Few things are as challenging as leading your team through change. During times of uncertainty, shifts in responsibility, changes in business strategy and long stretches of time filled with the “unknown,” a strong team leader acts as a grounding force for employees. Over her career, Marie Oh Huber, SVP and General Counsel at eBay Inc. has helped her teams navigate four spinoffs (including eBay’s spinoff of PayPal) and shares some of her key learnings from these experiences.
- Focus on the opportunity. Huber encourages her team to think of change as an opportunity to create greater value. “A spinoff is something lawyers should embrace as a business opportunity that doesn’t come every day. They often create opportunities that didn’t exist before,” Huber explains. As members of a highly-focused and specialized team, lawyers sometimes don’t get the broad range of opportunities that their counterparts on the business side do. Huber adds, “In a spinoff, you can try new things, learn a completely different business, increase your responsibility and maybe obtain a more senior role – all huge positives!”
- Acknowledge the change. In most situations, employees have no idea a spinoff is imminent. This may mean that the lawyers on your team are supporting a business unit that gets spun off and are surprised when the actual transition is announced. This can be quite disruptive, and a good leader needs to acknowledge that every member of the team will process the information differently. Huber advises understanding the “different stages of grief. You may have people on your team who’ve been in the same role they’ve excelled in for years, and suddenly, they must deal with an entire department being split apart. While this can be incredibly exciting, it can also be anxiety-producing. At least some people go through denial and resistance before they accept and embrace the change.”
- Be transparent. Understand that people will, naturally, worry about how the changes will affect their careers. Will they stay in their roles? Will their boss and responsibilities change? Will they have a role going forward? At the end of the day, some employees will have great choices as part of the transition and others will need to adapt to a new role they may not be excited about initially. “If you don’t know something or won’t have an answer for some time, tell your team that. This level of transparency is key. If you can, give your team a sense of the big picture, what the shifts in leadership and reporting structures will look like, and what the implementation process will look like. Your team will be hungry for any information, and it’s crucial they feel you’re upfront and there to support them,” Huber advises.
- Serve as a guide. Even if you’re taking the time to communicate often, clearly and candidly, you can only say so much. “I try to tell my team that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone,” Huber says. “It’s also helpful to tie concrete goals with how this new challenge will be a stretch that, ultimately, helps achieve those aspirations,” Huber adds. She also relies on her own experience as an example: she left a job at Agilent Technologies, where she had excelled in her role and developed great relationships, and came to eBay in the midst of a major spinoff that split the company in two, representing the biggest change in the company’s history. I try hard to practice what I preach. I want to help my team understand that even if something doesn’t feel ideal or comfortable at first, being agile, flexible, and adaptable to change are lifelong skills that are an important part of their tool box. Ultimately, positivity and adaptability amidst turmoil and change are qualities leadership will always notice,” Huber explain.
- Don’t forget we’re all human. Though it may not seem like the most obvious connection, transition usually means added stress which, inevitably, affects a team’s personal life as well. Huber has learned over the years that encouraging her employees to bring their whole selves to work is key in fulfillment, retention, and overall success. Importantly, Huber recognizes that this comes from the top: “I try to set an example by talking about things in my life outside of work so that others feel comfortable doing so as well.” Huber also emphasizes that “It’s critical to show interest in someone as a person beyond merely needing something from them. This is particularly true when you’re asking people to do something far outside of their comfort zone.”
Whether as a result of a spinoff, merger or reorganization, professional change is inevitable. While we’ve focused on what you can do to support your team as a leader, Huber’s lessons coupled with her passion to see her teams thrive through any kind of change are inspiring to any in-house counsel.
Olga V. Mack and Katia Bloom are startup enthusiasts who embrace the current disruption to the legal profession. Long gone are the days when in-house legal departments simply manage outside counsel or provide services. Today’s legal department is a sophisticated business unit that co-manages the company’s bottom line, embraces technology, and analyzes risks constructively. Mack and Bloom love this change and are dedicated to improving and shaping the future of the legal profession. Together they passionately collect and share inspiring stories of legal leaders who are thriving through the ongoing tectonic shift. Mack and Bloom are convinced that the legal profession will emerge from this revolution even stronger, more resilient, and inclusive than before. They are currently co-authoring a manual of the skills and traits lawyers need to succeed in — and even enjoy — today’s rapidly evolving in-house legal departments. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected] or @olgavmack and @bloomkatia on Twitter.
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