[In honor of the 49ers making the Super Bowl, here’s my previous interview with Hannah Gordon, counsel for the team.]
Football isn’t something I usually cover. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever written about it until now. But I got to talk with Hannah Gordon, Director of Legal Affairs for the San Francisco 49ers, as the team heads into the playoff season for the first time since 2002. This is exciting for the club and for Hannah who just joined the team last year. And yes, it is unusual for an NFL team to have a young woman as their lead counsel and that’s what interested me in interviewing Hannah.
Hannah and I talked about her love of football and being a woman in a male-dominated field for The Huffington Post, but our conversation ranged into other areas as well. So here’s her take on the challenge of negotiation, the best advice she’s ever received and some thoughts on 49ers Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh.
Hannah and her boss, Patty Inglis (Executive Vice President, Stadium Project) make up the in house legal team for the 49ers. While they work with outside attorneys, it’s Hannah and Patty handling the daily stuff.
“It’s funny because football teams have such a big footprint, but when you really look at how big the organization is our player roster is like 80 people and then other than that we have about 140 full time employees including coaching staff. So we’re actually like a small business and we’re a family owned business, but we have a big reach.”
I asked Hannah if she thought there was an advantage in being a woman in a male-dominated business and this led us into talking about the skill of negotiating as part of her job.
“I don’t want to generalize about different genders, but I do think that as a woman you do have a little bit different perspective and you tend to come in very aware of what other people are feeling. Actually when I was interviewing, our COO was telling me how he feels it’s very important when you’re going into a negotiation to have a sense of the room. A feel for the other people. Where are they coming from? I think that women in general tend to have a pretty strong emotional intelligence. But I would say, regardless of what gender you are, it’s very useful in my job to have emotional intelligence.
Sometimes it’s easier to step back and see things differently than maybe some other people… who have been so much a part of the club. I think I noticed that more at the NFL, pretty much everyone I was working with were men who’d been doing what they were doing a long time.”
There’s a sensitivity that Hannah and I both felt in talking and writing about this subject. How do you talk about gender differences without alienating anyone? Hannah loves her job. She loves the energy of the team– players, coaches and front office. She describes 49ers owner Jed York as a “young, forward-thinking person who’s really brought a lot of energy to our organization. He wants the best people.” Of the five people who report directly to Jed, Hannah said that, “three of them are sort of outside your traditional power structure.”
It’s easy to get caught up in Hannah’s enthusiasm for her work. It got me back to watching football at least for the playoff season. We talked about the skills she brings to her job. I asked where her negotiating skills came from.
“I don’t know that I always feel like I have those skills. Those are probably the most challenging part because you don’t have an easy way of measuring that. We all grow up going to school, taking tests, getting grades and then you’re actually thrown into the real world and you need to negotiate with another lawyer. You never know going into [negotiating] what the other person is going to be like, what they’re thinking. So I do think those soft skills are important for anyone at any job.
I hope I’m developing those skills, I hope I have those skills. But it’s always hard to evaluate ourselves. In real life, the cards are never shown. You never know if someone thinks they’ve gotten a good deal. I think that is one of the big challenges.”
This brought us back around to gender and good advice. How do you move forward when the person sitting across the table from you hasn’t won on early negotiations and here you are for round 2.
“That’s an excellent point because it kind of reminds me of your gender question before. Again, I don’t think all women or men are like this, but people who have not been in the powerful, mainstream positions are accustomed to seeing this from the other person’s perspective. How does the other person feel, what does the other person think? We’re used to sort of accommodating to that. In some ways that can be very useful in negotiation.
I knew a lawyer when I was in law school and I was telling him that I was taking a class on negotiation and he was like, ‘That’s silly. No one can teach you how to negotiate.’ It takes time and practice.”
Hannah mentioned a number of people who have really helped her along the way. From patient coaches at UCLA answering her basic football questions to tough love from other women and men at the NFL. Here’s a piece of advice she’s never forgotten.
“One of the funniest things somebody ever said to me was my boss Peter [Ruocco, Sr VP of Labor Relations for the NFL]. It was like 10 o’clock at night, we were all working so hard and I got choked up during a conversation. I am generally very prideful about never showing emotion and being girly at work, but I got choked up and he was like, “You can’t cry!” I know, I know I can’t cry. And it was just so funny, but on some level he’s so right. You really can’t. It’s not okay. There’s no crying in football.”
And right now, the 49ers have no reason to cry. They’re 13 – 3 on the regular season. They had a bye last weekend and the game this weekend against the Saints for the NFC Championship should be fantastic. Jim Harbaugh is having a very successful first year as 49ers Head Coach. Along with that success, he’s had a lot of media scrutiny. Here’s what Hannah had to say about Coach Harbaugh and the way he handles the press.
“I think he’s fantastic because if you look at other head coaches, he never gets angry at people. But he can not answer the question while still letting you know–Here’s why I’m not going to answer your question and let’s move forward. He’s just very clear with them about what he does and doesn’t want to talk about and why. I think he’s great with the media. I think he just has a very focused attitude in general. And a very positive attitude which is one of the nice things he’s brought to our building. I don’t know what it was like before he was here because he came in a few months before I did, but it’s all about the team and then family. It’s a warm environment and about motivating people from a positive place. I think in football, like in anything else, there are people who motivate you from the positive, yes-you-can-do-it standpoint and people who motivate others by scaring them or being negative. I love that things are happening here from a really positive standpoint.”
Thank you to Eileen and Lisa for introducing me to Hannah. And thanks for Hannah for such a great conversation. If it weren’t for the loyalty I feel to my father and the NY Giants games he took me to when I was in college, I might even consider rooting for the 49ers.
Click here for the link to the piece in the Huffington Post.