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Seth Weissman's career is an example of versatility and adaptability in the dynamic world of corporate law and leadership. His journey from leading legal teams in high-profile IPOs to shaping Tesla's acquisition of SolarCity, and now his full-time dedication to executive coaching, offers a unique perspective on navigating complex professional landscapes.

Weissman's legal career began at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, where he developed a strong foundation in corporate law.

“I just saw myself as a lawyer from the time I was 13. What I got wrong was the kind of lawyer I thought I wanted to be—lawyers who go to courtrooms. I didn't realize what it really meant to be a litigator. I ended up starting as a litigator because I thought that's what lawyers did. It changed dramatically over the course of my career.”

This foundation led to significant roles, including his tenure as General Counsel at SolarCity. He played a crucial role in the company's 2012 IPO and its subsequent sale to Tesla. His leadership extended beyond legal strategy, focusing on building a culture of diversity, inclusion, and emotional intelligence.

Seth Weissman's Professional Experience

Weissman now runs his own coaching company called Weissman Coaching & Consulting. The transition to executive coaching stemmed from Weissman's recognition of the impact coaching had on his career growth and leadership skills.

Weissman's journey from a skilled lawyer to an inspiring executive coach mirrors his belief in continuous learning and adapting to new challenges. In this post, we explore Weissman's story about nurturing future leaders using his vast experiences.

Advocating the key skill of a GC

A crucial takeaway from Weissman's journey is the importance of being comfortable with discomfort. 

“The key skill set of being a GC at an early stage is to be comfortable while you're uncomfortable, to be consciously incompetent, moving to consciously competent, because what you're doing hasn't been done before." 

This sentiment reflects the challenging journey of working in a mission-driven startup. In SolarCity's case, the goal was to commercialize solar energy, a venture that had not been attempted before on such a scale.

“There was never a vertically integrated energy company. We were building a distributed utility across 16 states. So, I was uncomfortable all the time. It was always like, ‘Go solve this, figure out a way forward that is ethical and legal and business savvy.’ There was no policy.”

In this anxious situation, Weissman realized the significance of mentoring in his career, especially when pioneering a business in an entirely new field.

“I had spent years at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, so I found Steve Bernard, who was my mentor. Once I had been in SolarCity for five years, I started relying on my mentors to navigate difficult territories.”

Working with Elon Musk at SolarCity and cultivating top talent

Weissman recalls the impact of having Elon Musk’s company, Tesla, associated with SolarCity, especially between 2008 and 2016. 

“Elon’s name made it very easy to recruit good talent. People really wanted to be part of an organization that he was the chairperson and an investor of.” 

Under Musk's chairmanship, SolarCity wasn't just a company; it was a mission-driven entity aiming to save the world by revolutionizing energy consumption. 

“We're going to help save the world by putting clean energy in every home and become an incredibly large utility.”

Musk's insights extended beyond just visionary ideas for the future. Weissman shares a pivotal moment when Musk emphasized the importance of consistency and truth in the digital age. 

“What you do on the Internet becomes an arbiter of truth. So, if you're doing something on the Internet, you better be consistent with it intellectually and ethically. So how you treat your online customers should be the same way you treat your direct customers, because they're going to learn about it via the Internet.”

Weissman also recalls Musk's foresight regarding future challenges, such as a potential battery shortage.

“I remember him having the foresight that someday there will be a battery shortage and that we will need more battery capacity. Someday, there'll be battery backups for all these solar systems, we'll need a ton of batteries for cars, and there won't be enough plants for it. I was very skeptical but very wrong. There's no doubt that Elon is a visionary and sees solutions to problems, but also problems that other folks don't quite see yet among a variety of other challenges or flaws.”

Expanding a legal team from 4 to 50

Just when Marketa was about to go public, the COVID-19 pandemic happened. It posed unique challenges, turning the work-from-home model into a necessity rather than a choice.

“We were building an IPO-ready company as a distributed workforce across the country and there wasn't a template for how to do this. It was announced about two weeks after the world shut down. So, I was trying to bring two businesses together and one of the businesses had acquired another company a year prior as well. We did it all over Google Hangouts and Zoom.”

It was at this time that Weissman realized the importance of trust within the team.

“I just went back to the basics—trust is the foundation of all human relationships. The precursor to trust is psychological safety, which is knowing that you can be a version of your authentic self, say what you're going to say, do what you're going to do, make mistakes and be human. The way you build psychological safety is being personally vulnerable.”

He decided to dedicate the first 20 minutes of his calls with his teammates to get to know them.

“I don't care if we spend half of our one-on-one just getting to know each other, because we're not going to have the opportunity to do that in our free time, because we're not going to be around each other very much anyway. Leaders need to be the ones to set that tone in a virtual or distributed environment, because your success as a leader is wholly dependent on the success of your team—how you show up for them, how you react to them, and how you build rapport with them as human beings.”

This style of leadership fostered a sense of belonging and commitment among team members.

Yet, Weissman faced a significant challenge in managing a large team—ensuring smooth coordination and avoiding internal conflicts. He addressed this by establishing clear structures and communication channels.

“The first thought is I can't manage 50 people, I've got to manage the team that leads those folks. They need to be trusting of each other, have productive conflict, and commit to each other. They have to know that the team they're on is not the functional team they lead, but the vice presidents that report to the team that they're on. So if the heads of IP, product counseling, and corporate have great relationships on my team and know what's going on, it's much less likely that their reportees a level or two down are going to have turf wars or politics between them.”

Weissman also stressed the importance of emotional intelligence and teamwork in professional development. He recommended books like, Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni and What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith, underscoring the need for continuous learning and personal growth.

“Emotional intelligence has the highest correlative predictive of great success. With coaching, I aim to build the four facets of EQ—self awareness, self regulation, relational awareness, and relational management. If you get good at those things, you're way ahead of your peers. If you get great at them, you're elite. And to me, that's what you're investing in.”

Navigating the transition to executive coaching

Weissman's decision to become an executive coach stemmed from his own experiences and the realization of the immense value coaching brought to his professional life.

“I started getting coached in 2004 at SolarCity. I knew I wasn't going to make it if I didn't work on myself. So I doubled down on getting coached by Karen Gendorf. At the end of my tenure there, I realized the key was investing in my ability to lead and manage, and building my EQ. So, I found a coaching program and went back to school. Between SolarCity and Marketa, I took a two-and-a-half-year sabbatical.”

A fundamental aspect of Weissman's coaching philosophy is recognizing the difference between coaching and consulting.

"You know that you are coaching when you are asking open-ended, curious questions about what to do, and you know you're in the space of consulting when you say, 'Here's what I would do.' If you think you know the answer, you are not coaching at that moment, you are consulting." 

Weissman clearly distinguishes his role as a coach from that of a therapist. He draws a line, focusing on current professional challenges rather than delving into personal past experiences.

 “I'm not a therapist. The demarcation line in therapy is that therapists will talk about your childhood a lot. I don’t do that. When someone says, ‘My board has run amok and they're doing this or that,’ my first response should be, ‘That sounds really hard. I hear what you're saying and I understand that that's really hard.’

And then I'd go into, what's your thinking on what's behind that? What's your thinking on why that board member is doing what they're doing? What's your understanding of their goals? What's your understanding of their investment? And we start to ask questions. So, immediately I validated the fear, doubt, uncertainty, and then moved into finding a solution. It's empathetic, but it is still forward-looking and rooted much more in the present than what a psychologist would bring to the table.”

Weissman's journey to becoming an accredited coach involved rigorous training and a deep commitment to learning. He describes his experience at Co-Active Training Institute, highlighting the intensive process required to build a credible practice. He also stresses the importance of choosing the right coach.

To delve deeper into Seth Weissman's experiences and glean more wisdom, listen to the full podcast episode of The Abstract here.

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