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| 24 minutes read

CMO Series Ep117 - Justin Portaz of Jenner & Block on Trusting your Team: Lessons From a Legal CMO

Establishing a culture of trust within a marketing function, and across the wider firm, is arguably one of the most important roles of a legal CMO.

Today on the Passle CMO Series Podcast, Ed Lovatt is lucky to welcome Justin Portaz, Chief Marketing Officer at Jenner & Block who has curated a powerhouse marketing team over the past three years. 

Justin joins the series to share his journey so far and how he’s building an agile marketing team that thrives in today's landscape.

Justin and Ed discuss: 

  • How Justin approached team building during the uncertain times of COVID-19
  • The role that trust from firm management plays in the  team-building process
  • How to ensure you bring the right people into the team
  • How to foster collaboration between marketing and other departments across the firm
  • The importance of partnering with the COO during the process and why that was pivotal to building trust within the firm
  • How collaborative efforts drive overall business success
  • Advice for Marketing leaders looking to build trust within their team and the wider firm



Ed: Today on the CMO Series podcast, we are going to be discussing a pretty hot topic. I think everybody will agree. It's going to be titled Trusting Your Team and Lessons from a Legal CMO. I'm sure you'll all agree that building a strong team is the foundation for success within any department. Be it in law, in finance or in any of the different sectors, building a team and establishing a culture, of trust within those teams and across the wider firm is arguably one of the most important roles of any leader. And we're going to specify this down to the CMO today on the CMO series, we're lucky to welcome Justin Portaz, Chief Marketing Officer at Jenner & Block, who has masterfully created a powerhouse marketing team over the past three years. We're going to delve into Justin's journey of transforming adversity into triumph and building an agile marketing team that thrives in today's dynamic landscape.

Justin, we've spoken quite a few times now and I know we've had a little back and forth about this exact topic. But if you could explain a little bit more about how you approach team building during the uncertain times of COVID I know that's kind of when you really started this project of building the perfect team.

Justin: Yeah, the timing was certainly interesting. I stepped into the CMO role in February of 2020 and had grand visions of all that I would accomplish. And about a month later, the pandemic hit and everything that I had dreamed of accomplishing had to take a backseat. The approach that I took was very much on a human level. The work wasn't gonna get done if people didn't have basic needs met; a sense of security and stability in one of the most insecure and unstable times. And that's where I really focused. You know, work could at times provide a healthy distraction or an area of focus. But that level of humanity is what I felt was going to help bring this team through some very, very dark and uncertain days.

And so, you know, my approach was that we are producing strong work and we can get the work done and we can help the firm grow and we can win new business and raise our profile. But, you know, the marketing lens is one that for me, you know, that's where we learn more about ourselves and about one another. And so it was really about how do we approach this team from a level of humanity and care for one another and empathy for the situation that we are all in.

There was something really powerful, sad but powerful, about this globally shared experience in that, while building a team, it was an incredibly bonding experience because everybody was experiencing it from, you know, a common issue from their own perspective. And we had something to share and we had something, you know, a common enemy, I suppose, to rally around. And so it really solidified a level of deep care within this team for one another and a willingness to just shoulder whatever anybody needed at any moment, no questions asked,

we became significantly stronger as a unit through those times because we opened up and we were vulnerable and we shared our fears and we had daily sessions, daily zoom sessions for a while. You know, we tapered it down to weekly, but we still had those sessions where we weren't talking about, you know, this pitch or that media opportunity. It was about how are you doing as a human and what do you need to get through this day or what does your family need to get through this day. And to be able to talk about those things because it was the pandemic on top of, you know, real emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement and a whole lot of cultural insecurities that were happening too. And that human level was really the approach that I took because, without that foundation, the work wasn't going to get done or wasn't going to get done in the right way. And we needed that as the platform to create, what I was empowered to do, the best marketing team in the business and it had to start there. 

Ed: It sounds like a really decent way to approach it as you say, sort of on a human level. And I think there was a, I can't remember if it was in the UK or the US at the time, but it was the phrase that, you know, we're all in this together. Which sounds so obvious when you say it out loud. But it really was the case, everybody had to deal with it. Everybody had dealt with it in a different way. But it sounds like you really took a solid approach to it.

Justin: Well, it was interesting too, because there was a lot of shared problem-solving in those moments. You know, people said this works for me and maybe this might work for you and it was, you know, people weren't holding back. I think that what was really powerful about it is it wasn't because it was such a shared experience, but because everybody was exposed and vulnerable in a pretty raw way. Across the globe. You know, there wasn't as much fear of, I can't share this, you know, discomfort and be authentic among people. Yes, we worked together, but we became so much more than just work colleagues. 

Ed: What did you get from management in terms of like what role did trust from firm management play during that process? There must have been a huge amount lying on your shoulders from them, given that you started in February 2020.

Justin: Trust from management was absolutely paramount. The beauty of it though is that we were united from the start. The task that I was entrusted with was to build the best marketing team in the business and hold them together. And that comes, you know, January and February of 2020 right? And then everything turns upside down. But we were truly, myself and for leadership, unified by values and by vision and I was empowered to lead and make decisions. I think what's interesting is, you know, stepping into the CMO role for the first time, sometimes you don't want to make waves, and recognizing that you're actually there to make waves was an interesting, you know, awakening for me, but stepping in at the time of significant change for the firm. So we had new co-managing partners that were brought in or, you know, promoted from within in uh January of that year, a new COO that helped significantly remove barriers and break down the walls and silos that really impeded some of the progress. And when I went to firm leadership with a vision and said, “This is what we need if we're gonna be the best in the business and create a really different approach to marketing, client development, strategic branding, you know, digital programs and innovating in new areas. This is what we need.” And it was an expanded team for sure. I think we've increased headcount, you know, 10 or 11 people in that time and that doesn't happen without a clear cause and without a clear vision for the need to double down on things like marketing and client development and strategic growth when the world seems to be crumbling. And so, you know, kudos to firm leadership for recognizing that the area to cut in a pandemic is not the one that's going to help bring and, you know, that rebound and that is there to support and sustain. I think we had the upside of, quite frankly, the timeline on business development and client pitches, you know, went from about three weeks to three days or sometimes three hours, it seems, because everybody was just stuck at home, you know, but this is an organization and I'm proud to be part of this group where, you know, removing people or cutting people was never part of the consideration set for how we would navigate through these uncertain times. And so, having that confidence that we're there again, as you said before, we're in this together all for one, you know, gave a level of comfort and security and that we could push the envelope. We were expected to push the envelope to try new things to help move this organization forward, in times of uncertainty, so that when things did level out, we were on solid footing and not playing catch up, which others might have to have done.

Ed: Do you think there was a certain aspect of maybe COVID being a good thing and that there was almost like a reset button that happened?

Justin: I don't know that I'll ever call COVID a good thing, but it was a unifying factor and it was a common enemy. And then, again, you know, there are a few moments in one's life where a large group, you know, whether in a country or around the globe, is generally united, and of course, we can, you know, there are all sorts of stories of not being united on this cause or this issue. But you know, the reality is in this space, that deep unity did create deeper bonds, a level of trust, an opportunity for empowerment and to let people be experts in the areas where they are best serviced and, you know, best positioned to lead.

Ed: Yeah, I realized as soon as I said, “a good thing”, it was probably not the best wording for it. 

Justin: But, you know, I think the reality is, seize the moments of opportunity, not that, you know, we're leveraging a bad situation for our game. But we're given these opportunities every single day in our interactions. How are we gonna use that particular opportunity? We're using it, you know, to transition something to a cause of good or to a positive or are we too afraid to talk about it? And, you know, we're gonna let something linger. And I think looking at every opportunity, as I think we can often look at every interaction as a moment of AAA teachable moment. What are we here to learn or what are we here to empower others to do? Or how can we help, you know, leverage this particular experience to become something that makes us stronger or more united or advanced as a particular goal or more empathetic? And so, you know, the pandemic certainly created plenty of opportunity for that for those that were bold enough to see it and be brave enough to tackle it. 

Ed: Yeah, I think you've taken on the perfect opportunity there, and the way you worded it was spot on when it came to building that team and the trust that was put into you to do it beyond the actual numbers. How did you ensure that you were bringing in the right people? How did you measure it if there was a measurement that you worked to?

Justin: Yeah, this one goes back to trust as sort of the title of what we're talking about. I will ensure that my team is not a group of micro-managers. No one here wants to be. And I think micromanagement is just demoralizing and if you hire the right people and you empower them and you give them a level of trust, they will surprise you. And so, in the interview process, I focus on values and cultural fit and, you know, there are certain things: I look for accountability and grit, respect and, you know, a real level of integrity. Those are the things that rise to the surface for me. There are a lot of really smart and talented people out there, but they won't all fit into what we're building here and the interview process isn't about me. I don't wanna be the one that, you know, brings the hammer down and says, this is the one person and you're all gonna work with them or, you know, we're definitely saying no to this person that you all love. There is a reason why teams work and it is trust in one another and I trust my team to be responsible in many respects for finding the talent. Now, you know, I'm there and of course, ultimately will take the responsibility for whether someone is successful or unsuccessful in this team. But when someone joins, we all have a shared responsibility for their success. We do this as a group. So, you know, for those that have joined this team recently, they will attest that our interview process may seem longer and more arduous than others. But it's because I don't want people to just go into that interview process and meet with the person that they're reporting to, but meet with the person that you're working with. That's either, you know, at various levels of this team because we're in this together. And you know, for me, it is really about finding those people that have a hunger and a talent to succeed and then empowering them and giving them space to flourish. My role, full stop is to clear the hurdles that are in the path of others and to set them up with the opportunities to do what they're naturally gifted at doing. If I do that, the rest tends to take care of itself.

Ed:  I think getting it right from the offset is so key to making sure that you've got the right person in the right place. 

Justin: It's true, and, you know, not every story is a success story but, you know, I think back a lot to when failure happens or when someone doesn't pan out or when a process doesn't pan out the way you want it to. How did you handle that situation? How do you look at the factors at play? And oftentimes it may not be about the person, it may be about the fit, or the process, or the responsibility. You know, it's not an indictment on anyone at a human level. They just might not be the right fit for that particular role. And so, you know, going back to a simple level of humanity, understanding what people are going through outside of this workspace to me, is critically important. It's the first thing I look at when a shortcoming happens. It's not, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe you messed that up and you're a failure as a person or you're, you know, going to write you up.” It's what else is going on because no one on this team and I think in our profession, we find this often, nobody is there to try and screw things up. They all want to do their absolute level best and things get in the way. Sometimes we're human, we have to navigate the human part of this first before we uncover and unlock the maximum potential on the business side of things. And sometimes you don't need to do a lot on the human side. But sometimes again, it goes back to what we dealt with in the pandemic; ensuring that there is that level of stability and real care at the outset allows people to be a lot more successful in their working environment. And you know, think bigger thoughts and come up with creative solutions in ways that will astound you as a leader. If they've got that platform or that foundation to build from.

Ed: Just going back to something. I was trying to rack my brain whilst you were answering that question about micromanagement. I read a book and I can't remember who it was by. That was what I was trying to get to. But if there was a phrase in there, that I think micromanagement is unnecessary if you have the correct people in your team. And I'd love to, I mean, if I remember who it was, we'll put it in the text to this uh podcast and I'm just trying to rack my brain for it, but it hasn't come to me yet.

Justin: Yeah, I mean, it's absolutely true. If you're micromanaging, look and their moments, someone is very junior in their career, they need that, right? But for the most part, if you have the right people and you just give them the space and the resources, that's the difficult part sometimes. But the space and the resources to do what they're naturally skilled at doing. It's astounding.

Ed: Giving them the opportunity to flourish.

Justin: Absolutely.

Ed: Something we discussed before when I came and visited you in Chicago was about how you foster collaboration between marketing and other departments and how I think you said something along the lines of it was key to have a full understanding of how marketing can work with other departments. How did you go about that whilst you were also building this team of, well, this bigger team and this better team? 

Justin: So there are a couple of factors at play that led to this opening up of opportunity across departments. One was having a new COO join and breaking down the walls that had historically existed between the professional services team. It's led to this real intense collaboration, transparency, communication, feedback or humanity, and humility, I think, in our collective efforts, because it was recognizing that the right way to succeed depends on a lot of factors that are often outside of our control. And so I find that teams within law firms will often, you know, butt heads or bang their heads against the wall because their priorities are not shared priorities. And how do you understand and advocate effectively as a leadership team with other  departments, as those co-leaders for an effective change within an organization that allows for maximum success? And there's some selflessness that goes into that advocating for other groups in lieu of what you might want or need. Because understanding that if you know, the finance team gets another pricing person or the IT team gets another person that can do, you know, a particular skill or you know, we launch a business services team that can take some things off of our plate that ultimately does benefit what the marketing department is trying to accomplish. But the path is rarely straight. And for me, I have found that by vocalizing a particular need within the marketing department. But recognizing the solution doesn't have to be more headcount in marketing and that there's a solution that can benefit a broader audience, bringing those to the surface has really created some wonderful opportunities here, including the creation of basically practice group management and a new relaunched revamped business services function, all of which takes things off of the plate for marketing that historically sat there but also taking things off of the plate for practice group leaders or finance or, you know, a variety of other groups. And so there's this shared benefit. And I think when we stopped focusing on me first and started to really say we first, how are we as an organization prioritizing it unlocked a lot of that collaborative potential and has created a lot healthier culture within the professional services teams.

Ed: How are those collaborative efforts driven business success? Is there an example or is there a point where you can really point to the collaboration of marketing and other departments creating business?

Justin: There are plenty of examples. I think the one that is probably the most clear-cut that ties into what we're doing is a real emphasis on client teams. And recognizing in our collaboration with finance, just how important transparency is around being able to tell lawyers a particular story about their clients and about the opportunities for improved financial performance that they sometimes may not want to hear or may not have had data to do. And so, you know, by being able to work with our finance department and really start to get into dashboards around client performance, you know, what is the margin on a particular matter which matters are more successful. We're able to drive our efforts towards expansion in very specific ways to say we want more of this type of matter and less of that or we want to do more with this client and less with that client until we address, you know, a particular challenge that we have, whether it's a rate issue or whether it's, you know, a timing issue. And that will have a material impact on the profitability of the organization. And we're starting, you know, we're at the forefront of that piece of it because it just takes time to get the data right. And to get dashboards built, but we're removing these barriers around, you know, behind which I think lawyers may have been able to previously hide whether intentional or through no fault of their own. And so the data doesn't lie and we're able to make much more strategic decisions as a result.

Ed: Yeah, there's a lot to cover as well when it kind of comes to that collaboration as well. I think that's possible we could go into that in part two of this podcast. Maybe there is a part two on the horizon for us.

Justin: Happy to, I think that you know, collaboration is key. There's no great thing that gets done alone in my experience.

Ed: I think that's a good message to pass across. There's so much for us to cover Justin. And I know whenever we've spoken before, we've kind of had chats that could go on for an hour or so, I wanted to kind of see if you had one piece of advice for marketing leaders looking to build trust within their team. Also, if you had any advice on how to sort of build that perfect team if you have any key pointers that you could pass on?

Justin: The first one that I've always leaned on is that it's not about you, it's about them. It's about the team, the strongest leaders I know, have incredibly strong, dedicated, and passionate teams behind them. So, for me, it is this investment in the people that, quite frankly, are the ones that prop me up in 1000 different ways. And I have the privilege of being aligned with them. And so, recognizing that your success is really about how successful they are as individuals, how empowered they can be, how inspired they are, what opportunities they're given, how much they can see a path forward, all of those things. To me, it's not about what I do or what I necessarily say or how I, you know, come up with an idea or drive something forward. It's about how this unit of incredibly strong, gifted, and talented people rallying together and given the opportunity to have a shared vision that allows me to be successful in this particular role. So, those relationships and the deep care on the human level for the individuals, are what I have seen as being both an area in which trust is developed and one that, ultimately, I would like to hope and think puts me on a trajectory of success.

Ed: And any advice on building the best team? Is there any top pointers that you would say?

Justin: My recommendation there is that every culture and every firm has its nuance and, and has its differences. And I think where I may have made some missteps in the beginning, was to try and emulate people more than find what was authentically me or it was authentically Jenner in this instance, or it was authentically this Jenner marketing team because we have a rhythm in a heartbeat of our own and it's slightly different. And so if I try and inject a vision of a leader that I admire and I try and force it into a culture that isn't quite ready for it or that it doesn't quite resonate. You know, the results will speak for themselves. And so what I found is understand the culture that you're trying to build and do it your way, take the tips and take the ideas. But there's a little bit of that mental gymnastics that has to go on to say, all right, I love this concept. How does that work? And how does that translate into this group? Because it will probably not be a perfect fit. But if you are creative enough, you will find a way and quite frankly give your team the opportunity to find the way themselves to take idea X and make it authentically theirs. 

Ed: Brilliant, some brilliant advice. And I think also I would add to that from a little shout-out from Jennifer Dolan at Katten and she mentioned, in a similar process to you, time, take time to build the team. It's not gonna happen tomorrow. You need to give yourself that right amount of time to say it's gonna take a year or 18 months or it's something that's also important.

Justin: It is. So far it has taken three years and it is not done. And I think that's the beauty of it. This is a living breathing organism. It is not done growing and it will shapeshift in many different iterations. I mean, you know, just yesterday, I was on our, on our org chart making some adjustments because we decided, hey, we need to go in this particular direction and instead of having this role, we want two of this role. And so you just have to be flexible and if you hold on too hard to a particular vision and you just try and drive that home, you're missing the opportunity to let the team define itself in the way that it will work best. 

Ed: Constant work in progress.

Justin:  Absolutely. 

Ed: It’s probably not what you want to hear right now. I've realized that that's just the reality of it. And, you know, when you accept it and, you know, you realize this goes back to sort of, you know, my wife is the therapist and counselor. You know, a lot of the job is just on the human side and you've got to just sort of understand, you know, you're not dealing with widgets or robots, you're dealing with real emotion and people's lives change dramatically day by day. And so, you know, flexible leadership is a real skill, but without it, I think life becomes pretty difficult. You just take, you take work home with you anyway. But if you're stuck in that mindset, if it's got to be this way, it'll just drive you nuts. 

Ed: And nobody wants that.

Justin:  Preferably not, got enough going on. Right.

Ed: We'll jump into the quick-fire round now. If you're ready to go.

Justin: Sure.

Ed: What's your favorite business and non-business book? 

Justin: So it's probably an answer you may have heard before, but I'm a Brene Brown fan. And I would have to say that Dare to Lead is a book that I quickly devoured. And it's one that I lean into uh to ground my thinking at times, especially in the first year as CMO  I went back to it time and time again just to check to see, you know, how am I handling this particular situation and what can I do? That I might want to consider doing differently, as for a nonbusiness book. I'll throw perhaps an unexpected answer your way. And go with the kids' book. My favorite kids' book growing up was called Harold and The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. And it's a book that is really about imagination and creativity and resilience and grit and finding your home. And it's such a simple book, both in its drawing and artistry as well as the message. And it's one that, you know, I loved as a kid. I give as a gift to people on my team when they have kids. And I think it's so simple that we have control to create our destiny and our own realities. And that is a powerful message that I've carried with me from a very young age.

Ed: Love that I've written both of those down. So I'll add those to my next reading. This is often one that brings up some occasionally funny answers. What was your first job?

Justin: My first job was I worked on games at an amusement park in Southwest Ohio. It was not a fancy amusement park for those who know the area. It was definitely the locals amusement park. I think now it may be either a park or a place that sells RVs so does not exist. But you know, a grounding experience.

Ed: I feel like I want to know more, but I'll jump to the next question. What is it that makes you happy at work?

Justin: I have to say it is unabashed and authentic laughter. When you hear that in the workspace, you know, something is going right brilliant answer. I think more people could do with laughter. I love it.

Ed: What is it that you're listening to at the moment? And that could just be anything like a podcast or an album or maybe an audiobook. 

Justin: So there are two things that come up. Right now, I've been really into Revisionist History podcasts by Malcolm Gladwell. It really digs into understanding things in our past that are often misunderstood or misrepresented and it's been very illuminating in how I change perspective on things I might have thought about one way or another, and then on the musical front, I'll give you one there as well.  I've really gotten into an artist named Andy Grammer. And it's just an injection of positivity into the start of my day. It's often what I pop in when I am on the train to work. Just a really powerful, positive uplifting message and a person who has a very, very giving spirit. And so those are the two.

Ed: I know Andy Grammer and I'm gonna throw one back at you in that case and say you should, you should listen to Austin Brown. He has been called the New Andy Grammer. 

Justin: Oh, excellent. I'll get to the list. Spotify is listening.

Ed: Perfect. I'm also really intrigued to hear this answer because I know you've lived in a few different places over your life. But where is your favorite place to visit and why?

Justin: That's a tough one. But the answer that comes to me right away. I have to say it's Spain. And yes, I did live there for a couple of years. My dad was born there. I have some family there. To me, it feels like home in a couple of days I'll be dreaming in Spanish and just right back into that culture and that life, which has a very special place in my heart.

Ed: Brilliant answer. I wasn't sure which one you or where you were going to say, but I love Spain too.

Justin: I give you multiple answers. My happy place is a window seat on an airplane and off to some new adventure.

Ed: Sounds pretty good to me. Justin, it's been fantastic to have this chat with you. There's a lot of takeaways. I'm sure our listeners have been nodding as they've been hearing some of your responses and I'm sure that a lot of them will be taking away some great insights there as well. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and for sharing this with us. As I said, there's probably a part two somewhere in the future with further information and we can dig deeper into it. But thanks so much for coming.

Justin: Well, thank you, Ed, to you and the entire Passle team. It's been a privilege and a pleasure.

Ed: Absolutely. We'll speak soon, Justin. Thank you.


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