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Why the Savviest CHROs Love Hiring Lawyers for Nonlegal Jobs and How Candidates Can Set Themselves Up for Success

Journalist and JD Nancy Stein sits down with Chris Edmonds-Waters, Executive Coach and former CHRO of Silicon Valley Bank for an in-depth conversation about JDs and nonlegal careers.

This is part one of a two-part interview

Chris Edmonds-Waters

Executive Coach, formerly Chief

Human Resources Officer, Silicon Valley Bank

Nancy Stein

Lawyer, Journalist

Issues on the table:

  • What lawyers should first focus on before taking the fateful step of moving to a business career
  • Why as a JD you’re training has uniquely set you up for success in business
  • One Skill JDs need to learn to be supremely effective executives
  • Speak to outcomes not processes when interviewing for business roles
  • What is Learning Agility and why is it so important
  • Transitioning from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset
  • Accessing a personal Board of Directors

NS: So, thanks for taking the time to talk, Chris. Would you share a little bit about your background for people reading or listening to this?

Edmonds-Waters: Sure. I was the chief HR officer for Silicon Valley Bank Financial Group. I was with the company for  20 years. So, I’ve kind of been there, seen it, and done it. There’s not a whole lot I haven’t seen. Gosh, what else can I tell you? I’m an out and proud gay man, married to my husband with two kids. Our boys are in college. They’re UCLA students. We’re very proud of our sons. We live in San Francisco and own a vineyard in Napa. That’s pretty much it.

NS: That sounds great.As a career coach, what are some of the things you think lawyers should be thinking about when they’re considering a career change?

Edmonds-Waters: I think it’s really important for anyone considering a career change to get down to what’s really going on. What’s it about? What’s the perspective that you’ve got that says this isn’t working or you want more or something different to do? Get really clear about that first, because sometimes it’s all about having a crummy boss, right? Sometimes it’s about the work itself. Sometimes it’s about the billable hours concept, etcetera. Being clear about what you want to get away from and what you want to get into really matters. Otherwise, you find yourself running and running and running and that’s not going to do anyone any good at all. I think running from a problem is a problem.

NS: Right. And don’t be desperate. You may feel you want to change but first, understand what it is that you really don’t like. It may be law entirely or it may just be your specific job, your area of practice or your boss. How should you go about drilling down to figure that out?

Edmonds-Waters: There are a couple of things. One would be asking yourself, what’s my contribution to the dilemma on the table right now? How am I contributing to it? What’s not working? What’s mine to own around this? That’s important because everywhere you go, there you are, right? Look in the mirror, there you are. Problems tend to repeat themselves if you’re not careful. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that I don’t think there’s any one solution, one answer to the “what to do” piece. I think it’s a combination of things. Talk with friends and family, journal, reflect on it, take a long walk or a hike or what have you. I think it’s gaining some emotional distance from the situation at hand and putting it in perspective. There are any number of things that inform the process, including the cellophane wrapper that bundles it all together. Should you stay? Should you go? Are you happy or are you unhappy, etcetera?

NS: I think taking a step back and being objective, talking to friends and family sometimes can help with this. Sometimes you need someone like a colleague or someone who you just know in some other respect who doesn’t know your emotional baggage and take an objective look and hear what you’re saying because sometimes we project thoughts or people will give advice based on what they think you’re thinking about or struggling with.

Edmonds-Waters: As you grow as a professional and become more senior, having a personal board of directors is really important—having three people who will tell you the truth about you, your situation or a problem you’re facing. Find three people you respect. You may not like all of them. One of them may be a pain, but honest. That’s the person you really should listen to. That’s the person who is going to tell you what’s what. So, finding those people and being open to feedback is important. Owning your piece of the action, if you will, being willing to listen and do some soul-searching about what someone says to you is important before making a change. Then you can go forward from there.

NS: Agreed. You need to know how you may be contributing to the problem so you don’t make the same mistake going forward. That’s a huge piece. I think people don’t reflect on that enough and then they end up in a similar situation. You have to be open to what people have to say. They’re not trying to hurt you. They’re your friends, colleagues, neighbors or family members and they’re trying to be honest with you.

How should you translate your skills as a lawyer for a corporate role? How should you structure or focus your resume and what you’re saying in a job interview?

Edmonds-Waters: This is an important question. And I’ll tell you, it’s a real deal breaker for me. This may be fair or unfair, but I’ll tell you what happens in my world and then we’ll go from there. Every time I get a resume that’s all about process versus outcomes, I automatically put the person in a middle management role in my mind’s eye. You need to change the vernacular and focus on outcomes, not just the process aspects of your job. If I had a nickel for every time I had this conversation, I’d be a rich man. (Lawyer) resumes have to be written with a focus on outcomes, financial outcomes and business impact.

NS: Right. It’s about your accomplishments. What did you achieve and how did that help the company and contribute to its bottom line?

Edmonds-Waters: Totally. People think the process equals the accomplishments.

NS: I had that with a co-worker who wanted a raise. She talked about the work she did, which was her job to do. I told her she needed to focus on what she did above and beyond what was expected, her accomplishments. That’s what shows that you can be a leader and deserve a promotion or a raise. You’re getting paid for your job. If you want more, show me more.

Edmonds-Waters: That’s right. That’s really what it comes down to.

NS: I wasn’t her boss. I was actually serving in that role you mentioned. I was on her board of directors advising her on what she needed to show to get a raise. It’s all about your accomplishments, what you achieved and how you impacted the company in a positive way.

I think people really struggle with translating skills, being able to explain how what they do now makes them good candidates for the job they seek. You can even show how volunteer work translates into marketable skills. Being the president of an 800-member volunteer organization and running major successful fundraising events for that organization certainly prepares you to run events for a company.

Edmonds-Waters: Having discussions about your work and about your accomplishments is really important. So let me explain that, if I may, for just a moment. In my experience, getting your story down about who you are and how you operate takes time. It takes some cycling to get through it. You need to get your story together and say it succinctly. Balancing my ego with the facts of what I actually created is challenging. You want to avoid coming across as being hubristic, overly eager or too driven. There’s an art around that. Hearing yourself talk about it and getting feedback from people about how you operate can help uncover the what and the how. It uncovers the nuances. It really fleshes out a way of being and connecting that’s very productive.

NS: You need to be prepared with an elevator pitch. When I work with lawyers on their bios, I like them to get into whom they help and how they help them. What did they help the client accomplish or enable the client to do? Being able to deliver that elevator pitch is important. But it’s hard for people to not feel as if they’re boasting.

Edmonds-Waters: I completely agree. The other thing is, if you’re good at soliciting and processing feedback, you will realize there are things you take for granted that you didn’t even consider relevant or that make a difference. Someone may say to you, “You know what? That thing that you did or that you do is kind of a big deal and you’re not giving it enough emphasis.”

NS: Right. Ask people to tell you about yourself. Where do they feel your strengths are, where do you add value or stand out? We often miss things about ourselves, not readily recognizing that something is important.

Edmonds-Waters: That’s right.

NS: For example, I can turn around content in 24 hours as opposed to someone else who’s going to sit on a project for a week or longer. That quick turnaround makes a big difference.

Edmonds-Waters: That’s totally the point and such a great example. That is exactly it. You’re moving fast, getting stuff done, and your competition is slower and not as adept, not as on point. And that translates into a better client relationship. It translates into better income for you. It’s top-line productivity. I totally agree with you.

NS: Sit down and actually write down your skills. That’s important. It prepares you. Don’t wing it. Prepare both in writing and for the interview. Do practice interviews.

Edmonds-Waters: Well, the irony of this discussion with you is that you’re such a great example of someone that’s done it. You’ve got this career portfolio and you’ve created this fabulous combination of a legal background, marketing background, and writing background, and you’ve harmonized it all in this remarkable outcome for you and your clients. You’re the real deal.

NS: Thank you. I like that. I’m glad I have this recorded. No, I really appreciate what you said. We make life decisions. We need to decide what we want to do and where we could go with our experience. My skillset worked well for me and I’m very happy doing the work I do. At the same time, I made certain sacrifices. I make less than if I worked at a global law firm but that’s OK. You should figure out what you love to do and then make that your career.


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