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.
Jennifer Warner, vice president for Legal at Columbia Sportswear Co., spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about her most profound influences, establishing trust in working relationships, and what makes her laugh.
Rose Ors: Who has had the most profound influence in your life?
Jen Warner: My mother and my grandmother have had a combined impact on me that influences everything I do. I was raised by my grandmother in part because of my mother’s struggles with mental illness and homelessness. My grandmother provided me with a strong and stable foundation. She consistently told me that, no matter the circumstance, I could accomplish anything. Her wholehearted support gave me courage, drive and confidence that I would not have had without her in my life.
My mother made a very different, but important impact. Although my mother was unable to be a parent in the traditional sense, she was present in my life in her own way and despite her own substantial struggles. I learned valuable life lessons by watching how she coped with her personal circumstances — with strength and dignity. I credit my mother for my resilience and grit. I also learned the importance of empathy from watching how she has been treated by people who do not view her with empathy or understanding.
My grandmother and mother — both powerful women in their own ways — gave me the ability to be both humble and fearless, a combination that has been a real differentiator for me in my career and in general. I feel really comfortable going into any situation saying, “Okay, I’ve got this.”
Rose Ors: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Jen Warner: I would tell myself, “Buckle up kiddo, because you’ll be amazed at how beautiful life is going to be.” I would want my 20-year-old self to know that the challenges that felt so big at that time will be greatly outweighed by the good in life that comes with experience and maturity.
My late teens and early-20s were difficult. I was a young adult in Utah in the 1990s, which was a pretty confined and conservative world. I knew I was gay, but I had not yet gotten over the hurdle of coming out and really figuring out who I am and how to be myself — whatever that was going to mean. At that point in time, I could not have imagined finding work that fulfills me and has opened me up to a vast and interesting world. I certainly would have never imagined being openly married to my wife and having two fantastic kids. If I had believed all this was in my future, it would have been easier to persevere.
I would also advise my younger self to be authentic in every interaction. Once I found the courage to be authentic it changed everything. It made my interactions in my personal life and in my career so much more meaningful. If I could go back, I would say to my prior self, “Figure out who you are, and then be that in everything you do. Because that is what’s going to make your life full and satisfied.”
Rose Ors: Now for a fun question. What makes you laugh out loud?
Jen Warner: Water balloons. Water balloons make me laugh. See, you immediately started laughing when I said water balloons.
Rose Ors: (Laughing) It was an involuntary response.
Jen Warner: See, this is my point, right? You can’t help but feel immediately lighter and happier. I love water balloons the way I love ice cream. It’s almost impossible to be unhappy when you’re around ice cream, and likewise, water balloons.
Rose Ors: Here’s another fun question: What person, living or dead, would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?
Jen Warner: I thought a lot about this one. I have different answers for different reasons. But I’ll choose two for now — it would be a dinner party. One dinner guest would be Hillary Clinton because I admire her and the way she faces up to challenges and moves on, and I think she’d be fun to chat with in general. Another dinner guest would be the jazz musician, Thelonious Monk because I love jazz, and his music in particular; and I’d love to hear what moved him to create that particular music.
Rose Ors: In another life, what would be a career you would find exciting to pursue?
Jen Warner: I love what I do. But I keep thinking that the life of an author would be fantastic. Admittedly, my view of this career alternative is based completely on an idyllic, and undoubtedly inaccurate, impression of the life of an author.
…[T]hink like a leader, rather than as an individual contributor. Lawyers are trained as individual contributors, but an effective leader needs to think differently and needs to have the vision and the skills to maximize the strength of the team.
In my fantasy career as an author, I see myself in a lovely lake house where I write in the mornings by the water. Then I have brunch and go for a nice walk. Repeat. Then, when my books, to my great surprise and delight, get published, I make enough money to keep living in the lake house, having brunch and going for walks. This it totally how it works, right?
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed law department leader?
Jen Warner: My first piece of advice — and this goes back to some of my earlier comments — is, “Know who you are and bring that to the table in everything you do. It will make you more effective and more satisfied.”
My next piece of advice is to think like a leader, rather than as an individual contributor. Lawyers are trained as individual contributors, but an effective leader needs to think differently and needs to have the vision and the skills to maximize the strength of the team. If you want to lead well, you’ve got to be able to break through the individual contributor mindset. You have got to learn to trust and rely on your team and lead through your them. Recognize that the success of a highly functioning team will always — and necessarily — be greater than the success of any highly functioning individual. I think that can be a tough leap, but it is a must.
My final piece of advice is to always assume “right intent” in others. I think there are a number of people in any workplace who spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out the motivations of other people. They are too concerned with “what ifs.” When I engage with anyone — in my personal or my professional life — I always assume that they’re interacting with me with the right intent in mind. Every once in a while, that’s not what’s going on and you have to address that differently. But I’ve found that it makes life more pleasant assuming right intent. It just gives you more emotional energy.
Rose Ors: What would you say to someone who says to you, “But then aren’t you leaving yourself open to getting jerked around? Can you really lead when you do that?”
Jen Warner: The question assumes that because you come from a place of trust in an interaction, you open yourself to be taken advantage of. It’s simply not my experience. My experience is that if you establish the rules of engagement and stick to them, others will step in line with you. This approach frees everyone from playing office politics and makes each individual leader and team member more effective.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.