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.
Eleanor Lacey, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at work management platform Asana, Inc., spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about the power a single teacher can have on his students, the wisdom of seeking feedback, and the unexpected benefit of taking on a job that’s not for you.
Rose Ors: What is a childhood memory that brings you joy?
Eleanor Lacey: I distinctly remember my fifth and sixth grade teacher, Brian McNamara, who recently passed away. He used to let us stay after school and just hang out in his classroom. So, a group of my friends and I would do just that. He played music for us; music we had never heard before like David Bowie. It was a safe and happy space, and I felt really cared for there.
Rose Ors: What environment did he create that made you so comfortable and happy?
Eleanor Lacey: He was genuinely interested in his students. He talked with us — not at us. We felt that he liked and respected us. He maintained discipline in the classroom, but in a way that made us feel that we were never going to get in big trouble with him.
He left an indelible mark on us and many of us kept in touch with him over the years. When we learned he had terminal cancer, we had a reunion that was attended by hundreds of his former students. Many of us also shared playlists of the music he had played with us.
Rose Ors: Moving now to your career. What moments have been particularly significant?
Eleanor Lacey: The first significant moment was moving from a law firm to my first in-house job at Autodesk. Marcia Sterling, who was then the general counsel, hired me even though I had no software experience. I will always remember that in one of my interviews at Autodesk, the head of Intellectual Property asked me what I knew about software.
I promptly gave an answer that was all about hardware, clearly showing my utter lack of knowledge about both. After the interviews, I remember Marcia telling me, “Look, I think you’re smart and I think you’ll learn it.” She gave me a chance I will never forget that.
I have tried to pay forward Marcia’s confidence in me by not keeping people siloed in the departments I build. People need to have some deeper knowledge and specialization to do their job. However, if they want to shift to another area of law, I try to give them that opportunity. Law is a body of knowledge. If you are smart and work hard, you will learn it eventually.
Rose Ors: And your next significant career moment?
Eleanor Lacey: Probably the biggest and best thing I did in my career was to leave the practice of law for a while. I was the general counsel at Niku Corporation when it was acquired. The then-CEO of the company left and became CEO of SupportSoft; later renamed Support.com. I joined him about a year after Niku was bought, not at as his GC, but as his VP of Corporate Development, and later as a VP of Business Development. In my Corporate Development role, my principal focus was to help acquire and integrate companies into SupportSoft.
Shortly after I assumed the position, the world economy fell apart and there were no acquisitions to be made. I was then moved into business development — a commission sales role with a quota. Initially I was excited about the job and about venturing into something new. However, I soon found I missed many aspects of being a general counsel, especially the analytic nature of the work and my advisory role.
Rose Ors: So, how did ending up in a sales job you did not like become the best thing you could have done?
Eleanor Lacey: It helped me in two ways. I think a lot of lawyers, at various times in their careers, question whether they have chosen the right career. This experience really helped me know that law was for me. It also gave me this huge empathy for people in sales. Their job is much harder and more stressful than I understood.
I learned what it felt like to have a lawyer on the other side blocking you or not paying attention to your proposal. Since then, I have been able to bring a greater sense of empathy to the challenges facing my internal clients. The legal department can stand in their way or help them move forward. I want to be part of a team that helps people figure out the best way to move forward.
Rose Ors: Every general counsel I speak to says there is a real emphasis on them understanding the business. In addition to the empathy it created, how did stepping outside legal help you in this regard?
Eleanor Lacey: It gave me more appreciation for the value of feedback. You have to be willing to ask, “Am I adding value?” And you have to be willing to accept that the answer may not always be “Yes.” I think seeking feedback is the fastest way to improve. It is scary and hard to do if you are not feeling confident; but once people see you are genuinely asking the question, they are more likely to think about how they can help you improve.
Rose Ors: What are your passions and interests?
Eleanor Lacey: Books are a major passion. One business book I offer to anyone who has reported to me is Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. The book is ultimately about how to motivate people, contrasting behaviors that bring out the best in others versus those that stifle performance.
I also love The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu about the differences between happiness and joy and how to keep both in your life. Every year I listen to the book on tape as I wrap Christmas gifts. Then there is my favorite book when I was a young child — The Little Engine That Could. Interestingly, it is one of the few children’s books where the most important character — in this case, the little engine — is female.
Rose Ors: If anything was possible, what is another career you would love to pursue?
Eleanor Lacey: If I had another career, it would be something that required me to learn other languages because I think you get different insights into people when you speak to them in their own language.
I would use those language skills to work with refugees or be involved in some sort of business that helps women achieve financial independence. During my second summer of law school, I worked for The International Campaign for Tibet. This type of work felt really rewarding to me.
Rose Ors: My last question is, what advice do you have for outside counsel to increase their value to their clients?
Eleanor Lacey: My advice is to be really honest about where you have expertise and where you do not. The outside counsel that have been most valuable to me have large gaps in what they can advise me on, but I know when I go to them, the advice they give me is something they know deeply. They did not have to scramble around and do research on something they don’t really know.
When appropriate, I want them to say, “Look, this isn’t our area of expertise, but we’re going to help you find somebody who does have that expertise.” Such honest conversation creates a more open and authentic relationship.