Jen Berrent & Daniel Doktori worked together at WilmerHale where Jen hired Daniel as an associate. The goal was to build an emerging companies practice in New York City. One day, a couple of guys named Kiran and Greg approached to see if there was any interest in buying lunch for a group of seven or so general counsels of tech companies. So was born the first-ever TechGC event. Shortly thereafter, Jen left WilmerHale to become the General Counsel of WeWork, and a couple years later Daniel left to become the General Counsel of Credly. In the time since, Jen and Daniel have remained close and talked through the gamut of topics of building a life and career as a general counsel.

In this series, they speak about on building a successful life and career as a general counsel. Stay tuned for part 2!

On Work Superpowers

Daniel: Hi Jen. Excited to be doing this with you. Let’s start with a concept I’ve always associated with you: work “superpowers.” As I’ve tried to shorthand it for colleagues and my own team, I usually say that a work superpower is the intersection of “what you love doing and are great at.” So far so good?

Jen: It’s interesting to me that this is what you recall as a definition of superpowers. Typically for superpowers, I would say it is something you are uncannily good at not just because of your skill but also some other experience or element of your background that allows you to excel. Silicon Valley sometimes refers to this latter thing as your “unfair advantage”. What you love doing (or what lights you up) to me goes into what your purpose or mission is, which could be a whole other discussion.

Daniel: Ha. The old Jen “that’s interesting.” Read: wrong. Ok, well, I’m here to learn. Superpower = unfair advantage; unfair advantage = a combination of uncanny skill and unique experience. Got it.

I remember a talk you gave once where you said that your superpower was “reading into a deal” — meaning that you could get smart fast on a wide variety of transactions by reading the documents and the exhibits. That’s a compelling and specific superpower. Just hearing you say it gave me confidence that it was true.

On the other hand, I am constantly struggling to identify my superpower. I fear I’m a generalist in a world of specialists. When I try to spin that into a positive, I say that I’m good at explaining legal concepts to business people and business concepts to lawyers. I also think of myself as “good in the foxhole,” meaning I focus under pressure and usually see a silver lining in tough situations. When engaging in performative icebreakers at the annual management team retreat, I shorthand that all as “I play well against type.” Ugh. What a big bowl of mush. How can I identify my own superpower? And, a scarier question: what if there’s nothing to identify?

Typically for superpowers, I would say it is something you are uncannily good at not just because of your skill but also some other experience or element of your background that allows you to excel. Silicon Valley sometimes refers to this latter thing as your “unfair advantage”

Jen: Well, as for my superpower, “reading into a deal” does sound super specific! I’m glad it conveyed confidence, although one other thing about superpowers is that they can change over time to fit different scenarios. I love doing deals, but the reason this was a superpower at the time was a combination of the fact that I am very logical (I was always good at math and I over-index for thinking over feeling in the Meyers Briggs personality test) which allowed me to unpack the terms buried in agreements easily. I spent the early part of my career as a consultant evaluating businesses, and, separately, I enjoyed negotiating (and, in particular the preparation for the negotiation). At WeWork, my superpower evolved into being able to make decisions even in extremely stressful situations.

As for your self-analysis, one superpower I think you have is being able to be enthusiastic and positive on an idea but not losing your ability to analyze it critically. Lawyers are generally known for saying no and being the downers in a group – spending time issue spotting. On the other hand, business people get enthralled with an idea and do not stop to pressure test (or see around corners). You have immense discipline in your decision-making process – as evidenced by your job selection processes (topic for another discussion!). This makes you an amazing partner – I can trust that you will do the hard thinking while remaining optimistic that the vision is achievable. I think this could be a good way to explain what you mean when you say you “play against type!” And it definitely makes you good in the foxhole.

Daniel: That’s very helpful in terms of helping me put some more words around a theme. “Disciplined decision making” sounds good and I like the alliteration. Let me try it on for size for a while.

You mentioned that at WeWork, you got really good at being able to make decisions under extreme stress. Our two superpowers share some similarities in that case (and, may be one reason we get along so well). Say more! Using your definition of it being your “unfair advantage” — what made you good at decision-making under pressure? I usually think of law partners (your role prior to WeWork) as being a step removed from the “bet-the-company” decision making. So I wouldn’t have expected you to come into WeWork with that as a well-developed element of your toolkit. What do you mean when you say “being able to make decisions even in extremely stressful situations,” and where do you think that came from?

Jen: That’s a great follow-up question – what, in my experience, makes me good at decision making that is beyond law firm training? I think it is my rigorous commitment to and fascination with a systematic process. When I entered college, I was planning to be a math major – embedded in the way I analyze any problem is some sort of proof construction. When I was a law firm associate, this evidenced itself in the creation of amazingly detailed and specific checklists – I always planned in advance every document and every step. When there is a lot of chaos or pressure, if I have confidence in the process that was taken, I am incredibly comfortable making a decision and defending it. I also then am comfortable being proven wrong or being overruled – I just need to make good decisions more often than bad decisions.

Yet, this alone is not a superpower. I would say what really makes it a superpower is that I have grown to then be okay not being liked for the decision – so long as I think it was actually the right decision. I do believe this emanates from rising the ranks of business and law as a gay woman – I was used to a bit of chilliness or non-acceptance from many people that it became a non-factor in how I approached work. Is there something you could point to that would contribute to your superpower?

Daniel: Wow. So much of that resonates. For one thing, I remember when you handed out copies of Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto to the associates on the startup team at WilmerHale. And I for sure remember your checklists. As the client (a much better job, IMO), I’ve asked outside counsel for a checklist and been devastatingly underwhelmed when they sent me a quick email response with a few bullets (blech).

Seems like your story fits under the general headline of “focus on the process.” A similar concept informs my answer to your question. In college, I took a class called something like “decision analysis” which was an introduction to a huge and fascinating academic field. We made a lot of decision trees and assigned confidence percentages to homework problem set answers. The kernel of the course was that you judge the quality of a decision on the basis of whether you selected the most likely beneficial option given the information available at the time of the decision. This as compared to judging based on the outcome, which is what we do most of the time consciously or unconsciously. This concept lodged itself deep into my brain.

Years later, at law school, I took all the negotiation courses and eventually taught all the negotiation courses (even meeting my wife Sarah in doing so!). So much of that pedagogy focuses on process design. The version I learned from a professor named Bob Bordone, also really emphasizes emotional intelligence, strategic communication and perspective taking. That knowledge helped me advise the founder of Credly on designing a process for engaging a group of stakeholders at the US department of education.

I joined Credly a few months later, and what the environment lacked in formal training, it offered in decision-making experience. We had to make decisions. Lots of them. One of the biggest decisions we ever made was to use our Series A proceeds to acquire our biggest competitor. I got to lead many of the negotiations that proceeded over several months. The deal changed the trajectory of our company and set us on a path for an eventual successful exit a few years later. It often felt as if the life and death of the company roiled around us during that process. It was a unique training ground for sure.
So, process design, perspective taking, good in the foxhole ==> “disciplined decision-making.” Honestly, this is something I’ve been struggling with for a couple years. I don’t think I’ve been able to articulate it with this much confidence or understand it in context without your prompting. You really unlocked something for me here. Thank you!

Jen: Wow. I love this. Massive motivation to keep going.

Daniel: Awesome. Well, thanks again. The above seems a bit Daniel-centric. What advice can you share for people who don’t have the privilege of this back-and-forth with you? What should someone in our world do to identify their own superpower?

Jen: I think there are two key ways to uncover your superpower. The first is using input from someone you respect and the other is more introspective. In any good performance review, there is a dialog between you and your reviewer. One of the key aspects of this dialog is uncovering where there are matches – and mismatches – in perception of performance. The superpowers frequently lie in the arena where the reviewer thinks you are excellent and where you also think you are excellent – these are areas where success comes more effortlessly than in other areas. Quite frankly, it could be effortless now because of years of work, but there is something about knowing you are doing a good job and someone recognizing that.

I have also found that a bit of introspection can lead to the same place. When do you get called into a special situation? In a law firm, when an associate became a noun, we knew they were a high performer…“I need a Daniel for this deal.” This meant even if Daniel himself was not available, I needed someone who had a similar skillset and temperament. “We have a new product idea, let’s get Daniel to think it through with the business team.” “We have an important negotiation, let’s gameplan with Daniel and the CFO.” “We are not sure how to handle this HR matter, let’s call Daniel before we call the chief people officer.” “We have a crisis, let’s get Daniel before you let PR know.” “We have a tough strategic decision, let’s get the executive team together and make sure Daniel is there.” As a GC, you may think that you are called into all of those situations, but I think you can honestly determine when you are being called in for your Daniel judgment and when you are being called in because you are the general counsel and of course a lawyer is needed. Finding your superpower is about identifying those situations where you’re thought of because of what insight you bring to a particular situation, as compared to simply your role within the organization.

Daniel: Roger all. We need a Daniel to help us with some takeaways. Here’s where I think we net out on “Work Superpowers”:

  1. Definition: A Work Superpower is something you’re uncannily good at due to a unique combination of skills and experiences. It’s your unfair advantage. It’s an ability that helps you “become a noun” for a particular type of situation.
  2. A work superpower can change: As your skills and experiences change, your superpowers can change too. Investment in analytical processes has been a throughline in my career but the thing that made it a superpower was a willingness to trust that process and be ok if the people around you didn’t like it.
  3. Process: Finding your superpower at work happens when you combine the feedback you receive from a trusted colleague or manager — especially areas where both you and the person providing feedback see excellence in you — with reflection on those situations when you’ve gotten the “special nod” to provide input beyond where your job role requires it.

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