The Legal Department

Own Your Own Professional Development: Sapna Pandya Red Bull

The Legal Department | Sapna Pandya | Professional Development

Sapna Pandya is executive vice president and general counsel of Red Bull North America–one of the most iconic beverage companies. But the company is much more than that, covering media, events, marketing, and distribution. Pandya’s team provides legal support for this complex business. In this episode, Sapna shares how to foster a culture of professional development in The Legal Department and why growing in your career takes more than being great at your role. She also describes how to create a strategic plan for your legal department in a way that encourages ownership and development of the team. Join Sapna Pandya as she energizes today’s conversation with her insights to soar more.

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Own Your Own Professional Development: Sapna Pandya Red Bull

My name is Sapna Pandya. I am the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Red Bull North America. A fun fact about me was I did end up in 2 Chainz’ Instagram following a Red Bull holiday party.

On this episode of the show, I’m excited to welcome Sapna Pandya, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Red Bull North America.

Sapna, how are you?

I’m great. Thank you so much for having me.

Thanks for being here. You and I have a lot of friends in common, and I’ve heard your name a lot, so I’m excited to get to know you better. I know that we have similar experiences working in the legal department. Thanks for doing this. All of our audience, myself included, are familiar with Red Bull as a beverage. Maybe some of us have used it in connection with adult beverages or to get us a little boost and give us our wings, but the company is broader than that. I know there’s a media component and an events component. Can you give a little bit of a background about what is the scope of the company and what your team supports?

Red Bull is a leader in the energy drink industry, and with that comes so many different components. There is a huge marketing and media component. We have a very strong media presence. We’ve got the marketing component which is very deep and nicely rooted in sports and so many different areas such as culture. We also have a distribution company. When you put it all together, it’s a broad holistic footprint. It all ties together nicely.

I am assuming it brings a lot of variety to the legal work.

I’m never bored.

I always say even in being in one industry like healthcare, it’s never the same day twice.

That’s a great description.

What areas does your team support?

Everything. My team oversees all of North America, so anything with the US and Canada, whether it’s media, marketing, sports athlete agreements, events, distribution, or sales. It’s really all of it. We handle a very wide variety of anything within North America.

Soup to nuts, from the contracting to employment and all that stuff.

Everything.

I always tell people I’m an inch deep and a mile wide with my legal knowledge.

That’s a good description, for sure.

You have to be really agile as well to flip between different things.

Be agile and also be able to give the team a perspective on what’s happening next to them and around them. One of the most fun things about this role is getting the opportunity to see everything. That also comes with the responsibility of making sure you’re giving your subject matter experts the right context and background and giving them an opportunity to look to the left and the right as well so that everyone can have the appropriate context for whatever it is they’re doing.

You have a thoughtful way of developing your team, and I want to dive into that. One area that is in my mind because of my perception of Red Bull and the ethos or culture is that in law, generally, we are trained around risk management. I’ve had in my own practice working in-house helping facilitate events or new businesses that have an element of risk.

Coming from a law firm, you’re not wired to weigh the business objectives and the risks of people getting hurt, trademark infringement, or whatever. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your experience how you have gotten comfortable managing risk and how you bring your team up to speed on that.

It’s a great question and one that is top of mind for anyone in the Red Bull legal in-house department. Understanding the company culture, brand, and strategy is the first step in really becoming part of the DNA of the company. You identified that’s not really your role when you’re at a law firm. Your role is to provide all the very substantive legal advice. To be able to sit between all of that and then what the business is trying to accomplish comes with a need to pause.

The Legal Department | Sapna Pandya | Professional Development
Professional Development: Understanding the company culture, brand, and strategy is the first step in becoming part of the company’s DNA.

Sometimes, if something comes across my desk and there might be an immediate internal reaction to it, I take a second to think through it, very much parse out each piece of it, and understand, “Is this something we can do? If we can do it, how do we mitigate risk? How do we look at this in various components instead of one big no? How do we take a step back and think through how we can get this done?”

I also have such an incredible team, many of whom have been at the company for over ten years. At this point, we’re ingrained in so much of the culture that it becomes a little bit of second nature to us to understand, “This is something we’re doing, so let’s figure it out.” It’s more of the approach than, “Can we or can we not do it?”

That’s a really important point and maybe something that is not apparent to lawyers who haven’t worked in-house before. You may have a visceral reaction or a gut reaction to a proposal that somebody wants to do from a risk perspective, but that’s not your risk. That is the company’s risk. If you’re aware of the company’s comfort with taking risks, then you have to weave that into the advice you give.

A lot of it is strong communication. First of all, you want to be invited to the meeting and you want people to come to you. They’re not going to want to come to you if you are too hesitant to ever at least approach a subject. For our team a lot of times in meetings, if we’re in a meeting with our business teams, the big approach is sometimes to listen.

It may not be the right opportunity to jump in and give every single legal risk associated with it. Sometimes, this is a creative meeting that you’re sitting in, so take your notes and think about what it is you want to go back with because you want to have that partnership and, in the end, communicate. It’s not our decision in the end. Whether or not we’re choosing to take a risk, we have to communicate. Also, to have credibility with it is really critical. Find the times that you can be comfortable with something and understand the grades of risk. If something is a low likelihood but a high impact, communicate that. That way, you can have some credibility associated with your conversations.

Those are great points there. Let’s talk about getting invited to a meeting. You have to be strategic when you raise your hand about concerns. Certainly at the initial meetings, if you’re invited to a brainstorming development session, do not come with your skeptical red pen ready to mark everything out because you’re not going to be very included in the next meeting, right?

Exactly. There’s a time and a place. It’s not always the time to showcase your knowledge of every legal risk that comes up. Give people an opportunity. Give them maybe larger guardrails if they’re looking for it. I sometimes will ask or say, “I’m going to hold off on providing any feedback on this. I’m going to listen right now.”

That’s helpful too. To the larger question about being a business partner, that’s what they’re looking for. They don’t necessarily want to hall monitor, like throwing up the flag every time somebody has a crazy idea, right?

Yeah. You don’t want to be the teacher who’s always in the room and get that continuous reputation in meetings. That’s important. You can help mitigate a lot of what ends up coming out of it.

It can evolve. You can take a pause, take a breath, let whatever it is wash over you, and go for the ride. Think at the right times how to bring up concerns. Do it with a question. I always think that asking questions takes out that teacher.

That’s a great point. I like that.

You say, “Have you thought about?” or, “What would we do if?”

I like the, “What would we do if?”

It’s never going to happen to us. I did want to ask generally. I know that there are a lot of events that you guys do and sports you support. Does your legal team help with those?

Yes.

I don’t have as many events in the health system, but at the university, there was filming on campus, and graduation, which has been in the news quite a bit. They, sometimes from the outside, seem straightforward, but dealing with security, getting permits for filming, and those sorts of things, it’s a lot harder than it looks.

The Risk Management Team

There’s such a deep expertise on it, and there are the more obvious components dealing with all the papering everything in advance and making sure all the bigger stuff is handled. Our risk management team goes and provides on-the-ground support as well, which is really helpful.

Our risk management team goes and provides on-the-ground support, which is helpful. Share on X

That’s amazing. Does risk management report to you? I didn’t ask you that.

Yeah.

That’s great.

There is a strong relationship with the events team. They know where to go and who to ask on the day of. Our media legal team is excellent with days of support, especially on anything filming and content-related. It is like a soup-to-nut support system, but there’s a good balance between providing legal support and being there. Also, giving our marketing and events teams the freedom to operate is really important to us as a business. We don’t necessarily want the lawyers to be dictating every single thing. We do want to provide guardrails and then some freedom in the execution of the event.

You’ve mentioned a few times that the team’s deep and that they’ve been there for a while, so I would imagine there’s a little bit of muscle memory.

We have a good chunk of the team that’s pretty tenured. It’s a lot of muscle memory. It’s very collaborative. There’s a large group of people that have been working together for ten years, so it makes the day-to-day portions of that really easy, at least internally within our department.

That’s great. I do want to get into team development because that was one of the things I was excited to talk to you about. Especially when you have a tenured team, maybe we could talk a little bit about the structure if you have different levels or if you have managing attorneys. In-house as compared to a law firm, we talked about this before. In a law firm, your career advancement is pretty linear. Everybody knows, “If I stay at this law firm, I’m going to do these things.” In-house, it can be a little more opaque. Especially if the general counsel is young like you are, they may not see like, “Where’s my career going?”

I put myself in that category. It took me a little bit to figure this out as well. It’s a big challenge coming from the law firm to a corporate environment. At the end of the day, you’re in an in-house legal team, but the way that development, promotions, and all that stuff work is similar to the rest of the company. It’s a big mindset shift from, “I’m a 5th year now going to 6th year,” to, “This is my particular role. Maybe I haven’t gotten to a point where I’ve expanded that role, but I’ve been in this role for a few years.” That is a really big point to address with the teams and one that we really try to tackle head-on. I know that was a big mindset shift for me when I moved to the in-house world. I can appreciate how much you have self-motivated, driven people who are trying to understand what that looks like from a title perspective.

They’re like, “How do I succeed here?”

They’re like, “Am I succeeding here even if I’ve had this role for four years?” We’re going to do a lot more work on that in 2024 too. We are spending a lot of time focusing on that point of development. There are so many different components. Number one is to be great at your particular role. You get that part right and do it well and it does not go unnoticed. Sometimes, what we’ll see with people coming in is they’re excited to build and get these opportunities. That’s fantastic but do your role well. That will not go unnoticed.

Own Your Own Development

The second piece is building on top of what your specific role is and like, “Where can I take on more?” There are some people who are good at this. Red Bull’s development philosophy is that you own your own development. There’s a lot of support to raise your hand and jump into new things. We as a company and department are very big on that.

My directs and I have been talking a lot about this, like, “How do we foster a culture of development within our team so that people understand, “How do I personally do that? Where’s my support? What do I need to do?” Even people who are substantively so strong in their role can add on everything. What about looking at development from a soft skills perspective? We do a lot of sessions on what your particular strengths are, how you work better with your strengths, and how you see how those show up on a good day or not a good day, and also, a lot on communication. We use the word development so broadly.

One of the things we’re trying to do is when you personally say development, what does that mean to you? I have people on the team that say, “I love my role. I don’t want to do anything else, but I want to be so good and develop so well in my role.” I have a lot of people who are very, “I like what I do and I’m happy to do it, but I do want to get a broader base so that I can continue growing into different roles.” To be able to even hear what development means to an individual person is really important.

The Legal Department | Sapna Pandya | Professional Development
Professional Development: It is important to hear what development means to a person.

There’s so much here that I want to go deeper on. First, the concept of owning your own development, I love that because my experience with a lot of people is that they are sleepwalking through their career. Being linear, like, “I’m used to these things happening from the outside,” I’m a firm believer that you own your career and your fulfillment. It’s incumbent on everybody to own it. I love that that’s the culture in your department and at your company.

I agree. It’s so important and one that was ingrained in us pretty early in my career at Red Bull. It took me a minute to understand what that meant. I always want to be able to provide that insight to others, which is, “What does that mean? How do I get this opportunity? How do I raise my hand for this? How do I vocalize?”

The one thing I’ll say from my perspective is it’s so much simpler than I ever realized it was. Sometimes, someone will mention, “I’m really interested in working on X, Y, or Z,” and then a week later, it happens to come up and it’s top of mind and something that’s very easy to hand over. This is what I mentioned in the beginning. Part of my responsibility is to always keep that broad and wide viewpoint and perspective. Development is a key part of that. I can have a sales attorney who’s interested in doing something broader, and it’s easy for me to identify that opportunity once I know that they’re interested.

They need to raise their hand.

A lot of times, we’ll send out notes like, “Is anybody interested in working on this particular thing or shadowing?” A lot of people raise their hands, and sometimes, people don’t raise their hands. The people who don’t raise their hand when they say, “I want more development,” I always respond, “This is a perfect example of you giving yourself that opportunity.”

I interviewed Dana Lira from Warner Brothers. Her expression is, “No one’s going to put a tiara on your head.” That’s to your point of owning it. I also like how you said that you cast a broad net. I interviewed Valerie Portillo from Diversity Lab. She talked about having a pool of projects so that people are aware, “Here’s all the work that we have or we need people to do. Who’s interested?” as opposed to, “I always go to Sapna because she is our salesperson or whatever.”

We are working on formalizing a development program. One of our strategy goals for the next year and a half within our department is to formalize this process. Is it something where you’re like, “What level of understanding and development do you want on a particular subject matter? Here are different ways for you to do that. Now, it’s on you to do that.”

It’s on them to follow up.

It’s my responsibility and the team’s responsibility to provide those opportunities and give people a sense of, “This is welcome and appreciated.”

It’s like, “Here’s what’s available, and I support it, but you’ve got to grab it.” I like that. There’s so much more I want to go into. Are you going to use a technology or a tool of some sort to track this?

We’re looking at it probably not on the development piece because we’re testing out what’s going to work. We always do an informal pilot program to see how it starts. On the development side, it’s manageable within our team not to do that. We’re looking at tools for other areas like intake and contracts. This is one we’re probably going to do a little bit more organically and see if we could manage it that way.

I’m looking at an intake tool too. I’ve never done a good job at it. That’s something I want to improve because it does give you a sense of all the things we do right and data to report out, “These are all the things we do.” I didn’t really think of it as a way to track development opportunities. Thanks for sparking that idea. I also love that you focus on soft skills development. That’s, I feel, very intentional as opposed to, “Learn on the job. You guys figure out how to do your presentations or how to do executive communication.”

There are many smart and good lawyers, paralegals, and people we work with. Something that can make a big difference from being a good lawyer to being a good in-house lawyer is focusing on the ability to present and the ability to communicate and figure out how to collaborate. Within our team but even what I’ll call our internal clients, you’re dealing with so many different groups and different industries. You’ve got the media component. You’ve got distribution. It’s important to be able to work with such a variety of different clients on our side. Without soft skills, your message can get lost. It’s been one of my favorite things to focus on for my own development and then also to watch people develop.

Focusing on the ability to present and communicate and figure out how to collaborate can make a big difference from being a good lawyer to being a good in-house lawyer. Share on X

We have someone in legal ops on our team. He used to be terrified of presenting and he said, “I would love to get more opportunities to present.” At our quarterly all-hands, we’ve put him up and had him do ten minutes a handful of times. It’s amazing to watch the difference between when he started. Everybody knows this is something that he’s been wanting to do. Everyone’s always rooting for him when he’s up there.

That’s great.

We love it. It’s been really fun for us to identify 1 to 2 things per year and focus on them together as a department.

Are there internal resources that the company has to help somebody like that work on those skills or do you bring in outside help?

We work with our talent development team on the HR side to bring in someone external, but we get support from them in terms of who to lean on. There are so many different vendors that it’s hard to figure that out. We have that resource, but it is someone that’s most of the time external.

You will tell them, for example, “I’m trying to get my team comfortable and make their presentations more engaging. Do you have somebody that can help us?” Let me ask this. When I have brought in and done retreats for our staff meetings or had what we’ll call soft skills development, we’re not talking about all the work that we’re doing or I’m not telling you what’s going on in the company. When I’ve done some of those exercises, I, at least initially, have perceived that the team is recoiling. They’re like, “I’ve got all this work and now, you’re making me do a Strengths assessment. What is this for?” Did you have any challenges in getting adoption for this?

Yes. I have accepted the fact that in advance, people will be hesitant and get a lot of questions, and there may be some grumbling, but the day of is when I see how much everybody is really into it and engaged. What I’ve also noticed is when I’m getting feedback on things after the fact, it’s always those pieces that are brought up the most.

We’ve done a couple of exercises over the past couple of years. They’re the things that are referenced continuously or people are always referencing like, “I remember when we had this particular conversation that was so interesting.” In advance, I accept it. If there’s a pre-work attached to it even if it’s five minutes, it’s fine. In the beginning, I asked myself how much to take that into account. I certainly don’t ignore it, but I try to stay focused on what we need to do.

As you stick with it, the team realizes, “This is important. This isn’t a fad. We’re not going to do this thing one time. This is what our department’s all about.”

The one thing I’ll say too, especially if you’re bringing in someone external, is it is a big time commitment as well to make sure it’s done in a way that’s going to resonate with your team. When we’re preparing for this stuff, there’s maybe a surprise element in how much I want to be involved in every single thing.

If you're bringing in someone external, it is a big-time commitment to make sure it's done in a way that will resonate with your team. Share on X

Do you mean with the consultant? They’re like, “Why is she so involved here?”

I know our team so well, and I know exactly what is not going to resonate with them. If I can get the day off right, then I’m not as worried about the resistance, but if it’s not going to land, then nobody’s going to care about it or buy into it.

I did an episode with Scott Westfahl who leads Executive Education at Harvard. I don’t know if you know him, but I’d be happy to introduce you. He does a lot of training at law firms and in-house departments. He said, “I know with a group of lawyers, I have to tell them why they’re here. I have to communicate that so clearly early on or they tap out. They’re not going to engage.”

Even something like an offsite, I have to set up exactly, “Why are we here? What are we doing here? Why do you care about this?” and then I can get them there.

Isn’t it questionable that we’re like that? Isn’t it questionable that we can’t go along with it?

I almost always forget until I go present at another department and it makes me laugh how it’s so easy.

No one’s grilling you.

They’re like, “That was great.” When people come to our department, I always remind them, “This is such an engaging and awesome group of people, but they’re paying closer attention to detail than what we normally speak to.”

That’s true. They’re like, “I noticed a typo on your slide.” That’s great. You mentioned one example of your legal ops person that everyone was aware that this was something he was working on. Are you open to talking about the goals that people are working on?

Not in a formal way, but certainly in an informal way. What we had done is we did get someone to come and do something on presentations and presenting for impact. Part of that was getting into small groups and presenting. He had shared in that room on his own how much he wanted to get better at presenting and how much he disliked it. The group is pretty close though, so people generally have a strong sense of what to rally behind each other on.

That’s cool. Not to keep plugging the show, but in my episode with Scott Westfahl, he used to be at McKinsey before going to Harvard. The McKinsey consultants, and I know you were in consulting for a bit before going to a firm, everybody on their team talks about what they personally want to get out of whatever project they’re working on. They do a launch meeting, which I thought, “That’s brilliant. I should be doing that for transactions, cases, or whatever.” Everybody on the team shares like, “I’d like to learn about environmental diligence” or, “I’m trying to learn about governance,” whatever those things are.

That’s a great idea.

I thought it was really cool.

It’s really unique. That’s a great idea.

Normally, we’re like, “Who’s going to get it done, and how quickly can it get done?”

We end up being so results and goal-oriented on the substantive piece, and then you hope and expect development along the way. Perhaps being more intentional about it is very beneficial to everybody.

I want to commend you because as you’re talking about the work you’ve done to develop your department, it sounds intentional. Maybe it doesn’t feel that way, but it sounds that way.

Thank you. I do feel like our team is very strong and really good. It’s important to create the right environment for them to keep them engaged and excited about what they’re doing. That does feel, for me, a very big part of what I can do for the company.

The Legal Department | Sapna Pandya | Professional Development
Professional Development: It’s important to create the right environment for the team to keep them engaged.

Hopefully, it helps foster connectivity between the team and the company. It’s like, “I’m not just here to perform a job, but they care about me and my career.”

That’s the goal.

Strategy Goals

You mentioned strategy goals. When we talked before, so much of the work that I do is inbounds. People want, “Can you join this call?” or, “I want to buy this system,” or whatever. You get dragged along with the next thing that somebody wants. It feels hard to me to be able to execute on strategy goals. How do you do that?

I’m trying to think of the first time I did it. It’s Red Bull, so we call it flight path, but we’ve got a three-ish-year strategy. I say three-ish because we’re very comfortable making changes as we need to adapt. The main thing was to understand, “What is it? What is our strategy, and how do we figure that out?” Once I started it, it was really fun and quite simple to lay out because it is probably a lot of stuff you’re doing naturally.

We got a lot of feedback from clients from our team to think about like, “What are we looking to do? What can we do better? With AI, technology, and so many other areas, what do we need to do to make sure we’re keeping up to speed with all that?” That was done to develop our big like, “Here’s what we want to focus on as a legal department.”

Within that, what has worked really well is to get individual team members to own specific initiatives. It’s done by the people who have the most visibility and potentially the best view of it. Back to development, it’s good development opportunities. Whoever wants to work on something, it gives them a piece of, “How do I build out this strategy at least with respect to something like training, contracts, or anything we’re doing with AI or technology?” I always have a team on there so that we don’t forget our team is the key to doing well.

Can you give me examples of what these are and then how someone was leading it?

The three different pillars I always think of are our team, the client, and then the general bucket of what I’ll call legal innovation. Within that, we’ve developed maybe in the 3-year period 3 initiatives per strategic pillar, and then we hand it off to the team. If we take something like smart contracts, we have a couple of people working on it who are really building out what that looks like for us from a technology perspective. Legal intake is one of our initiatives. We get a few people to lead on that, like, “What should legal intake look like at Red Bull today? How are we going to develop on that in a few years?”

I love this. This is amazing.

I’m probably a little biased, but it’s fun. It’s fun for everybody else. We’ve got a development one. That group has built out such a cool strategy for how we can do development in-house. There’s a range of seniority. We try to get input from different legal pillars so it’s not all three people that work together and get different perspectives.

It’s always fun to see what the groups come up with because it resonates a lot better and is less of a check-the-box exercise when the team is coming up with it. The purpose of it is to have an impact. There are also things that come up where we stop and say, “Is this really going to make a difference?” and we are happy to pivot.

It's always fun to see what the groups come up with because it resonates much better when the team comes up with it. Share on X

You can go down a road and it’s a dead end and you’re like, “We don’t need to worry about that anymore.”

I’m always very open to, “Let’s stop and pivot. If we are getting information that doesn’t really feel in line with where we started, then let’s do something else, or let’s combine this and cut it. I’m fine with that.” For it to be from the team has been helpful.

You get better buy-in.

I get better buy-in and much better ideas. We’re doing a big one on client training, like how to approach client training more holistically. The team has a way better approach to that than what I had been initially thinking of.

It’s so cool. I would bet your business partners and certainly I would guess the C-suite is really impressed or maybe even expects that you’re doing this kind of work.

They’re excited about it. Red Bull is pretty innovative in how it approaches a lot of these topics. It’s a big part of the Red Bull culture. Although nobody is saying to me, “Go do that,” it’s very ingrained in how everybody wants to approach their roles. It’s fun to talk to people who have no substantive connection to legal and to get their perspective on this stuff. I’m always learning something.

You’re bringing a business framework to legal, which is run like feral cats before. It’s like, “Do the legal work. We don’t care about anything else.”

It’s good for the team. We all know what direction we’re rowing in.

That’s great. It’s super cool. You sound like you have a very mature legal department. That is my takeaway.

I think so. In terms of where we are as a legal department and then individually where a lot of people have started and landed, over the past couple of years, it has led to a lot of maturity. I don’t think that it’s fair to put in a strategy and development in a lot of other topics when you’re still getting your basic processes in place. A lot of us did start in our various areas. We started at times when we were focused on that. This isn’t something I would put before putting in basic processes, but once we’ve gotten to a point with that, there’s a lot of good to come out of putting the strategic priorities in place.

The Legal Department | Sapna Pandya | Professional Development
Professional Development: It’s fair to put in a strategy and development in many other topics when you’re still getting your basic processes in place.

It’s fun. I appreciate you saying that because I started the show at my company. There was no in-house before. I was not overconfident, but I’ve done this because I’ve done a lot of what I call remodeling in-house departments. Building from the ground up is harder than I thought it was, so I appreciate your comment.

There are even things in my old role when someone will ask, “Why did we do it this way?” I say, “Feel free to change it. We didn’t have time to do it this way, but now, you have time to do it this way.”

It’s like, “Make it pretty for me.”

Exactly.

This has been super fun. I love this topic. I could talk about it for a long time. I always close with the same final question, which is a little even more fun than legal team development, strategic planning, and legal. What is your pump-up song?

My pump-up song is still Lose Yourself by Eminem.

No one’s going to argue with that. Thanks for coming to the show. I really enjoyed it. You don’t need my kudos, but you’re doing a phenomenal job. The team sounds really cool. Congrats.

Thank you so much. That means so much.

Thanks for being here.

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