Finding the Fun in Hard Challenges

Thursday, September 6, 2018 - 09:02


Intel VP and Deputy GC Suzan Miller doesn't strive for work-life balance; she strives for life balance with work as one component.

What led you to a career in law?

Sam Miller: Even though my father and grandfather were both lawyers, I was against a career in law because I didn’t want to work in a law firm. I was pre-med in college but started taking computer programming classes and was considering a master's in computer science. My stepfather, a mainframe system integrator, brought up law again, saying that computer companies need in-house lawyers who understand technology.  That appealed to me – combining computer science, which I loved, with law, which fascinated me, and applying them in a business setting. So I went to law school specifically to practice in-house for a computer company. When I graduated, I worked for a short time in a law firm, which gave me a great foundation for going in-house.  Within a year of that, a friend got a call from a headhunter looking for a junior attorney with a software background for a position at Intel.

Why did you choose Intel and what has kept you there for 26 years?

I wanted to work at the intersection of law, business and technology across a broad range of business areas. One of Intel’s values is risk taking – and joining Intel was definitely a risk for me and for Intel. They were experimenting with hiring someone more junior than their usual attorney hire. I was impressed with the people who had interviewed me, but the position was new with the specific scope unclear. Intel offered the opportunity to bring all of that together, so I took it. And the risk paid off. 

I stayed at Intel for 26 years because of the people, the culture and the breadth of business. It is a fascinating company with cutting-edge technology and legal precedents, all under the umbrella of a company with very high ethical standards. The breadth at the company has been incredible. Any time I've started to feel that I was plateauing, I’ve been able to find a new challenge within a very short amount of time. I’ve considered external jobs a number of times, but Intel’s been a hard combination to leave – a company with the highest ethical standards, challenging work and smart, supportive colleagues.  

Tell us about your leadership style and what or who has influenced it.

When people talk about whether they’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” person, I always say “I’m an ‘it’s a half a glass’ person.”  Whether I’m leading or a team member, I strive to be direct, collaborative and practical. I find challenging the status quo and encouraging people to think outside of the box a very effective way to maximize results.  Finally, I like to find the humor, the fun and the joy in things.

Early on in my career, several of my more senior colleagues were pushing me to “be  more assertive and more aggressive.” They were genuinely trying to help me in my career. But I found myself conflicted between what they said about how I needed to act to be successful and the type of person I wanted to be. I realized that if that’s what it would take to be successful somewhere, then it wasn’t the right place for me. “I'm going to be me,” I thought, “and if that works, great. If it doesn't, then I’ll go somewhere where it does work.” So the next time I got that advice from my manager I said “It’s not about being aggressive, it’s about being effective. If I’m not as effective as I could be, then I want that feedback. But if I’m being effective, then it’s not relevant whether you think I should be more aggressive.” He listened, then leaned back in his chair and said “Now that’s the aggressive behavior I’m looking for.”   

What qualities do you seek when you're hiring and how do you find people with them?

Finding the right person to hire requires taking the time to really talk with a candidate, ideally both one on one and in a team interview. It also means ignoring first impressions, staying engaged in the interview and proactively looking for ways to connect with a prospective employee. 

Beyond all the usual characteristics, I look for people who understand their strengths and who can lean into those skills and maximize them to accomplish things. I also look for people who bring different or complementary qualities to the group. A team with diversity of thought, perspective or approach in processing information leads to stronger results.

Key to in-house success is the ability to synthesize information – to take a business goal, the facts of a particular situation, and the law and consolidate it into a precise explanation for your manager, or a clear, concise proposal for a client. Finally, I look for people who are interested in what the company is doing – people who ask questions.

Tell us some of the biggest challenges you've faced.

Being myself and not conforming to how other people thought I should dress, behave or approach my job was a genuine challenge early on. Usually, there are both real gems in what people are saying and some misses. I had to learn to listen to the advice and figure out what aspects work for me. 

In a month I officially leave Intel – a company I love, full of people I respect, where I've spent most of my career. So it’s a no-brainer that I’m in the middle of one of my biggest career challenges/opportunities. It isn’t easy to say, "It's time to do something else" and it’s harder still to go and do it. But I’m focusing on looking at this as the first step in what’s going to be my next amazing opportunity. 

What's the best career and life advice that you've received?

About 10 years into my Intel career, I participated in a 3-week executive development program. After it ended, I sat down with our head of HR for a review of my performance, all ready to hear about what I could do to improve. But instead, she told me that people focus too much on what they could've done better. “That's not a very good use of time,” she said. “It's much better to focus on where you excel, because you can get further by focusing on those skills rather than focusing on the areas where you are not as strong."  That was eye opening for me.

Another coaching that I try to keep in mind is that the more senior you are, the greater the impact you have. This learning happened after I corrected something someone said in a meeting, in what I thought was a very low-key manner. Afterwards a long-time executive took me aside and said, “Be careful. As you become more senior, what you do – your words, your tone, your smile – carries more weight. When you say something on one side thinking that you've just caused a ripple, what's felt on the other side is a tsunami.”

On life advice, I don’t strive for work-life balance. My goal is life balance, with work being just one of the things I do with my time.