Today we continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, on the Legal Executive Institute blog. The column, created by Rose Ors, brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Kim Rivera, the Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary at Hewlett Packard, Inc., spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about being a fighter, dealing with loss and handling brutally honest feedback.
Rose Ors: What are you most proud of about the way you lead your life?
Kim Rivera: I think what I’m most proud about is the way I view my life — past, present and future. I’ve had my share of difficulties and setbacks in my personal and professional life. Yet, during those times, I’ve always been able to find some meaning in the setbacks and disappointments and move forward.
I’ve never lost my ability to find joy in my life — to laugh and take in the goodness around me. I’m a happy and optimistic person, but I’m also a fighter — I don’t quit.
Rose Ors: How is it that you’ve developed that mindset?
Kim Rivera: I think part of it is my family. When I think about my childhood, what I remember most is my family’s sense of humor. They navigated through tough and tragic moments with the ability to still laugh, still be a family and still forge forward.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Kim Rivera: My mother died when I was 15. Her death was a universe-shifting event for me. My father had died earlier, so at a young age I had lost both parents. I found myself with no safety net. It was a sink or swim moment in the deepest sense. I decided, at that very moment that I would not only survive, but I would thrive. The decision defined who I became and continue to be today. It’s how I live.
Rose Ors: Is the power of choice a core principle in how you approach your life?
Kim Rivera: I think it is. For me choice goes hand in hand with accountability. Sometimes in one’s personal or professional life, things happen that are not completely in our control. But I believe that choice and accountability are always present.
I’ve always chosen what I was going to do to do and how I was going to do it. Even the unexpected, I attribute to choices that I’ve made. I’m accountable for those choices. I find that that way of thinking helps me figure out how to navigate and keep moving forward.
Rose Ors: Can you share an example?
Kim Rivera: About 10 years ago I had an epiphany that the best career path for me would be the result of choosing not a job, but the people I would work with. This approach, this choice, changed my entire career trajectory. From that moment on, I chose to work with people I admired and liked. People that could teach and challenge me professionally. That said, it has at times been incredibly difficult to do. My decision to leave private practice to go in-house was such an instance. That was a pivotal choice. It was a difficult decision. But I chose to go in-house because I wanted to work with the people who worked at the company I chose to join. I sit here today because of that decision.
Rose Ors: Who are some of the people whom you consider mentors?
Kim Rivera: Laura Stein, General Counsel at Clorox, and Kent Thiry,Chairman and CEO at DaVita. Both were fantastic bosses and phenomenal coaches. Both are people I call friends. Laura and Kent let me know who they were as human beings. They were outstanding in their respective roles, but sometimes they made mistakes and when they did, they let me know. Their candor allowed me to trust them completely. I trusted their intentions without any doubt or hesitation.
They were also honest with me about me. They said things to me that shocked and scared me, that made me sad, embarrassed and upset. But what they said about me — my performance at work — was all true. I needed to hear their feedback and, I could hear it, because I trusted them and believed they were trying to help me be better and succeed. I remember every single one of those conversations today — I will forever remember. Each was a coaching moment.
Because of those conversations, I became a better lawyer, executive, manager, leader and person. I should also mention, that Laura and Kent let me give them my honest feedback about them. We trusted each other and that made all the difference. Learning from them was a game-changer for me.
About 10 years ago I had an epiphany that the best career path for me would be the result of choosing not a job, but the people I would work with.
Rose Ors: How important is culture in the workplace?
Kim Rivera: Culture is critical. It’s a lesson I learned from Kent Thiry. He taught me how important it is to create a culture that’s intentionally designed to provide personal fulfillment, along with professional development. He taught me that how people “feel” about what they are doing matters. So, learning from Kent that intentionally designing a workplace where fun and fulfillment are part of what you, as a leader, set out to achieve was a transformative lesson for me. Kent changed the way I think about my teams, it changed the way I think about how we should focus on culture with the same level of rigor and intentionality that we do other professional undertakings. It was a profoundly important lesson, and one I put to practice.
Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work?
Kim Rivera: I love what I do. I love the intellectual challenge of it. We’re dealing with the variety of problems and issues on a global scale that I get to engage on and work on, it’s fascinating and it’s fun.
I love being around so many smart people from so many disciplines. At HP I’m around scientists, researchers, engineers, advertising executives, executives, finance executive, and they’re all so smart and interesting and bring such different perspectives, that part of it is great. That part of it is fun, and I like working with my colleagues. I like working in teams.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give to a newly appointed General Counsel?
Kim Rivera: My strongest piece of advice is to build strong relationships with your executive team, your board and your team. You have to invest in having them know who you are, and you have to spend time getting to know who they are to build those relationships.
Building trust between you and them is critical to your ability to advance all the things you need to accomplish.
The interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.