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.
Mark Smolik, general counsel and chief compliance officer for DHL Supply Chain Americas, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about what he’s most proud of, what advice meant the most to him, and why woodworking is so meaningful to him.
Rose Ors: What are you most proud of about the way you lead your life?
Mark Smolik: My wife Linda and I are blessed to be the parents of two sons, Jim and Matthew. In raising them, we’ve tried to lead by example, making mistakes along the way, but never wavering from our desire to instill in them a strong set of values built on integrity and trust. We’ve had the privilege of watching them grow into the men they have become, each with a strong moral compass and work ethic, commitment to each other and family, and to helping others. It is a privilege for me to be their father.
Rose Ors: What are the key principles you and your wife instilled in them?
Mark Smolik: There are many but among the most important are never waiver from doing what’s right, always say what you mean, do what you say, when you say you are going to do it. Treat people the way you want to be treated and respect that everyone has their own opinion, life challenges and way of doing things. Respect the diversity of opinion and thought among the people you meet. Give credit when and where it is due. There is no “I” in team.
Rose Ors: What advice have you received that has influenced how you work with your team?
Mark Smolik: There isn’t any one piece of advice that has been most influential. But, I’ve learned a great deal about how not to manage or lead from supervisors with whom I’ve worked in my career. I’ve also observed best practices from others. Among the many influential lessons, I’ve learned came about while I was working at Sherwin-Williams. One of our executives built a strong culture of trust, commitment and service excellence in his organization. People enjoyed working with him. He started each meeting with me by first asking about my family. I learned first-hand the importance of establishing a strong culture and trust among the team, things that are very important to us at DHL.
Rose Ors: Who gave you this advice?
Mark Smolik: Two people actually. The executive at Sherwin-Williams was Joe Scaminace. His approach to leadership is something I will never forget. He was an inspiration. The other was my grandfather. On my LinkedIn page, I wrote a story about him, “Who’s Your Rudy?” My grandfather was the guy in the neighborhood that everybody went to get almost anything fixed. In his garage there were bikes, parts, and plenty of tools. He just couldn’t say “no” when someone needed help. People came to him because he was always true to his word. If he told a neighbor he would fix her son’s bike and it would be ready on Saturday, then it was ready on Saturday. I saw how in every interaction he meant what he said, did what he said, and did it when he said he would. He gave me a lesson on how to build trust by being trusting; it’s a lesson that has resonated with me my whole life.
Rose Ors: What is your favorite pastime?
Mark Smolik: Spending as much time as possible with my family oftentimes on our boat, aptly named, “Family Time.” There is something serene about being surrounded by water and enjoying the company of family and friends. For us it’s about spending time together as a family, creating memories and enjoying each other’s company.
Rose Ors: In one of our other conversations you mentioned your love of carpentry. How did you get into woodworking?
Mark Smolik: When I was 17, I got a job in construction. That first summer I was the guy who did all the grunt work on the construction site. I continued to work summers for the same builder while in college and one day the owner handed me a set of blueprints and a construction apron and said, “Hey, you’re going to run this crew.” My love of carpentry grew from my time running that crew. It gave me enough experience to eventually start my own carpentry business.
Rose Ors: And law school?
Mark Smolik: My carpentry business was going full swing and I enjoyed the work. Rational minds prevailed, however, and I chose the law. But I never gave up woodworking. I love the creative process, the sense of accomplishment in seeing raw lumber transform into a beautiful piece of furniture or handmade gift for someone.
Rose Ors: There is artistry creating something from a blank slate.
Mark Smolik: There is. I can’t explain it but when I see the grain pattern on a piece of lumber, I have a fairly good idea of how I can transform that lumber into a unique piece of furniture. Often when I’ m working on a piece for family or friends, I’ll show a picture of the log from which the piece was made. The reaction I get is, “How in the world did that beautiful piece come out of that ugly looking log?” As the saying goes, “never judge a book by its cover”.
Rose Ors: If anything was possible, how would you spend the last year of your life?
Mark Smolik: The way I’m spending it now. There is a plaque in my office that reads: “Happiness is wanting what you have”. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by family, friends and co-workers who help make my life complete. But, truth be told I get much more satisfaction out of giving than receiving. Remember when one of the lotteries reached $1.6 billion? If I was the lucky winner, I’d make sure to take care of my family but give the rest to those whose needs are far greater than mine.
Rose Ors: Yes. I admit to buying $10.00 worth of tickets. It was fun to think about what I would do with such a prize.
Mark Smolik: It is fun, and the exercise says a lot about what you value. So, when I was asked what I would do with such a huge prize I answered, “Family first then those whose needs are far greater than ours.”
Rose Ors: Now, the final question. What advice would you give a newly appointed general counsel?
Mark Smolik: Take the time to get to know your team. Don’t just focus on what work they are performing but spend meaningful time learning a bit about them personally, perhaps about their family, their opinion on what is working well in the department and what is not. Without them you achieve nothing. Be clear in your communications, set reasonable expectations, and keep them engaged. Make sure to also gain close alignment with key stakeholders—the Board of Directors, the C-Suite, and those in sales and operations. Of course, everyone in the organization who relies on the department are important, but it is key to initially gain insight into their view of your department.
Take the time to meet with those people/functions in the business to whom your department provides services. Understand their business goals and get feedback on your team’s performance. Then, take steps to act on that feedback. Strengthen what is strong and close gaps where there are weaknesses.
On our team we operate on three relatively simple tenents we refer to as AES — align, enable, and simplify. We go to great lengths to understand our clients’ business objectives. This helps assure the goals we set as a team are aligned with those of the business. We are a team of enablers always striving to help the business achieve its objectives. Lastly, we work equally hard to provide simplified solutions to complex and routine matters, avoiding legalese. It’s an approach that has worked for us for quite some time.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.