Communication Means Everything for Persistent Systems

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By Mirra Levitt
| In-House Voices

Joe Bartel Interview

Tell us a bit about Persistent Systems, LLC.

Persistent Systems, LLC (“Persistent”) was founded by two software engineering PhDs from Johns Hopkins, who basically took their PhD theses and turned them into a patent, which in turn became a product and finally a company. Persistent’s products have at their core the company’s Wave Relay® MANET (mobile ad-hoc networking) technology. Though Persistent designs, manufactures, and sells tactical radios, which are used by, among others, many of our country’s Special Forces, we call ourselves a “networking” company because the radios deliver the crucial advantage of creating by themselves a communications network. Even in areas without cell phone coverage or satellite coverage, dismounted users outfitted with our radios can communicate in real-time over the network formed by the radios. This capability allows soldiers to have situational awareness in real time, including access to voice, video, and other data streams. Commercially, we sell to agriculture, mining, and broadcasting companies – essentially any situation where a company will benefit from having its autonomous equipment, or other assets, linked back to a central point. We have approximately 100 employees.

What is your role at the company? 

My title is “General Counsel,” which is mostly useful because it allows counterparts in other companies to know where to reach out on legal matters. My actual function though is not purely legal – it’s also business, as, I suspect, is common for the GC role at a fast-growing company where everyone is 100% focused on making sure the company continues to grow. On this front, my responsibilities often shade into business development, at least in the sense of working closely to support our BD and Sales Teams. More concretely, I get involved at the earliest stages of discussing a potential partnership or transaction with other companies, clients and customers as we consider how we might work together and then follow the transaction through to negotiating and finalizing the business arrangement.

What kinds of support do you have in your role?

I try to require as little support as possible because we’re still a small company, but obviously it’s not always possible to do everything myself. For specific types of legal issues, for example, I work with outside legal counsel. For example, we had a patent infringement case where we were sued by a patent troll. I determined we needed outside counsel. I already knew about Priori Legal, and I reached out to Basha Rubin to solicit recommendations for IP litigation counsel. 

Since you work remotely, what kinds of steps have you taken to be present and build strong relationships? 

I try to be where I’m needed whenever I’m needed, whether at our HQ in NYC, supporting team members at tradeshows, or otherwise on the road at meetings. There is often no good substitute for working face-to-face, a point that seems increasingly overlooked in a society that is both disconnected and overly “connected” at the same time. Overall, though, the arrangement has been manageable for me because we have offices in various locations across the country – New York, Colorado, North Carolina –supporting many different initiatives nationwide. In this structure, everyone is, to a degree, remote from each other at certain times, so there’s already a culture of building relationships in ways that don’t involve sharing office space every day.   

I’ve also found that there have been significant benefits to working remotely in that when I’m in the chaos of the office, everyone wants to sit down with you – for questions, for meetings – which is great, and I like that when I’m in the office, but those conversations and meetings generate a lot of work that is difficult to get done in the office. Being able to step away and work remotely allows me to get that work done efficiently.

Overall, I’m really happy with the balance that I have between being remote and not remote. I’m remote enough to be efficient, but I’m present enough to have real relationships with people. It’s developed really well.

Are there certain kinds of conversations or meetings that you always try to have in person?

There are certainly times when it’s imperative to be present. For example, when our business development leads all gather for a sales conference or an annual meeting with our international resellers. With events like these, there is so much to accomplish together, as a group, in such a short amount of time that it’s crucial to be physically present. Another example of a situation where it’s imperative to be there in person as early as possible is when we first start working with a partner. Before I get involved, they’ve likely looked into who we are, tested our equipment, and thought about how they can integrate our product. In these cases, being physically present helps ensure that we have the necessary business relationships to close the deal. 

As a GC with significant involvement on the business side, how do you avoid stepping on the toes of the business people? 

My main approach is to remind everyone that I am an asset for the company and for them as individual employees of the company. I’m not working on commission. My purpose is to support the business people if they need help. I tell people to lean on me early enough to be able to smooth the path toward closing the deal. I think this reflects the need not only for relationship building outside of the organization but also inside the organization. I work assiduously to enhance the trust between the folks on other teams and me.  

Let’s talk more about your role in HR. Who supports you specifically when you’re working in the HR function?

We used to have a larger dedicated HR function, but as people in those roles moved on, our CEO suggested I take on those functions. There are some lawyers for whom HR is a burden, and they don’t want to be bothered unless something truly “legal” comes up. Certainly, there are legal aspects to HR. Consider, to take one example, state-level employment law and the complexities of setting policies when you have employees in multiple states with different approaches to employee protections. For me, though, my core HR focus is interpersonal, not legal. A big part of HR is listening to questions, concerns and problems. If you’re already a good listener, which I think is key to being an excellent negotiator as a lawyer, you are actually already prepared to be successful in HR. I have found that many seemingly intractable HR issues are solvable if you just give employees the time of day to express themselves. In terms of support, I just have one HR generalist who works underneath me. Together, and with help from the company culture, we’ve been able to run the HR “Department” leanly and smoothly. 

That focus on building relationships in the context of HR makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there is also another element to HR where things come up no matter what: compliance. What resources do you rely on and what in your legal background do you draw on to make sure that you’re monitoring compliance well?

We’re very fortunate to have the HR generalist, whose fulltime job is HR. My management style tends to be that I trust adults to be adults. It’s not that I’m not paying attention or that I’m not focused on making sure that things are going well, but I rely on people to do their jobs. Fortunately, he’s extremely competent and does a good job of keeping us compliant and alerting me to things we need to watch out for. We also rely on outside third party vendors to help us with monitoring. In the same way that I manage external legal assets as general counsel for specialties that are not my specialties, we do that for HR if we cannot (or should not) handle certain compliance issues because it is beyond us to do the auditing or the tracking. We bring in third party resources to do that for us.

What advice would you give other in-house lawyers who are tasked with HR responsibilities for the first time?

I think the main thing to do if you’re asked to get more involved or if you want to get more involved is to demonstrate that personality-wise you’re ready for that level of involvement.

What has been the biggest challenge for you both within the HR role and also within the GC function overall?  

The biggest challenge has been knowing when to delegate or being willing to delegate. It’s important to stick with your highest and best use. You can’t do everything yourself, and even though delegation, at least in the beginning, may result in work product that you’re not satisfied with, you simply cannot perform if you do everything yourself. No business grows optimally if individuals are overwhelmed and yet refuse to delegate. Seeking to control everything winds up acting as a brake on the organization. You have to be willing to let things ride just a little bit, and that’s applicable in the HR context as well as in the business context or the overall GC context. One thing that is specifically HR-related is that you do have to grow a thick skin. You do not learn in law school, nor, I would say, in most law firms, how to give employees performance improvement plans, let alone how to terminate employees. You have to learn to not make it an emotional thing but rather a rational thing. You’re acting on behalf of the company. You have to be able to say, at least to yourself: This is not personal; rather, I am speaking and acting in my role with the company. Cultivating a dispassionate approach is not easy, but it must be attempted, if not always accomplished. At the end of the day, terminations are hard for everyone. It’s hard for the company because you have to retrain somebody, and it’s obviously even harder for the person losing his or her job, even when the termination is entirely warranted and necessary. It’s an ugly part of the job, but it has to be done. I imagine this is akin to a doctor who learns not to take patient issues home with them. You have to learn to leave HR issues at the office.

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