At the Table: Look Past the Paper to the Person

Thursday, March 1, 2018 - 13:02

Connie Collingsworth is chief business operations officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.

CCBJ: What led you to pursue a career in law?

Connie Collingsworth: I was somewhat strong-willed, always standing up for what was right, and I wanted to be an independent professional. Standing in line at my high school graduation, I remember telling a friend’s father that I planned to be a lawyer. It was 1976. He thought it was a funny thing for a young girl to say. It’s a very distinct memory. That’s when I knew my goal was to become a lawyer.

What led to your role with the Gates Foundation?

I started as a corporate securities lawyer focused on M&A work. My firm represented the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on tax matters. Though I’d never advised nonprofits or foundations, the tax lawyer who helped set up the foundation told me they were hiring an in-house lawyer and that I should apply. I became the foundation’s first in-house counsel. That was 16 years ago.

Tell us about your early leadership experience and the evolution of your position.

I was on my firm’s executive committee and had other leadership opportunities there. I think of the foundation at that time as a family-run start-up with incredible resources but very little in legal processes or operational policies. I was in a position to create its legal infrastructure from scratch. As I built a 35-person legal team, my role expanded, and now includes IT, global security, grants and contracts administration, business processes and change management. Including legal, I currently manage over 600 people.

What are the most important attributes for a leader? Are there leaders you’ve emulated?

There’s no one person. I’ve intentionally tried to develop my own style. I’ve had five managers at the foundation, and have tried to take the best attributes from each in figuring out the kind of leader I want to be. It’s been a continuous learning process. There’s a big difference between management and leadership. Leaders need to look beyond the day-to-day work to the horizon to see where we need to be. I’ve been a proactive thinker, which has helped me succeed. I try to stay one step ahead of my clients, developing creative ways to help them achieve their goals, as well as making the foundation an efficient and well-run organization.

In hiring, what qualities do you look for, and how do you find them?

Our legal team has a three-word motto: guidance, solutions, integrity. I look for people who can live that motto. Do they understand they’re here to guide the client through the maze of the law? That we need to be solution-oriented? Above all, that we are responsible for helping to uphold the foundation’s reputation and integrity? I am not enamored with credentials. I want humble business partners on my team. Credentials can be at odds with that. The foundation attracts talented, highly qualified candidates. The key is to look past the paper for people who care about the mission and being a team player. You find the best people by listening to their stories and understanding what attracts them to the foundation.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the role?

I’m facing it now. I’m the executive sponsor of an initiative to create a state-of-the-art, enterprise-wide IT system to help us manage giving away $5.9 billion a year. In doing that, we want our lawyers and others responsible for this work to continue to be challenged. We want them to see that it’s smarter for some elements of their jobs to be automated. The challenge is getting everyone not only to focus on their daily work, but also to think proactively about the legal and operations teams of the future. We also aspire to develop a system the philanthropic sector as a whole can potentially leverage as a public good.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

Clients do not want to know the law, they want to know the answer. It isn’t the same thing.

How about the best life advice?

You can accomplish whatever goals you set out to achieve through a combination of believing in yourself, dedicated hard work, perseverance and a healthy dose of patience.