4 tips to move from GC to COO

Laura Guenther | March 21, 2019 | Articles

We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Dan Wright, who shared his path of being the first in-house legal hire at AppDynamics – serving as their General Counsel – to taking on a more strategic role as the technology company’s Chief Operations Officer.

The Two Types of General Counsel

In today’s legal world there are typically two types of GCs:

  1. Those who are all about law
  2. Those who view business from a broader perspective

The conversation got us thinking – a GC focused on legal issues to evaluate and mitigate risk is a great asset to any company, but the role of the modern GC encompasses greater responsibilities outside of the legal realm. GCs who want to take a more strategic path and follow in Wright’s footsteps can prime themselves for the COO position by following these four tips.

1. Communicate Your Aspirations Through Actions

We’ve all heard the saying, “actions speak louder than words” growing up, right? Well it is just as important in your professional career. Wright demonstrated his desire to move up by focusing on helping the business in any way possible. Wright himself was hired before the company had a Chief People Officer or a CFO, allowing him to be involved in back-office operations from early on. When asked how he let the CEO know he had an interest in the COO role, he responded, “It wasn’t really a conversation. The most important way I let him know was by always being willing to take on things that, frankly, weren’t legal.”

Actions come in a variety of flavors:

  • Take on strategic projects
  • Create opportunities to work with corporate development, finance, and HR
  • Show your CEO you are willing to assume responsibilities beyond your typical scope of work, particularly if you’re joining a company at the ground level

Taking action gives your CEO the confidence needed to ask you to step into a more demanding role, and by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone with new activities, you’ll gain the confidence you need to make that leap.

2. Embody a “Business First, Lawyer Second” Mentality

A common theme throughout our chat with Wright – and with many other data-driven legal professionals – was the embodiment of a “business first, law second” mentality. Approaching your job with this mindset is the most critical because it influences everything you do, and there are things you can do on a regular basis that show you’ve got the right mindset to succeed as a COO.

Increasingly, businesses and the boards backing them want someone who approaches business problems head on, working as a partner with the CEO to solve problems vs just providing legal advice. That’s not to discount the importance of legal experience which provides an essential foundation for a COO. Lawyers excel in communication, problem-solving, and logical thinking, while years of experience have honed their ability to simplify complex information. All of these skills translate into areas beyond legal, whether that’s accounting, finance, sales, product development, or marketing – it’s all about deconstructing complex problems and finding a solution. As a lawyer with this skill set, you’re already more prepared than you realize to tackle the kind of challenges all businesses face and step into a more consequential role.

3. Show that Legal is Quantitative, Not Qualitative

If you’re outgrowing your role as GC and have aspirations to move up, it’s essential to bring data to the table. “All of our meetings are centered on what data is telling us,” said Wright, “whether we are comparing contract turnaround to competitors or educating sales people on tools and better ways to do things. It shows you’re on top of the dollars you’re spending, how things scales over time, and overachieving industry benchmarks.”

The most critical data point to have a handle on? Line-by-line awareness of where your department is spending money.

If you can demonstrate that every dollar has a traceable ROI, whether that’s through mitigating important risks to the company or actually driving revenue through contract management, you’ll be able to overcome the misconception that legal is just a cost center. It will also help change the perception of your role as a GC by showing that you are capable of a more operationally focused position within the company.

4. Build Strong Relationships

Building relationships is critical to being successful as a COO. Regular meetings with your CEO and board members will not only help fill in gaps in your knowledge (and, invariably, you’ll have gaps), it will also provide you with a chance to drive positive outcomes internally and externally.

“A GC that I really respect gave me some great advice, which was have regular one-on-ones with each of your board members. It may not be appropriate at every stage in the company, but I think it becomes more appropriate as you get closer to IPO. This way, you can build relationships and really be that strategic partner for the CEO, helping work through some of the thorny issue that may come up for more effective board meetings,” said Wright during the call.

A Bright Future for Strategic, Data-Driven Legal Leaders

Legal professionals have the ideal skillset, background, and foundation to emerge as strategic and operationally-focused leaders within their organizations and we expect to see more follow the path of Dan in the future. We’d like to extend a big thank you to Dan for sharing his story and advice with SimpleLegal and our readers!

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Strategic General Counsel