Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

Public Storage’s Lily Hughes knows each of her team members can bring something unique to the table, and that approach is helping to position the organization’s legal function as a trusted business partner

Lily Hughes, Public Storage

There’s a classic proverb about two people fighting over an orange. Eventually, one of them will win and get the whole piece of fruit, and the other person will be left empty-handed. But if they were to just talk about what they actually wanted, then they could find out that one was after the rind for baking and the other just wants a glass of orange juice. Although the lesson may not be a direct correlation to the interests of various departments in a corporation, Public Storage’s Lily Hughes, senior vice president, chief legal officer, and corporate secretary, sees it as a prime example of how the legal office can best serve a company. “When I joined Public Storage, I made sure the legal function became an integral part of the business and involved in day-to-day decisions in every field,” she says. Knowing exactly what part of the orange each party wants and why they want it, Hughes explains, will allow the legal department to make sure they all get it.

Hughes is a lifelong learner, inspired at a young age by her parents. When Hughes was growing up in Hong Kong, her mother, who couldn’t read or write, and her father, who wasn’t educated beyond high school, constantly pushed the importance of education. When her family moved to the United States, that message was only amplified, as Hughes’s parents strived to take the opportunities they could to build a better life for their children.

In fact, Hughes has been able to give back and continue that passion by teaching others. While working as vice president and associate general counsel at Ingram Micro, Hughes cotaught a course with her company’s Leadership Academy at University of California-Irvine School of Business on how to effectively influence without authority or a high-ranking title.

Hughes ensures that the legal team at Public Storage is always learning from others and always available to share the knowledge it has. The team hosts regular lunch-and-learn meetings where other teams present on topics such as finance, marketing, and investor relations. In these scenarios, she asks more questions than she gives directives because her philosophy is to always look to amass the best answers from the most information. “I’m focused on education so that we can understand context and make better decisions,” she says. “I want people to think of us not just as lawyers but as part of their team. We’re stronger together.”

All of these traits come counter to what many might expect from a traditional legal function. Individuals at other companies may see the legal function as a roadblock, as the team ready to say no to ideas and as a team in an ivory tower. But with all of her initiatives, Hughes wants the team to feel more like just another function, one that’s involved and eager to help in every new project.

And helping teams grow stronger, Hughes says, is beneficial for every employee and the organization as a whole. In order to retain top talent, companies need to provide them with the ability to grow and develop new skills. In fact, Hughes ensures that her team members have every opportunity to grow, and when they’ve outgrown their role, she will help find them new responsibilities that offer growth. Their personal success is in the best interest of the company, she says.

And all of that intelligent, strategic growth leads to rapid change. “The only thing that is constant is change,” Hughes says with a laugh. Although Public Storage follows the cadences of any public company in terms of reporting and disclosures to shareholders, each day provides a different set of challenges and opportunities. The company operates about 2,400 self-storage properties across thirty-eight states in the United States, serving more than 1.5 million customers. That leads to many complexities that the legal team needs to address.

The internal audit team also reports to Hughes, and the legal team advises another public company, PS Business Parks, which adds another layer of interconnection to
Hughes’s role.

But her mind-set would seem to indicate the more the merrier. “I’m very much a relationship-building type of leader,” Hughes explains. When working with others, she also stresses transparency, resilience, and empathy, which is always tied to learning from others. That mind-set extends to her own leadership development, as she attends conferences and meetings to become a better leader. One lecture from Judy Olian, dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management, proved particularly enlightening and became a major aspect of the way Hughes teaches her team, sharing Olian’s top ten leadership qualities. “If I see something interesting, I send it to my team,” she says. “The greatest joy as a leader is to have people you touch later share how even a small act of kindness has helped them.”

Being able to deliver those acts of kindness relies on knowing what form it should take and then honoring the commitment. It comes down to respect and trust, Hughes says, and one failure in either respect can seriously damage an essential relationship. “Setting expectations about commitment is really critical so the team can always live up to their commitments with others,” she says.

As a company, Public Storage lives up to many of those same values. Rather than keep strategy locked away or relegated to only a few members of the leadership group, Hughes and other leaders share their perspectives and make sure that the work of the team is tied to the same unified strategy. When people are better informed, she explains, they work better, become better lawyers, and eventually make better business executives and leaders themselves. Everyone works in the same direction when they have a shared knowledge base and speak with transparency. That single orange can go a long way when you can have an open, honest discussion about how many people there are, what pieces they need, and why they need it.

Photo: Sheri Geoffreys