Teresa Y. Bernstein, chief legal officer and chief compliance officer at ACON Investments, an international, middle-market private-equity investment firm, has the word love scrawled across the top of her office whiteboard. The word forms the root of how she manages her team of lawyers and approaches compliance issues. To her, love means trust and respect; it means listening, being responsive, and always considering your audience’s viewpoints.
This philosophy rooted in love might seem surprising in an industry that’s sometimes—perhaps unfairly—stereotyped as cutthroat, but it reflects Bernstein’s unusual route to her current position. A literature major, she landed a paralegal role after college, and she quickly found her calling in corporate law. “I loved how in a corporate transaction everyone wins, and to get there, you have to understand the root of exactly what people want,” she says. After earning her law degree, she began moving into the private-equity world, sharpening her expertise in private-equity mergers and acquisitions, fund formation, and regulatory compliance along the way.
Now at ACON, Bernstein is determined to provide her team of lawyers with the same valuable mentoring she received as she built her own career. Topping the list of practices she’s hoping to pass on are slowing down, being thoughtful, and putting yourself in your counterpart’s shoes. “My previous boss was always telling me I had to listen, listen more, and listen again,” she says.
Taking the time to truly listen can be difficult in ACON’s fast-paced environment, but Bernstein says it’s key to teaching her team to be proactive rather than reactive. It also helps the team members learn how to think through problems and arrive at the best solutions on their own. “It would be a much simpler and shorter conversation if I just told my team members exactly what to do, but in the long run, that’s not beneficial to me or our constituents because it means they don’t learn how to approach a problem on their own and they’re not working to understand the root of the issue,” Bernstein says. “This approach may be time consuming, but my team feels ownership over everything they do, and it gives them a sense of control over their day. I want them to feel motivated and engaged, and that’s hard if you only see little pieces of a project but don’t understand the big picture.”
The same values Bernstein instills in her team to help them grow in their careers—listening and learning to think through problems—she also embraces herself. She especially relies on them when engaging with the broader ACON team, to get the company’s workforce to understand and buy into compliance efforts. Something as small as responding to an email can go a long way toward making someone feel heard and respected. “You have to acknowledge people’s requests and at least let them know when you’ll be able to give them an answer,” Bernstein says. “This lets people know you’re paying attention to them and taking their problem seriously. We depend on people to alert us to issues; they need to be comfortable voicing their concerns. If they think my team is going to be unresponsive or difficult, they’re not going to be motivated to seek our help.”
In the regulatory space, rather than just telling people they can’t do things, Bernstein has trained her team to focus on its audience and help each person relate to the issues at hand and understand the reasoning behind policies. “Whether we’re speaking to a business head or an accountant, we tailor our response to who we’re speaking to and explain the regulation’s purpose, why it’s beneficial to comply, and how it affects them professionally and personally,” she says. “If you strip away the noise and legal considerations from a problem, the right thing to do is usually clear.”
As ACON sharpens its focus on socially responsible investing, Bernstein’s work to helping people innately understand and feel invested in compliance is proving particularly beneficial. “We have businesses across the US and Latin America in a variety of industries, and in every one of those, our people are focused on making sure those companies do the right thing,” she says. “The ultimate belief is if you are operating within good guidelines, you’ll have stronger building blocks and will be building a stronger company.”
Kirkland & Ellis:
“Teresa is incredibly smart and hard working. She is everything you want in a general counsel; she doesn’t just identify problems, but she also works to solve them.”
—Bob Pommer, Partner