“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Jennifer Keough, CEO and Founder of JND Legal Administration

An interview with Phil La Duke

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You will lose money at first — This seems obvious perhaps, but as someone who was the COO of a financially successful company, the idea of not making a profit from day one was jarring. But building an infrastructure takes time and money and there is no way to generate revenue until you spend . . . a lot. You need to be prepared for that emotionally as well as financially.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Keough, CEO and Founder of JND Legal Administration. As Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Keough has a hand in all facets of JND’s business, from day-to-day processes to high-level strategy. Ms. Keough is recognized by practitioners on both sides of the aisle as an expert in all facets of class action administration, from notice through distribution. She has testified on settlement matters in many courts nationally and before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. With more than 20 years of legal and administration experience, Jennifer has directly overseen hundreds of high-profile engagements, including such landmark matters as the BP Deepwater Horizon Settlement, Cobell Indian Trust Settlement, Engle Smokers Trust Fund, Gulf Coast Claims Facility, and Stryker Modular Hip Settlement. Since forming JND with her partners, Jennifer has been appointed notice expert in a number of high-profile matters and was appointed by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California as the Independent Claims Administrator (“ICA”) supervising the notice and administration of a settlement involving inspection, remediation and replacement of solar panels on homes and businesses throughout the United States. Prior to forming JND, Jennifer was COO and executive vice president for one of the (then) largest legal administration firms in the country. Previously, Jennifer worked as a class action business analyst at Perkins Coie, responsible for managing complex class action settlements and remediation programs, including the selection, retention and supervision of legal administration firms. Jennifer earned her J.D. from Seattle University. She also graduated from Seattle University with a B.A. and M.S.F. with honors. In 2013, she was profiled in a CNN article, “What Changes With Women in the Boardroom.” In 2015 and 2017, she was named a “Woman Worth Watching” by Profiles in Diversity Journal. In 2017, she was also named a female entrepreneur of the year in the 14th annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business. Jennifer is frequently invited to speak on class action issues and has written numerous articles in her areas of expertise.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was a paralegal very early on in my career (before going to law school). I dug in and worked hard and learned more about the case we were presenting at trial than most of the lawyers. I realized I had a knack for organizing information and data. That’s really what legal administration is all about.

What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

For better or worse, I like to be in charge. I know how I want the work to get done and I am willing to take the heat if my ideas don’t pan out the way I expected. The buck stops with me. I don’t mind that pressure.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but I think the key for a CEO is to create a culture — for employees and clients alike.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

I like the ability to help shape the careers of the people who work for our organization. Not everyone wants the same thing out of a career, or a job. Finding the right seat on the bus so that you get the most out of employees and so they feel the most valued makes me happy.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

The hours are tough. You live tethered to a phone and email, especially in the client service business.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?

For me, the biggest myth is the idea of sitting in the corner office dictating from above. I think the best CEOs do the work and dig in. It is hard to tell people what to do and how to do it if you don’t know yourself how to get all the details of the job done.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

You hit on it with your question. I am not a CEO, I am a “female CEO”. You never hear a man referred to as a “male CEO”. So automatically there is an assumption that a CEO is a man and a woman is “breaking in” to the field. A woman needs to be better. She will not be given the benefit of the doubt in the early going like a man would.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I had a client in the early going who did not like having a woman run his administration program. He went so far as to tell me that he preferred working with men. He gave me a hard time on the project just for sport, it seemed. He would insult and bully me on the phone and in email. Despite the fact that the case was very important to our company as we were starting out, I threatened to quit the project and go to the court if his behavior did not stop. There was certainly a risk we would be fired and replaced, which would have been very problematic for our company. But I stood up for myself, with the full support of my partners, and the bullying stopped.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll tell you a silly story. I was traveling and I walked out of my hotel and hailed a cab. I was in a new city and didn’t know the area. I gave the driver the address and he proceeded to make four turns down four different one way streets until we got to my destination which was 20 feet from my hotel entrance on the other side. The lesson? Be aware of your surroundings.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I am surprised at the amount of credibility that the title engenders. I have always been client-service oriented, but now when I reach out to certain clients they seem impressed that they are receiving attention from the CEO. I always gave clients attention before so I didn’t think anything of it. But a lot of people say, essentially, “wow, you must be so busy as CEO. Thanks for taking the time to call.”

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?

I think hard work is the starting point. If you are looking for a short-cut, aside from maybe running a family business, there isn’t a substitute for hard work. Also, you have to be willing to take responsibility for mistakes by others. That is hard for many people. But if you are leading a company, telling a client that an employee messed up isn’t going to help.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice to all leaders is to try to be a good teacher. It’s the old “teach someone to fish” adage. Also, going back to something I said earlier, it is important to find the right seat on the bus. I have hired many people during my career for a specific role that, in hindsight, didn’t really play to their strengths. Rather than decide the company isn’t a fit, I try to find a role that is a fit. It often presents itself if you look hard enough.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are several people who have helped me. One in particular is Mike Sherin, the Chairman of my former company who gave me my first big job in legal administration when I was 31 (?). Mike had a lot of confidence in me — maybe more than I had in myself at the time. He was always very encouraging and urged me to do things that may have been outside of my comfort zone at the time. I used to tell him that I wasn’t sure I was cut out for the business development aspect of the job. He would say, “nonsense, just be yourself and everything will work out.” He was right.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have tried really hard to help my employees — whether by career development, offering personal advice when they asked, or even helping financially out of my own pocket when people were having hard times. My greatest achievement in business isn’t the cases I have handled, the money I have made or the titles I was offered. It has been providing jobs for hundreds of people who could make a living to take care of their families.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Starting your own company is harder than you think — When you are used to working for a big company, as I was, you don’t realize all of the little details that need to be worked out when you build something from scratch. Things that you perhaps once took for granted, like where do I buy computers, all of a sudden became issues as big as developing clients
  2. You will lose money at first — This seems obvious perhaps, but as someone who was the COO of a financially successful company, the idea of not making a profit from day one was jarring. But building an infrastructure takes time and money and there is no way to generate revenue until you spend . . . a lot. You need to be prepared for that emotionally as well as financially.
  3. Take time off before starting your next job — My partners and I took almost no time off from the time we left our prior company at the end of 2015 to the time we started planning for the build of our new company. We were excited to get going and didn’t want to wait. In hindsight, taking a breath for a few months would have been nice.
  4. Buying a company is really buying a culture — To launch our new venture we made a few small acquisitions at first. We looked at the infrastructure, the finances, the clients, the IT systems. All important, sure, but the most important is the culture fit. You can fix everything else over time. But if you buy a company that is bureaucratic when you want to be nimble or a company that doesn’t put the client first when you do, the fit will not work.
  5. Location, location, location isn’t always the answer — Our first space in Seattle was 10,000 square feet in a cool part of town. It seemed like plenty of space. It turns out it wasn’t. The biggest issue was that there was no room to expand in the building. The second biggest issue was the building had too many rules because it was part of a residential condo. We fell in love with the location, views of the water and layout. You need to dig deeper.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It is difficult to look at the recent mass shootings in this country without wanting to find a “cure” for this epidemic. I don’t know what the answer is, but somehow the issue needs to stay front and center until it is solved, rather than waiting for the next tragedy for us as a country to start talking about it again.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two. The first is “nothing gets more work than good work.” Courtesy of Mike Sherin. It is a truism. People want to hire those who get the job done.

The second is more personal. I have 3–1/2 year old twins. Someone once told me that the secret to being a good parent is simply to be kind. That probably applies to a lot of things in life.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

As a Seattle native, it is hard not to pick Bill Gates. He has changed the world and is continuing to do so. If not him, I am a big Seahawks fan so maybe I can ask Russell Wilson what he thinks about the upcoming NFL season.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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