5 Take-Aways from Courtney VanLonk­huyzen

By March 24, 2015GH Blog

Culture starts as an initiative in many business, turns into a buzzword, and eventually gets dropped. It’s easy to say that we want our workspace to foster efficiency, creativity, and teamwork, but it’s harder to know which steps we should take to build it.

As Guerrero Howe announces the launch of programming that will build and foster such a culture, we invited Courtney VanLonk­huyzen, lead commercial counsel at Motorola Mobility, to talk about company culture and professional attitudes worth repeating. With an unapologetically light-hearted tone and friendly set of anecdotes in hand, Courtney left us with these pieces of wisdom:

1. Your business isn’t always glamorous—and you shouldn’t be, either

At 24 years old, Courtney was still adjusting to the post-graduate professional world when she was made administrator of a Chicago nursing home. The facility was for-profit, and she spent many of her days poring over spreadsheets to figure out how to cut costs and improve profit margins.

But that business – like every business – was built on the expectations and care of people. With that in mind, she set out to teach employees about the facility with a visceral lesson.

The memory of a room in the nursing home still makes Courtney wrinkle her nose a little as she describes it. It was dirty and sticky, and it smelled horrible. People lived there, but no employees did anything to change it.

Without warning, Courtney called for every available employee to come to the room.

For a little while, more than sixty employees stood in or near the room. Some became physically ill from the stench and had to step out. Courtney watched and waited as they reacted.

Finally, she said, “I’m going to spend the day cleaning this up. We’ve been walking by this room every day, and no one has done anything about it.” She reminded employees that patient care had to be a priority, and to provide it, employees needed to do more than their day-to-day responsibilities. They needed to take a big-picture view of caring for the facility and its residents.

For any business to succeed, employees can’t clock in, perform their duties, and clock out. When there is a problem, employees need the initiative and energy to fix it.

Courtney spent the next six hours cleaning out that room. To this day, former employees of the nursing home call her to say they remember seeing the administrator scrub down that room, and they will never forget the lesson behind it.

2. It’s possible to commit, and commit, and commit …

While Motorola was under the Google umbrella, Courtney had plenty to handle as various departments underwent restructuring. But Motorola also wanted to reconfigure its approach to philanthropy, and Courtney volunteered to look into it. The company could have handed the money to Google, which has a good track record in philanthropy. But Courtney took her time to establish a system that started local and branched out, and she tackled initiatives that resonate with Motorola, such as education, entrepreneurship, and technology.

Simultaneously, Courtney joined the board of the Eleanor Foundation, which she eventually helped merge into the Chicago Foundation for Women. The foundation provided financial aid to women, particularly single mothers. It’s a cause close to Courtney’s heart, and she wasn’t willing to give it up despite her increased workload at Motorola.

Three different ventures demanded Courtney’s time, and it would have been easy for her to argue that she couldn’t do everything at. But she didn’t. “Don’t take the easy way,” she advises. “Bring your passion to every single thing you do.”

If it’s something you care about, do it – don’t make excuses.

3. Hire in your blind spots

One of the hardest things for lawyers, and all of us, Courtney quipped, is admitting there are things we don’t know.

Every professional from every school and every background has areas in which they don’t have the most recent or extensive expertise. Hiring people who fill in those holes will build out your team and strengthen your entire company.

For example, Courtney says her expertise is not in finance. She and an attorney with a finance background with their colleagues are working on a major data project that is changing the way Motorola operates. It’s an initiative no one has ever undertaken before, and without her colleague with finance expertise, Courtney couldn’t have done it.

Don’t be afraid of hiring people smarter than you – put those smarts to use.

4. Be someone, not just some professional

A few days before she visited Guerrero Howe, Courtney ran her first marathon.

In the years she devoted herself to her career and family, Courtney admits that she put her own health on the back burner. That changed last year. She’s lost fifty-five pounds in the last few months.

When Courtney decided to make her health a priority, she didn’t hide it. She told her bosses at Motorola, her colleagues, and her family that there would be a few hours each day in which she wasn’t available, because she would be exercising. “Don’t feel guilty if you’re not accessible 24-7,” she advises.

Her upfront approach garnered positive feedback. People were proud of her and happy for her, and they didn’t begrudge her the time.

“The world didn’t burn down,” she laughed. “I, like everyone else, tend to think I’m more important than I am. Being inaccessible for a couple hours a day didn’t break anything.”

Make commitments that matter to you – not just to your job or your professional connections, but to yourself. Guerrero Howe is stronger because we have people from different backgrounds and with different outside interests. Don’t be ashamed of them. Being an interesting person makes you a stronger professional.

5. Step in it

This was the running theme of Courtney’s talk, and the visual she painted for us to conclude her speech was a vivid one.

You see a mess in front of you, step in it. Don’t walk around it. Yes, it will take a little time to clean it off – but it’s going to be the best step you ever took.

Careers are a messy business. Whether it’s scrubbing the floor in a nursing home or tackling a data-heavy project, the easiest work is rarely the most fulfilling. Take the difficult jobs, the sticky ones, the ones with hard numbers – the ones that might seem like more trouble than they’re worth. Your commitment will make them worth something.

Courtney VanLonk­huyzen, lead commercial counsel at Motorola Mobility (Photos: Caleb Fox)