As Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Contentful, Sabiha Chunawala has a wealth of knowledge to share about how to run a successful legal team and advice for those interested in joining Contentful. We sat down recently to discuss these topics and more — including how a team can avoid burnout.
A legal department in a fast-moving startup means exciting challenges
You’ve been here just over a year. What encouraged you to join Contentful?
The chance to build something from a blank slate really convinced me to join Contentful. At my former company, I led a large legal team. It felt great, but everything had largely been in place by the time I arrived. I wanted to do more. I wanted to see how I can build a team, design processes and policies knowing what I know now, with 23 years of experience. Contentful presented this opportunity. So, I moved and started to bring those best practices from my experience to life. Putting my stamp on things, so to say.
How has the year at Contentful gone so far?
The onboarding process was very organized, efficient and fast. Within a couple of weeks I had met the team, knew everything I would need to know about the company and the product, and got started with the projects. About half a dozen of us currently work on several large, ongoing projects. And, as you would expect, there is a lot of work.
What are some of the things the legal department at Contentful does?
We are running several projects at the moment. Many of them are there to help scale up Contentful: update existing, or draft new corporate policies. My team spends most of their time with customers and customer-related issues. We work with sales enablement and sales teams supporting negotiations and reviewing and negotiating agreements with enterprise clients. We also review contracts for goods and services purchased across the company.
In addition, we support and train the sales teams to create contract-awareness knowledge. We are creating training videos on privacy, security and other topics of interest to customers and Contentful. These will allow the sales teams to have productive conversations with clients and mitigate potential legal issues before they come to us.
All of this amounts to us processing upwards of 200 contracts per quarter — that’s quite a challenge with a small, distributed team. But we manage to do even more.
A productive year with a growing legal team
What challenges have you learned to overcome while working on a small team?
Most of the challenges that I encounter derive from Contentful’s speed of growth. The legal department has fifteen people. My team has seven of them, including working students/interns, distributed across Europe and the US. Serving all the projects that demand our attention on time is not easy.
But I’ve been working very hard to ensure nobody burns out. Staying motivated and keeping morale high requires a lot of deliberate action on my and the team’s part.
It means we need to learn to separate ourselves from work. This was easier when we were physically in the office, since you get to punctuate the day by going home. I encourage myself and everyone to unplug. Don’t send an email during off time and don’t answer any that come to you. I try to remind people to trust that other team members are here to cover for you and there’s nothing that will fall through the cracks. We also share tips and tricks to manage our wellness such as Google calendar settings that let people know when not to disturb you. It’s part of creating a “one team” culture. I even tease people a bit if they break the time off rule.
I believe that the biggest help in keeping burnout to a minimum has been our team culture.
How does team culture help resist burnout?
Over time, we have developed an inclusive team culture that encourages collaboration and teamwork. This is achieved by operating in a flat, non-hierarchical way. There is a management structure, but my preference is to not let that hinder access and open collaboration . We help each other, learn from each other, mentor each other and make calls together.
Sometimes this means helping out in Germany if we have bandwidth on the US side, and vice versa. Sometimes it means taking on greenfield projects that need a bit of guidance. By creating a closely knit, highly functional team, we can prevent burnout during high workloads.
But we achieve something else in the process. We are building cross-functional and cross-geographical skill sets within the team. This creates a stronger connection between individuals and makes for a stronger team.
How do you encourage development in ways beyond peer-to-peer mentorship and collaboration?
We have a spirit of education and growth on our team. Something we do is the “challenge system.” Everyone picks an educational challenge to include in their annual OKRs. They can potentially apply the education budget that Contentful provides. The challenge can be either career-related or personal. Maybe someone wants to learn more about employment law or learn a language.
We track educational progress as a team. Everyone gets to talk about what they’re learning during staff meetings. We discuss progress, problems they are having and support needed. It really allows everyone to grow comfortably, without losing pace.
We also like to learn the needs of the rest of the company. We rotate monthly presentations on different topics during staff meetings. We bring in people from other teams we work with. This way we learn about their priorities and how we can serve them better.
How does your personal managerial style shape the culture of growth on the team?
My job as a manager is to make dreams happen to the extent I can. The core part of this is helping people develop. I think it is an obligation you take on when you become a manager. You're responsible for people's careers, so taking an active role in empowering and giving available resources is paramount.
I achieve this by having regular one-on-one meetings. During these I ask questions and listen. What do you want to achieve? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What can we do to get you there? We discuss what's going right, what kind of support might be needed, what they are interested in learning.
Once I’ve heard them, I can become action-oriented. I try to pivot them to relevant projects. If there's something they're super passionate about, let them take the lead on it. I don't need to be there. They can just keep me posted and I will help when needed. Support needs to be action-oriented, otherwise it's just kind words.
Most importantly, I give credit where it is due. People should be visible as the ones who did the work. I spend a bit of time every week asking myself: Who do I want to celebrate this week? Who made it easier for me to get my job done? Who's just doing a phenomenal job and should be recognized? Then I spend time celebrating people, from my team and beyond, publicly on Slack, 15five and elsewhere.
Working on inclusion and diversity and a tip for those who want to join
What are some of the projects you are most proud of?
I am very proud of the work we, as a company, are doing to increase inclusion and diversity. When we started an inclusion and diversity working group, I quickly became a member; it’s something I am very passionate about.
We do a lot to promote and bring the spotlight to I&D. We create intra-company posts for themed months and events. Women's month is the most recent one I actively worked on. We worked on how we wanted to celebrate March and recognize International Women’s Day and Women's History Month. We hosted a fireside chat, created regular posts celebrating historical women, and a few other things. We featured women from across geographies.
In the Legal team, we implemented “A Day in the Life” presentations to our team. Each person shares, in their own style and level of detail, who they are, their background, history, their passions in and outside of work.
The goal is to create awareness, education and a cross-cultural, inclusive environment. Sometimes it takes a lot of work. But, I think all of it is very important. I feel very proud of it. Driving Contentful to be more inclusive and diverse is a great cause.
For legal-related projects, I'm proudest of the most mundane, small things. It’s funny, but establishing a style, naming and filing convention for the team really made me proud.
Do you have any advice for people who would like to join Contentful?
Stay curious and suspend your ego. Keep an open mind and seek out diverse voices. Make the effort to meet people. I know it's strange to say “meet people” in a remote work environment — but make the effort. The more perspectives you get, the better you will be at your job.
We never come up with the best solutions in our own brains. It's always with plenty of input and discussion. For this function in particular, I always tell people: be curious, ask a lot of questions and listen. Really, actively listen. That's when you do your best work.