As part of our ongoing “As the Leader” series, Kristin Bresnahan spoke to Reuben Mark Initiative Senior Advisor Adam Bryant about the professional advantage one experiences when passion, motivation, and commitment are ever-present. Here are some highlights, edited for space, from that conversation.
Advice to Graduating Law School Students
The training you get at a big law firm is great. My experience at Cleary Gottlieb was important for teaching me what it means to be a good lawyer, to serve your clients, to critically analyze tough problems, and to go deep on difficult subject matter and then quickly pivot to something else. It’s a tough job, but it’s an amazing training ground. While there, I also formed a great network that will serve me well for a long time.
I got lucky because I found my role at Nobell Foods, which is a field that I’m really passionate about, and I went all in. Even during my time at Cleary, I was spending my vacations going to food conferences, meeting people, and building my network. I was trying to learn as much as I could about the plant-based food space in my free time.
It takes a long time to lay the groundwork to reach your goal, and you’ve got to put the work in. I pounded the pavement during those years, and that’s how I met my current CEO.
But even then, it didn’t happen right away, and I realized I needed to do more to build new skills and get into a stronger position. I ended up at Columbia, where I led the Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership and the Reuben Mark Initiative at Columbia Law School. I was running my own organization and interfacing with all kinds of different stakeholders. I learned a lot and ultimately landed where I was trying to go, but it wasn’t a linear path. I had to lay the foundation.
Advice on Working at a Law Firm vs. In-House
Stay open-minded. Your career is going to take so many twists and turns, and it’s a matter of being open and willing to follow the opportunities. I love being part of a business and having one client, which is the company. I find it super gratifying when I’m immersed in everything we do, including the science and the commercialization planning.
At a law firm, especially as a litigator, you go deep on whatever issue your client is facing, and you might be dealing with that issue for years. But that’s just a small piece of what that client is facing. You’re not embedded in the business in the same way.
Key Leadership Lessons
I’m a relationship-based person. One of my strengths is that I invest in relationships and put that first in my interactions with people - it’s all about building that personal connection and trust. I’ve found that is by far the best way to get someone motivated, bought in, and ready to work together to make something happen.
Once you have that trust and that relationship, it’s a lot easier when something goes wrong to be able to speak candidly, pivot quickly, and move forward to solve the problem.
Obviously, that doesn’t always work as there are all kinds of challenging leadership problems that come up. I try to be super-transparent, and we strive to do that as a company. Transparency gives us a lot of credibility, which we saw play out during COVID, especially when keeping our lab team safe. If people don’t trust you in that situation, then you’re in a bind because it was a scary and stressful circumstance. So, we overcommunicated everything, which paid huge dividends in terms of making everyone feel comfortable.
For me, passion for the role and the company’s mission is the number one factor that pushes me forward. Even when I was at a law firm doing a lot of interviews, I could easily spot the people who were genuinely interested in and excited about the firm. That made such a big difference because many people weren’t.
And now that I’m at a mission-driven company, we’re all working hard to get this game-changing product to market, which requires a lot of hard work. We all wear many hats and believe in what we’re doing. Anyone who cares deeply in the work will do whatever it takes to get it done. That’s the number one thing I look for.
The further I go in my career, the more I realize how important it is to be enthusiastic, excited, and completely committed. That goes such a long way, not just when you’re interviewing, but when you’re in your role. It carries through.