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UPFRONT & PERSONAL: “Don’t shrink from a fight before you’ve been punched,” says Hannah Gordon of the SF 49ers

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 6 minute read

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 6 minute read

We continue our regular feature, Upfront & Personal, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal and business community.

Hannah Gordon, Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel for the San Francisco 49ers professional football team, spoke with Rose Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about the importance of recommendations from outside counsel, achieving grittiness, and developing personal habits for success.

Rose Ors: What is a childhood memory that brings you joy?

Hannah Gordon: When I was in seventh grade, Maya Angelou came to speak at my school in Oakland because her grandson was a student there. A teacher chose my artwork for the back of the event’s program and I was excited that Ms. Angelou would see something she had inspired me to make. I had read her powerful autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I had been so moved by her story that I could not wait to see her and hear her speak.

Maya Angelou’s writing, speaking, the way she carried herself in the world made me feel important and powerful which was what I yearned to feel as a little girl. She also made me appreciate that life has value and beauty.

Rose Ors: What is a moment in your career that stands out as pivotal?

Hannah Gordon: My career in sports began in college. In 2001, I became the first female football beat writer for my college newspaper, the UCLA Daily Bruin. My new role was a big win for me, and I hope it kept the door open for other women to follow.

Rose Ors: What was it like being the first woman to cover the team?

Hannah Gordon: It was mostly a positive experience. A particular highlight was covering the annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. At the time, apparently many people there had never seen a woman in a locker room before.

After the game, I walked down to the field on my way to the locker room when a male sportswriter stopped me and said gruffly, “You better get your interviews out here in case you’re not allowed in the locker room.” When I asked why he thought I would be stopped, he shot back, “That’s how we do it down here.” So, I had to decide quickly: Do I scramble for interviews on the field because someone told me I couldn’t go to the locker room or do I march to the locker room acting as if I belong, and proceed to do my job? I chose to confidently walk straight to the locker room — and nobody stopped me.

Hannah Gordon, GC for the San Francisco 49ers

That experience taught me several things. First, be careful to whom you listen. Second, do not let others dissuade you from pursuing your goals. Lastly, don’t shrink from the fight before you’ve been punched. I have applied those lessons countless times throughout my career.

Rose Ors: Where did you get your grittiness?

Hannah Gordon: There is no specific thing I can point to as a critical factor. I have always had a strong drive to succeed, a drive coupled with perseverance. I am stubborn and won’t give up until I have found a way to make it happen.

Rose Ors: Let’s talk about your new book, SZN of Change, which offers an 8-week journaling guide to success. What was your impetus for writing the book?

Hannah Gordon: Throughout my years in sports, young people ask me for advice on how to be a boss, and how to own their careers and their lives. I have always tried to help them as much as I could, often suggesting specific exercises for them to do. However, I hated not giving them enough tools to put into practice for the length of time needed to change their lives. I knew that football had provided me a template for success — from vision setting, to game planning, to team building. So, I wrote SZN of Change.

The book presents daily practices that I know from experience can help anyone — at any stage in their life and whether or not you like sports — develop habits to win in their personal and professional lives.

Rose Ors: Speaking of habits, how has the pandemic been for you now that much of work is done remotely?

Hannah Gordon: It has not been easy. For me, e-mail, the phone, and even Zoom work well as a means of exchanging information, but they do not help forge meaningful connections. I miss the in-person interactions you have when everyone is in the office.

I miss the bustle, the casual chit-chat we previously may have thought was a waste of time. A situation like this makes you realize that wasn’t true at all. It is the small interactions you have with people that build rapport. They allow you to hear a little bit about someone’s life outside of work. I miss that a lot.

Rose Ors: If you could have anyone over for dinner — living or dead — who would it be? And what questions would you ask them?

Hannah Gordon: I would need a dinner party. Perhaps more than one. There are so many people I would like to speak with who were famous, but I am also interested in the lives we have not recorded. I would invite my ancestors both recent and relatives who lived centuries ago and whose stories have been lost. I would ask them about their lives.

Rose Ors: Now the final question. Besides legal acumen, how can outside law firms add value?

Hannah Gordon: Law firms can add value by providing practical, timely advice that recommends a final decision. In-house, we always have to deal with fact-specific, time-sensitive questions that require a risk assessment and a conclusion. It does not help when a law firm gives us a brilliant 20-page memo covering all aspects of a potential issue that leaves the client wondering at infinite possibilities.

What we need is a risk assessment of actionable options, a recommendation, and why it is the best course of action. We can then agree or disagree, but we have the right materials with which to make the final call.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.

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