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.
Dr. Klaus-Peter Weber, General Counsel Operations Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about memories of his goat farm, his passion for sailing, and what advice he’d give his younger self and a newly appointed GC.
Rose Ors: What is a childhood memory that brings you joy?
Klaus-Peter Weber: The times I spent with my brother on what we called our goat farm. We did not live on a farm, but we raised goats on a large tract of land adjacent to our house.
Rose Ors: How did you come about having a farm?
Klaus-Peter Weber: It was serendipity. A circus was traveling through our little German town and they posted a sign saying, “Goats for Free.” As soon as we saw the sign, my brother and I decided we wanted the goats. My brother, the eldest, stood in front of that sign for about an hour, hoping no one else would see it, while I ran home to get our father’s permission. My father said yes. So, at the age of 10 and 14, my brother and I became goat farmers.
We had full responsibility for the herd — part of the deal we made with our father. We built a shed for them, we fed them with old bread we got from local bakeries, we traded some for pot-belly pigs. We grew our herd from two to more than 15 goats. In town we were known as the goat guys. It was hard work, especially in the harsh winters — but it was great fun.
Rose Ors: What was an important lesson-learned that you carry to this day?
Klaus-Peter Weber: There were a number of important lessons, but there is one that stands out — and that is to be open to surprises. Life will present us with unexpected opportunities, and when these opportunities come to you, have an open heart and an open mind. Be ready to act on them when it feels right.
Rose Ors: What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self today?
Klaus-Peter Weber: I have always been very interdisciplinary in my thinking and in my pursuits. At 16, I had saved my money from tutoring and bought my first plane ticket to visit the United States. In my 20s, I studied medicine in parallel to studying law. It took me two years before deciding on the law as my focus.
That said, I would tell my 20-year-old self to explore even more, to be even more fearless while also being smart about it. That way when you make mistakes — which you will — they are intelligent mistakes. I think to leave your comfort zone is critically important.
Rose Ors: What are three things you are passionate about?
Klaus-Peter Weber: I have three passions: languages, music, and sailing.
My love for languages encompasses not only different languages, but the people who speak them and the cultures the languages enshrine. I do not view any language as “foreign.” I listen to different languages the same way I listen to different types of music — as different types of sounds and melodies. I had a language teacher in Spain who had me sing Spanish songs without first intellectually knowing what the words meant as a way to learn the language — a brilliant way to learn any language.
My second passion is music. I love playing the piano and the organ. I grew up in Werl in Westphalia, a very Catholic town in Germany where I played the church organ every day. I split my time between home and the Franciscan monastery. I no longer have the time to play the organ every day, but it was and continues to be an important part of my spiritual and intellectual hygiene. Playing the organ or the piano declutters my mind and spirit.
Then there is sailing. For me, sailing is something I experience as almost a form of meditation. It is a beautiful and profound experience. My love for sailing has taken me across the Atlantic twice aboard a sailing yacht. Being out in this vastness and exposed to the elements was, each time, extremely energizing, inspiring, and humbling. You realize how little control and power you have compared to power of nature. It gives you a reverence for nature.
Rose Ors: On your transatlantic trips did you sail alone or with a group?
Klaus-Peter Weber: Both times I sailed with a group of five on a 50-foot yacht. Each time we quickly became a tiny society bonded by measured joint risk-taking, shared enthusiasm, and this incredible experience.
It was fascinating to see how we navigated the small space during a long journey. As a friend once told me: “You learn much more about a person during a full day at sea than you do during two weeks on land.”
Never compromise on doing what is right… An important part of the role of the general counsel is to be the conscience of the organization he or she serves.
Rose Ors: If you were a fly on the wall, what conversation would you find fascinating to hear?
Klaus-Peter Weber: The conversation I would have loved to have heard is the one Christopher Columbus had with the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when he asked for their patronage. What did he say to earn their trust not only in his idea but in him? How did he persuade them that the risk was worth taking? How did he organize his arguments? How did he frame the business case in terms that were intellectually, spiritually, culturally persuasive?
Rose Ors: Now for the wrap-up question. What advice would you give a newly appointed general counsel?
Klaus-Peter Weber: My first piece of advice is to never compromise on doing what is right. In order to do that you need to maintain a level of intellectual independence. An important part of the role of the general counsel is to be the conscience of the organization he or she serves. If there is a policy that the general counsel believes is wrong, then it is his responsibility to make the business case for why it should be changed. Doing the right thing with precision while being flexible, imaginative, and ingenious is the job of the general counsel.
My second piece of advice is to establish trust in the individuals and the teams you work with. Establish that trust early on by always focusing on potential instead of just the status quo. Trust is the basis of getting things that matter done and done right. Trust is the currency that, in a digital age, is more essential than ever.
My last piece of advice is to find comfort in the discomfort of uncertainty, because doubt is a necessary source for persuasion. Embrace uncertainty as a natural state, because today, it is a natural state. The world is moving fast, and it will only move faster.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.