In all my years advising public companies, I have learned this one lesson above all else:

The toughest challenges create the greatest opportunities for growth.

As General Counsel of ScanSource, a leading global technology solutions provider, I witnessed the ups, downs and many challenges of a hypergrowth company firsthand. The stakes grew ever higher, and the challenges grew with them.

As I said in my recent interview with Vision Magazine, I am at my best with a number of good problems to solve. Many of us, I would venture to guess, are drawn to our fields because we enjoy problem-solving. And for those with the wisdom to appreciate challenges – good and bad – the thorniest problems keep us coming back for more.

You may have read or heard about former American Airlines GC Gary Kennedy’s recent book, Twelve Years of Turbulence. It’s his personal account of how the airline found a way, against all odds, to save itself from ruin.

While I have led crisis management, litigation defense and internal investigations in the wake of SEC probes, shareholder derivative suits and subpoenas relating to alleged FCPA violations by vendors, among other high-profile matters, I count myself fortunate to have escaped the depths of the turmoil Kennedy needed to navigate during his tenure at American Airlines (especially in the wake of 9/11). Yet I could not agree more with his premise that facing challenges – indeed, navigating crisis after crisis – builds a certain resilience and strength of character that cannot be developed in any other way.

Facing crisis after crisis builds a certain resilience and strength of character that cannot be developed in any other way.

My work as a General Counsel bears out that premise. Like other heads of legal departments, I did my fair share of overseeing, counseling and executing on matters that have run the gamut of what one might expect to see as an attorney, such as acquisitions, technology and other contracts, governance, litigation, intellectual property, cybersecurity, executive compensation, shareholder activism defense, insurance, regulatory compliance and risk management.

I also have encountered the occasional project that most law students never dream they might come across – unless it’s the improbable subject of a final exam – like engineering the purchase of a crematorium on an adjacent lot to ScanSource’s headquarters for the benefit of its employees. While there is a common set of legal issues in any real estate acquisition, I had to get up to speed on certain environmental, zoning and state licensing considerations for this transaction that many of us will never encounter in an entire career of practicing law or, for that matter, doing business in general. (If I have piqued your curiosity, click here for more about that.)

At certain points in my career, I was fortunate to have built my expertise in planning for negotiations and considering all possible outcomes which – combined with hard work and some luck – allowed me a short window to achieve some very favorable results. As I told the writer of the Vision article, we settled two multi-million dollar recoveries on a Friday, and would you believe federal case law and a state regulator ruling, respectively, came out the following Monday – on these two unrelated cases – that would have pulled the rug out from under us? As the chief lawyer advising senior management of a company, you take your wins where you can get them, and if luck is in your favor, you take that too.

At other times, I was up against some pretty stiff odds. The kind that make you go big or go home.

Yet these very “tough challenges” bring me the some of the greatest points of pride in my career. Such as the lawsuit we brought against a well-regarded software implementation provider that ran up a staggering $21 million in additional fees over a project implementation period four times as long as initially projected, with no go-live date imminent. In that case, we were up against 17 lawyers on the other side and duked it out at what was frankly one of the longest conference tables I have ever seen. (In Midtown Manhattan, of course, where else?) Our small band of four – me, my Assistant General Counsel and two outside lawyers – achieved a monetary recovery more than double the expectations of our CEO and Board of Directors. Talk about professional growth!

At the end of the day, the challenges we face – especially ones that require us to “step up to the plate” time and again – are the building blocks that make a good career great. For my part, at least, I say bring them on!

John Ellsworth was General Counsel of ScanSource, Inc. (NASDAQ: SCSC) from 2003 to 2017 and previously Assistant General Counsel of One Price Clothing Stores, Inc. (NASDAQ: OPC).

He is currently Counsel on M&A transactions to private equity firms, investment banking and business owners as he scopes out his next great challenge. You can read more about John here.


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