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What is John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom, most proud of? It isn’t the fact that his company has grown to nearly 4 million customers in the past 15 years. It isn’t LegalZoom’s status as a worldwide leader in both trademark filing and small-business formation. It isn’t his position leading over 1,000 employees on a mission to democratize law, or LegalZoom’s spot as the most recognized legal brand in the United States. Instead, Suh prides himself the most on how LegalZoom unlocks “human potential” for its customers and employees. LegalZoom’s outstanding company culture fosters a sense of family, community, and innovation.
In a a candid leadership conversation with Bruce Aust, vice chairman of Nasdaq and president of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, Suh shared his insights about leadership and culture of innovation that’s useful to lawyers and entrepreneurs who build successful companies, departments, or law firms.
1. Be aware of your leadership style
“You need to be aware of your leadership style and where you are,” Suh observes. An idea many lawyers heading up legal departments at high-growth companiesrecognize, “If you are self-aware, for example, you will realize that what makes you successful as a startup CEO will destroy a more mature company.” He credits this self-aware approach for helping him scale LegalZoom over the years. “In the early stages of LegalZoom, what made us successful and scalable was research, instinct, being scrappy, and innovation. I did everything,” he explains. “As the company grew, we needed people to specialize. Companies need process and cultures of innovation.” Suh explains that over time, he graduated from a player to a coach. “My job now is to shape decisions to make sure that the culture of innovation thrives and to not stand in the way of others as they aim to execute,” he shares. “I aim to empower others to their job well. That is what creates a positive culture of innovation and respect.”
2. Spend 80% of your day doing what you are good at
Suh aims to spend 80% of his day on leadership activities that he is good at and enjoys doing. “I am not really good at details and process. So I minimize how much time I spend doing these things,” he shares. “Instead, I am really good at strategy and coaching. I enjoy building a collegial culture of innovation. So I spend most of my time in these realms and let others do things I am not good at.” Suh firmly believes that ultimately, “A team won’t have a weakness if each member spends 80% of their day doing what they are good at.”
3. Focus on profits, because luck is for amateurs
Relying solely on luck is for amateurs, not entrepreneurs or savvy legal leaders. During a good economy, people and businesses spend more money on building companies, while during a bad economy they spend more money on bankruptcy filings. Suh explains that LegalZoom obtained its funding just six weeks before Nasdaq crashed. Objectively, this looks like luck. But what actually made LegalZoom successful was Suh’s attention to building a recession-resistant business. “As an entrepreneur you know that windows and doors open and close all the time. Nothing is forever opened or closed. If a door or window is open, it will surely close. If the door or window is closed, it will surely open,” Suh explains. Suh believes that entrepreneurs and those with the entrepreneurial mindset recognize and embrace this reality. He adds, “At the end, I don’t believe that you truly own your business unless you are profitable. Profitability gives you freedom, and getting there will require much more than luck.”
4. Focus on solving a real problem
“At LegalZoom, we set out to solve a real problem, not to disrupt an industry or the world,” Suh explains. “If you solve a problem, and your solution decreases prices or costs while increasing quality, then you will get a magical result that we call ‘disruption.’” Suh’s approach ensures that entrepreneurs enter the startup arena with a true mission and game plan, not just overreaching optimism. “That is what we did at LegalZoom. We aimed to democratize law. We wanted to make it accessible to everyone. Just like how most people know who their doctors are, we believe that for democracy to truly thrive, most people should know who their lawyers are,” Suh explains. “It just so happened that in the process, we increased access to quality representation for many, while simultaneously reducing the price.” He concludes, “‘Disruption’ is just a word that captures this result. It is not the ultimate goal.”
5. Move or die
Suh strives for his company to be shark-like in order to survive in our increasingly complex and connected world. He explains, “When businesses pause or coast, they will die. Businesses and people are just like sharks. Sharks need to move, even when they are asleep, in order to stay alive.” In other words, Suh explains, “If you are comfortable with your solution and where you are, that complacency is the beginning of your death.” He adds, “Innovative companies and people need to move forward, not be arrogant, stretch themselves, innovate, and avoid lethargy at all costs. Otherwise, they become irrelevant and outdated in this increasingly complex and connected world.”
6. Celebrate more — much, much more
Finally, Suh recommends celebrating both successes and lessons learned. He explains, “Companies need to have a culture that encourages risk-taking and learning from failures. Failure provides valuable experience and lessons. Companies need to recognize that both winning and losing are valuable.” In fact, Suh adds, “if you always ‘win,’ it means that you and your company do not take enough risks.” This bold approach is key to a true culture of innovation. “Unless you celebrate failures, people on your team won’t take enough risks and innovate fast enough,” says Suh. “You need to celebrate and learn from all failures.” Similarly, Suh recommends defining failure altogether. He believes that companies only fail when two or more people in the company make the same mistake — because that means a company is not good at facilitating lessons among its team members.
Ultimately, John Suh’s leadership advice applies not only to lawyers who have made the jump to entrepreneurship, but also to lawyers focused on building successful companies, legal departments, and law firms. By fostering a true culture of innovation, you can boost morale, build community, and unlock the human potential of your clients, employees, and team members.