As head of the legal department for the world’s leading provider of web-based survey solutions, Eleanor Lacey’s work puts her at the intersection of the law and technology. In a highly competitive and innovative industry, that means ensuring the legal team’s efforts are in sync with SurveyMonkey’s business demands. This convergence of responsibilities and expertise has contributed to her hybrid leadership style that combines the best elements of these highly dynamic environments.
Learning to Lead
Lacey admits that in her first leadership position (prior to SurveyMonkey) she was unprepared and “probably not a good leader at all.” That was because she mistakenly believed the only requirements were to tell her staff what to do and to be smart—common misperceptions among lawyers who are trained to work independently as they gather resources to find solutions.
“Ultimately I realized that the people I was supposed to be leading weren’t just working for me. They were working with me. I needed to listen more and spend more time focusing on them,” Lacey says. “I also recognized the importance of getting feedback on my own performance as a manager—and of getting it often and early. That way it’s not too late when you find out you’ve been doing something wrong.”
ELEANOR LACEY’S GUIDING PRINCIPLES
Don’t assume you know everything—or that you need to. If you’re used to handling all responsibilities on your own, pay particular attention to what others can contribute and give them opportunities to take on responsibilities of their own.
Be transparent. Everything you do impacts other people and other groups. Being more open helps them trust you more, and mistakes will be identified and remedied earlier. As a result, communication and cooperation will improve and most processes will run more smoothly and efficiently.
Model yourself on a variety of other leaders who you admire. Pick and choose the strengths and qualities you admire in their leadership and adapt them to your own style. Be honest in assessing traits they have that you may need to acquire or develop.
Identify what measurements and communication styles are valued within your organization and develop appropriate metrics. This will help establish positive business relationships and enable you to demonstrate your group’s value with concrete, meaningful data.
As a manager, you can never compliment the people who work for you too much. Unless you tell them, they won’t know what they’re doing well and where they need to improve.
Speaking the Same Language
Even as she grapples with evolving technical and legal issues, like digital privacy and how new communication platforms affect legal jurisdiction and attorney-client privilege, Lacey is keenly aware of managing her relationships with teams outside her department. As a result, she focuses on connecting with them in ways that are appropriate to their priorities and SurveyMonkey’s business goals.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the language and perspective of your own specialty, but then no one else really understands or cares about the outcome. I try to make sure that the legal department is addressing the issues that are important to other teams and that we provide practical advice and solutions,” she says.
This affects how she uses metrics within her own department. For example, tracking legal workflow was of little interest to outside teams or executives. But by analyzing patterns, like correlations between the number of revisions and contract size, hidden costs associated with establishing foreign subsidiaries, or contracts that are delayed because of multi-level approval processes, her department is able to offer direct benefits to its internal business clients.
“Because we work with many different groups, legal is in the middle of numerous processes and able to see connections other departments may not,” Lacey says. “So we focus on recognizing clients’ priorities, developing appropriate metrics and offering solutions that are related to their specific concerns. It goes beyond giving them legal answers to showing how the law fits into their primary business concerns.”
SYNC TALKS WITH ELEANOR LACEY
Lacey discovered a love of Chinese culture as an undergraduate. She learned Mandarin and later spent significant time in the Asia Pacific offices of some of her former employers. We spoke to the GC about how that experience has impacted her career.
What sparked your interest in Chinese culture? I took a Chinese history class and went to China that summer. I quickly realized that to really understand the country’s history and culture I needed to learn the language.
What career lessons did you learn during that time? I’m usually very direct. Chinese culture helped me learn that I don’t always need to be as direct, or I can appear to be too forceful. Asia Pacific veterans all knew that, but I had to learn. Those realizations taught me to negotiate differently and to be more patient. You can win every battle but still lose the war.
And did that open up new opportunities to you? I worked on antipiracy matters with the sales department and other business processes at Autodesk’s Asia Pacific offices. That connected me to the business sides of a company for the first time. So understanding the language and the culture actually opened doors that led to where I am today.
A Personal Approach
When developing her own leadership skill set, Lacey began by asking more experienced managers for additional advice and doing a lot of reading. She instituted a number of unusual strategies and techniques. But because they are closely aligned with her own personality, they are highly effective, both with individuals in her department and with other teams throughout the company.
One of these techniques she calls “individual focus.” Lacey devotes her complete attention to individuals until their issues or questions have been fully addressed. That means she sometimes has to rearrange schedules when meetings run longer than anticipated. “Getting together face-to-face is an opportunity to explore and hopefully resolve matters. I don’t do five-minute meetings, which can usually be handled through email,” she says.
She also engages in full transparency. In addition to her staff’s specific tasks and activities, an extraordinary amount of Lacey’s attention is focused on their professional goals. This enables her to keep them engaged and satisfied in their work, and to offer guidance, appropriate challenges and even tips on what will help build their resumes. She’s also very open about her own strengths and weaknesses, which provides opportunities for staff to step in with their special skills and expertise.
“People aren’t locked in with me for their entire careers, so I want to figure out what they need to learn to get where they want to go,” Lacey explains. “If they want to lead a mergers and acquisitions team, they need different skills than if they’re aiming to be general counsel. And if they’re not satisfied with what they’re doing, it’s good for both of us to know that we need to find a better fit.”
Acknowledging the different strengths and goals of members of her team is just another way Lacey has adapted her management style. As a top executive at one of Silicon Valley’s most recognizable companies, she’s nurturing a new style of leadership—one that encourages spending time guiding based on others’ interests and priorities, and finding everyone’s unique contributions. For a company whose name tags are shaped like bananas, it’s a highly fitting approach.