The Flat Path Up

A meritocratic culture empowers ViaSat employees to take an active part in the communications company’s success

Keven Lippert, second from left, leads a meeting at ViaSat’s campus in Carlsbad, CA.

When ViaSat’s president walked into general counsel Keven Lippert’s office, the lawyer was poring over complex Excel spreadsheets. Lippert’s team had been working on a $500 million acquisition, and they needed to finish the deal before the preannouncement was released by the Wall Street Journal. Seeing what Lippert was working on, the president asked, “What can I do?”

“Actually,” Lippert replied, “I just printed off 10 copies of these spreadsheets. Can you sort them for me, and staple them?”

ViaSat’s president didn’t hesitate. He went to the printer and began leafing through the documents and stapling them together. “That’s what needed to be done,” Lippert says. “There was no ego, no, ‘hey, I’m the president; don’t ask me to do that.’ He just did it. That’s the kind of people that we try to hire.”

Lippert tells this story during interviews to assess whether candidates for positions at ViaSat will fit well into the company’s horizontal meritocracy. “A lot of people say they have a culture like ours, but our company really does take a team approach,” he says.

Advice from ViaSat’s legal team is valued throughout the company, and not just from a legal perspective. Lawyers at ViaSat are asked to voice their opinions about business practices as well. The general counsel before Lippert, who also served as CFO and oversaw manufacturing, largely established that culture, and the structure goes both ways. Other employees feel free to voice their opinions about what the legal team is working on.

“If you’re challenging other people on the business aspects of a deal, they’re going to challenge you on the legal aspects,” Lippert explains. “When you have a meritocracy, you have to convince people why you’re right. You have to be good at debating at ViaSat.”

ViaSat’s campus is designed to meet the needs of its staff. Employees can bike between buildings and enjoy a basketball or volleyball game during lunch.
ViaSat’s campus is designed to meet the needs of its staff. Employees can bike between buildings and enjoy a basketball or volleyball game during lunch.

Adjusting to that culture is sometimes hard for lawyers new to the company, Lippert admits. It will take a couple of months for them to settle into ViaSat’s casual dress code of shorts and sandals, but adjusting to a culture in which they’re often questioned takes longer. “It’s casual, like our dress code,” Lippert remarks. “You don’t have rules where rules aren’t needed. We trust our employees to know what’s appropriate.”

Many of the people that Lippert hires come from law firms and are regarded as experts in their field. As such, being questioned by accountants, engineers, and other employees can sometimes throw them off. “Sometimes your natural reaction is to say, ‘I’m the lawyer, I went to law school, just believe me,’” Lippert says. “You don’t get to do that at ViaSat.”

The source of ViaSat’s meritocratic culture lies at its roots. Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s co-founder and current CEO and chairman, worked as an engineer at Linkabit when the San Diego-based company was purchased. The new owners built a bureaucratic culture, which frustrated many of the employees. Several broke away to found new companies within the industry, such as Qualcomm and ViaSat. Dankberg swore his company would never be built on organizational charts and a top-down flow of information. “Our philosophy is: if you hire really good people, you don’t need to create a lot of rules and bureaucracy,” Lippert says. “[Dankberg] wanted to ensure that we allowed people to do what we hired them to do.”

During interviews, Lippert always asks candidates how much time they spend reading legal documents and works. They generally reply, all of the time they have set aside for reading. Not Lippert. He spends 90 percent of his reading time on works about the communications industry or ViaSat’s business, and about 10 percent on legal matters. “When we need an expert on something from a legal perspective, I can hire that,” Lippert insists. “But I can’t hire a lawyer that understands all the nuances of our industry and markets. That’s my job.”

It’s a steep learning curve for the lawyers he hires, but Lippert asserts that as long as he continues to choose smart people, they’ll catch on. Lippert takes a long view in recruiting: when he meets a lawyer he likes, he’ll stay in touch with them for years, until a spot opens up. “I’ve never hired anyone out of an open net,” he admits. “I always know who they are before we even have a spot open.”

The lawyers he looks for don’t need a technical background or a particular skill set, necessarily. It depends what the legal team is hiring for—patent lawyers, for example, need experience in the industry. But what’s most important to Lippert is hiring smart people who are prepared to contribute to all aspects of the business. “We trust our employees,” he reasons. “That’s why we don’t need a lot a lot of layers and rules. If you hire really good people, then you should treat them like they’re really good people.”