Assistant General Counsel Joan Steinmann experienced many twists and turns—personal and professional—in her journey to H.B. Fuller Company, a leading adhesives manufacturing company. But she has found success thanks to her decision to show up every day as her authentic self. “You wind up being more powerful, influential, and effective when you’re not attempting to be something you’re not,” she says simply.
Steinmann started as a litigator at a large firm in Los Angeles after graduating from the University of Minnesota and continued in private practice for about eighteen years. “That experience will always shape my practice,” she says, “in my way of thinking about law, my way of handling situations, my writing, and all the skills and patterns that I developed as a big-firm litigator.”
When Steinmann’s son reached middle school age, she made the decision to leave LA and return to Minnesota. Steinmann’s son is on the autism spectrum, she explains, and she hoped to leverage more family support by moving back home.
“[My son’s diagnosis] took additional energy, thought, and time,” Steinmann says. “To keep leading the big-firm life, I would have had to focus a lot more on generating business, as that becomes really important as an add-on to all the hours you’re putting in. I just didn’t have the bandwidth.”
In addition to more support at home, Steinmann also found a different workplace culture in Minnesota. “The law firm culture in LA is exciting but hard-charging,” she remarks. “It’s difficult to advance unless you commit yourself to a lifestyle in which personal and family needs take a back seat.
“The legal culture in Minnesota is a lot more congenial to work/life balance,” she continues. “I found my colleagues in private practice here, even at a big firms, didn’t seem to be working unreasonable hours, and it’s accepted—even expected—that an attorney will also ‘have a life.’ It’s still very professional here, but a little more low-key, to a degree that surprised me.”
The improved work/life balance Steinmann found in Minnesota became invaluable as the attorney began navigating legal challenges related to her son’s experience in special education. “He has Asperger’s syndrome, and what we found was a lot of legal regulatory challenges around the rules for special education and therapies,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I had my own personal legal challenges, parallel to practicing as a lawyer.”
At the same time, Steinmann was making another transition: taking on her first in-house role when she joined the team at H.B. Fuller. “That was a welcomed new challenge for me after taking over a year off to focus on my son and get him situated in middle school.” Eventually, she was promoted to a leadership role supervising compliance and litigation globally.
Throughout all of this, Steinmann remained true to herself and transparent about what she needed to help her son thrive. As she explains, one of her former colleagues in private practice had set a strong example in this regard, bringing her full self to work every day as a big-firm partner, down to her one-time life as a Radio City Rockette.
“[She was] a real go-getter in litigation, really a fighter,” Steinmann recalls of her colleague. “She set a good example of incorporating your personality and infusing that into how you behave as a leader—laying that on the table for your colleagues, for your reports, for everybody who you work with—and not trying to brush it under the carpet or pretend to be somebody that you’re not but making it part of how you do your job and how you interact with people.”
That approach to authentic leadership is a lesson that Steinmann applies today as assistant general counsel. “I let people know who I am and use that in my interactions with my peers and those who report to me,” she explains. “Part of the reason for that is I want to set an example for my reports to be themselves with me and in their jobs, to bring that authenticity into their roles, and not be afraid to mesh their stories and perspectives into how they do things and how they accomplish their goals and objectives. Doing it this way creates a greater level of energy in my team.”