, his method is similar, as he seeks to continually grow all team members and help them be better at their roles. Maples provides all of his staff with chances to cultivate greater depth and breadth of skills for personal development and for the benefit of the organization. He recognizes that adding niche skills may make an employee more attractive to other companies, but believes that growth is necessary to ensure a high-performing team.
“[Employees] may continue to play on your team or go play for someone else’s team,” Maples said. “You never like to lose a good employee, but it’s more important to help them continue to grow over keeping them.”
Another one of Maples’ keys to fostering a crack team is to empower people to do a good job. Micromanaging by telling folks how to do their job, he said, results in a “dissatisfying experience” for them. Instead, Maples focuses on clarifying roles and responsibilities, offering his broad perspective and having a culture where people are comfortable coming to him to ask questions or talk about an issue.
If a person is new to a role, Maples spends extra time with this individual to convey what he or she needs to know. For those who are already skilled in their role, Maples sees his job as one of offering a point of view from his experience. To all comers at his door, he asks, “Do you want a decision, brainstorming or feedback?” and adjusts the conversation accordingly to meet their needs.
Leading vs. Managing
Good management and good leadership are aligned, but there is distinction between the two, explains Maples. In managing and leading, employee roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined and the environment should be conducive to self-empowerment and success. The distinction is that managers focus on what needs to happen to get the job done, while leaders focus more on the big picture.
For example, leaders of legal departments need to be concerned with making sure that the legal team understands the company’s mission and their role in contributing to it. Maples believes that “the legal department can get too laser-focused on doing quality legal work and protecting the company,” and may not see their connection to the greater mission. A leader can help them see where they “plug into” the company vision so that they can bring their highest value-adds to the table.
Taking Care of the ‘Boogeymen’
Finding the right balance between protecting the company and not stifling the enterprise can be a challenge for some legal teams. In the 2012 movie “Rise of the Guardians,” the good guardians had to find and defeat the boogeyman, who others did not see because they did not believe in him. Maples sees an analogy between the film’s guardians and the role of corporate lawyers in that the latter have to root out potential risks and liabilities and disarm them, even when others don’t believe in them.
“We’re looking for the boogeyman others don’t see,” he said. “Because of our experience as lawyers, we’re aware of a lot of the boogeymen out there.”
Despite their boogey-busting role, Maples believes that lawyers should not rigidly insist on eliminating every imaginable risk because it can bring the enterprise to a screeching halt. Legal’s role is to serve as business advisors to their colleagues and to help the work of the enterprise progress and grow. It takes a bit of learning to reach that place of understanding within any organization, Maples said.
For example, on one occasion a marketing team ran a set of materials past Maples’ Legal Department for review. His team saw a number of issues in the materials and recommended a multitude of changes that caused a lot of consternation with the marketing team.
“By over-constraining marketing,” Maples said, “we lost the flavor of what they were trying to do.”
Maples readjusted his team’s approach, encouraging all to be more business-savvy about the legal issues they address and to be more focused on education. The lawyers explained to their marketing peers the legal concerns that were driving the changes and listened to the marketing staff explain their desired messaging. Once both teams had a common understanding of the business-appropriate risks that needed to be avoided, going forward Marketing was able to create materials to everyone’s satisfaction.
No Boiling Ocean for New GC
When Maples joined Ruckus Wireless, he became its first-ever lawyer and GC. The company had substantial pent-up demand for legal services, and Maples found the early days very “push-driven” because he had to rapidly learn and react to whatever people brought to him.
“It was like throwing a sponge into the bathtub,” he said. “You quickly absorb everything around you.”
Maples knew that he “could not boil the ocean,” meaning that it was not possible to solve everything at one time, so he began analyzing the business, determining legal priorities and building a department based on those priorities. He talked to executive leaders about their needs and performed a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis of the company before developing his strategy.
In deciding on the legal infrastructure needed, Maples did not pull out a standard template used for in-house practices, but rather formed a model based on what was most important specifically for Ruckus. Because the company’s strength is tied to its advanced technologies and patents, Maples decided that his first hire needed to be able to manage the intellectual property side of the business. A second lawyer was brought in who had the experience needed to work with a globally dispersed sales team and large distribution channel of 33,000 end customers. His third hire was a compliance expert who could assess risk in diverse areas, such as on-boarding employees, Securities and Exchange Commission compliance and manufacturing supply chains.
In choosing new hires, one of the key traits that Maples wants to see in candidates is a passion for their work. He advises all young professionals to figure out what they are passionate about and create a long-term career plan around it. Maples started his career in computer technology, and after college worked for Hughes Aircraft Co. managing computer operations for a mission-critical radar ground station.
During his five years there, he observed the engineers around him and realized that while he was interested in the technology, he did not share their avid passion for building it. He knew that he had to make a change and decided to go to law school. It was a difficult decision because he was giving up a solid management job and an income. The reality of the shift really hit him when on his first day at law school he found himself walking across a college campus with a backpack full of books.
Since graduating from the University of California Berkeley School of Law, Maples has chosen to keep a connection to technology by working in the legal departments of companies with significant technological practices, including Virgin Interactive Entertainment, WebTV Networks and Microsoft. When making career decisions, he is always mindful of the direction he needs to go to stay in line with his long-term career plans.
Maples recommends that professionals have three-, five- and 10-year career plans. He admits that detailed plans with strict times frames are not his style, but he does have a broad sense of where he wants to be in the short-, middle- and long-run. With a plan in hand, Maples has been able to compare the plan against where he stands and make adjustments as needed to keep him advancing along the bases toward home plate.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California
Scott's Key Partners:Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (Patent litigation) | Lewis Rocca Rothgerber LLP (Patent procurement and litigation) | Thomsen and Burke LLP – (International trade compliance) | Peregrine Law Group (Technology transactions) | Gunderson Dettmer (outside counsel) | Cooley ( Corporate, securities, M&A) | Bingham McCutchen LLP (Intellectual property litigation)
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