Leading by Inspiration

Chris Brennan advocates for empowering people to accomplish tasks in their own ways, which inspires them to achieve beyond expectations

Chris Brennan, Senior Vice President, General Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer,  NBTY. Photo:  Tom Arato
Chris Brennan, Senior Vice President, General Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer,
NBTY. Photo: Tom Arato

When Chris Brennan was a captain in the US Air Force, he learned a lesson he would carry through his career: you don’t manage people; you lead them. “Managing people involves controlling them to meet specific objectives; leading people involves inspiring and motivating them to move in the direction you want them to move,” says Brennan, who is now general counsel and chief compliance officer of NBTY. The company, since its founding as a family business in 1971, has grown to nearly $4 billion in revenue, making it one of the world’s largest provider of nutritional supplements, selling more than 22,000 products under an array of brands that include Nature’s Bounty, Solgar, and Sundown.

Brennan learned that lesson after college, when he spent six years working in space and missile command and control operations in the US Air Force. There, he was in charge of crews of up to twenty-five people. The ultimate objectives varied by crew, but Brennan found that there was one key to achieving them: not setting limits on how those objectives would be achieved. “Managing to achieve set objectives is for projects, when you know exactly what the outcome should be and how to get there, but not people,” Brennan says. “By empowering people to do things their way, you inspire them, and you often find that what they achieve is beyond what they would have achieved if you had managed instead of led.”

Brennan fine-tuned this management strategy after leaving the US Air Force, when he obtained a law degree and spent five years in private practice at the New York City law firms of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and Dechert LLP before tackling the general counsel positions at Quinnova Pharmaceuticals and PharmaNet. Those roles showed him that in any industry, leading instead of managing is key to success. At PharmaNet, for example, Brennan was tasked with helping execute an eventual exit strategy set by the company’s private-equity owners—a strategy that was ultimately successful and brought Brennan to NBTY in 2012.

Key to leading successfully, Brennan has learned, is being a resource to your team members without providing them a detailed road map. “You say to them, ‘We know what the objectives of this project are, and there are major milestones on the road there. I’m here for you, and we’re going to work through this project together, but how we reach those milestones is largely going to be left up to you,’” he says.

It’s imperative when using this strategy to identify or help identify the resources the people you’re leading will need to be successful. “People often tend to underestimate the resources they need because they’re trying to do too much themselves,” Brennan says. “That leads to frustration and projects that fall short of their objectives.”

As an example of this strategy in action, Brennan points to a recent acquisition by NBTY. NBTY’s legal team was so successful in the execution of the deal, it was also put in charge of integrating the new business into the existing business. That’s usually outside the scope of the legal department, says Brennan, but he readily took on the task, identifying the people he thought had the best skill sets for the job, such as project-management expertise. He then sat down with them and walked them through what he thought would be necessary for success, such as identifying the software that would track the project, assembling a cross-functional team that would oversee the integration across the company, and determine what internal and external service providers (such as NBTY’s supply-chain management team and outside counsel) would be good resources. Then, says Brennan, all that was left was ensuring that team members knew how to deploy those resources they’d been empowered with. They did, and the project was a success.

Had Brennan taken the opposite approach, managing instead of leading, he would have given his team a timeline and a clear expectation of the end point, then asked them to get busy and report back weekly so mid-course corrections could be made. That’s not a bad approach in all cases; Brennan finds that it works when the project pertains to what team members are doing day in and day out. However, if there’s any kind of nuance to the project, the management approach leads to inefficiencies on the front end of the project, and “sometimes inefficiencies can grow exponentially to a point that the project has no chance of succeeding,” Brennan says. 

Patterson Belknap is proud to represent NBTY, a global leader in wellness products. We value our partnership with NBTY and admire the company for its creative and cost-effective approach to legal matters. We congratulate our colleague Chris Brennan and his team on this well-deserved recognition. Patterson Belknap, a 200-lawyer firm based in New York City, is ranked seventh on The American Lawyer’s 2014 “A-List” of the twenty leading law firms in the United States.