Women’s HERStory Month Series: “I Was a Tech Lawyer before being a Tech Lawyer Was Cool”
Learn how Zebra’s top legal mind Cristen Kogl is elevating future generations of women on all career paths while paving her own path to continued success as a Fortune 1000 executive.
“Adventurous Minnesotan,” “proud mother,” “animal lover” and “fierce friend” are just a few of the ways you could describe Cristen Kogl, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Zebra Technologies. However, those who know her best would simply say that she is someone who makes things happen – no matter what.
Perhaps that’s because she moves fast and thinks fast in everything she does. Or because she somehow remains calculated and careful no matter how chaotic things may get at work and home.
Then again, it could be because she stays well caffeinated, even though she never drinks coffee!
“Mountain Dew is what helps me do what I do,” Cristen claims. (Hopefully all of you looking to keep up are taking notes!)
Most likely, though, the reason why Cristen simultaneously excels at being a lawyer, Fortune 1000 executive and single mother is because she accepts responsibility for her decisions, commitments and relationships while setting clear instructions and expectations for herself and others.
Staying Grounded While Skyrocketing to the Top: The Secret to Having Everything I Ever Hoped For
Like many of us, Cristen comes from humble beginnings. She launched her “career” as a parks and recreation attendant at an ice-skating warming center at the age of 13. Though a far cry from the position she now holds on Zebra’s executive leadership team, that job is where Cristen first started developing the work ethic and accountability that has allowed her to conquer adversity and “make things happen” both personally and professionally.
She didn’t land her role as General Counsel at Spyglass (which licensed a core kernel of Internet Explorer to Microsoft) when she was only 32 just because she was one of the few technology lawyers practicing at the time. Nor did she climb to the top of her field because she had friends in high places or superpowers. (Though, her rockstar reputation among colleagues and industry peers didn’t hurt.)
Rather, Cristen insists that it took decades of experience, hard work and dedication to get promoted to the executive staff of a 50-year-old Fortune 1000 technology company.
Here’s an excerpt of a recent conversation we had with Cristen about her upward career trajectory and advice for young women who are eager to follow in her footsteps:
Your Edge Blog Team: You have had quite an impressive legal career, with much of it in the technology space. Did you always know you wanted to be a tech lawyer?
Cristen: As a young associate in a law firm, I found that I while I loved the law, I was drawn to the ongoing business of my clients. So, it was only natural that after negotiating against a few different companies (while representing their clients or suppliers) I jumped at the chance when I was invited to interview for an in-house position.
Your Edge Blog Team: We understand that you started off focused on technology transactions, both commercial and mergers and acquisitions, and that your practice has expanded quite significantly over the years.
Cristen: Yes, once I made the transition into corporate roles, I started broadening my experience. As a corporate generalist, I needed to be both an inch deep and a mile wide on all areas of the law, as well as a mile deep and an inch wide in those matters most pressing to my role or the business I supported. As a result, I have had the opportunity to go deep in securities and corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, go-to-market strategy, intellectual property, and regulatory and compliance matters impacting the companies’ operations and industries.
Your Edge Blog Team: Did you feel well-prepared for “the real world” right out of law school? Or did you find yourself learning mostly on the job?
Cristen: Law school does not necessarily prepare you to practice law. It teaches you an approach to viewing the world. So no, I didn’t feel particularly well-prepared for the real world. However, a curious mind and a desire to learn that continues to this day, are the best resources one could have to be a lawyer. Every day at Zebra I learn something new!
Your Edge Blog Team: Becoming an executive for a global tech company is no easy feat for anyone. What do you credit most to your successful rise through the ranks at Zebra?
Cristen: People often ask me what I did to get promoted from within to the Executive Leadership Team. I can assure you that I put in a lot of hard work. But I did other things as well. I made sure I worked with and learned from many people, all with varying backgrounds and strengths. I raised my hand for difficult assignments, and I never felt afraid to share my opinions with others. I also asked a lot of questions in order to be prepared for anything. In all honesty, I made continuous learning one of my top priorities.
Your Edge Blog Team: We also understand that you show up on time and prepared for the task at hand no matter what.
Cristen: That’s the lawyer in me, I suppose. But I do believe that, no matter what profession you’re in or what level you’re at in your career, you should thoroughly prepare for meetings. Have an agenda, print up documents if you need to and have clear-cut goals. That’s how you drive progress, no matter the size or scope of the project.
Your Edge Blog Team: What would you say is your greatest strength?
Cristen: I listen hard… even though I still talk too much. Although, I don’t listen when someone tells me that “a woman can’t…” or “a mother shouldn’t…” achieve the types of success that I have achieved as a mother, lawyer and/or and female executive in a fast-paced tech sector.
Your Edge Blog Team: To that point, would you say that women are starting to become more accepted in the legal profession?
Cristen: It’s interesting, because on paper it looks like things are trending up. I believe as of 2018, there were more women graduating from law school than men by a slight margin, and one in three lawyers were women. However, women only accounted for 20 percent of the top ranking positions within law firms. Even as recently as last year (2019), women only held one-third of the general counsel positions for Fortune 500 companies. Then there are some who claim that women are steered away from lead litigation roles despite women’s higher rate of success in court. So, I think we still have a long way to go before we no longer have to count how many women are in a courtroom or board room or wonder what happened to the one who left.
I know that, someday, modifiers like “one,” ‘first” and “only” will be irrelevant when talking about female lawyers in many capacities. Inclusiveness and diversity will then just be a matter of who we are. My hope is for that day to come sooner than later, so that the current generation of lawyers and those who come behind us can focus on advocating for their clients or customers versus having to advocate for themselves – to prove that they deserve to be in “speaking” position.
Of course, we couldn’t let Cristen go without asking for her advice to young lawyers (and female professionals in general). Here are her top five tips, with additional context from our conversation:
1. “Don’t just go through the motions.”
Cristen is a woman on the move. Yet one of the other reasons why she has risen to the top of her field is because she makes sure that everything she does matters – as a lawyer, a leader, a family member and a person.
Though detail oriented, Cristen has always approached every decision and taken every action from a comprehensive perspective. She thinks holistically about the reaction or impact down the line, not just the issue at hand. Her simultaneous foresight and intentionality are usually why she’s a few steps ahead of others, according to her peers. Though she claims that anyone can adopt similar habits with conscious effort.
2. “Have the courage to stand up to inequality, regardless of the source.”
Cristen is acutely aware of how significantly influential unconscious biases can be on our behavior as humans. She personally knows how difficult it can be for some to understand that a single mother can work just as hard as a single father or working professional without children. She also knows better than some that women can have both children and career success, just as men can have both domestic and professional roles.
That is why she encourages all people, regardless of generation or background, to assess the unintentional and automatic stereotypes they may hold within and become more accepting of one another’s strengths no matter their gender, sex, race, religion or other personal identifiers.
As a staunch advocate of Inclusion and Diversity both within Zebra and society as a whole, Cristen advises every person she meets (and everyone reading this now) to ask themselves:
- What can/should I do to make everyone feel welcome in the workplace, at school and at home?
- How can I empower others to be their whole selves, without fear of judgement or mistreatment?
- How can I help tear down the ‘maternal wall’ or stop the ‘tug of war’ that pressures people to identify with their gender or a certain group in order to succeed?
- How can I ensure everyone’s accomplishments are given equal value and mistakes are equally forgiven without bias to a particular gender or minority group?
3. “Pay it forward.”
“I appreciate the value of having a team that understands and supports you no matter your personal quirks, capabilities or goals,” Cristen says. “Having a team to lean on, especially one with collectively diverse ways of thinking, is one of the reasons why I have been so successful in my career at Zebra in particular.”
That’s why Cristen now goes above and beyond to support and promote underrepresented employees any way she can.
“At Zebra, we understand that we need new ideas and new leaders to bring our company into the future. This starts with supporting unique and varying career trajectories for all of our employees.”
4. “Do the right thing, no matter what.
You must always keep integrity top of mind, even when being agile, Cristen reminds us all. While certainly good advice for up-and-coming lawyers, every single person’s ethics and morals will be tested some time in life.
Be a model for civility and do your part to ensure everyone has fair and equal access to new experiences and career growth, especially once you rise to a position of leadership.
5. Strive for work-life balance, but know there is no single right approach for every person and that your personal work-life balance is not a static condition.”
When asked to elaborate on what she meant, Cristen instead opted to share her journey to finding the right work-life balance:
“My son was born on a Sunday at midnight, and I was the General Counsel of a small cap Nasdaq-listed technology company at the time. I left the hospital on Tuesday. On Wednesday, my company was served with a Shareholder Class Action Insider Trading Securities Fraud lawsuit. On Thursday – from home – I retained outside counsel and sent out a litigation hold notice. (That is the notice that tells employees who might be implicated in the matter that they cannot delete or destroy materials associated with the matter). The following Monday, I chose to go into the office… with my nine-day-old son. I did not have daycare plans coordinated until the end of my purported maternity leave. So, for the first few weeks, he was passed around to those in the office who wanted to hold a newborn until the sister-in-law of a law school friend stepped in. She watched him for the next six weeks until my planned day care could start so that I could continue to work full time.
Fast forward 13 years. My son is in 6th grade. I am working as a Deputy General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer – with a commute of 48 miles one way – in Chicago traffic and weather. Great company. Good job. However, the job required me to be at the office. I arranged before-school care (6-8 a.m.), after school care (3-6 p.m. ) and then after hours care for him (until 8 p.m.). I arranged for my mother to stay with him during board meetings so she could watch him around the clock – and I even had her accompany me on trips when necessary. I was so stressed! I would tell my son he couldn’t get sick or forget his homework or lunch because we only had Plan A – there was no Plan B. Today, we can laugh about this. (I fully expect him, once grown, to talk to his therapist about how his mother stressed him out as a child or to thank me immensely for making him self-reliant at such an early age!).
Nonetheless, I couldn’t keep the pace up. I decided that I needed to be more available to my son at this crucial time in his life and trying to do it all was impossible. I wanted to give 100 percent to everything– and – as we know – you cannot give more than 100 percent. So, I changed jobs. It may have been seen as a lateral move, or even a step back in my career, but it was the right move at the right time for me and for me son. I would make the same exact decision again today. Obviously, everything worked out as it should; my son is now a junior in college and I enjoyed growth in my career.
The point of my story is that it is NOT easy to manage the work – life balance. It is a dynamic endeavor and not necessarily something to ‘achieve’ but rather assess and implement however it makes sense for you at any given point in time.”
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