Q&A with Teresa Wynn Roseborough of Home Depot

Teresa Wynn Roseborough, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary is responsible for all of The Home Depot’s legal functions worldwide, including securities, litigation, employment, mergers and acquisitions, real estate, store operations, risk management and intellectual property. She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General during the Clinton administration, and as Deputy General Counsel at MetLife, where she held various roles including head of compliance and litigation.

Teresa was gracious enough to sit down with us to discuss her experiences in the law— both as a woman and as an African America —the arc of her career, and how having and raising her daughter changed her perspective on work. Our discussion with Teresa was both engaging and insightful, and we are delighted to share the highlights below.

Q. Your career has involved a lot of leaps (government to firm to in-house). Was this part of a master plan or did you make career changes when the opportunities presented themselves?
I did not quite have a master plan. At the start of my career I wasn’t driving to any particular end, other than being a good lawyer. I committed myself to figuring out what a good lawyer did and to learning as much as I could from every environment possible. Some of the best career opportunities I had required that I take a step backwards economically or that I take on more responsibility without a promotion. All of them, however, made me a better lawyer.

I have tried to challenge myself to do things just because I haven’t done them before and because they offer the opportunity to expand my experiences or perspectives. I really do think we do better to think of a career as a course of zigs and zags rather than as a ladder to be climbed. If you’re always just thinking about the next rung up, you might ignore a lot of other great opportunities.

Q. What would you say were the unique legal skills or muscles that you had to develop while working in the government?

When you work for the government, you get to frame issues and approach solutions with the goal of attaining the public good or achieving the best aims of government. You approach issues differently than you might if you were advocating for a particular client.

When you are in private practice and just doing pure advocacy, you are after the best possible outcome for your client. Learning how someone from the government is going to think about an issue is a great skillset and muscle to build in terms of how you think about the law and how you frame issues. When you can frame what you are after in a way that aligns with the objectives of good government, you get closer to the outcome you want than if you don’t understand that perspective.

I also think that being in government gives you a better voice when you are talking to people in government. I am always amazed at the number of really good, talented lawyers who are afraid to strike up a conversation with a regulator. They are uncertain about asking where a regulator thinks a matter is going, what the concerns might be or what the regulator thinks is most important within a set of issues. I’ve learned that most regulators are just seeking to do their jobs and to meet the commands of their offices to the best of their abilities.

Q. What were the unique legal skills or muscles that you had to develop while working in private practice?

In private practice I got to spend a lot more time in court and in writing briefs and white papers. I often miss the opportunity that private practice afforded to dig deeply into the details of a matter and to parse case law and to craft and deliver legal arguments. In private practice you have to constantly solicit and develop relationships with clients, so you are constantly facing the challenge of proving yourself. The most successful attorneys in private practice regard everyone as a client or a potential client, including their own law firm partners and associates, and devote long hours both to their work product and to the development of the lawyers around them. Law firm partnerships operate primarily through consensus building, so when you have an idea you want to promote, you have to solicit the positive views of a lot of people to have success.

Corporate environments tend to be a lot more structured and hierarchical, but you get to be involved in the overall strategy for the business rather than in just a particular case or transaction. Considering the perspective of shareholders, employees, suppliers and others that are relying on the business and its continuation for their success is a different framework. Managing the obligation to achieve not just the best possible outcome, but also to follow the best possible economic process to get there, is something you learn in a corporate environment more acutely than you do in a law firm.

Q. What challenges have you seen other women face or have you faced yourself while practicing in a law firm as a woman of color?

In a large law firm, one challenge is just the lack of numbers. The lack of other African-American women, other African-American men, and other people of color imposes greater obligations on the women and persons of color who are there. You can feel as though you are in a spotlight and that your success or failure will have impacts beyond your own career.

Women face challenges in balancing the early stages of managing their careers while also trying to have and raise children, and we have not yet figured out how to best balance the demands of young families with the demands of long hours of professional work and development. Women too often face the untested assumptions that others impose on them as to how they want to approach the development of their careers. Early in my career I occasionally faced conscious, unapologetic bias. That is rarely the case today, but unconscious bias remains a common enemy of us all. Learning to confront and challenge unconscious bias and its effects I think is among the larger challenges of our profession.

Women’s approaches to decision-making, leadership style differences, and perspectives continue to be devalued and can cause them to be overlooked for leadership roles and strategic input.

Q. How about the challenges faced by women of color you saw or faced yourself while working in the government?

Women in government suffer all of the same challenges as women in the private sector in terms of conquering bias and ascending to leadership roles. There were few women in the leadership of the Department of Justice when I was there, and I worked for the first woman to become Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno. Our current Attorney General, the 83rd person to hold that title, is only the second woman and is the first African American woman to hold that post. Only one woman has been confirmed as Solicitor General of the United States. Despite overall offering a more diverse environment than many organizations, the leadership ranks of government remain less diverse and bias continues to impact how the work and leadership potential of women are perceived.

Q. What are the main lessons your career has taught you about achieving or trying to achieve work-life balance?

We think of work-life balance as a static thing. You figure out what your 60/40 is and you strive to stay there. But it’s really a lot more dynamic than that.

The problem is that both professional work and personal life are time-on-task activities. Parenting, being a contributing member of a family, supporting a spouse, or aging parent are all time-demanding activities that benefit from as much of that finite resource as we can give them. And certainly it is true that the more time you spend as a lawyer, the different engagements you have, the more matters you can work on, and the more intensely you can hone your skills, the better lawyer you become. Speaking for myself, I had to be deliberate in figuring out how to strike the time-balance between them and in working out how to be as enriching as I could be in both worlds. That might mean saying, look, these hours of the day, these hours of the week, these days of the week— they have to be family time. And these other times I can’t be available for family, so I need to figure out how I’m going to supply what they need when I am not there.

I was fortunate to have a retired mother and engaged spouse to help. I also received fortunate advice shortly after my daughter was born from one of my partners. Finding me in the office one Saturday afternoon, he said, “You know if you plan your week with the intent to be here on Saturdays, you will always be here on Saturday.” He was right and changing my attitude about what days I was going to be available to work helped me to restructure my priorities during the week, become more productive, and work fewer Saturdays!

You also have to make sure that you are not making what is already a very tough situation worse because you decide you have to make your bed every day to be a fulfilled person. Or you have to be the one that cooks every day to be a good parent. You have to decide what the priority is and what the things you are going to let go. For example, I gave up on doing my own laundry a long time ago, and I still find myself a happy person.

Q. Is there any aspect of work-life balance that you’re still working on getting better at to this day?

Absolutely. Part of my challenge is that I enjoy the immediate rewards of work. You answer someone’s email. You return a phone call. You crank out a letter. There is an immediate reward; you check that box. The things you have to do at home, for example, just being present, having a conversation, or watching a movie with the rest of the family, do not allow you to check a box off your to-do list.

I am constantly working to learn mindfulness and to revel in the value and joy of just being there. When I’m at home I am trying to be present and not looking at my cell phone the whole time, to let go of multitasking, and to relax.

Q. A lot of the female associates at our firm are Millennials. What challenges do you see young female Millennials face in the workplace that might have been different from the challenges that you saw as a young female lawyer?

My daughter was born in that time frame. So, a lot of my world reference comes from her and what I see as her challenges and opportunities. One is that their toolset is very different—they have the ability to be connected to others all the time. When I began my career, the most expedient means of mass communication was the fax machine. They also greatly enjoy and value constantly sharing with others almost everything they think, see, or experience. They rely on each other to curate the world around them and to share what’s interesting and help to evaluate what’s important.

They see connectedness as a virtue and “likes” and “followers” as indicia of merit and seek in the workplace the kind of constant reward that having someone like your Instagram or follow you on Twitter provides. They want constant feedback.

The other challenge is figuring out how to solicit their engagement with teams. Although they like to be connected and to share what they are doing, that does not always translate into an appreciation of the value of working with a team that includes supervisors and learners. They would often rather learn on their own or from each other than from a manager.

They often see the world from a different perspective and are less bounded by history in deciding how to approach problems. I am personally hoping that they will help make our legal regime simpler, our legal writing more concise, and access to justice more universal.

Q. What do you wish you had known when you were first starting your career as a young female of African American descent?

To take responsibility for my own success. It took a while for me to convert from being a task fulfiller, who very much expected that someone was going to tell me what they needed to be done, to saying, “I need to decide from myself what needs to be done and do it, whether that be in serving a client or taking charge of my professional development.”

I initially thought, “I will be made a partner by doing all the things I’m told to do exceptionally well.” In reality, it actually takes a lot more than just doing well what others ask you to do. You have to figure out what skills you need and what your career needs and devise a plan to obtain those things through your own efforts. You also have to work to develop your own clients, your own leadership style, and your own “brand”. When I transferred responsibility for building my career to myself and stopped relying on others to build my career for me, I gained a lot more control over my destiny.

Q. What piece of advice that someone has given to you during the course of your career has proven to be the most reliable?

“If you see a fire, throw water, not wood.” It is often easier to escalate a conflict than to defuse it. Whatever the psychological rewards of trying to out shout, out remonstrate, out lambast others, these are seldom meaningful steps in achieving successful resolutions. To be sure, for strategic or other reasons, you might want to build a fire. More often, though, what you want is to throw water to get something down to a smolder so it can be worked with better than if it stays a raging blaze. In so many situations when I’ve been tempted to throw wood, to let my temper or ego get the best of me, I remember this phrase and think about driving solutions rather than conflict.

Q. Do you have any other general career advice that you’d like to share?

I regret more the times when I’ve said nothing than the times when I’ve said the wrong thing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to seek advice or counsel, to engage a coach, or to speak out about your concerns. Always try to leave every situation you encounter better for your having been there regardless of whether it is your job or responsibility. Try to make a difference to those closest to you and your impact will spread like ripples through water to those far beyond your reach.

Q. For more senior attorneys, are there any strategies that you would suggest for mentoring younger, more junior women?

Take them out of the building. Just physically take them on the road. Take them to the meetings you go to. Take them to the Bar meetings you go to. Take them to the client meetings you go to. Take them out to dinner. Be with them, and be present. The opportunity to observe different environments is, in a lot of ways, the most powerful gift you can give a young lawyer. Being able to go to court and see things happen. Going to a meeting and seeing how a strategy is laid out, going to a Bar meeting and seeing how a panel is put together and presented. Each of these experiences can be enriching.

When you take a young lawyer or even a younger person to a meeting, you’re saying to them, you have a right to be here, you have a right to be a part of this conversation, you have something to contribute.

Q. In that case, how would you deal with the fact that sometimes clients do not like having additional lawyers in a meeting? Any advice to junior attorneys on how to add value in such a situation?

It is true to a certain extent that clients don’t like potted plants, but if someone said this person is here because I want them to observe or help take notes, people are very, very tolerant. You should make it clear that you are making the investment in that person’s development though and not charging the client for it.

Then it is up to the junior attorney to figure out: How am I going to contribute? Am I going to be the person that takes notes? Am I going to be the person that makes sure we are following the agenda? Am I going to be the person that summarizes the take-aways or the person that asks the follow-up question? Am I going to be the person who, when there is a question asked that needs an answer, does the quick email back to the firm to get the answer? How am I going to contribute while I’m also taking advantage of this learning opportunity?

Q. How did having and raising your daughter, Courtney, change your relationship with work, if at all?

After having Courtney, I had to manage my time better and figure out what times I was not going to be in the office. Also, when you have a child, you cannot always work continuously. You have to take breaks in the middle of work and figure out how to stop and then how to resume, both of which are skills that I still struggle with. Stopping the activity you are in the middle of, doing something else and then resuming that activity, that is a muscle. I also had to learn what things were most important for her and make sure that I was with her for those times and those events. I had to make sure we had time to talk and to share every day.

Q. What else has being a mother taught you?

I had to learn not to sweat the small stuff and to focus on the big picture. I had to learn to truly listen in an engaged way and how to let Courtney know that I had truly heard her.

Another thing is, in hindsight, I spent a lot of time worrying about chemistry grades and whether history papers were turned in on time and less time on emotional IQ, which has just as much or more to do with life success. For example, do you know what to do when you and a friend are having a falling out? Do you know what to do when you’re sad? Do you know what to do when there are two things you really want to do, but you can only do one? All of the things that have to do with happiness, emotional maturity, and the ability to confront adversity—those are things that kids really need their parents to help them with. I am so fortunate that Courtney, with the help of her father and her grandmother, turned out to have a great ability to build friendships, emotional maturity, and resilience to adversity, but I should have made sure I gave developing these traits equal time with spelling and math!

I also learned that children can be great teachers! I am indebted to Courtney for the many insights her observations on life brought to me and for teaching me so much about enjoying life, laughter, and giving to others.