We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Irene Liu, general counsel for Checkr, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about what she’s passionate about, how her team would describe her, and how she handled challenging managers.
Rose Ors: What are three things you are most passionate about?
Irene Liu: The three things that matter most to me are my family, my faith, and relationships with others—be they friends or colleagues. As a mom of two boys, I want my children (and those around me) to remember me for the love I showed and the positive and lasting impact I’ve had on those around me, both in my career as well as personal life.
Rose Ors: How do these three very important things anchor you?
I use these three passions to help me find balance and set priorities in my life. My natural tendency is to drive towards my next personal goal or career move. My three passions remind me to slow down and smell the roses so that I can be fully present when I am with my friends and family and others who need my time and attention. My faith also anchors me because it teaches me to be thankful, kind and humble.
Rose Ors: How would your team at Checkr describe you?
Irene Liu: Some might describe me as quick-witted, strategic and thoughtful. Others might describe me as warm, open and fun.
Additionally, what my team would say and most appreciates about me is that they know I’m always looking out for them. For example, my team recently threw me a surprise celebration for my two-year anniversary at Checkr. The team gave me a thoughtful card thanking me for my mentorship and for always having their back. I am proud of the close-knit team I’ve built and am glad that the team knows how much I care for them and their success.
Rose Ors: Has the way you work with your team been modeled on how you were managed in the past?
Irene Liu: My management philosophy evolved by working with some challenging managers over the course of my career. The most important lesson I learned from each of these managers is how important it is to be a positive and respectful leader. I know firsthand how difficult it is to work for someone who undervalues you and treats you poorly — it takes a huge personal toll. So, I’ve used what I experienced and turned it into lessons on how to lead and manage with integrity, fairness and genuine care for others. I want every person on my team to feel valued and appreciated and to know that the work they do, the insights they share, and the positive energy they bring to the table makes a difference.
Rose Ors: How did you handle your experiences with challenging managers?
Irene Liu: In one scenario, I worked for a narcissistic micro-manager. It became clear to me early on I would not learn much from the manager and he would limit my career growth. So, I left pretty quickly.
In another scenario, my manager was often absent and provided limited guidance. However, I used the opportunity to demonstrate I could take on and succeed in stretch assignments and roles. Here I persevered in spite of an unhealthy work environment and learned the skills that propelled me to a more senior position. It was a difficult time, but my desire to constantly learn and grow outweighed the negative.
Rose Ors: That’s grit.
Irene Liu:I learned grit from my parents, who as professionals left Korea and rebuilt their lives in America in hopes that my sister and I could have more opportunities. My parents taught me by word and deed the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. So, I attribute my success to them and their hard work. Plus, I have an amazing loving husband who is my biggest cheerleader.
Rose Ors: I share your immigrant story, so I understand. Now for the “what if” question. If anything was possible, how would you spend the last year of your life?
Irene Liu: I would unplug and travel the world with my family. Before we had children, my husband and I traveled often and loved discovering new places and cultures. I also previously worked in a role where I traveled internationally — Australia, Canada, Indonesia, the UK, Netherlands and Spain. I believe traveling stretches you — the life experiences that happen when you travel and see different parts of the world are unique and life changing. So, a year exploring the world and embarking on new adventures is what I would do with my year.
My management philosophy evolved by working with some challenging managers over the course of my career. The most important lesson I learned from each of these managers is how important it is to be a positive and respectful leader.
Rose Ors: What would you want your children to learn from seeing the world?
Irene Liu: When you travel to different countries, you not only see the wonders of the world — the natural beauty and the beauty of different cultures — you’re also exposed to different magnitudes of wealth, poverty, happiness, and hopelessness. The former gives you a deep appreciation of this magnificent earth; the latter instills empathy and compassion. I would want my children to walk away from our year-long trip with a deep sense of gratitude for what they have and an equally deep sense of empathy for those not as fortunate. I would also want the experience to help my children figure out how they can give back to the world and live life to its fullest.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed general counsel?
Irene Liu: The role of the general counsel requires that the individual who holds the position be both a lawyer and a business partner. She needs to excel in both roles to be a respected and a valuable member of the executive team. So, I would advise her to first learn the business and the market. I would suggest she approach the learning process by asking and answering some of the same questions asked and answered in a business plan: What are the products? Who are our customers? Who are our competitors? What drives the company revenue? What are the company’s financials? What’s the company’s regulatory landscape?
A general counsel ultimately maximizes her impact when she earns the trust of leadership — C-suite and board — as well as business partners within the company. She must earn a reputation as a bridge, not a roadblock, to getting things done strategically and efficiently.
Lastly, I would underscore the paramount importance of building relationships that, although always professional, are also human-centered. Each one of us has a personal life outside of work. Get to know the people you work with on a personal level. Ask about their family, their hobbies and passions. It will make a positive difference in how you work together.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.