Lisa Gressel has needed to learn the ins and outs of many different industries in her career. Over the course of more than thirty years, she has held leadership roles in legal offices in the telecomm, pharmacy, and retail industries, among others, each with its own unique array of challenges and necessary knowledge. While some may be intimidated by the tireless work ethic required to achieve success while going through such massive change, Gressel lives by a simple mantra: “Don’t underestimate yourself.” Today, she uses that mantra to inspire others, both in her current role as general counsel of the international restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s, as well as for aspiring women leaders across the legal landscape.
“Early on in my career, I was full of self-doubt. I still have doubt. Everybody has doubt every now and then,” Gressel says. “But somewhere along the line, I decided I could learn a new industry, and I could learn new regulations.”
Gressel started her career in GE’s aircraft engines group, surrounded by retired military veterans, primarily older men. She found herself one of few women in the office, while also in need of a mentor. Though she would have liked to have found a woman in leadership to learn from, Gressel instead learned from anyone that she felt could teach her. “I’m very inquisitive, I’m always learning, and I’m not afraid to talk to people,” she says.
From there, Gressel continued to take every opportunity she could to learn new tasks and take on new challenges. Early on, she focused on process improvement, compliance, and efficiency using her Six Sigma background as inspiration. After compliance officer and general counsel stops at organizations such as Nortel Networks, Avella Specialty Pharmacy, and PetSmart, Gressel learned of an opening at P.F. Chang’s. The organization had a renowned reputation in the Scottsdale, Arizona area, where Gressel was based, and she was already a customer of the chain.
While she hadn’t added the restaurant and hospitality industry to her extensive list of experiences, Gressel knew that she could handle the challenge. In fact, she found that there was significant overlap in the role with her previous experience. “For example, pharmacies and pharmacists have to be licensed by the board of pharmacy. In the restaurant industry, you have to have liquor licenses to sell alcohol,” says Gressel, now general counsel of P.F. Chang’s. “Getting a liquor license is very similar to getting a pharmacy license. They’re different regulating boards and agencies, but the processes are very similar.”
In addition to licensing, Gressel quickly identified the most important issues that the P.F. Chang’s legal office would need to face. Similar to her stint in retail, the team would need to handle leases, employee safety issues, and customer safety. Perhaps the most important concern is food safety, but that merely offers Gressel further opportunity to learn. “I’ve learned over the years that from a legal perspective, even though the industry may be different and there may be unique regulations that apply to that particular industry, that a lot of the work is very similar and translates very easily,” she explains.
And now that she has reached a leadership stage in her profession, Gressel has taken on the mentor role she had lacked early in her career. By working with the mentorship organization Ladder Down, Gressel has had the ability to offer a helping hand to women in the legal field who are seeking a way to their own leadership role. Ladder Down is a twelve-month program that brings in a variety of legal executives each month to discuss topics such as personality testing, career path auditing, and even closed-door conversations with male partners to discuss the reality of how male partners view younger women associates.
Gressel participates in a session in which women general counsel share what they look for when hiring women and law firms. “We discuss why we would pick a client and what has made us successful in our career,” she explains. “It’s something I’m incredibly passionate about, and I hope that these women do the same in twenty years. We need more women who support other women.”
That same mantra and approach is essential in the office as well. Gressel surrounds herself with the smartest, most qualified people possible, and leads them to constantly strive to improve. Clear goals and guidelines, she stresses, are essential—as is holding people accountable and having tough conversations when those aren’t met.
But as much as her own personal mantra powers everything that Gressel does, she also lives by P.F. Chang’s corporate mission: “Celebrate Life. Family. Food.” And while that mission might not connect with the traditional understanding of the legal office’s function, Gressel has found that all of her work ties to supporting the individual restaurants’ and employees’ ability to help P.F. Chang’s customers celebrate.
“I’ve really focused the department on finding the real value of their work and how it serves the restaurant.”
“When I first joined the organization, I sat down with each member of the legal team to understand their workload and see how it was helping our servers celebrate life, family, and food,” Gressel says. “Sometimes that means making major changes, but my whole approach focuses on efficiency and embracing that mission. I’ve really focused the department on finding the real value of their work and how it serves the restaurant.”
Photo: Elisa Cordova, Sara Tiberio