As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Ann Cooney.
Lisa Ann Cooney is Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary of Day & Zimmermann, one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. Lisa is the first female General Counsel in the Company’s 120 year history. She also is Chair of the Ethics and Compliance Committee, the designated Senior Official for the Company’s Insider Threat Program, and a member of the Company’s nine-person Leadership Council, which makes decisions regarding overall strategy and policy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Going to law school and becoming an attorney was the natural progression of learning in the subjects of civics, government, and history — subjects that I always found fascinating. To this day, I like to examine what societal issue a statute was passed to remedy, to understand why certain legal protections are given to members of our community, and to evaluate whether the purpose behind a law is being achieved. Oh, and I also have a competitive streak in me, so litigating cases for the first 13 years of my career was great fun for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was promoted to become General Counsel in January 2020 and within a few months, the COVID pandemic started. Navigating thru the challenges of the pandemic has been interesting, to say the least, and challenging!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
For the first six months or so in the job, I prefaced most of my questions by saying “I know I’m new but . . . ” and then I would go on and ask my question. My CEO called me on this, in a constructive way. The lesson I learned was: Act like you have been here before!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am particularly grateful to Bill Hamm, my predecessor as General Counsel at Day & Zimmermann. Bill was my boss, and he also was (and is) a mentor and friend. Bill was there for me when I needed to talk, when I wanted to bounce ideas off someone, and when I desired honest feedback and insights. And when he gave me that feedback, he did so in a gentle way that allowed me best to receive it in the best possible way and to grow from it. Bill also helped me grow by giving me stretch goals that allowed me to showcase my strengths and leadership abilities.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Anticipate every question that could be asked and know your answers. And to control stress, I do yoga in the morning and some breathing exercises right before an important meeting.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I believe that a person’s approach to leadership, learning, and organizational and cultural norms are influenced by their personal experiences as women, men, people of color, etc. So, the more diverse your organization is, particularly in the executive ranks, the more working, learning and leadership styles will be available and visible in your organization. This allows junior employees to model their behavior on the leader to whom he/she/they feel most connected and to the style that feels most natural. This necessarily increases engagement and enablement in the organization.
By the way, my thinking on D&I initiatives has evolved over the years. I can remember when I was in law school, and there were only 4 women (out of about 20, and no people of color) who were selected to be members of the Law Review. There was talk about whether women and people of color should be given “extra points” in the following year’s selection process. I was vehemently opposed to such a notion; I feared that people would think that I “made Law Review” not based on my reading and writing skills and legal analysis, but rather because I am a woman. I have learned, however, that D&I is not about quotas and preferential treatment; it is about how we increase underrepresentation in a fair and equitable way. I currently serve as an executive sponsor for Day & Zimmermann’s LGBT+Allies Employee Resource Group, and I am a standing member of the Company’s Executive Diversity and Inclusion Board. In these roles, I help actively support underrepresented groups at Day & Zimmermann.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. We must hone our capacity for empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Having empathy is the most important thing we can do to create an inclusive and fair work environment — or any other environment for that matter.
2. Lead by consensus, when you can. People want their ideas and concerns to be heard, and they also want to be part of the solution. Your team will help your mission succeed — if you let them. That said, sometimes the leader needs to make and own the decision.
3. Lead by creating opportunities for your direct reports and credit them when they succeed. Don’t take all the credit for a job well done — share it with your team. Also, protect your team by taking full responsibility when a job goes wrong. After all, if you delegated responsibility to a direct report and he/she/they was unsuccessful, you had a failure in judgment about what that person could accomplish.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive focuses on both the short and long term. I now spend less time practicing law; the majority of my time is spent on identifying and planning for the legal advice and counsel that our internal clients will need in the future. I need to make sure my internal team is in a position to do so. I also spend my time focusing on the employees in Day & Zimmermann’s Law Department, i.e., do they have what they need to be successful?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth worth dispelling is that once an executive, you are an expert on everything. Not true. I’m still learning from my peers, my direct reports, and my CEO.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unconscious bias and unconscious stereotyping are the biggest challenges that women executives face, even when they reach a senior level. I once had a boss who asked me to return and exchange a present that he had bought for his wife. To this day, I have no words to describe how devalued I felt in that moment. Another boss told me that I can be intimidating and that I should soften up my style. Although that advice might have been true, when I looked around my firm at the time, I could point to several powerhouse males in my peer group and wondered whether they had been given the same advice.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I did not anticipate that leading Day & Zimmermann’s Law Department would be as personal an experience as it turned out to be. Despite the phrase “it’s nothing personal — it’s just business,” I believe that business is personal. A good leader must understand what each direct report needs from you and what is happening in their lives that can affect their work. That, in a nutshell, is a personal approach to leadership.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think that everyone is cut out to be an executive. One needs managerial courage in abundance, and not all people have this trait. For example, as an executive, you must make decisions about peoples’ livelihood and you must speak your mind, even when your viewpoint is in the minority.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find someone you trust, really trust, and bounce ideas off that person.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I mentor young professionals. I offer up all the mistakes that I made in my career for lessons-learned conversations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t burn a bridge. I burned too many in my career.
- Try to leave romance outside of work. Otherwise, people will wonder if you got your promotion because of your personal relationship.
- Speak up if something isn’t right but come up with a solution. Your boss doesn’t want you to dump problems on his/her/their lap.
- Even in this age of business casual attire, I think one should dress for the job that he/she/they wants, not the job that he/she/they has.
- There is no such thing as “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” So, don’t get too drunk and embarrassing at those work happy hours; everybody will know!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
How about inspiring a green movement where the U.S. creates solutions to end climate change?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When people show you who they are, believe them. Maya Angelou said this, and truer words were never spoken.
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