Leading by letting others fail

As SolarWinds transitions from public to private, General Counsel Jason Bliss leans on his unit of dedicated lawyers to handle day-to-day operations as they scale to match growing business needs

For the internal legal department at SolarWinds, 2015 was anything but typical. The enterprise software company that went public in 2009 announced plans to return to the private sector when it struck a $4.5 billion deal with investment firms Silver Lake Partners and Thoma Bravo LLC. That sent the legal team into “all hands on deck” mode as they navigated the deal’s transactional elements, reporting requirements, and other nuances while continuing regular business duties.

Jason Bliss is confident his team will succeed in SolarWinds’  changing environment. “We’re aligned to company culture and objectives, and we work as a cohesive unit to support all that SolarWinds does,” the senior vice president and general counsel says. Bliss, who studied biomedical engineering and worked as an IT consultant before earning a joint JD-MBA, is at home in high tech.

Off the Cuff with Jason Bliss

Modern Counsel: Which three words best describe you?

Jason Bliss: Loyal, thoughtful, and decisive.

MC: What is your personal motto?

JB: I have a printed copy of Thomas Jefferson’s ten practical life lessons that address simple things like behavior, respect, and money.

MC: What do you believe is possible that others don’t?

JB: Scaling a legal department disproportionately smaller than revenue growth.

MC: What’s your favorite legal term, and why?

JB: Ab initio. It means “from the beginning” in Latin. I took four years of Latin in high school, so I will be biased to Latin phrases to make me feel like I did not waste those years.  The meaning of this phrase always made me think of time travel, and time travel is usually more interesting than whatever I was reading at the time.

MC: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

JB: The most important part of a decision is making it and fervently pursuing it. If it is a good decision, you will quickly maximize its benefits. If it is a bad decision, then make it the worst decision of your life. This advice gave me internal freedom to decide more quickly and avoid paralysis from analysis (a weakness I have had similar to many attorneys). This came from my Air Force-trained father, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six and one-half years. He lived life very freely under the philosophy that life is an absolute gift due to this experience.

After starting at SolarWinds as associate general counsel, Bliss moved out of legal and into the corporate development unit for a two-year stint. That experience informs how he leads his department today. “Everyone wants to be business minded, but when you’re on the ground doing the actual work, you learn more than you ever could from a book or a conversation,” he explains. After gaining deeper insights on business operations and where elements of risk lie at SolarWinds, he stepped into the general counsel role with a better perspective.

Now Bliss gives each of his attorneys as much business exposure as possible to make sure they understand every aspect of the company — not just the part they oversee. “In theory, each attorney here should have what it takes to be a future general counsel at SolarWinds,” he says. He accomplishes that goal by giving everyone high visibility on critical business strategies, but Bliss says he also needs to coach business leaders.

The general counsel meets with company executives to discuss the basic tenants that legal implements. “When the business doesn’t know what we look for or why we do certain things, they can start to resent lawyers or grow frustrated by the process,” Bliss says. He adds that meeting with the executives increases collaboration and helps him and his colleagues avoid last-minute emergencies.

Though Bliss inherited most of his department, he’s added to it by tapping into personal networks to find great candidates instead of blindly soliciting a stack of resumes. He’s also worked to change the way SolarWinds’ legal team thinks about the business.

“We’re collaborative partners,” he says. “We don’t have to be bulletproof on risk; we just have to mitigate it. There’s freedom to fail as long as we can examine that failure and learn from it.” By offering that trust and freedom, and by giving his lawyers more autonomy than some in his position would, Bliss is creating an empowering environment and a high-performing team.

That environment is important because of how SolarWinds operates. The high-volume company completes thousands of transactions every quarter. “If I micromanaged, and if my people had to come to me for approval on every decision, we’d be paralyzed,” Bliss explains.

To support such momentum, Bliss and his colleagues will look to maintain open communication with their business partners. “There’s a part of leadership during transition that involves uncertainty, and sometimes there just aren’t answers to pressing questions,” he says. “We have to be straightforward and maintain our credibility and trust.”

Periods of product innovation and strategic improvement often follow the public-private transition, so for SolarWinds’ legal team, 2016 continues to offer an exciting opportunity to develop new skills and support the business during a critical time.