Libby Stockstill is the first to acknowledge that most people don’t think of lawyers as creative. However, at Vans, the global footwear and apparel brand, where she works as vice president and general counsel, she strives to disprove that notion every day. Stockstill brings creativity to everything she does, from working with other departments on key brand projects to problem-solving and mitigating legal and business risks. And, because of Vans’ boundary-pushing company culture, Stockstill has the freedom to embrace her creative side and inspire others to do the same.
Because creativity is part of every single role at Vans, Stockstill gets constant inspiration from her colleagues to explore nontraditional ideas. Instead of asking whether a certain policy or plan is possible, she and her coworkers ask, “What would have to be true for X?” Framing everything as within the realm of possibility shifts the perspective and fosters productive and open discussions and creative thinking.
“Sometimes, the ideas that you might have otherwise hesitated to bring up end up winning the day,” Stockstill says. As an example, she says, she might examine an issue or impasse that arises in a deal or transaction and use a combination of analytical and imaginative thinking to come up with a win-win solution, rather than accepting a more traditional compromise. She also spends a lot of time thinking about innovative ways to approach challenges and issues.
In bringing creativity to her legal efforts, Stockstill maximizes her effectiveness as a business partner, but she rejects the idea that an effective partnership means she has to be extraordinarily tolerant of risk. Instead, she says, it means “looking at risk and what we’re trying to achieve in context, assessing and prioritizing.”
In conversation with her colleagues, Stockstill identifies and talks about potential risks with an open mind so that they understand they also have a voice. “If I identify a potential issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a dealbreaker,” she says. “It just means it’s something we should think about, talk about, and understand.”
Her thoughtful approach helps her and her team earn the trust of colleagues across other functions, and a solid relationship with these groups means the legal team gets included in more discussions, which then adds to the legal team’s knowledge of the business and its strategic objectives and allows its members to make more beneficial suggestions. Every beneficial suggestion then helps to solidify the relationships with colleagues in Vans’s other business functions even further, creating what Stockstill calls a “virtuous cycle.”
While working actively to support the business side of Vans, Stockstill also inspires her subordinates—and colleagues in other departments—to think creatively. She often works cross-functionally because, as she says, her role “touches every aspect of the business.”
“I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how legal can best partner with the business to bring about the strategic objectives that we’re focused on,” Stockstill says.
Her diverse responsibilities push her to maintain working relationships with a lot of people, and she takes the opportunity to coax creative ideas out of all of them. The work often entails asking lots of questions. “As a brand centered on enabling creative expression, we are constantly challenging ourselves to think creatively and push the envelope,” Stockstill says. “To do my part in that, I try not to push a particular viewpoint at the outset of these discussions so that people feel free to explore and we learn in the process. Instead, I ask questions to spark creative thinking and to get the details and background needed to get to a solution.”
She also likes to organize brainstorming sessions. “I think the best ideas come from throwing something in the mix and iterating, so I like to provide a forum for that,” she says, adding that cross-functional brainstorming is the most exciting kind because of the diversity of perspectives. “It’s a team effort, and we work best when we’re all contributing and learning from one another.”
Employed by a VF Corporation-owned brand, Stockstill also notes the invaluable benefit of being part of the VF legal team. It provides her with a broader network of legal thought leaders and mentors across VF and Vans’s sister brands, including the North Face and Timberland, and she partners with them to learn new, creative ways to approach initiatives and issues.
Stockstill identifies creativity as a personal value of hers and recalls that she was a daydreamer with a vivid imagination as a kid. Her path eventually led her to law school, where she found she could ignite and apply that energy in a different way. Though Stockstill’s creative thinking didn’t start at Vans, the company has helpfully challenged her to rely on it every day and cultivate it in others. Both the company’s business objectives and Stockstill herself have benefitted. “I’m constantly being inspired by my colleagues to think creatively, and that makes it very natural and almost an imperative,” she says. “We live it and breathe it.”