[co-author: Prashant Dubey and Steve Harmon]
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Elevate General Counsel and COO Steve Harmon to discuss his new role, overall philosophy and approach to executing his mission. I was especially excited about this because of a book I co-wrote a few years ago called The general lawyer (Oxford University Press). I drew on themes from the book to frame our conversation. Essentially, Steve is the quintessential generalist lawyer.
Prashant: Steve, congratulations to you and Elevate on your appointment as General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer. How do you feel about this?
Steve: Prashant, I am excited about this role for several reasons. First, I continue to lead our legal team, where I believe we have been able to execute our role “at the speed of business”. As an extremely fast-growing company, our legal function must allow Elevate to grow as quickly as our market and infrastructure allow. Additionally, now that I lead all of our core operational activities, I can apply my philosophies of speed and balance while fulfilling the mission of our legal department. The mission to “enable the company to design, build and sell its products and services in a legally appropriate manner” is part of the fabric of our organization.
Prashant: While writing The general lawyer, I’ve had the good fortune to get to know some of the executives who are reshaping the way legal departments execute their charter. One of my favorite people is Marla Persky. I knew her when we were both at Baxter and contacted her again for my book when she was Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Boehringer Ingelheim USA. When I asked Marla how she thought a General Counsel should fulfill her role, she replied: “A General Counsel should be a businessman first and a lawyer second – not a lawyer who understands the business, but a businessman who happens to be a lawyer”. .’ Steve, what do you think of Marla’s description?
Steve: Marla’s description resonates with my perspective and aspirations as a GC. Mark Chandler (most recently Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of Cisco) has been a tremendous mentor to me and shaped my vision and approach to the position. Very early in my tenure at Cisco, at a global “Law Department All Hands” meeting, he invited our engineering and product manager and our sales manager to present their priorities to the department. At the end of the presentation, someone asked if the time spent should focus on a specific topic or legal risk, etc. Mark responded that being an expert in our areas of legal practice was a challenge for us as lawyers. Part of the reason most corporations (at least at this time in 2002) only hired law firms was to make sure the lawyers had legal experience and skills. He then observed that the company’s ability to pay our salaries was entirely dependent on the ability of our engineers to design market-leading products and the ability of our salespeople to get those products into the hands of our customers. Legal service is a tax on business, and one of the key roles of a GC is to find a way to reduce that tax. Over time, Mark and I have distilled this philosophy into a mission statement for the Department:
“The mission of our department is to enable the company to design, build and sell its products in a legally proper manner.”
I brought the same mission statement to Elevate, and that’s our governance mission within our department. To carry out this mission, we must, as lawyers, go far beyond traditional legal advice. As we say in our department, there are no “legal issues”; instead, there are only business issues with legal implications.
Prashant: When I interviewed the senior executives featured in The general lawyer, I realized they all took slightly different paths to get to their place, but there were common themes. I was able to characterize them on a personality matrix. One axis is creative tendencies, the ability to create opportunities. On the other, there is a tendency to respond, the willingness to respond to the opportunities presented. Both are appropriate routes, and some generalists had both creator and responder tendencies. Here is the matrix. Where would you say you fit on this matrix?
Steve: From my early days as a transactional IP licensing attorney looking for ways to optimize context and non-critical activities at Cisco, I freed myself to focus on more interesting work (Indirect Procurement). This naturally translated into a role where Mark (Chandler) asked me to apply my technical knowledge (combining EE with information systems) in new ways within the Department. Fundamentally, in the trade-off between “revolutionary” and “evolutionary” change, I am an “incrementalist”. Given the affinity of the law with respect for precedent, the approach is very compatible. My approach has always recognized the structural challenges of achieving significant and transformative milestones in legal practice. Intuitively, my approach is to evaluate systems for optimization opportunities. As optimizations accumulate, opportunities for big strategic changes naturally arise – and the process doesn’t need to be forced. Recently, I became aware that this approach had a fancy name, “marginal gains aggregation” (see James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits). In this regard, I would say that I am both a creator and a responder. I created an environment where opportunities came my way, but I also wasn’t shy about taking risks and accepting the opportunities that came my way. I also adhere to the notions of a “legal and economic” approach to law and risk from the Chicago School of Economics and formalized by Judge Learned Hand. Simplified, the idea is to assess the duty of care in cases of negligence — B˂P*L where B = duty to act, P = likelihood and L = magnitude of loss. There’s no reason not to treat other legal issues in the same way, absent strict liability (like compliance). This philosophy, combined with the aggregation of marginal gains, has allowed me to demonstrate impact and recognize opportunities to further impact the business.
Prashant: Steve, given that UChicago is my alma mater (where I studied economics), I love the invocation of “The Chicago School”. Can you give a concrete example of “marginal gains aggregation?”
Steve: Sure thing. One of my favorite stories is how the British cycling team went from being no world leader in cycling to longtime dominance. Here is an excerpt from James Clear’s Atomic Habits (pp. 14-15), Penguin Publishing Group.
Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They won an incredible 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games were held in London, the British raised the bar by setting nine Olympic records and seven world records.
That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The following year, teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would win again in 2015, 2016 and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years.
From 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals over the ten-year period. They have won five Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful race in cycling history.
This achievement is a great example of how each victory builds on another and ultimately leads to long-lasting success.
Prashant: Steve, “the businessman who happens to be a lawyer” is a pervasive theme in many of your anecdotes. I’d love to hear one more that can get things going – something our readers would appreciate as well.
Steve: Sure. Remember, you asked! When I joined Cisco, we were at around $50 billion a year. With about 200 days of work per year, that’s about $250 million a day! It was easy for me to identify initiatives that accelerated the cycle time for closing sales deals and justify the investment. Imagine if I reduced that cycle time by one day! My “incrementalist” approach to these initiatives appropriately internalized change management by those involved, and the business case for gaining management support was clear. This approach really opened my eyes to the concept you describe in your book, The general lawyer. By the way, I’m still waiting for an autograph!