An interview with Block’s global head of intellectual property felt more like a TED Talk than a casual conversation, not in an unnatural way, but the lawyer knew what he wanted to say and how to best get it across. Gilbert Wong doesn’t believe in winging it. That might be his master’s in electrical engineering or his bachelor’s in physics showing through.
The lawyer whose previous roles include Facebook (now Meta) and a host of private firm experience is able to apply an engineer’s and physicist’s brain not just to legal work, but professional development and team building. When he urges younger lawyers to see failures and feedback as an opportunity to tweak their approach, to practice it every day, and to get it right, it’s advice coming from an attorney who is relentless about growth for himself.
Considering Wong’s track record, it might be easy to think that he’s just one of those people, born to lead, born to practice, a natural speaker and able to offer advice despite having never had to truly struggle in a role. It’s just not the case. Case in point: Wong was flat-out told he wasn’t ready for a promotion he was seeking at a prior company.
Wong thought he was a prime candidate for a leadership position that opened years ago, but while traveling with a company vice president, the leader was fairly decisive about his advice.
“He said that I needed more time in my role,” Wong remembers. “I needed to experience more, I needed to work on executive presence, and a number of other areas he felt I needed to grow into. I walked away thinking about how painful that conversation was. I wasn’t sure if I should leave the company or what.”
But here lies one of Wong’s superpowers: reflection. He wasn’t being discouraged. He was being challenged. The VP had brought up several people who he thought Wong could look to for advice and counsel. So, the lawyer made a plan.
“I went through everything we talked about methodically, working through every developmental area,” he says. “I would work on it every day until I got it. It was frustrating because I would often receive the same feedback over and over again even though I was working on addressing the development area. That’s just how the process works. I had to be okay with being uncomfortable. I had to learn to seek out feedback even if it meant feeling frustrated about not making progress. I knew that I would get there over time if I kept working at it.”
In order to grow into leadership positions, Wong needed to lead teams in areas where he may not have been the subject matter expert. But the attorney brought much-needed context and resources and a keen understanding of interpersonal relationships. So, while he may not have had every answer, he learned how to support his people and to be a true servant-leader.
“I’m not here to dictate how you should do your job,” Wong explains. “That never works, and I see people do it all the time. You have to build that trust, and your people need to feel supported to succeed doing it their way. That’s how you unlock your team’s potential to innovate and deliver impactful results.”
Wong says that creating a framework for how work gets done is much more effective than trying to do everyone’s job for them. His key components of leadership are: have a vision for the team, understand the people on your team, reserve time to think, and ensure that you have an operational strategy to achieve the vision.
As he has risen through roles, Wong has said that time has become especially important for him to accommodate. “I’m in meetings all day getting information about the matters we handle,” Wong says. “I need the time to think through all of these matters, so I block off big chunks in my calendar where I can just think. In any given week, I may not be able to tell you what my work product is, but I can show you how my team has moved from point A to point B over the course of three months, six months or a year.”
“What really makes Gilbert unique is his understanding that the key to building a great team is empowering others, says Rob Hartman, CEO and owner at Lee & Hayes, P.C. “He is an insightful and compassionate leader that makes people feel trusted and valued, which provides a foundation on which people can be the best version of themselves. We’re grateful we’ve had the opportunity to partner with and learn from Gilbert.”
There is an optimism to Wong that feels authentic. He says it’s probably due to an outlook he had to develop early on. As a child, Wong suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which prevented him from enjoying most physical activities. While his friends were playing sports, Wong says he was faced with a choice. He could either sulk, or he could find a way to be involved.
“Since I couldn’t participate in many physical activities, I had to make the best of the situation. So, I decided to learn to watch people and to study behavior,” the lawyer explains. “I just became a really reflective kid and learned how to observe. There are skills I still use to this day that I learned during those years: analyzing facial expressions and body language, and empathy. Those come in helpful as a manager. I just tried to stay positive. Sure, there were days when I couldn’t get up, but I just tried to focus on other things like this.”
Wong advises younger professionals to take the time to become subject matter experts. If it truly takes ten thousand hours to become an expert in your craft, and two thousand hours are the average number of hours billed in a year, then they should probably think twice about leaving before they’ve truly gotten their reps (and years) in.
“You’ll hopefully find this continues throughout your career as you learn new skills,” Wong says. “I’m just now five years into my redevelopment as a manager and a leader. Try and maintain that growth mindset, and don’t be afraid to put the time in.”
“Gilbert has the rare ability to execute on a company’s strategic vision in a way that embraces the diversity of thought and background of his team. He’s a true leader and we feel honored to call him a colleague.”
–Jonathan Lee, Shareholder