Q&A with Nima Kelly, Chief Legal Officer of GoDaddy

Nima Kelly is the Chief Legal Officer, Executive Vice President and Corporate Secretary of GoDaddy. We recently sat down with Nima to discuss her circuitous path to the GC chair, how she came to be known as the VP of Everything and why failure can actually be a stepping stone to success.

Q.  You’re called the “VP of Everything” at GoDaddy, what does that mean?

Somewhere along the line, I think someone dubbed me that because I’ve had a very unusual path to the General Counsel chair. I started off as a project manager, even though I knew nothing about project management or product. So I did my first project, followed by other projects, and then I became head of a business unit. After that I ran public relations, including the PR for a Super Bowl commercial. I created a podcast and was the executive producer and co-host of our radio show. I started our founders’ blog and charitable giving endeavors, and then I went back to the legal department where, after two years, I became the GC. That’s how I became known as the VP of everything.

Q.   That’s quite an array. Was that intentional?

Not at all. When there’s a problem or an issue, you look for the person who can fix it, so that’s how I got tapped for almost all of them.

Q.  That’s interesting. Lawyers are often cast as risk averters or risk measurers, not as fixers. How did you develop those fixing skills?

I learned it over time, in-house. When I first started practicing law in 1987, I got out of my first law firm right away because it wasn’t a good fit or what I really wanted to do. I took that position because I was lured in by the big name, but I realized within six weeks that it was a huge mistake. I was the first person in my associate class to leave and I went instead to a small boutique that was built by really great people. They were fixers, not paper shufflers, so it was baptism by fire and you didn’t really survive unless you learned how to roll up your sleeves and get things fixed. So I credit the training I got there, along with a lot of what happened to me later in life, as being what taught me to just jump in and fix things.

Q.  Both in-house and outside counsel are often viewed as departments of “no,” which can create conflict between legal and all the lines of business. But you’ve been on both sides. Have your experiences working across so many different parts of the business informed the way you approach your current role?

When I became the head of legal we were definitely viewed as the department of “no,” so I actually spent the first year working to change the overall internal perspective of the legal department. I have a very business-oriented view of issues, goals and objectives because when I started at GoDaddy I had two months to develop and deploy a product, and from there I immediately learned how to measure the financial results of that product. I didn’t have a team of business analysts: I was the business analyst. So for two years after that product deployed—everyday, 365 days a year, no matter where I was—I would get up at three or four in the morning to run the reports myself, to understand how the product was doing financially and then sent a report to the founder and his right-hand person at the time. You learn by doing, so I developed a very, very business-oriented view. Now, when people come to the legal department with questions, I encourage my lawyers and outside counsel to consider the business-oriented view instead of telling me what I can’t do. I know what I can’t do. Tell me what I can do. And that’s been very helpful.

Other positions I held within GoDaddy taught me that there really are acceptable levels of risk you need to be able to take. Many lawyers will tell you “Oh, there’s just too much risk,” but that’s not helpful from a business perspective. If there’s really that much risk, we might as well close the door, shut the business and send everyone home, and that’s not my approach.

Q.  Are there any highlights or particular challenges you’ve encountered during your tenure at GoDaddy that stick out?

As I mentioned, I had a very circuitous path to the GC chair at GoDaddy, and when I say the position was thrust upon me, it was. I never thought about becoming a general counsel, it was never on my horizon or career path. And I had no clue what to do, none. When I started in the position it was during a somewhat tumultuous time at the company, and since the cards were stacked against me I thought, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do this.

That was a very challenging year. I had to learn something entirely new—a different way to communicate with people and a whole new cast of characters—because we were no longer a tightly held founder-controlled company. We had a board comprised of a majority of folks from private equity who had a different view of the world entirely different from the founder and from the internal folks. We also had some challenging legal issues at the time, and I really had to prove my worth. That was really hard. I think the biggest factor in me being able to succeed in the job was that because I had worked in so many parts of the business, I was able to understand everyone’s different views and perspectives. If I had come in with a straightforward “it’s all about legal” view, I’m not sure I would have succeeded.

Q.  You’ve mentioned in the past that there wasn’t a particular reason that you went to law school – you fell into the category of people who went because they didn’t know what else to do.

It was two things: I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to go back home. Now everyone’s about career pathing, but if I had spent my whole life trying to become a law firm partner, or saying I’m definitely going to be a GC, I’m not sure any of those would have happened. I went where my heart took me and it worked out. I think that you need to be willing to try different things, and you have to be willing to fail. I think failure has been a huge part of my success.

I’m very open about the fact that I loved labor and employment law, and I had a great time at the little boutique firm where I worked. They taught me so much and when I didn’t make partner, it was beyond devastating. What was I going to do, because that’s all I had been taught, right? I was devastated and thought I was a complete failure. But you want to know something? I’m thankful every single day that they didn’t make me a partner. They’re great people and one of my outside counsel, but when I go back and walk on that floor, it’s the land where time stood still.

Later, there were a couple internal failures at GoDaddy. With every failure, you cry a little bit, you pick yourself up, and you dust yourself off. Every failure ultimately turned out to be the best thing for me, so if I had had a strict career path, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am right now.

Q.  You point out that one of the hardest things about failing is dusting yourself off and standing up again. Do you have any advice for someone who may find themselves in that position? Was there anything you did that was helpful in those moments?

There’s probably a glass of milk and some cookies involved. It’s good to have one person to talk to, whether that’s a friend or a partner. Then at some point, you just have to say okay, it’s time to start looking forward.  Sometimes you won’t know what that look forward is. That’s how I ended up in certain jobs. When you fail, it’s good not to have any preconceived notions of what you’re going to do next. What I would say is that you should be open to doing something different. And even when you’re not failing and things are going well, you should always remain open to something that may cross your path and be willing to take a chance. When I took the job at GoDaddy, I had a pretty good gig—working part-time but making a full-time salary, telecommuting from Arizona to a company in New Jersey. It was sweet. Then the GoDaddy opportunity came along. I wasn’t looking at all, so you just have to keep your options open, keep your antenna up, and not be afraid to take a chance.

Q.  As we discussed, your career path hasn’t always had an obvious direction. For junior professionals who aren’t where they want to be in their careers or are having a hard time envisioning where their current roles might lead, what’s your advice for getting the most out of the job you’re in?

Well, you need to enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, then you’re going to learn something from it and get something out of it. And this can be hard, but sometimes you have to stop thinking about the future, live in the now for a little bit, enjoy what you’re doing, and not take stock of your life every two weeks. None of what I’ve accomplished in my career would have seemed possible to me when I was a fourth-year associate, a sixth-year associate, or even when I had been at a firm for eight years and thought I was going to make partner. So I think that sometimes it’s okay to just live in the now and not schedule out your future for the next 20 years.

Q.  We often talk about high-level, big picture aspects of how we conduct ourselves as professionals, but there’s so much we can work on in the day-to-day. Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

One is learning to delegate. I’m a control freak, as successful people tend to be, so that’s a daily struggle for me. It’s hard to give something up—especially that you’ve built and developed—and transition it to someone else. It’s very easy to think, I can do this so much faster and properly the first time, and I don’t have to review someone else’s work. That’s a really hard habit to get out of, but you’ve got to do it. I’ve gotten much better at it, but that has probably been my number one challenge in this role.

My second challenge is learning when to pick battles. Not every legal issue is worth a battle with the business or within your team. I don’t think a lot of time is spent addressing it, and it’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s a key leadership trait that people need to develop.

Finally, it’s important to learn how to separate your personal feelings for someone when you have to give an honest assessment of their work. That’s tough. I’ve had some really great people work in my department, people whom I really like, whose company I really enjoy.  They’re smart, they’re witty, but sometimes that doesn’t translate into their work product. Being able to separate the two is not easy.  Most people don’t and find a way to ignore the issue, but you’re not actually doing that person any favors. In fact, giving them an honest assessment and acknowledging a failure might be the best thing you ever did for them. But it’s still hard.

Q.  Has mentorship played a role in your development as a leader? Have there been any particularly powerful mentors over the course of your career?

I think the term mentorship is actually very limiting. I’ve encountered dozens of people in a 30-plus year career, professionally and personally, who have had an impact on me. Some I have sought out for advice and counsel, and some have proactively offered guidance. And I’ve learned from all of them. Some folks, with whom I had very limited amounts of time, have had a huge impact on my career. For example, one woman I worked with for only six months probably doesn’t even remember my name, but I definitely took some things away from her—things that I absolutely did not want to do or become. Those were huge lessons. Is she a mentor?  In a sense, these people are all “mentors” if you learn from them. So I find mentorship a little limiting. That’s just a personal quirk. But I’m allowed to have them after 30-plus years.

Q.  That’s probably a more helpful way to think about those relationships, because there are so many people we have something to learn from.

Exactly. Why should mentorship be limited to the one or two hours you spend with a person having lunch every week? What about all of those other people you encounter in a 50-hour work week? One of the greatest things I’m asked is why I’m still at GoDaddy after 19 years. It’s because—and I truly mean this—every day I learn something new from somebody in that company, whether it’s a business person or a technical person in our infrastructure team, someone in our marketing department or one of my colleagues, my boss or the people who work for me.  So when I think of “mentors,” I think “Alright, so I’ll have lunch with someone for an hour, big deal. What about the rest of the time?” And so I learn something new every single day.

Stephanie Cipolla, Anna Gressel and Andrew Jamieson are associates in Debevoise’s New York office.

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