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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 29, 2020

Q&A – Phuong Phillips: Chief Legal Officer, Zynga

Julie Q. Brush

Phuong Phillips is the Chief Legal Officer of Zynga, a high profile social video game company. When you meet Phuong, you immediately sense her intelligence, optimism and warmth (she also has a wicked sense of style!). Her life story is truly incredible. Phuong’s parents fled Communist Vietnam with their three small children. They left deep into the night on a fishing boat overflowing with fellow refugees and were at sea for several days before being rescued. After a brief stay in Hong Kong, they landed in the Philippines and lived in a refugee camp until a family in the United States agreed to sponsor them.

Professionally, Phuong is a UCLA Bruin having earned her undergraduate and law degree from the Southern California academic powerhouse. She honed her corporate chops at the prestigious Wilson Sonsini before moving in house to SolarCity as VP, Deputy General Counsel where she served for seven years. Tesla acquired SolarCity in 2017 and Phuong transitioned to her current leadership role at Zynga. Phuong is a passionate champion of women and diversity and has received numerous awards for her inspiring work.  She was kind enough to provide her insights on the current pandemic. (Note: my interview with Phuong pre-dated the death of George Floyd and does not include the important topics stemming from the event).

You’ve been through other economic downturns, what is unique about this one?

My professional career has spanned the dot.com bust and the 2008 financial crisis. But this pandemic is unique in the enormity and speed of its impact. In our previous economic downturns, there were clearer preceding signs of stresses in the markets and economy. However, in this particular crisis, our entire infrastructure (government, businesses and economy) was unprepared and surprised by the immediacy of the effects. Despite our best crisis management preparation, we were unable to be proactive and were forced to react defensively.  It’s the extreme uncertainty of this virus that makes it unique, both how to overcome it long-term and the timeline for when we will return to a semblance of normalcy.

From an executive’s perspective, how can an employee increase his/her value to the organization during these challenging times?

Even during this shelter-in-place and working from home, you are still able to step up and demonstrate your ability to be an asset to your company. Some things to consider:

  • Be sure to check in more often with your manager – make sure they understand what you are working on. The phrase “out of sight out of mind” rings true when everyone is working from home.
  • Be proactive. Offer to help on other projects when your workload allows it (g., if you are working at a law firm and there isn’t a lot of M&A activity, speak to a different practice area that may be busier during this time).
  • Lead long-term projects. There are so many long-term projects that never get attended to when companies are busy. Take the initiative to organize and run these projects.
  • Show up as a leader. Check in on your colleagues, especially those who are more junior than you. Help motivate and inspire them. These efforts do not go unnoticed by senior managers.

              Phuong Phillips

What is your advice to other GC/CLOs and managers on how to keep their teams mentally healthy, motivated and positive?

Managers should overcommunicate and be even more transparent and open with their teams than ever before. Be comfortable with honesty and sharing your own vulnerability.  Once I opened up about my own struggles during this shelter-in-place, my team felt inspired to share their own challenges. Also, it is important to remember that everyone handles stress differently, and you need to be patient and empathetic toward each person’s circumstances. Some of the tools I’ve shared with my own team include the following:

  • Encourage employees to find that work/life balance. Working from home doesn’t mean you are on 24/7 – this is just not sustainable and will result in work fatigue and demotivation. On that same note, just because we work from home doesn’t mean that vacation ceases to exist; employees should be encouraged to use their vacation time, just as when we are in the office.
  • Advise managers to be flexible with employees’ schedules – everyone has different obligations and priorities.
  • Celebrate people and their accomplishments, including birthdays and work anniversaries. For example, I asked my team to share one fond memory of a co-worker when it was his birthday recently. Sharing positive energy has brought comfort to our team.
  • Host fun virtual team events. Every Thursday, Zynga’s legal department holds a themed happy hour. Some of our themes have included: (i) dressing as our favorite Tiger King character; (ii) wearing the ugliest quarantine outfit; and (iii) sharing the story behind some object in your home.
  • Arrange 1 on 1 weekly check-ins with teammates. At Zynga, we use a software tool to randomly match our colleagues to have virtual coffee chats where work should not be discussed. This has been a great way for team members to connect and get to know each other on a more personal level. This has been so popular that many team members have asked to continue this practice after the shelter-in-place is over.

Finally, I try to reach out to my colleagues periodically with a simple text, email or direct message letting them know I am thinking of them. When you are in a good place mentally, check in on your colleagues. One of them may be in a bad mental state at that moment. That simple note may provide needed hope, inspiration and motivation. This act of kindness will pay it forward as it becomes the new normal to check in with one another.

In times of crisis, there are always winners and losers. Who do you think the winners and losers will be this time?

Sadly, I think there are no true winners in this crisis. Everyone has been negatively affected by this pandemic in one way or another. So many lives have been lost, so many people have lost friends and loved ones and so many jobs and small businesses have been eliminated – this is a very sorrowful time. However, there are some small silver linings: some families are able to spend more quality time together; people are making a bigger effort to stay in touch; and my personal favorite is seeing good people give back to their communities and people in need. There are so many charities, organizations and small businesses that we need to support during this time – I encourage everyone to find a way to help if they are able.

Top 3 ways the professional world will change after Covid-19?

This pandemic will surely lead to changes in how we conduct business in the future.  Remote working may become the new norm based on how well tech companies are able to easily transition and remain productive during shelter-in-place.  Virtual meetings will replace many in-person meetings and will reduce the need to travel as much. Finally, we will see new business models that make companies more resilient to these types of future crises, as well as new technologies to prevent or reduce the severity of future pandemics.

What are you doing to stay mentally and physically healthy while you are quarantined?

As an early riser (around 5am), I have the luxury of having several hours of alone time before chaos ensues. I work out on a daily basis with several co-workers, taking virtual dance, HIIT, strength and sculpt classes together. I have also been taking virtual dance classes with my daughters and walking on the treadmill during conference calls. In fact, my puppy now runs and hides under the couch when he realizes we are about to go on yet another walk. I find that I need the extra physical activity to stay sane. For my mental health, I am at peace when I’m reading a great book or when I am baking/cooking.  I recently started baking sourdough bread from a starter (after 10 failed attempts). Given I’m unable to eat all that bread, I find added joy delivering loaves to my local friends and neighbors.

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