How Sharon Zezima of GoPro Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
How do you effectively lead the legal team of a dynamic, high growth, entrepreneurial company whose two stated values include “haul ass” and “be a hero”?! By simultaneously being a risk manager and business partner, according to Sharon Zezima, General Counsel of GoPro. GoPro manufactures action cameras, often used in extreme-action videography to capture vivid moment. Zezima recently talked to ACC members on this topic in a lively presentation she subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.
Zezima strongly believes that risk-taking is part of everyday life and that we take risks even without realizing it. For example, on a recent trip to Hawaii Zezima had the chance to swim with dolphins. The catch? A deadly shark attack took place in the same location just a week before. Zezima had to make a decision: take a risk and swim with the dolphins, or forgo the experience of a lifetime. In the end, she jumped into the water and created amazing memories (documented with a GoPro camera, of course!)
At a dynamic, high growth, and entrepreneurial company the decision to get into risky waters is an everyday reality. Risk-taking is an art worth perfecting because a lawyer not comfortable with risk-taking won’t thrive in such an environment. The fear of a looming “bomb” at a dynamic, high growth, and entrepreneurial company exists because time and resources are scarce. Embracing, riding, and loving the bomb is the way to have a more enjoyable career and approach risks in a sober, calculated, and realistic way.
Using GoPro videos to help people visualize her points, Zezima describes three realities of calculated risk-taking at a dynamic, high growth, entrepreneurial company and offers strategies for each one.
Reality One: You will be overwhelmed. A lawyer at a high growth entrepreneurial company will never have enough time or resources. Being able to prioritize is an essential skill. For example, a lawyer must be able to soberly assess all risks and decide which ones have to be addressed first and which ones can be addressed a few months later. When GoPro considered going public, Zezima deliberately shelved somewhat contained and isolated privacy issues to address them more adequately and deliberately post-IPO. Soon after the IPO, Zezima hired a privacy specialist to address privacy issues in a deliberate and business-focused way.
Reality Two: Bad things happen to good companies. Part of being at a high growth entrepreneurial company is the constant possibility of a legally-related crisis that could significantly affect the company. If that happens, it generally does not mean that the company’s in house attorneys are bad lawyers; it is simply a matter of the amount of potential risks and the time and resources to account for them. For example, during the IPO, Zezima faced a challenging export control compliance issue that had to be addressed and could not be put off until after the IPO. In the end, while it made for even more work during a busy IPO process, Zezima addressed it through remediation, trainings and disclosures. As a result, Zezima realized that even though bad things happen to good companies, they don’t always have to end badly.
Reality Three: You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. According to Zezima, a little rumble at a high growth entrepreneurial company is a good thing. It often indicates that the company is at the right place and assumes the correct amount of risk. As a lawyer learns to embrace, ride, and love risk, she will learn to recognize how far to push in various situations. Over time, she will be a better, more sophisticated risk-taker.
In order to thrive in at a high growth entrepreneurial company, Zezima adopted three principles for her legal department at GoPro that unify her staff.
First, take informed, calculated risks. Zezima encourages all legal professionals on her team to accept the fact that risks are part of life. All stakeholders must understand the risks before making a decision and their GoPro legal partner is responsible for educating them.
Second, be resourceful. While GoPro is now a public company, it is a high growth, entrepreneurial company at heart. Being scrappy and doing more with less is not just a vague principle. It’s a requirement.
Third, keep it simple – don’t over-lawyer. Zezima encourages the legal professionals on her staff to think promptly and act efficiently. There’s simply no room for a corporate-like culture at GoPro, so legalese is highly discouraged. Normal, everyday English is the norm.
Zezima’s open-minded and comfortable attitude toward risk-taking is inspiring and thought-provoking. It is helpful advice for any lawyer in a high growth entrepreneurial company. Zezima’s success suggests that lawyers who are naturally highly risk-averse may not be optimizing their experiences – personal and professional – and in the process may be robbing themselves of an opportunity to thrive. Perhaps collectively, as a profession, we should occasionally try to live a little!
Originally published by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Docket.