Nancy Stern | CEO of Allston Holdings
Corporate M&A | Authenticity | Success & Empathy Go Together | Board Insights | Putting Yourself Out There | Helping Others | Everybody Likes To Be Seen
I interviewed Nancy Stern | Chief Executive Officer of Allston Holdings on Wednesday, August 18th, 2021.
We began the episode where Nancy talked about her start in private practice and being recruited to Katten Muchin after working on a deal opposite them. She shared about her start in litigation and the switch to corporate M&A. We discussed the open door to be Allston Holdings first General Counsel and how that role grew into being the COO and now the CEO. She shared how a mentor taught her the importance of authenticity in the right context and how learning has helped her lead during the pandemic by creating a sticky company culture. She shared the challenge of balancing board expectations with company objectives. She shared how she distinguished herself by making a decision as an attorney and fighting the natural risk-averse tendencies. She shared how helping others is what has continually opened doors for her, including a board opportunity with exp Global. We wrapped up the show discussing her family and the value of seeing those around you.
Here are some highlights of my interview with Nancy Stern:
I can see where, in the right circumstances, being authentic and vulnerable can really advance your career in ways that I did not understand before this experience.
As CEO, people are sometimes reluctant to tell me what they really think. If people are afraid that they’ll be treated harshly for telling the truth, then I don’t get access to the information that I really need to help run the firm.
The willingness to put myself out there and say what a solution could be for the company has distinguished me, at times, and has shown a commitment to the company that’s not limited to protecting myself.
I think a lot of lawyers have the makings of good business leaders. Lawyers are very aware of the time. They show up to meetings on time. They’re generally persuasive and good communicators.
Success and empathy can go together because, long term, people are going to perform better when they feel like they’re safe and understood.
Business shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the legal side. If I’m advising a company, whether I’m in a law firm or in-house, the client is the company, and I’m part of the company too.
I try to make sure when I’m acting as a lawyer, that the person I’m advising knows I’m on their side and want to be helpful.
A lot of the leadership that I do is really influencing people to be their most effective selves toward a common goal and it’s communication.
I’ve tried to spend time, especially with my management team, not only to explain my vision and get them on board with the vision but to do it in a way where they really feel empowered.
My advice for attorneys wanting to get on a board? Dig in and start helping people. Don’t focus so much on what you want but on how you can help others.
Everybody likes to be seen and it’s a small thing, but it’s also everything.
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Greetings, friends. This is Chris Batz, your host of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast.
In today’s episode, I spoke with a corporate M&A attorney turned CEO of a Chicago-based futures trading company. We discussed her legal career, her journey in-house, and her advancement within the company to becoming CEO. She also shared how as an executive, being genuine and vulnerable is in the best interest of the company, and how she discovered the power of empathy, and so much more.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast and leave a review on iTunes. We interview corporate defense law firm leaders, partners, general counsel, legal consultants, and now CEOs.
You are listening to Episode 61 of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast.
Chris: Welcome to The Law Firm Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Chris Batz with The Lion Group.
Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Nancy Stern, CEO and board member at Allston Holdings LLC. Nancy joined Allston in 2013 as the company’s first General Counsel, then became Chief Operating Officer, before taking the role of CEO in 2020. Prior to Allston, Nancy served as a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman and prior to Katten, she was at Gardner Carton and Douglas which is now part of Faegre Drinker Biddle and Reath for a combined 17 years in private practice. Nancy also serves on the board of directors for exp Global in Ontario. She began her legal career as a law clerk for the Honorable Robert H Cleland, US District Judge in the Eastern District of Michigan. Nancy received both her bachelor’s and her law degree from the University of Michigan.
Welcome, Nancy, to The Law Firm Leadership Podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.
Nancy: Thanks, Chris. It’s good to be here.
Making an Impression during a Deal
Chris: You’ve been on a journey professionally from starting out as a lawyer and making the leap to CEO. Could you share that journey with my listeners?
Nancy: I went right from my undergrad to law school in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. When I graduated from Michigan Law School, I took a job with a federal judge as a law clerk, which was a two-year position. That was an opportunity for me to improve my legal writing and research, and understand better the way our federal courts work, but also what is required in a professional job. It was my first and it was educational working in a government office. I moved to Chicago in 1996 and started working at Gardner Carton and Douglas as a litigation associate. After a couple of years, I moved over to the corporate department and started doing mergers and acquisitions and securities work. I was a Gardner for 10 years and then I moved over to Katten. That came about because I was on the other side of a deal from a Katten partner who, unbeknownst to me, was the head of lateral partner recruiting. A couple of years after we closed the deal he called up and said, “Would you like to come and work at Katten?” So I did, and I continued doing mergers and acquisitions and corporate governance work at Katten. Then, I got a call when I was at Katten inviting me to be the General Counsel of Allston.
Chris: When Katten’s hiring partner called, did you have clients that followed you, or did they have a need for your skills?
Nancy: This was in September 2006. They mostly had a need for my skills. I did have some clients that followed me, and then I continued to develop my own clients after that. But I think the real deciding factor there was that I had negotiated this deal on the other side of that lawyer and he wanted somebody who could do that work again. They had an abundance of deals at that time and it was more than they could handle.
The Excitement of Corporate M&A
Chris: Tell us a little bit about the decision to move from litigation to the corporate side.
Nancy: I started in litigation, to be honest, because I had the clerkship experience. That was an easier transition, and for somebody who doesn’t have lawyers in the family (I grew up in a town of 500 people), I did not have a great understanding of what being a corporate M&A lawyer even entailed. Litigation seemed more accessible to me, but as I got further into it and started to make relationships with partners in the corporate department, I thought it would be more exciting to be doing stuff that was more forward-looking. In litigation, you’re always working on something that actually happened years before. And when you’re on the defense side of things, even if you do a perfect job, the clients are not super excited about the process. It’s not doing something that’s really going to grow the company or build the company. This was also in the late 90s when there was exciting stuff happening in the corporate department. That motivated my move from litigation.
As General Counsel, I was glad to have that litigation experience. It’s nice to not be intimidated by litigation because I understand the process. But on the M&A side, I represented private equity firms in acquisitions and dispositions. Early on, I did a fair amount of work for utility companies who always, always have securities issues going on. I advised boards in connection with transactions. I did ESOP deals. It was a pretty broad background. My focus was really on developing the judgment that would help me in any circumstance. I was never a super-specialized lawyer, although I did have some specialties, but I liked being a generalist and being able to apply those skills to whatever would come up.
Allston Holdings and their First General Counsel
Chris: Was Allston a client of the firm or did a recruiter find you?
Nancy: In 2009, there was not a lot of deal activity going on. One of my partners at Katten asked me to be interim General Counsel for one of his clients who had a general counsel leave. They needed somebody to fill in for a few months, so I did that. I didn’t want to stay General Counsel at that company, and I remained a Katten partner throughout the experience, but I met someone there who subsequently went to Allston. She was the Executive Vice President of HR. When Allston got a new CEO who wanted to hire a General Counsel, she thought of me. That was about four years later. So, it wasn’t something that happened right away, but somebody remembered the work that I did. It was actually very similar to what happened when I transitioned from Gardner to Katten. Someone who remembered my work reached out to me and wanted me to be on their team. I wasn’t looking to leave Katten but she suggested that I have lunch with the CEO and I did. And I thought we could work well together. I liked the position that he described as someone who could help make big decisions within the company. General counsel positions can be anything from sitting in a back office to markup vendor contracts to really guiding the CEO’s decision-making. I wanted something more in line with the latter which fit what he described.
Chris: Did they already have an in-house attorney at Allston?
Nancy: They had someone who was a compliance professional, went to law school at night, and passed the bar. So, yes, they had a lawyer who knew the company very well and was very smart, but who had really just been a member of the bar for a few months when I joined.
Chris: So, were you their first General Counsel?
Nancy: I was, yes.
Chris: Can you share with my audience who is Allston Holdings?
Nancy: Allston is a proprietary trading firm founded by three men who were floor traders and who were classmates at Harvard Business School. It’s called Allston because Allston is the neighborhood where Harvard Business School is located. Technology is a pretty big part of our business. We trade commodity futures, interest rate futures, and financial futures using advanced technology.
Chris: How large is the company headcount?
Nancy: We have 85 employees that are mostly located in Chicago with others located in Houston, New York, and London.
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A Departure opened the Door for COO
Chris: Nancy, I’d love for you to share about your transition to COO.
Nancy: I joined as General Counsel with responsibility for legal and compliance. This is a business that has pretty challenging legal and compliance issues because the regulations were evolving and interpretations of them were evolving. There was a lot of uncertainty as to what the standards were and how people should meet them. It was a pretty meaty and challenging role. The CEO who recruited me left the company after a year and a half to become a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. The former CEO, who had stayed on as President, resumed the CEO role. So, they didn’t replace the CEO who had recruited me, and that opened the door for me to take on some more responsibility. I took on responsibility for HR and had a bigger role in decision-making. Eventually, the CFO reported to me so I had accounting, tax, finance, facilities, and risk. That led to being promoted to Chief Operating Officer.
Becoming CEO Made Sense
Chris: How did those additional responsibilities come to you?
Nancy: It wasn’t so much me raising my hand as it just seemed to make sense. The CEO looked at how things were going and could see that in the areas that I was responsible for we were making a lot of progress and making those areas better. It wasn’t something that I pushed for, but it seemed to make sense. It was a little bit at a time over the years. I was at the company for seven years before I was promoted to CEO.
Inspired by a GC who became a CEO
Chris: You’re very modest about that and I so appreciate it. When you were the GC, did you think or plan to become the COO and eventually the CEO? Were you inspired by anyone else that had a similar path?
Nancy: Earlier in my career, when I was at my first firm, I did a lot of deals for a company called SPX, which was modeled like GE. It was a big industrial conglomerate with all different kinds of businesses and they were constantly buying and selling businesses. Their General Counsel went on to become their CEO. I remember thinking at the time, which was close to 20 years ago, that it was a cool career path. But I also knew that I wanted to stay in the city. Many of the general counsel jobs were in the suburbs, and a lot of the general counsel jobs that were in the city, as I mentioned, were not necessarily something that would be a fit for me or a challenge for me as a law firm partner. When you’ve been a law firm partner for 15 years or so, sometimes recruiters think you might have a difficult time adjusting. That’s not typically the point where people make the switch from law firm to in-house. Most people do that earlier in their career. You hear about people who try to make that leap later on and just have a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t something that I really had a clear path to or was super dedicated to making happen, but it was something on my mind that would be cool.
Authenticity can Advance your Career
Chris: Could you share about the second CEO inviting you to an area of personal growth?
Nancy: His name was Carlton Jones, and he was definitely a mentor to me and an important part of my development. He was the classic CEO. In fact, pretty much the whole time that I worked with him he was trying to not be the CEO. He had hired the guy who had recruited me thinking that would be a way for him to hand over the leadership of the firm. I learned so much from him. When I first started working with him, one of the things he taught me was to open up and share things about myself. He wanted to help. Having been in the big law firm environment for 17 years, my reaction to that was like, “Yeah, I wasn’t born yesterday. How stupid do you think I am?” But, it was really true, and, now I can appreciate how true that was. While I don’t recommend that everybody bears all their vulnerabilities to the first person they meet professionally, I can see where, in the right circumstances, being authentic and vulnerable can really advance your career in ways that I did not understand before this experience.
Chris: Could you share why that aspect of leadership would advance people’s careers?
Nancy: Well, as CEO, people are sometimes reluctant to tell me what they really think. If they’re afraid that they’ll be treated harshly for telling the truth, then I don’t get access to the information that I really need to help run the firm. Part of that is setting an example by letting people know it’s safe to tell the truth and to speak up. It’s really important to set that tone. If the message you’re sending out is that we all have to be perfect and flawless all the time, then people end up hiding a lot. It’s hard to run the company based on information that’s fake.
Chris: What are the consequences of people hiding or being fake, as you put it?
Nancy: It depends on the context. If somebody is struggling, I’d like to know about it so I can try to help them or, at a minimum, work with them to find somebody else who can do the task for now. This can allow them to focus on the other thing that they’re struggling with. Take a non-judgmental approach that reinforces that we’re on the same team. We find a way to get what is needed because I care about the person and want them to get what they need. It’s also in the best interest of the company.
Success and Empathy Go Together
Chris: So, this dynamic with Carlton brought you to a deeper level of self-awareness around authenticity and opening up. Has that created opportunities for you with your team?
Nancy: Absolutely. During the pandemic, especially, lots of people suffered with lots of challenges. Some had young kids at home and couldn’t catch a train to work. Others had a sick family member, or whatever their situation might be. One of my children came out as non-binary during the pandemic, and we were working through some mental health issues around that. A lot of people struggled a lot. It’s helpful for people to know that they’re not alone, that there are resources and support available to them, and that they’re valued members of the team. I think that has helped us really prosper through the pandemic and the difficult circumstances.
Chris: First, thank you for being vulnerable, even on this podcast, as you’re sharing these things that are personal. Second, it sounds like it’s giving you some skills of empathy. Would you agree?
Nancy: Absolutely. I think empathy is so important.
Chris: That’s powerful and exciting. Do you think it’s creating a glue for your culture to feel safe?
Nancy: I think so. It’s clear to me that we don’t have to choose between being successful and ruthless or empathetic and a failure, right? Success and empathy can go together because, long term, people are going to perform better when they feel like they’re safe and understood.
Balancing the Board and Management
Chris: What’s been the most challenging aspect of being a CEO?
Nancy: For the demographics of our firm, most people are pretty young. We’ve got a lot of really big contributors in their 20s and 30s. Our board, like a lot of boards, is more seasoned and the culture has changed somewhat. Part of my role is being a translator. The board’s focus is on seeing profits every week by looking at our revenue and costs every day and week. On the employee side, there are things that we’re doing that don’t necessarily immediately show up in the revenue or in the costs that can really shape the future. For example, technology is a big piece of it. Are we continuously upgrading our technology for the future? Or are we taking little shortcuts in the short term, that end up building up a tech debt within the firm? That’s not a debt that’s going to show up on the financial statements but, eventually, it does catch up with you. An important part of my role is thinking about what’s important to the board but also communicating with a different demographic about things that are important to the business in a different way.
A Love for People Development
Chris: What do you love about being a CEO as you’re in your first year?
Nancy: The best part has really been seeing two new reports developed. For anybody, when you get a new manager it can be energizing. And supporting their development has been really gratifying because I see how engaged they are, how they’re growing, and how stuff is getting done.
Make the Decision vs Self-Protection
Chris: I hear you getting excited about people development, which is so cool. Could you share advice for attorneys about learning the business side?
Nancy: Well, first of all, I never use the term the business side because I don’t think of that as something separate from what I’m doing on the legal front. If I’m advising a company, whether I’m in a law firm or in-house, the client is the company, and I’m part of the company too. I don’t wait for an invitation over to this other place called the business, but I would present my advice with what I thought we should do and why. I would give another alternative with the pros and cons of that alternative. I try to make sure when I’m acting as a lawyer, that the person I’m advising knows I’m on their side and want to be helpful. I’m bringing my advice as part of the business, and am not trying to be on the legal side and avoid any bad outcomes by not making the decision. That’s not a good approach. It’s a surprisingly common approach. I try really hard to be helpful. Look at it from the perspective of helping the other person instead of protecting yourself. That will get you pretty far.
Put Yourself Out There
Chris: What have people seen in you, whether Carlton or others, that has caused them to give you the chance to get you into those roles?
Nancy: Lawyers have a reputation, unfortunately, of being very risk-averse. In my career, I have been willing to take some risks. Part of that is having the confidence to say what I think we should do. I analyze it using my legal training and make known what I think we should do. I’m not 100% sure that that’s going to have a good resolve, but I feel really good about the process. So, I’m willing to take ownership of that. The willingness to put myself out there has distinguished me, at times, and has shown a commitment to the company that’s not limited to protecting myself.
Chris: Where did you gain your business sense and experience with P&L, financials, working knowledge, etc? And how do my listeners get this kind of experience, Nancy?
Nancy: I grew up in a family where we had a family business, so I had some exposure to business from a very young age. I took accounting in high school and in college, and I strongly recommend that for anybody. If you’re long past high school and college, it’s not too late to learn the basics of accounting. There are lots of courses available online. Having some of those fundamentals and understanding some of the business issues around them are really helpful, but you don’t need an MBA. A lot of the leadership that I do, it’s really influencing people to be their most effective selves toward a common goal and it’s communication. If you’re a lawyer, you have a lot of experience persuading people and you have a lot of experience with communication. Lawyers are underappreciated in their ability to do this kind of role. Lawyers are very aware of the time. They show up to meetings on time. They’re generally persuasive and good communicators. So, I think a lot of lawyers have the makings of good business leaders.
Chris: Nancy, how do you define leadership?
Nancy: Well, we can google and find some good definitions. For me, as I said before, a big part of it was social influence empowering other people to be their most effective toward a common goal. And for that social influence, there’s definitely some degree of vision required. You have to set a common goal, and you have to communicate that goal by bringing an energy that’s contagious so others want to work toward that goal. Another place where empathy is really important is to think about what’s going to motivate this person to work toward this goal. I try to think a little bit longer term. You could yell at someone and threaten them, and maybe in the short term that works, but I think these days, that’s not a strategy that’s going to work long term. That will cause people to leave. They won’t put up with that. As our culture evolves, in order to have social influence that stays relevant, you really have to keep refreshing it, personalizing it, and individualizing it. What is motivating to one person isn’t necessarily motivating to someone else. I’ve tried to really spend time, especially with my management team, not only to explain my vision and get them on board with the vision but to do it in a way where they really feel empowered.
Investing for the Longterm
Chris: Would you feel comfortable sharing what your vision is?
Nancy: A big part of what I’m doing with the company right now, and this has been a theme of the past year, is to really upgrade our technology. Having a really best-in-class tech offering is going to allow us to expand our revenue by being more flexible to bring in other products, other markets, and other people with different approaches to trading. That’s been a big part of my focus so far. We also have some instances where we have siloed off, and we have duplicative efforts going on. We’re trying to bring that together in a way that’s going to be more cost-effective, and at the same time, help us grow our revenue. You inherit a certain situation, and I did have the advantage of being able to observe that. I just got responsibility for technology about a year ago, but I had seven years to observe it and lots of ideas.
exp Global Board Member
Chris: Nancy, you’ve been a part of the board of directors for exp Global for five years. Please share with my listeners a little bit of the history and how you got pulled into that role.
Nancy: I represented the sellers of an engineering and architectural services firm called Teng and Associates in the sale of that company to a private equity backed strategic buyer in 2010. Five years later, the private equity firm was not happy with its investment. It had been a roll-up of multiple engineering and architecture firms. My former client had an opportunity to buy a controlling stake in the company that had acquired his company. He reached out to me and asked me if I could help with that. I told him no as I was no longer a law firm partner and had moved to another job. I told him I could recommend some excellent M&A lawyers. He asked if we could get coffee and talk about those other M&A lawyers. He kind of twisted my arm so I ended up in my spare time, which I don’t have a lot of, and with the permission of my boss, helping him buy the company that we had sold to. We did that and it had to be done pretty quickly. It helped that I knew the history of the company. After we closed the deal, he asked if I would serve on the board and I agreed. It has been a great opportunity to be on the other side of the table. I’ve been presenting to boards of directors for years and years as a law firm partner and as a general counsel. To have a chance to be in the seat of a board member and listen to presentations from members of the management team really gave me an interesting perspective. I’ve enjoyed that a lot.
Dig in and Start Helping People
Chris: What advice would you give attorneys desiring to be on the board of a company?
Nancy: I recently heard Mellody Hobson of Ariel Capital Management answer that question. While I’m no Mellody Hobson, her advice lined up really well with my experience. She joined her first public company board doing something very similar to my story. She took on a big project in her nonexistent spare time, worked really hard, and did a really good job. That led to opportunities for her. Her advice was that it doesn’t really help to go around saying, “I want a board seat.” And that’s been my experience too. What has worked for me is to dig in and start helping people. If you can help people in a way that not a lot of people can, then people are going to want you to continue helping them. My advice would be, don’t focus on hiring people to help you with a board bio or let everybody in the world know that you’re looking for a board position. That wasn’t what worked for me. What did work for me was using my skills. And it certainly helps to have a network and pay attention to that. Don’t focus so much on what you want but on how you can help others.
Chris: So, you’re married and a mom, correct?
Nancy: Yes, I am.
Chris: Would you share a bit about your family?
Nancy: My husband is the president of his company. We’ve been married almost 20 years and have three kids who are 17, 15, and 12.
Chris: Are your kids back in school?
Nancy: They start September 8 which is a bit further out.
Chris: I learned that you guys are going skiing later this year. Is that correct?
Nancy: I hope so. That’s the plan assuming that the COVID situation allows the plan. I’m really looking forward to that.
Everybody Likes To Be Seen
Chris: Last question, Nancy, what is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Nancy: That’s a tough question. I keep coming back to empathy. I’m going to answer a slightly different question. I think everybody likes to be seen and it’s a small thing, but it’s also everything. That’s something that I try to do for other people.
Chris: Nancy, thank you for your time today. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.
Nancy: It’s been fun. Thanks, Chris.
Thank you to everyone who listened to this episode of The Law Firm Leadership Podcast.