How to foster future GCs

How Joe Traficanti hires attorneys and develops them into an empowered team that challenges the status quo

There are endless metaphors about planting seeds, cultivating healthy roots, growing strong crops, and harvesting the fruits of one’s labor. While perhaps overused, these analogies have deep meaning for anyone who has dirtied their hands growing their own food.

For Joe Traficanti—small-scale organic farmer and senior vice president, general counsel, and chief compliance officer at United Natural Foods—such metaphors have multiple meanings. From planting garlic and shallots on his organic farm to cultivating dynamic lawyers into self-sufficient teams, Traficanti is well acquainted with the necessary components of producing lasting fruit.

Traficanti’s leadership training started at a young age, when he was in the military. “Right out of the academy, you’re forced to quickly lead in difficult situations,” he says of his time flying fighter jets in the Air Force Academy. And while he learned a lot from good generals, he admits his greatest lessons were gleaned from the not-so-good ones. “There was one in particular whom I disliked so much that I decided to treat people just the opposite of how he did.” By focusing on what not do to as a leader, Traficanti developed a Ronald Reagan-esque mentality of surrounding himself with the very best people, a mind-set that has stuck with him throughout his career in law.

Off the Cuff with Joe Traficanti

Modern Counsel: Tell us about
your 26-acre farm in Virginia.

Joe Traficanti: There’s a river and creek that we use to irrigate our shallots and garlic. It runs beside our 300-year-old gristmill with a slate roof from Belgium and millstones from France. Originally, the farm was an English hamlet founded in 1728.

It’s a beautiful location that gets used for weddings, prom pictures, even baptisms. My goal is to eventually host a wine and garlic festival.

MC: You’re an attorney by trade—
what inspired you to buy a farm?

JT: United Natural Foods is a natural and organic company, and I believe in eating right. So farming is practicing what I preach.

When Traficanti joined United Natural Foods in 2007, it was the second time in his career that he was asked to grow a legal department from the ground up, and he started by hiring the best attorneys and paralegals he could find. He sought lawyers with trial experience for their ability to anticipate contract and HR issues, and be able to “draft around them.” He also looked for “folks who are smarter than me, love life, and want my job someday,” he says. “That mentality keeps me on my toes and helps ensure that the business succeeds.”

It was also important that his attorneys had the ability to work closely with clients and anticipate problems, both of which are underlying skills that Traficanti believes lend themselves well to business and in-house lawyers. Cultivating these skills in his lawyers—as well as a sense of humor and strong family values—were, and continue to be, important chapters in the Traficanti hiring handbook. With a combination of these characteristics, he believes that anyone can be developed into a great business asset and future general counsel.

Putting these skills into practice on a daily basis means building relationships directly with partners. Instead of an e-mail or a phone call, attorneys on Traficanti’s team are asked to make “house calls” by walking down the hall for face-to-face conversations, a practice that is regularly reciprocated. “It makes me happy when Steve, our CEO, walks right past my office on his way to someone else’s to ask for advice,” says Traficanti, who encourages his people to develop their own relationships with executives and simply keep him informed of developments. “I want to be someone who empowers his people and encourages the legal and business departments to work as a team.”

Developing, maintaining, and protecting that kind of a team starts at the top, says Traficanti. He might be known around the office for his boisterous personality and sense of humor, but when Traficanti meets with his team of experts, he tends to sit back and listen carefully to each of their positions and ideas on a topic. “I can walk into a meeting with one position, and after listening to my team, I might only retain 50 percent of it.” The key is taking that 50 percent and carefully blending it together with other ideas into a cohesive solution that satisfies everyone.

Traficanti has found that working in this collaborative way communicates each team member’s importance and crucial role in the team’s success. “I’m nothing without these folks,” he says of the six people on his legal team and the more than forty others in compliance. Together they form a creative and talented group that constantly pushes him to think differently about questions, problems, and solutions.

An open mind and willingness to learn is a key component of maintaining Traficanti’s team-centric methodology—almost as important as the sincere trust he places in his team. Sometimes it means taking risks or trying something new that’s initially uncomfortable, but Traficanti believes stretching himself is important. “You have to find something that will get you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Engage something that scares you enough to motivate you.”

To that end, Traficanti does not “compartmentalize” his people. Rather, he demands that everyone learns all aspects of the business and works to become an active expert in all legal matters a company can face; from drafting contracts, to M&A, to wrestling with employment law matters to litigation. “A ‘general counsel’ needs to be exactly that—schooled in all matters relevant to business. And I think that is all things legal, to be frank,” he says.

Creating the right in-house legal team means planting seeds of confidence and trust, cultivating healthy relationships across the team and business, and stretching them to grow strong enough to continue in the absence of their leader. “My goal is that when I move on, they won’t miss me,” says Traficanti. “I want to make sure they know I trust them and that they’re important, and to train them up to be my legacy.”

Ultimately, raising a team of problem-solvers and solution-finders and leaving them in the hands of a capable and confident successor will be the greatest fruits of all his labor.