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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

June 2015 edition

Words to lead by: A discussion with top general counsel

Karen Deuschle, Corporate Counsel Connect Editorial

Tanya Avila
Ed Friedland
Susan Hackett
Sterling Miller

One of the very best ways to learn about leadership is from those who are exemplary leaders themselves. We connected with a few experienced general counsel to hear their stories and to learn about their leadership styles, favorite advice received, and how they worked to transform their legal departments. We spoke with several legal department leaders, including Susan Hackett, former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel and founder of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC; Sterling Miller, former general counsel of Sabre Corporation and Travelocity; Tanya Avila, current general counsel of SecureNet LLC (acquired by WorldPay US); and Ed Friedland, general counsel to the Thomson Reuters' Legal business.

Leadership wisdom

Different experiences, mentors, and words of wisdom shaped each general counsel of our panel. We asked about the best leadership advice they have ever received, and each offered valuable guidance about becoming a great leader.

"Your team has to grant you the role. Solicit their support and earn their trust," Susan shared. She adds that as a leader you have to give your employees the chance to shine and credit them, and that this sometimes means, as a leader, "you are required to control a lot less than you could." Sterling echoes some of Susan's sentiments, stating that he was told "right out of school by a young partner that leaders always say 'thank you' and are not overly concerned about who gets the credit, and freely give credit to everyone. Saying 'thank you' costs you nothing but is such a powerful tool."

Tanya has lived by the advice of helping individuals live up to their own potential, adding that if you "limit [your employees] to helping you reach your potential, you'll lose the best talent to better leaders."

Finally, good leaders also know to be where they need to be, regardless if they were asked to the table. Ed confides, "If you need to be in the meeting, don't wait for your invite to arrive. Invite yourself."

Making a statement out of the gate

The appointment of a new general counsel opens the door to new practices within the legal department. The initial changes led by these general counsel, while difficult to implement, yielded great value for the legal department and their business colleagues.

Both Ed and Sterling started leading their new departments while concentrating on organizational changes and breaking down silos. When he first became the GC for the international Sabre Corporation, Sterling worked on uniting the department. "This meant ensuring that we held truly global department meetings, we stopped thinking of things as only how they would affect us in the United States, that lawyers from the different groups reached out to each other for ideas or solutions, and to ensure decisions were not made in a vacuum," explains Sterling. "Early days are a good time to execute on org changes," adds Ed.

Susan and Tanya opted to concentrate on measurements, for employees and the department, respectively. Susan assessed the skills and staff within the department, built evaluation forms, and let the staff knew what it would take to succeed. "In other words, I established a bullseye and then sharpened the arrows I hoped would find the target," Susan explains.

Tanya worked on showing the value of the department through data and establishing her place as a trusted business partner. "I start by measuring the items that I think show the value of the team from day one. And then I put in place processes to improve them. When you can show that you're helping the company get to revenue more quickly, you start getting invited to more strategy meetings," Tanya advises.

Defining a leadership style

There is no one perfect leadership style, and smart leaders know that your leadership needs to cater not only to the situation but also to each individual employee. That being said, our leaders display a diversity of leadership styles, each of which was equally successful for their department.

Susan prefers to stay highly engaged, adding, "People model their work on what they see you do and encourage." In her role as a GC, Susan worked with teams that experimented with new ideas, and she found that she liked "others' ideas, independent workers, and people who take initiative, but I am adamant about a strong and collaborative team mentality – no silos." Ed prefers to spend his time finding the right mutual solution and describes himself as a "consensus builder, to a fault."

In contrast, Sterling found strength in leading as "benevolent autonomy." "I liked to hire really smart people and let them run the project or matter their own way, but be available to give advice and structure as needed," he explains. Tanya behaves likewise, providing "enough detail and support for staff so they can reach their work goals. I expect a good work product and reward my staff for a job well done." While those around Tanya admit that her "let's cut through the chat and get to the point" does not work for everyone, no one can argue that it is effective. As her paralegal explains, "She clearly demonstrates to the management team and the staff that she wants the company to succeed."

Each of our panelists inspires in their own way, and has met great success in their careers. Undoubtedly a leader is only as good as the team it leads, as each of these GCs alludes to. "If your team looks good, you look good." Encouraging independence and ownership but remaining the strong backbone of the department is vital, as is not being afraid to make a few changes. Certainly these are words to lead by.

About the panelists

Tanya Avila has established three new legal departments, and has come to realize that it's the business person behind her legal mind that adds the most value. She was lucky enough to have started her legal career at amongst some of the most talented lawyers she ever met where she was taught to never stop learning and developing herself as a lawyer, business partner, and most importantly, as a person. Since then, she moved through a very diverse group of employers; starting as the first and often only in-house attorney for a manufacturer, ecommerce platform, and now running the legal show at the best payment processor in the biz. As a graduate of Arizona State University and Arizona State University College of Law, she is a member of Arizona and Texas bars. In her limited spare time, she blogs about the inner workings of the in-house legal department ( ) and enjoys spending time with the future boy band, "The Avila Boys," otherwise known as her sons Zander, Gabriel and Slate. And yes, she knows how extremely lucky she is.

Ed Friedland has had a series of legal roles with Thomson Reuters since joining The Thomson Corporation in 1990. Previously, he was General Counsel for Thomson Legal & Regulatory, Vice President/Deputy General Counsel of The Thomson Corporation and, before that, Associate General Counsel of the Information/Publishing group. Prior corporate experience includes Associate General Counsel positions at The Continental Corporation and Macmillan Inc. He began his legal practice at the law firm now known as Cooley LLP in New York City. Ed has represented Thomson on the board of the Software and Information Industry Association. He is currently on the Board of The Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis and is a member of the New York Lawyers Committee for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He received a B.A. degree (magna cum laude) from Williams College in Williamstown, MA and a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC.

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence, and success. Comments welcome to

Sterling Miller was the General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Chief Compliance officer for Sabre Corporation from 2008 – 2014. Prior to that, he was the General Counsel for and in the Sabre Corporation legal department, in charge of litigation and regulatory affairs. Before moving in-house in 1994, he was an associate in the Litigation Section of Gallop, Johnson & Neuman in St. Louis. In November 2014, he retired from Sabre and, among other things, decided to start a blog featuring lessons learned in 20+ years as an in-house lawyer. Read more from Sterling Miller in his blog, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel.