A.B. Cruz III, former General Counsel at USAA, Emergent BioSolutions, Scripps Network Interactive and The E.W. Scripps Company, retired Navy Admiral, and Immediate Past President of the National Asia Pacific American Bar Association, has been engaged in a range of leadership roles since graduating from the Naval Academy. In our conversation, A.B. shared thoughts on private sector and military leadership, connecting with each team member as a whole person, and the paramount importance of learning a client’s business in detail.
We start with nine “fill in the blank” questions:
1. The best thing a GC can do for a client is:
Know the client’s business inside and out, and know where the client wants to take the business.
2. One big change in the corporate legal sector by 2025 will be:
By 2025, transformative technologies will have impacted the legal profession as profoundly as they have already affected the rest of the economy.
3. The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally was:
To take on and fully appreciate the “weight of command” in the Navy – making difficult decisions that can have dramatic impact on the lives of sailors and their families.
4. I love it when law firm lawyers:
Feel my pain and help me address that pain – which they can only do if they’ve done their homework, understand the business and the situation at hand and put themselves in my shoes.
5. I really dislike it when law firm lawyers:
Are unresponsive and/or are not solution-oriented.
6. Great leaders can make a team really click by:
Knowing each team member as a whole person. What gets them excited? How many kids do they have? What goes on in their lives outside of work? That kind of team celebrates together, suffers together – they go out of their way to support each other.
7. One little thing I should really change about the way I work
When someone comes to me with a problem, I tend to want to jump in and try to solve their issue. Sometimes I need to just stop, really listen to them and reflect on what they’ve said. Empathetic listening is the key. It’s a work in progress for me . . .
8. One sentence of advice for my 25-year-old self:
9. Thing in life I’m most proud of. Doesn’t need to be work. Anything.
My family. They amaze me every day.
Baptism by Fire – Digital Transformation of the Newspaper Industry
My first time as a GC was at The E.W. Scripps Company in 2004. We were both old and new media – we had 22 newspapers, 10 TV stations and various cable television networks. And shortly after I joined, all of a sudden nobody wanted to pay for print advertising anymore. Digital media was exploding, and the newspaper business model got turned on its head seemingly overnight. I was the first GC in the company’s history – the first in 128 years. All of a sudden, we had to move at light speed to transform a business and business model that had been rock solid for over a century – and we did. We moved faster than our competitors to develop the digital side of the business, but that involved taking a company that was 120+ years old and flipping it overnight into something entirely new.
On the legal front that involved acquisitions of digital businesses – and integration of those businesses into a company with a long proud history. And we had to reshape the workforce. We were in a different business with really different needs. Both of those things have legal aspects, but they also changed the business at its heart, so that work was really about understanding the business and what made it work.
At the end of the day, the only assets you’ve got that truly matter – on a ship, in a newspaper, in a digital business – are your people. The solutions to your problems are rooted in your people and, yes, sometimes people can be the source of an issue. That’s why it’s important to have the right people in the right spots – and when you’ve got a strategic transition underway, having to turn the business on a dime, it’s really disruptive for everyone. For themselves – and there’s impact beyond them, to their families too.
Obviously, we were re-training people and working to keep the best we had. But a hard thing in leadership is saying goodbye to great people – that has to happen in some cases when you’ve got a dramatic change on your hands. Your solutions are about getting the right people in place – and of course the other side of that is the hard part. Some people will have to move on if the business is going to keep pace and thrive – there’s no other way.
In hindsight – what would I do differently? I would have focused more intently on learning the newspaper segment of Scripps’ businesses. I knew the broadcast and cable television aspects of the company fairly well, but, with respect to the newspaper business, I was honestly in over my head, not really in terms of the law, but in terms of understanding the business. I did a lot of preparation to understand aspects of the Scripps business, but when it came down to it the most important thing was to understand the original newspaper business, the business that was under attack and needed transformation the most. I needed to understand that business better than I did, and I quickly realized that.
So, I went to my CEO and said – I’m a fish out of water on this – I don’t know this part of the business as well as I need to. I need the time to dig in and get to know it. So I visited 22 newspapers, I met so many amazing professionals, got to know and appreciate their trade and their long proud histories. At the same time their businesses were at risk, they needed to change, and they needed help doing it.
On the GC Role in 2021
The job is different from when I started – demands on GCs have expanded. It’s almost like the title is wrong now, GC or CLO aren’t really right anymore. CEOs are expecting more and more from the role. This period of crisis management for companies – the skills of the GC, to be thoughtful, to do due diligence, to work through these issues with precision – those skills have been invaluable to companies. If this trend continues, I think you will see lots of CLOs as good candidates for other jobs like COO, CEO and the boardroom ultimately.
My advice to new GCs now is that, if you’re expecting to talk when only legal matters arise with your C-suite colleagues, you’re in for a rude awakening and perhaps a brief career as GC. I’ll bet only about 10-15% of what you do is going to be purely legal or compliance stuff. Much of what you’ll be doing or expected to do will involve how to advance or grow the business, responding to crises or rapid change, working through the company’s challenges. GCs and CLOs all need to be cross-functional leaders now.