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How to get the top job with Lauren Zajac

Business, law and leadership enthralled Lauren Zajac even as a child and she has managed to successfully combine all three in her stellar career. She discusses how to get and keep the top job.

Lauren Zajac knew earlier than most that she wanted to be a lawyer. The story goes that she was an argumentative little kid who grew up hearing, "you'll make a great lawyer." She was also interested in the world of technology and says, "tech is in my blood." Her father was a successful tech CEO which meant she grew up in a home with the latest computers, software, and gadgets.

Combining law and tech was a natural path for Zajac and, unusually, going in-house was her goal from an early age. She remembers going to her father's work and meeting the General Counsel. "I was exposed to this role that fused business and law, and realized that is what I wanted to do," she says.

Fast forward to today, and Zajac is the former Chief Legal Officer, Data Protection Officer and Corporate Secretary at Workhuman, a Social Recognition and Continuous Performance Management technology platform. She has been in the legal industry for 25 years and held GC positions at companies such as MKS Instruments, Metatomix, and Riverdeep. She has a great reputation in tech and is a council member at Forbes Technology Council.

"I won't squander this opportunity." Those were Zajac's words to her first boss. This ethos has been her North Star throughout her career and allowed her to reach the coveted positions of GC and CLO. She believes what sets lawyers destined for leadership apart is their "willingness to roll their sleeves up and do what needs to be done to move the business forward".

Early on in her work life, Zajac realized the importance of gaining a breadth of business experience to develop the skillset of a legal leader, and she made strategic career moves that exposed her to different companies and business models. "I think the best GCs are the ones who have seen multiple leadership teams and stages of growth,” she says. “You don't necessarily need to be moving between industries because we all have specializations and niches. Still, the more ways of working you can experience, the better prepared you are to handle whatever comes along."

Getting the top job is, in many ways, only the beginning. Zajac found that being a GC required a different skillset to successfully lead a team and act as an advisor to the business. She says soft skills are crucial, as is continually honing your individual work and leadership habits.

"I often liken the role of GC or CLO to that of an in-house therapist," she says, adding that a legal leader is uniquely positioned to be the great protector of a company as they are privy to information many executives don't see and handle problems most employees will never hear about. "That lends itself to being someone people confide in."

She has found that being a good listener goes hand-in-hand with being openly vulnerable, as this is the foundation of building trust, and she's emphatic that lawyers aren't robots and shouldn't be treated or act as such. "If you want people to tell you what keeps them up at night, what they worry may become an issue six months from now, you have to build trust."

She is also adamant that deconstructing the lawyer stereotype helps build your credibility within the company. Being the kind of lawyer that causes people to go quiet or censor themselves when you enter the room is a recipe for disaster - yet this is a typical reaction legal leaders receive in a company. Working actively to build trust, be open, and be collaborative are high on Zajac's to-do list.

Vulnerability was an issue that became more important than ever to Zajac during the Covid-19 lockdowns. To make sure her team felt supported, she was candid about her struggles. "I told them about my mistakes. For instance, when my Zoom crashed in a meeting with the Chairman of the Board," she laughs. Having a leader be open allowed her team and the business to feel safe to admit if they too were struggling.

"I'm seeing more of an acceptance in business that we are all humans, that we all have struggles and foibles. Being honest about this makes more connected teams," she says.

Something that surprised Zajac about being a GC, is the potential the role provides for supporting other executives, specifically the CEO. Zajac points out that being a GC is a lonely role: you are privy to a large amount of confidential information. "The only other person in the business who has that level of cadence is the CEO," she says. Zajac has developed a solid relationship of mutual and professional support with her CEO.

Once you get the top job, it is by no means yours for good. Zajac cautions that it can be even harder to demonstrate your value if you’re a GC running a cost-center function that can't demonstrate the bottom line and revenue growth. "Every executive position should always be thinking about how they can continue to demonstrate their value to the business," she says.

Her solution is to present your value as other business units do. Harness data to show insights, set KPIs… and hit them. Show you've contributed to the business. "It's a sign of respect for other executives, and the right thing to do if you want your executive leadership team and the board to feel like you're rowing in the same direction as them," she says. Excellent team playing advice.

Let's be straight. Having the top job isn't always rosy. Zajac says there are many hard days and difficult conversations had, so loving what you do is crucial. GCs deal with immense pressure and must develop an appetite for owning risk. Unlike private practice partners, GCs will see how their decisions impact the business, so they need to confidently juggle risk with potential business reward. The workload is, as you would expect, enormous, and apart from sole legal counsel, GCs usually manage a team of lawyers on top of their list of responsibilities.

GCs like Zajac often wear the Corporate Secretary hat too, which means spending a lot of time with the board. She says this can cause tense relationships, as other executives become jealous of the amount of board exposure GCs get. "In a start-up environment, time with the board is like gold," she says. Her advice? It is important GCs have a good relationship with the executive leadership team otherwise mitigating tension can become a tedious necessity.

Imposter syndrome also rears its head on occasion. To help stave off the inner critic, believe in yourself and take pride in your achievements. Making mistakes is a fact of life and Zajac says it’s important to always try to reframe them as a learning opportunity.

And although she loves her job, Zajac admits, "I think about succession planning every day." She believes a responsible leader acknowledges that there will be a time when their reign will end, and that equipping someone to take over is a critical part of the job. "I have various people who can handle multiple aspects of what I do and understand certain pieces of the holistic legal function.”

She also says that teaching people benefits both the leader and the junior lawyer; the gift of mentorship helps her reflect on her own experience and better understand her strengths.

When it comes to Zajac's future, anything is possible. After more than 14 years with Workhuman, she still loves the product and the business. While she admits to being intrigued by the idea of calling the shots and being a CEO, there are still particular skills to hone should she ever seriously consider that avenue.

Whatever the future holds, she is happy with the choices she has made. “Even after 25 years as in-house counsel, I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing, and I feel very fortunate."

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