This article features highlights from episode six of our podcast, The Abstract. You can listen to the full conversation here.
Celaena Powder's career journey has been nothing short of impressive; she started with her Juris Doctorate at UCLA and gained valuable experience at firms like Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Gunderson Dettmer before joining Seismic.
Today, she serves as the VP of Legal at Seismic. Notably, she not only leads the legal department but also oversees the infosec and privacy function, a topic we will delve into during our discussion.
Seismic is a leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) company that specializes in sales enablement. Their innovative solutions empower sales teams by integrating with customer relationship management (CRM) and asset management tools, bringing marketing and sales closer together.
From navigating the changing landscape of technology adoption to fostering collaboration among different functions, Celaena offers a unique perspective on how she assumed the role of GC at a very early stage in her career, simply by going headfirst after what she wants.
Identifying and chasing your North Star
Celaena emphasizes the importance of coming out of your conservative mindset and going for what you want.
“I knew exactly what I wanted, and I was going to chase after it. One piece of bad advice I received was to wait.
When I joined Orrick, and I wasn't where I wanted to be, I was told to give it three years because nobody laterals this early in their career. That was a terrible piece of advice because I could not imagine spending three years doing something that I wasn’t going to do long term. Why would I go build skills and subject matter expertise in one area when that is absolutely not what I want it to be?
So, my advice is that if you have a North Star, don't wait. Don't wait for people to give you the green light to go after it. Just go do it. Not everyone understands exactly what they want. But if you are fortunate enough to know that, don't wait in line until somebody tells you it's okay to go.”
Law school proved to be the turning point for Celaena. Amidst her studies, she discovered a passion for business. This experience laid the foundation for Celaena’s journey. The challenges she faced were different, and she embraced them with open arms.
“I had always been good at things, but never great. So, I always had to work really hard, until law school. What really clicked for me was the start-up and venture capital world. When I built a business plan and pitched in a start-up competition, I could see the woman I wanted to be in all of these practice areas. At UCLA, I built the foundation of a business and fell in love with it. It was challenging, but in a different way. It wasn't that I was struggling to understand the foundation or that I had to study all the time, but it was bringing new and different challenges on a daily basis and solving them.”
Learning by osmosis at a small legal firm
When Celaena left Orrick, she found herself in a truly unique setting at Gunderson Dettmer. The office was not only situated in a fantastic location (Abbott Kinney Boulevard) but was also incredibly small, tucked away within a larger law firm.
“When I joined Gunderson, there were only two associates. We had partners who were primarily in other offices, and so, for a while, it was three associates in a one-room building doing deals. We didn't have actual offices; it was just a really big conference room. So, I got to be part of every deal that came in even though I wasn’t explicitly working on it, which gave me exposure to client management. I learned a lot by osmosis, which accelerated my career.”
Celaena had the opportunity to witness intelligent and savvy individuals navigate challenges day in and day out. This exposure allowed her to develop a deep understanding of how to handle various situations.
As a first-year associate, Celaena soon found herself handling tasks typically reserved for third or fourth-year associates in other firms.
“In my second year of practice, I was facing off against partners at other firms. I attribute much of that to the learning environment that I got at Gunderson. Nobody should ever underestimate ambition with a chip on the shoulder because I would run head first with the fire, time and time again. I'm really grateful that Gunderson bet on me and took a chance with me.”
Celaena eventually realized that she needed to move to an in-house role to be really able to follow her passion.
“Over time, as I was getting to know and love my clients, supporting these founders in their journeys, I was looking at my own career and thinking about what partnership would be like and what that would mean. I eventually decided I wanted to be an operator. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and help my clients more directly with the challenges they were telling me about in the boardroom. I played a big role in quite a few companies at the time, but I wanted to do more outside of the realm of outside counsel. I started to talk to a number of companies, some of which were my clients, about what going in-house could look like. That’s when I got a call from Seismic’s then CFO, who said that they needed a GC.”
Driving the shift from 'legal sucks' to 'we love legal'
When Celaena joined Seismic, the legal department was light on staff and resources. However, as a company selling to enterprise and global financial services customers, there was immense potential for legal to add value.
“The commercial team at Seismic was severely under-resourced and didn't have the right tools and skills to serve enterprise customers. I joined Seismic after the Series F; they had 700–800 employees in multiple countries, and so, there was a lot of opportunity for legal to step in and add value. But overcoming that initial ‘legal sucks’ hurdle was a challenge. A lot of what I did was showing people that there was somebody smart who could help. When people realize that there's somebody smart and willing to help, they like you and want to bring you in.”
By consistently proving her value and showing that legal could be a valuable partner in navigating challenges, Celaena was able to build trust and change the perception of the legal department over time.
“I ended up getting more budget and expanding the legal function, in turn proving the value of legal. I do a biannual survey around how legal is doing to get anonymous feedback from stakeholders across the business. It went from ‘Legal sucks’ to ‘Why is legal so slow?’ to ‘Why do we have to come to legal?’ to ‘We love legal.’ In fact, the pendulum has swung so far that people come to us all the time for help.”
Harnessing the support of your champions and stakeholders
One of the best ways to showcase legal’s worth is by finding champions who can shape the perception of legal throughout the organization.
For Celaena, this champion was Seismic’s Chief Revenue Officer (CRO).
“Our CRO is a mature business leader and understands the value of legal. When I showed up at Seismic, I didn't have to convince him that legal deserves to be involved. He recognizes that my wins often happen in the dark, and recognizes a lot of these deals don't get done without us. That relationship has really trickled down throughout the entire organization to recognize Legal as a valuable player. Legal is a partner, not just an order taker.”
Delivering value through customer-centric legal strategy
A customer-centric approach is another important aspect of Celaena's strategy. By actively listening to stakeholders, understanding their perspectives, and aligning legal advice with their needs, the legal department was able to foster stronger relationships and deliver greater value to the organization.
“When you are customer-centric, you will inherently work with your customer. You are not coming in from a lens of us versus them. One way to foster that collaboration is by asking questions and trying to understand the customer's pain points: Why are they buying this thing? What problem are we solving for them? What value are we bringing to the table, and what makes us uniquely positioned to solve this problem for them? And when the customer's legal team has a misunderstanding of what your products or services are, find a way to educate them.”
GCs and the dichotomy of enterprise and SMB sales
With Seismic catering to customers of various sizes and shapes, the sales dynamics vary significantly depending on the target market. Celaena describes that the main difference between SMB vs enterprise sales is the length of the deal cycle.
“Seismic acquired Lessonly in 2021, which was very SMB-heavy. That’s when I got to see the opportunity of what enterprise versus SMB sales looks like. When you're selling to SMBs, there might be just 1–3 people that you're demoing, who might be the decision makers. It's quick; you convince them. You do 1–2 demos and go into the selling cycle. The deal doesn't take too long and you high-five at the end of it.”
In SMB deals, contracting is often uncomplicated, high-volume, and fast-paced, resulting in quick closure. However, enterprise sales present a contrasting landscape.
“A lot of enterprises run a lengthy RFP, which can be the equivalent of 10 SMB deals. So, you're doing RFP and then transition into a nitty-gritty demo environment. Your teams might be demoing to all of the stakeholders in the business who are actually going to buy and use it. Sometimes, there is the group which is the owner but another group is going to use it. So, you also need to do demos for that team.”
The sales cycle itself is considerably longer, involving meticulous contract negotiations and navigating approval processes that may involve multiple stakeholders. The final signature process alone can include numerous approvers, each adding their endorsement to the deal.
Building productive relationships with your AEs by enabling enterprise deals
As a GC, Celaena recognizes the importance of building productive relationships with Account Executives (AEs) to effectively support sales efforts in both enterprise and SMB environments.
Firstly, having perspective is essential.
“Enterprise deal cycles are long. They can last anywhere between six to twenty-four months. These are six to twenty-four months of the AE dating this customer, and they are eager to walk down the aisle. So, it’s important to know that you're actually coming in at the tail of a relationship the AE has been building for potentially years. So, have that perspective and understand that that's where that urgency is coming from.”
It’s also critical to understand the leverage you have before going into negotiations for any deal.
“When it comes to deals with enterprises, we often think, “This is a really big name and there's no way that we have any leverage against them.” But that might not be true. If a customer goes through a nine-month RFP, they don't want to do another 9-month RFP because the liability cap is slightly different. Consider what you bring to the table and how much they like you. What did they go through to get to this point? And try to use backchannels to keep legal intervention to a minimum.”
This approach not only streamlines the negotiation process but also demonstrates a shared commitment to achieving favorable outcomes.
Additionally, conducting internal strategy calls to align legal and commercial interests and explore trade-offs can help facilitate smoother negotiations, ensuring a reasonable risk profile while supporting the AE's objectives.
“Before the big calls, we do the internal strategy to get aligned and figure out what we can provide on the legal side to get better commercial terms.”
For legal professionals, maintaining strong relationships with AEs can foster credibility, trust, and a positive customer experience.
Building bridges to explore the synergy between legal, security, and privacy
As a corporate lawyer focused on M&A deals, Celaena wasn’t well-versed in security when she joined Seismic. However, a security incident within the company soon highlighted the need for her involvement and sparked her interest in learning more about security.
“When I first joined Seismic, I didn't have any knowledge about security. During my first six weeks, we had a security incident. It wasn't a big blowup; no data was lost. But as a GC, there's a role we play in these matters. I got on a call with our head of security, our CFO, and perhaps 30 engineers, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. So, I quickly hopped onto Google to research all of the acronyms they were using. Of course, my Director of Security had it handled but that first experience was really eye-opening on the role of legal in security. Over time, I worked really closely with the security team whether to solve customer issues or perform risk analysis and risk management. Then our CFO left, and the security team needed a home. It ultimately fell under me.”
Overcoming friction in the legal, security, and privacy nexus
There’s often friction between legal, security, and privacy departments, stemming from the different perspectives and priorities of each function. However, Celaena emphasizes that these functions are fundamentally aligned in their focus on risk mitigation and value protection.
“Legal, security, and privacy are cut from the same cloth. We're about value creation but we're also a lot about value protection and stewardship. My department’s slogan is ‘Stewards of Seismic,’ and we take that really seriously; we're here to shepherd this business to the next milestone.”
Celaena highlights the importance of open communication, vulnerability, and human connection to address any tensions. Taking the initiative to have conversations, seeking to understand each other's goals, and finding common ground can go a long way in fostering collaboration and overcoming friction.
“My advice for any executive or department is to take off the boxing gloves, be human, and have a conversation. Find out what’s not clicking and understand each other’s goals. Understand the tradeoffs that everyone has made. Have that relationship where you can walk up to any department and ask them questions about things you don’t understand. Ask them to explain it to you like you’re fifteen.”
Fostering your relationship as a GC with the CISO
Fostering a productive relationship between the General Counsel (GC) and the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) requires trust, communication, and a shared vision. Celaena underscores finding a way to learn about security bit-by-bit, rather than attempting to possess technical security expertise.
“You are not going to become a security professional overnight, but start to pick off bite-sized chunks and learn about security. There are podcasts that you can listen to whether it's national security or security in the micro. You could also check out certifications and audit standards if you're nerdy and want to dig in. There are many opportunities to learn and it can help make your collaboration with CISOs easier.”
Celaena suggests that GCS and CISOs work collaboratively, playing to each other's strengths and dividing responsibilities based on expertise and situational context.
“You can't have your fingers plugging every hole in the dam but you need to be able to have the professional courage to stand up and admit your wrongdoing. At Seismic, we play to our strengths and that's how we've divided the work. I am the champion; I advocate and think, which are my strengths.
My CISO, on the other hand, is playing three-dimensional chess. He is incredibly talented at thinking about what's coming around that corner. So, when we are talking about board communication, I might take the helm, but that's not because he can't do it. When you have an incident that's evolving in real-time and you're working on different stakeholder analyses and keeping everyone up to date, it might make sense for the CISO to be running the show in the incident response. Meanwhile, I can handle the communications to keep people apprised.
This dividing and conquering is what makes us successful as opposed to one trying to own or overbear.”
The changing landscape of GCs with AI and technology
While legal departments have traditionally been slower in adopting technology, Celaena mentions that GCs at tech companies are leading the charge to change that.
“At Seismic, the legal team were pretty early adopters of the generative AI free tools within the guidelines and guard rails that we set.”
Celaena is a firm believer that AI is the next frontier.
“To me, AI is the next internet. If you're not using it, you're falling behind. AI is going to move rapidly in a direction where it will help a lot of us make processes more efficient. I don't think the GC goes away. AI is a tool but it doesn't replace decision making.”
Celaena finds the potential of AI exciting, especially because it is department-agnostic. Unlike other technological advancements that are made for specific teams or functions, AI tools are designed to enhance efficiency across departments.
“A lot of the AI tools that are being developed are department agnostic. They are there to make you more efficient. They add another tool in your toolkit to do your job on a day-to-day basis. That means legal can play with the other teams on an even playing field as opposed to trying to catch up with legal-specific tech.”
Nurturing talent and fostering growth in the legal function
As the legal function grew, Celaena recognized the importance of coaching and investing in her team members.
“I now have a team of eight on the legal side and another eight on the security side. So, the trust needs to extend from me down to my team, and I think a lot of that comes from coaching. I take bets on people who are talented and show a lot of potential.”
Regular coaching, rather than just quarterly check-ins, allowed for ongoing support and guidance. Creating a culture where team members had the opportunity to fail, learn, and grow played a crucial role in the department's success.
“For me, coaching is a daily thing. It's not necessarily a quarterly sit-down or a two-hour coaching conversation. Instead, I try to be available so my team can ask questions like ‘How do I navigate this?’ or ‘Do you mind if I send you a draft of this response so you can give me feedback?’ I also try to be there to quickly shoot a Slack message when things get a little hot on a call or tell them to take a lap when the emails get a little spicy.
Above all, our department gives the opportunity to fail. We let people take a shot at something, allow them to make a mistake, and let them try it again. That's how a lot of people learn, and that's how a lot of folks on my team have seen success.”
Within her team, Celaena encourages open communication, asks for different perspectives, and emphasizes the collaborative nature of decision-making.
“We may get defensive when people challenge our advice, so a lot of my coaching revolves around helping my team ask people for their perspective. ‘Ask what they are thinking about, engage with them, educate and explain the whys.’ Just because somebody is questioning our advice doesn't mean they are questioning us personally. It’s just that they have a different perspective and are weighing the pros and cons in a way that's different from ours. We might have a lens that isn't necessarily always correct. Ultimately, decision-making is a collaborative process.”
To listen to more of Celaena’s insights on building relationships and navigating the role of GC, check out the full conversation on The Abstract.