Growing up, Chris Brown wanted to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who was in law enforcement. But while he was pursuing his criminal justice degree, a trusted professor advised him to take the LSAT and attend law school. The next day, he changed his trajectory to law. That path later led him to law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister and to his current role as chief legal officer of Total Quality Logistics (TQL), the nation’s second-largest freight brokerage firm.
Brown’s open-mindedness and adaptability not only transported him into the legal world but has also helped him handle difficult situations, such as serving as TQL’s first in-house attorney and growing the company’s legal team. “Initially, it was daunting,” he says. “There was just so much going on. TQL is a robust, fast-moving, hyperspeed, driven company.”
Though it took him some time to adjust to TQL, Brown had learned a great deal from his prior role as an associate attorney, where he had considerable freedom and experience with large-scale cases. He was confident he could tie up the loose ends he’d inherited and develop his team into an agile legal force. “I love a good challenge,” he says, “and this was certainly that.” With that mentality, he set off.
He began by dividing the work into bite-sized chunks, holding to the rock, pebble, and sand management analogy emphasized by his direct supervisor, in which you prioritize large tasks first, fit in medium tasks after that, and put small tasks last. “We used to joke, ‘Hey, what big stones are you moving?’ We wanted to make sure we were moving boulders.” He broke up his time into ninety-day increments and laid out the three biggest goals he needed to accomplish in that time period. Alongside that, he created a five-year plan, mapping out what he wanted TQL’s legal team to look like.
In Brown’s time at TQL, much of his long-term plan has come to fruition. This is due in part to the candid environment TQL has cultivated, in which people are very transparent about their needs from the legal team. Brown built relationships with the sales team by sitting among them, wearing a headset and soaking in the ambience. “They are the heartbeat of our organization,” Brown states. “People will understand that you care about them if you meet them where they’re at.”
None of this success would have been possible without strong support from the rest of the company’s leaders. “The one thing about leadership is you never do it by yourself,” Brown says. “Even though I was the sole lawyer here, I had to rely on tons of people to get me up to speed.” To realize his full potential at TQL, he had to learn what the truck brokerage business was all about. “People were very patient with me as I learned the industry in depth.”
He earned the respect and trust of his coworkers by admitting his vulnerability and owning his mistakes. He now returns the favor: “A lot of times, people come to you after a situation has happened and they know they made a mistake,” he says. “They come to you to pull them out of the quicksand. Although we cannot promise to pull them out without any quicksand residue left on them, we can pull them out.”
Sometimes, Brown needs to get pulled out of the quicksand, too, which is why he needs a highly capable team around him. He is proud that every member of his legal team has a hand in interviewing new hires. “Everyone is involved,” he says. “That way, there is full ownership when that person comes on board to be a part of our team.” Everybody on Brown’s team is equally responsible for the culture.
“A lot of times, people come to you after a situation has happened and they know they made a mistake. They come to you to pull them out of the quicksand.”
Brown’s longstanding commitment to culture helped ease the transition when he assumed leadership over TQL’s HR function. In this capacity, he has his eye on the future, particularly strategic staffing: “When TQL has ten thousand employees and is a five- to six-billion-dollar company, what does HR need to do to scale?” he says. “What is our model employee going to look like?”
Though Brown prioritizes personal growth, he does so in proportion to the growth of his team and his teaching of leadership. Driven to continuously learn, Brown keeps a large library of books and CDs in his office and finishes a book every two weeks. He also frequently lends—and gifts—books to TQL employees. “Develop my leaders: difficult to do, but it’s a simple goal,” he says. He regularly sits down with his reports and challenges them to answer the same questions he asks himself: What are you doing to further the goals of the company? How are you developing your team?
“Every human being wants to be accepted, acknowledged, and affirmed,” Brown says. He believes in recognizing people for both their professional and personal skills and strengths. He often reminds his crew that he values them, thanking them for their contributions via email or handwritten note. He also treats small groups of employees from the legal, HR, and operations departments to coffee or breakfast meetings. During these free-flowing conversations, he listens while people tell him what’s on their minds, get to know each other, and form lasting bonds.
“If leadership were easy, there wouldn’t be seventy thousand books about it,” Brown says. But he has faith that building up his team is the most worthwhile of endeavors. “Pouring into people and doing the right thing will always pay off.”
Dickinson Wright PLLC:
“Chris has mastered the ability, rare among lawyers, to merge in his decision making the legal and business aspects of an issue, always keeping in mind the overall bigger picture.”
–Matthew J. Wiles, Member
Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP:
Chris has been a perfect fit for a rapidly growing company like TQL. His attention to detail and work ethic are invaluable in such an environment. We are privileged to work closely with him.”