The prospect of returning to work following a maternity or paternity leave can be incredibly challenging—not just from the point of view of a parent having to spend time away from their child, but also the weeks or months that one is removed from the hectic day-to-day of the workplace can make for a bumpy readjustment. Pamela Helman, vice president of legal at MOD Pizza, had already made this readjustment twice before in her career, so why not make the third time interesting?
In her absence, the MOD Pizza general counsel had given notice to take a role at a different company, and Helman was tapped to step in as interim general counsel in 2019 during the company’s search for a permanent replacement. It’s not exactly a “Welcome Back” banner and baby shower, but fortunately Helman’s employment expertise is just one set of a much broader bevy of legal leadership skills that allowed the returning mother to bridge the GC gap and amass new experiences that will serve her well in the long run.
“It was obviously a challenge having a young baby and two elementary-aged children at home,” Helman says. “We were very fortunate that my husband was able to take some paternity leave as well, so I was able to devote energy to deal with the learning curve. Everyone was very supportive and knew I was stepping into areas that were outside of my area of expertise.”
Once the six-month interim role was done, Helman’s experience was rewarded and recognized with a promotion to her current role as vice president of legal.
The VP offers a piece of advice for anyone looking to fill shoes that they may not have felt ready for. “I think it’s important to admit that you might not have all the answers,” Helman says. “Sometimes you have to be willing to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ and don’t be shy to ask questions either.”
A crisis, the attorney believes, can actually wind up the ideal time for a new career, a new role, or a new set of experiences that serve as defining moments in a career journey. “I am full of gratitude for the development opportunities this interim role provided to me,” Helman notes.
Crisis became more of a normal state in 2020 across the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MOD Pizza legal team, along with every other function at the company has had to shift gears in an unprecedented and challenging time for every business. “We had our day jobs to do, but frankly, a lot of that had to temporarily go on the back burner,” Helman explains. “All of the projects that were looking to the future needed to pause as we worked to re-establish right now.”
The focus at MOD Pizza is to ensure that come what may, the company is poised to move forward safely, securely, prioritizing its people, and with growth in mind. “And it’s about what it looks like for us to move into the future because that isn’t an assumption that can be made as it was in the past,” Helman says of the circumstance many companies have had to face in rethinking exactly what the new reality means for business.
Helman handles litigation as well as employment at MOD, which means efforts to keep employees safe has been a significant portion of her day-to-day. “It was very important that we did everything possible to keep our squad safe, not just to comply with OSHA standards but because of how much we care about our squad and customers and the impact that we have on the world,” Helman says. “We are not just a pizza store, we’re an organization that exists to serve people and we believe in people before pizza in the communities in which we serve.”
“We are not just a pizza store, we’re an organization that exists to serve people and we believe in people before pizza in the communities in which we serve.”
That includes sending countless meals to nearby healthcare workers at no cost as a way of saying thanks to the frontline staff helping keep communities safe. MOD also partnered with the City of San Jose to quickly support their efforts to feed those who were home-bound at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve also told all of our squad that if they don’t feel comfortable working right now, that your job will be here when you get back,” Helman says. “We’re doing everything we can right now to just make sure that our squad is safe and comfortable.”
Helman’s ease of transition into such a trying time is enabled by a strong sense of empathy, both personally and professionally, with the clients she interacts with every day. “As part of the legal team, I am put in the position where I need to point out risks, and sometimes that can slow down a business unit,” the VP says. “In those scenarios, there’s inherent tension, and it’s so helpful to have good trust and personal relationships with my peers. I try to have empathy and understanding for what they’re trying to accomplish.”
The mother of three and diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan isn’t averse to a challenge, and she says the Steel City imbued her with an inherent grit to overcome difficult circumstances. In a time that will be reflected on as one of the most challenging periods of modern American history, MOD Pizza can rest assured they’ve got the best of both worlds in their legal department: a steel resolve with an empathetic heart.