Jeff Snider’s Drive to Mentor

Jeff Snider, general counsel of Sonus Networks, has helped develop seven general counsel over his career.

Jeff Snider’s life, both at work and at play, is all about variety. He loves to tinker on antique cars, like his 1960 Austin-Healey, build furniture, and go mountain biking. “I am interested in a lot of things,” says Snider, senior vice president, general counsel, chief administrative officer, and secretary to the board of Sonus Networks, in Westford, Massachusetts. That long title, likewise, allows him to keep his hands in almost every area of the company. “I have a great job for someone with a short attention span,” he says.

Jeff Snider, VP, General Counsel, Chief Administrative Officer of Sonus Networks

One thing he pays close attention to, however, is leadership. Snider is a first-class mentor. In fact, at least seven of the lawyers he helped develop over the course of his career have gone on to be general counsel at their respective companies. “I believe in hiring people who are smarter than me and then giving them the opportunity to succeed,” he says. “The number who’ve gone on to general counsel roles is the best indication that I have done a pretty good job hiring smart, competent, motivated people, and that is something I am proudest of.”

Snider, fifty-three, was born and raised outside of Boston. He attended Amherst College and the University of Virginia law school. He started his career at Hutchins & Wheeler, then the oldest law firm in Boston, founded in 1844. “It still had Hutchinses & Wheelers in the practice, which was incredible,” he says. He then worked as general counsel at a small Internet company. “That was attractive because in a legal world that required increasing specialization, I could do all kinds of different things. I never worked on anything more than about forty-five minutes,” he says.

After other jobs at both public and private companies, he found himself at Sonus Networks in 2009. Sonus develops cloud- and hardware-based solutions for VoIP, video, IM, and online collaboration. He was hired as general counsel. He now oversees four other attorneys and a paralegal. Over the years, he has gathered even more responsibilities: real estate, travel management, and human resources, overseeing HR for about 1,100 employees in thirty countries.

Automobile Obsession

Jeff Snider has been interested in cars for about as long as he can remember.

“My dad was always into cars, I’ve been into cars since I was a little kid, and my son has been into cars since he was a little kid,” Snider says. “It’s now something that all three generations enjoy.”

In his early twenties, Snider bought his first antique automobile, a 1967 Sunbeam Alpine, the same model that his dad drove as a new car when he was a kid. After more than twenty years of buying cars, Snider has owned a series of vintage British and German cars, but never more than one at a time. Currently, he has a classic 1960 Austin-Healey convertible.

“I enjoy fixing them up, driving and showing them, and then selling them and moving along to something else,” he says.

Outside of the real vintage wheels, Snider says that he races what he jokingly calls a “modern antique.” Each year for the 24 Hours of Lemons race, he takes out his 1990 Volkswagen Jetta in an endurance race series for $500 cars.

Hiring right and coaching well are the keys to his success. One hiring trick he uses is asking about a candidate’s athletic background. “When interviewing, we try to find out what sports the person played growing up,” he says. “To me, someone who played a lot of team sports is more attractive than someone who focused exclusively on individual sports. It’s that ethic and desire to be part of a team. I want someone who is smart but doesn’t have a big ego, who wants to contribute to the organization rather than himself or herself.”

As a mentor, Snider offers many teachable moments. At weekly team meetings, he discusses recent issues and how he approached them. “Sometimes, it is specific; other times it’s more philosophical,” he says. “I am coaching them to be comfortable with their decisions. I tell them, ‘Come to me only after you have tried everything or if it is a high-profile thing that I need to be comfortable with.’”

Snider also coaches his people to be facilitators, not hindrances. He often tells his mentees the same story: At Hutchins & Wheeler, he was assigned a mentor. A few years later, Snider’s mentor left to go in-house. About a year later, Snider asked him the difference between being in private practice and being in-house. “He said, ‘In private practice, people pay hundreds of dollars an hour for your time, so they listen to what you have to say. In-house, you have to be more careful because if you are viewed as an inhibitor, they will avoid you. Then, you don’t know what’s happening in the business and you can’t help,” Snider explains. “He said to take the opposite approach. Ask how you can make their lives easier. After that, they will seek you out, and you can have an impact on the business.”

Snider took that lesson to heart and passes it on to the attorneys under his charge. “Never say no—unless it’s illegal or immoral,” he advises. “Instead say, ‘OK, and have you thought about this or that?’ Your job is helping people do their job better, faster, and with less risk. That is absolutely critical. I talk about it during the recruiting process; that is how important it is. When you do that, the rest of the company seeks you out. I love it when someone says, ‘We thought of a problem and hope you guys can help.’ That is very different than, ‘I know we have to run this by you, but whatever you say we will do it anyway.’ It makes our work more enjoyable and makes us more tightly integrated into the business.”

As an example, he mentions that Sonus is currently dealing with a technical security issue. It’s not a legal issue at all, but someone still felt comfortable reaching out to legal to help resolve it. And that’s exactly what Snider wants.

It all comes back to his belief in varied interests. “We want to do a wide range of things,” he explains. “If someone says that he is the leading expert in one thing, that is probably not the person we are looking for. We want someone who loves doing all kinds of things, someone who wants to go figure it out. Because that’s fun.”