Insights

New Role, New World, New Habits

Varun Mehta
September 10, 2020

Outdoor signage on the Factor office in Belfast

One Phone Call

It was one of those phone calls I usually wouldn’t pick up. It was from a number I didn’t recognize and I wasn’t expecting a call.

More importantly, I was with a friend, two Negronis in, on a Friday afternoon. I still can’t tell you why I decided to answer that day, but what I can tell you is that one phone call put into motion a series of events that eventually led me to be named CEO of Factor, a firm providing solutions for complex legal work at scale, in January 2020. I’m 34 years old, and this is my first time acting as CEO of any organization. I’m six months in, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is how important it is to communicate truthfully in the moment. I’m starting this blog to do just that. I hope it gives anyone doing something for the first time, or tenth time, the feeling of a fellow traveler walking the path alongside them. 

To begin - some retrospection on the first six months. I don’t need to tell you that time lately has felt like a blur. How I’m sharing here may feel that way too. They’re not in the order that they happened, just in the order that they happen to be coming to me today. 

I’m 34 years old, and this is my first time acting as CEO.

 

Six Months in Retrospection

It’s late February. We draw our attention to Covid-19 and how it might impact us. We aren’t sure if the whole thing is being blown out of proportion, and the idea of a “global pandemic” is far from my mind. I text Bob Kagle, board member and a seasoned venture capitalist/business leader, for guidance on how to lead in times like these. Bob tells me that he’s seen a lot, but nothing quite like this. Then he writes, “time to be cautious and empathetic and maybe soon, time to be bold.” 

“Time to be cautious and empathetic and maybe soon, time to be bold.” 

* * *

I’m sitting, I’m somewhere, and as usual, I’m ruminating. This time I’m picturing an ecosystem of happy people. The board is happy, clients are happy and business is thriving. I can’t see where it begins or ends anymore, because it’s all working together in sync. When I look closer though, I can see that it all starts with making the team at Factor happy. This is the catalyst for everything else falling into place.

* * *

After George Floyd is killed, I spend close to three days not being able to do much of anything. Each call I attend feels inconsequential. Every conversation I have feels meaningless. I go through fifteen drafts of what I could say to the organization but nothing feels right. The usual approach to corporate communications seems banal. I feel the weight of leadership on my shoulders. I want to be a leader that reacts not just with messaging, but action.  

* * *

I’m “strongly encouraged” to visit each of Factor’s five global offices in person within the first two weeks of my start. I want to meet people face to face, but can’t some of these trips wait a month? I'm new, easily excited at times, so I just get on the plane.

* * *

I’m on the phone with Yuriy Veletnik, head of our office in Wroclaw, Poland. We talk about George Floyd and Covid-19, which he knows a lot about. Then the discussion turns to the upcoming general election in Poland. I can’t contribute much to the conversation on this one. I realize how much he knows about my American culture, and how little I know about his. 

 

Five Lessons

I feel like in the last six months I’ve lived a lifetime. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m making sense of these memories by considering what I’ve learned from them. Here are five lessons I know now that I didn’t when I began. 

1. Face time over FaceTime.
Factor was a spin-off of Axiom, an established legal player. By name, Factor was a brand new company. But in spirit, it had a deep history. I realized immediately on my first day in our Belfast office, the first one I visited, that everyone who experienced the spin-off had been through a lot. This needed to be addressed. My own plans to shake things up, as new CEO, could take a back seat for now.

I am so grateful for that strong encouragement to visit each office. Those trips built the foundation for the personal relationships I rely on and strive to maintain with everyone at Factor. I learned about the unique character of each office, and the diverse views & perspectives held across our global community. I got in touch with the human toll that a spin-off can have on people, when colleagues are no longer colleagues and identities need to be shaped, reshaped and reinforced. I began to learn the deep history of the organization I had stepped into. Meeting on screen just would not have been the same. Those trips set us all up for feeling connected. Today, this feeling is invaluable. 

2. Speak Out in the Moment. 
Sending that email in the wake of George Floyd’s death was absolutely integral to my work as a leader of an organization. People are in pain. They want to feel seen and heard. They also deserve to know where their leader, and the institutions they are connected with, stand in moments like these. 

I was so worried about getting it “right.” But there was no “right”. There was only my responsibility as a leader to speak out. That was more important than any heavily edited, PR reviewed email. It’s not about being prescriptive. It’s about being transparent and responsive. I’m going to make this a habit. 

3. Happiness is Market Leadership.
I want to run a company that puts people first. Of course, I’ve got my eye on the business, and I’m asking myself how Factor is going to stand out in the market. What I’ve recently realized is that market leadership and running the kind of company I want to run are not diametrically opposed.

There are many companies out there that are focused on new tech, new processes, and the next big thing. Introducing innovative products is one form of market leadership. I’m excited about that work and the legal industry needs it. I want Factor to fill another void as well. 

Low morale at law firms has been well documented, and even in-house legal department jobs leave something to be desired. If we can create a phenomenal place for our people, where not only are they performing high-value substantive work, but they are also a part of a considerate and caring community that actively engages in our society, then we might be an organization built around a rare commodity in our industry - happiness. If our people feel engaged, empowered and purposeful, this will show up in our work. Clients are overall better served when employees are given a better place to work. In the legal industry, I believe an organization filled with happy people will be a market leader, and perhaps, one-of-a-kind. 

We might be an organization built around a rare commodity in our industry - happiness.

4. Actions Behind Words.
I think Factor is a great place to work. Black Lives Matter made me really look at why anyone should agree with me. I had written, “I stand with you” in my message to the team after George Floyd’s death. How did Factor as an organization stand with Black team members? What actions were we taking to back up this phrase I had put in an email? 

We’ve taken some steps. We hosted a series of round tables for Black employees to share their experiences of working at Factor. We are re-examining our approach to hiring to ensure we have a diverse set of candidates at the outset. We are evaluating our suppliers and business partners to ensure they are aligned with our cultural values and are making a concerted effort to work with Black owned businesses when possible.

I want Factor to be a company that does what’s right, even if it’s not going to pull headlines. This might mean that, eventually, our efforts are no longer noticed. I look forward to this day, and I hope it comes. This means these efforts will have become the norm. 

5. Learn Always and From Everyone. 
I’m in touch with my leadership team. I seek out advice from mentors and I read what people I admire write. I also leave my cell phone number at the bottom of Factor-wide emails and have more one on one’s than most people think is necessary. I do this because I believe that everyone has a potential lesson to teach me. I want these kinds of communication channels open to everyone, and connect face to face as often as I can. 

 

One Habit

The amazing part about this experience at this time is that I have the opportunity and intrigue to learn all the time. I’m in the midst of a rare opportunity, and I’m going to share with you here how it all unfolds. As always I would welcome your comments and feedback. It’s not going to be heavily edited and I’m not going to plan topics three months out. I’m going to write honestly. I’m going to write responsively. I’m going to write imperfectly. And I’m going to make it a habit.