Q&A with Shannon Higginson of lululemon

Shannon Higginson is the Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer of lululemon athletica inc. She joined lululemon in 2011 and was previously in-house counsel at TELUS, a telecommunications company, and an associate at Bull, Housser & Tupper in Vancouver. This interview has been edited for publication.

You’ve been at lululemon for a little over 10 years now, and the company has grown considerably in that time. How have your role and responsibilities, as well as the legal team more generally, evolved over that period?

I joined lululemon 11 years ago this upcoming June. The company went public in 2007, and the first legal hire was Erin Nicholas, who was hired as corporate secretary on a part-time basis. So, as you can imagine, as the first lawyer at a public company, she dealt with every possible facet of the business on her own. Given the volume of work, she was looking for another lawyer to join and complement the skills she already had. In particular, she was looking for a lawyer with commercial expertise, which I had.  I was the second lawyer to join the company. Since then, the two of us have essentially never looked back as we’ve built the legal team from the ground up.

lululemon made less than $1 billion in revenue the year that I joined. Last year we hit $6 billion, and our goal is to double that over the course of the next five years. At the same time, we’ve gone from a tiny team of two lawyers to one of almost 60 legal professionals globally. Erin and I have gone from being very hands-on—covering absolutely everything that came across our desks—to having teams to tackle various matters, like IP, privacy, compliance and employment, among others.

Overall, the growth and changes that we’ve seen over the last 10 years have been phenomenal. Erin is still with us as our Deputy General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, so it’s been a really fun journey for the two of us.

Can you tell us about how your leadership style has changed as you’ve stepped into the role of General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer? 

When I first became General Counsel about five years ago, the former General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at The Gap was one of my mentors. She told me I would go from being a lawyer to doing very little legal work and primarily focusing on people. It was hard to imagine going from a very technical and tactical skill set to a broader leadership role, but that’s very much what happened. I spend very little time practicing law now. Instead, I spend most of my time leading my own team, collaborating with the senior leadership team on building lululemon’s future and identifying the ways in which the legal team can enable this realization, and partnering with the rest of the business team in enabling the same.

It’s been fascinating to see the shift from being very technical and very operational every day to discussing and elevating issues together with our teams who now handle these more directly. That’s really been the biggest shift—moving to the role of being a team leader and actively thinking about how to lead a global team, as well as collaborating with my peers at the senior leadership level.

That’s so interesting to hear, especially for younger lawyers. For the first several years, as we’re coming up through the ranks, we’re largely working on acquiring technical skills. But then, at some point, as you reach a more senior leadership role, it’s a whole new set of challenges. What do you think lawyers who are earlier on in their careers can be doing now to build the foundation for those leadership skills?

One of the best things you can do is to think about how you can be a leader of people in other ways. I thought about that during my time at TELUS: how can I coordinate to involve a cross-functional team on a transaction, for example? It’s about finding those places where you can show up in a leadership role. It’s a little different now that we have project managers and others to facilitate coordination, but often in the early days of an in-house practice, when there isn’t someone else who can be the anchor for a project, taking on that role can provide an opportunity to develop those leadership skills.

Over the course of your tenure at lululemon, are there any highlights or particular challenges you’ve encountered that stick out?

The most obvious moment is COVID. 2020 was the year that changed everything for us. For me, those early days of COVID were by far some of the most challenging and rewarding days of my career. I can still vividly remember the day we decided to close the office, and in the course of the three or four days that followed, spending all of my time on my laptop at home while my husband and kids were coming and going, and trying to figure out what we were going to do. Ultimately, we decided to close our stores. It was a momentous decision because that’s at the core of what we do. We just didn’t know what it was going to mean. Was e-commerce going to take over? Would our customers still place orders? How long would everything last? I’m so proud of the work that we did as a company and as a legal team during that time. For us lawyers in particular, it was an incredibly busy time because of the focus on how we were going to support our people. At the end of the day, we learned a way of working and being as a result of those challenges, and the subsequent need to react in a swift and agile manner.

You’ve implemented some great initiatives and policies relating to inclusion, diversity and equity during your tenure. Can you tell us a bit about the process of designing and implementing these policies, and any effects you’re seeing on employees across gender, racial and other demographic lines?

Our inclusion, diversity and equity policies have been incredibly strong when it comes to gender. We implemented gender pay equity earlier than most; we have a board that is majority female; we have a leadership team that is majority female; and we have a really large number of women across our teams. So, from a gender perspective, we thought that we were doing well on inclusion, diversity and equity.

However, we had a reckoning after hearing from our people in the aftermath of George Floyd. We weren’t doing as well as we’d thought. We simply weren’t measuring inclusion, diversity and equity across the entire spectrum.

We ended up taking the same approach that we took when managing COVID and devoted the resources and talents of our organization to tackle the task. We came up with IDEA, which stands for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in Action. We set some goals and are now on the path to achieve them. We’ve significantly increased funding for IDEA initiatives; created an ongoing dialogue between our senior leadership team and our people on the ground regarding underrepresented people in our collective through “Lift Our Voice Calls,” where people can come in and share their experiences; and implemented employee resource groups. I’m really so proud of our initiatives in this space. I’ve loved being involved and have learned so much from it. We’re also expanding our training and leadership and development, we’re doing our best to increase diverse representation among our employee base and we’re using our brand to advocate for change.

The latter is particularly interesting to me because I’ve had the chance to work with Stacia Jones, our Vice President of IDEA. She’s also a lawyer, so she’s helped us think through how to use our voices in the legal profession, not just within our own teams but to influence our external partners, including our law firm partners.

Stacia also introduced me to the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. As a result, I have drafted my own commitment for the LCLD, which is a commitment to both my internal function and to my company, as well as to the legal profession. As an individual, it’s been really powerful to think through where I can have influence and how I can learn, and share my learning with others, about what we can do differently with respect to inclusion, diversity and equity.

Lately, we’ve seen a desire, but also a struggle, on the part of companies with respect to taking a stand on tough social issues. We see that people want to attach a particular value set to recognizable consumer brands like lululemon.  How do you manage that?

These are tough issues, and we’re also a global brand based in Canada, which adds to the complexity. We have an employee population based in the United States that expects us to speak out on U.S.-based issues, but we have to balance the impact of doing so against the rest of our world. We’ve really had to think through how to behave in a global way when we support our employees who want to participate in protests, while still being inclusive and uplifting for all of our different communities. Striking this balance continues to be one of the toughest items that we grapple with.

Is there any advice you would have liked to share with yourself when you’d just joined lululemon or that might be useful for women looking to follow career paths similar to yours?

My biggest piece of advice is to trust your instincts. It can be on issues in a transaction, but it can also be on bigger decisions you are making. It came up for me when I decided to leave private practice as a first-year associate. I thought I had the job that I wanted at the firm that I wanted, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected. I trusted my instincts in making the decision to go in-house, and it turned out to be the right decision for me. TELUS was a fantastic place to grow and develop as a young lawyer. Around the 10- or 11-year mark, I again trusted that same instinct and made the move to lululemon. You know when something is right or not, whether that’s in a transaction or when you’re making a life decision, so finding that quiet space to listen to your own needs is really important.

We often talk about work-life balance, perhaps especially with other women and as a result of the changes that occurred during COVID, though we know striving for that balance doesn’t come easily. What are you passionate about outside of work and what are the tips or hacks you’ve collected over the years to juggle work with everything else?

I have two teenage daughters and my goal is very much to spend time with them. When they were in elementary school, my goal was to walk them to school two days a week. I managed that by being quite protective of my calendar. Now, that’s shifted to making sure we have family dinners together. I also spent years coaching soccer and sometimes I don’t know how we managed to do it. At the same time, it gave me a real sense of joy and I think we’re all better at our jobs when we have those outside passions.

So, my advice is to block off the time on your calendar for the things that are important to you. You also shouldn’t feel bad about it. There’s sometimes a lot of guilt, but if you’ve blocked off 8:00 to 9:00 am and that’s the only time the rest of the team is available, try to hold firm to the time you saved for yourself. Make sure to save the exceptions only for when it really matters.

Have your daughters’ view of your work changed as they’ve gotten older?

My oldest is very interested in hearing what’s going on and asking questions about what my job is and how we tackle issues. Now that both my husband, who is an architect, and I work from home, it’s been great for our kids to see two totally different careers. There’s something neat about working from home in that way because they see what we do. That being said, we also try to show them how to create balance in their own lives and manage stress effectively.

Sue Meng is a partner in Debevoise’s New York office and Dominique Trudelle is an associate in Debevoise’s San Francisco office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.