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Empowering Exceptional with Lauren Leahy

In this episode of Empowering Exceptional, we are joined by Pizza Hut’s Chief Legal Officer Lauren Leahy. A V&E alum, Lauren is no stranger to innovation, beginning her legal career as a litigator and now managing legal operations for one of the world’s most famous restaurant chains. Lauren shares with us what it means to be a modern-day general counsel for a franchise business focused on customer experience, and what’s ahead for The Hut, including autonomous delivery, driverless cars, and more.

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Transcript

Sean:

Innovation is really important to us. It’s important to us both within the product category and with the customer experience. We have a great history of surprising and delighting customers with things they’ve never seen before. And that’s in our bones, it’s something we know how to do pretty well.

Welcome back to Empowering Exceptional, the V&E+ podcast series where we focus on fascinating people doing innovative things in their fields. I’m your host and the head of the Vinson & Elkins Labor and Employment Group, Sean Becker.
Sean:
We’re honored today to be joined by Lauren Leahy. Lauren is the Chief Legal Officer at one of the world’s most famous restaurant chains, Pizza Hut. She also runs the chain’s Express business. Lauren is someone who’s had some pretty impressive responsibilities and a great resume. She is a graduate of SMU and Harvard Law School. She clerked for Judge David Godbey in the Northern District of Texas, also clerked on the Fifth Circuit with Judge Jennifer Elrod. And, last but not least, she is also an alum of Vinson & Elkins.
Sean:
And Lauren’s journey has been an interesting one. Lauren, you’re someone who has innovated within your own career as we’ll find out, you’ve been a litigator, you are someone with significant commercial responsibilities. And you’re also someone who is an innovator in the role of general counsel, someone who’s got some important insights about what the general counsel role is and could be. So, we’re honored to have you here, thanks for joining us.
Lauren:
Glad to be here.
Sean:
Also in the V&E podcast studio today is Melissa James, a counsel in V&E’s complex commercial litigation group. And Melissa, you’ve known Lauren for quite a while.
Melissa:
That’s right, Sean. Lauren and I met when we started in the firm’s complex commercial litigation group as associates back in 2010, and we’ve been great friends ever since. We still have the opportunity to work together with Lauren on the client side now at Pizza Hut.
Sean:
So Lauren tell us what you do at Pizza Hut.
Lauren:
Yeah. So I have the privilege of serving as our Chief Legal Officer for the Pizza Hut U.S. business, so that’s about 6,200 restaurants here domestically. I also serve as the general manager of our Express business, which is an additional 1,400 units. That’s in military bases worldwide and then domestically in stadiums, Target stores, a host of other retail spaces, malls, etcetera, so… a hybrid role.
Sean:
How’d you get your start at Pizza Hut?
Lauren:
So (laughs) it was kind of funny, I was working for Judge Elrod, and loved it, was planning to come back to the firm, really wasn’t blinking about that decision. Got a call from a recruiter and I thought, “You know… I love the advisory role, but I’m really happy at the firm… Eh, we’ll see.”
Lauren:
Then I met the people and, the truth be told, it was a compelling opportunity to do something that would expand my skills, and I… really engaged meaningfully with them about what it could, what it could look like. And ultimately accepted the offer to start with Pizza Hut after I finished my clerkship.
Melissa:
That was your second clerkship?
Lauren:
Yes. The second clerkship.
Melissa:
Tell us about your first clerkship.
Lauren:
You know, I worked with Judge Godbey which was such an… incredible first year experience out of law school, because you, you learn to write in a completely different and far more surgical way. You have an opportunity to see a wide breadth of federal claims, and also you’re just, you’re learning as a baby lawyer how to stub your toe and get back up the next morning.
Sean:
At Pizza Hut, Chief Legal Officer, pretty broad title, sounds like a pretty broad mandate, so what are your responsibilities generally?
Lauren:
Yeah, so… most critically, we are a franchise business. At the core of my role is developing, managing the relationships that we have with our franchisees, primarily on the legal side but more broadly as you can imagine. So that involves things like M&A transactions from franchisee to franchisee, and providing our consent and approval in that process. Helping as we continue to develop the pipeline of franchisees that we’re recruiting. And of course the unfortunate reality is there are times where we’re dealing with enforcement or other administrative matters with the franchise groups. So that’s a big part of my, my job.
Lauren:
In addition to that, we review all kinds of marketing and advertising, as you can imagine, we’re on TV 24/7, all the little fine print you see at the bottom of the commercial, (laughs) think of me. And my team, more importantly. We have a host of contracts, supplier agreements, lots and lots of food coming in and out the door as well as equipment, etcetera. But we also run our, our digital business. We have three and a half, actually it’s higher than that now, billion dollars going through the web just domestically in any given year. We also manage our own proprietary restaurant technology system. So there’s the contracting side, but then you also have the data privacy and other regulatory issues associated with that digital business. And then we also have a host, as you would imagine, of employment and litigation matters. (laughs) You know quite a thing or two about that world, and you can imagine at an enterprise like ours that we’re not immune, so.
Sean:
I’m hearing the M&A work, the transactional works, so wait a minute, you were trained as a litigator.
Lauren:
(laughs)
Sean:
So how… how’d you handle getting thrown into all of that?
Lauren:
Right. Blindly, and with a lot of fear, but we got there over time. You know, it’s funny, when I started, Pizza Hut had a pretty broad litigation portfolio with wage and hour cases with our delivery driver fleet. And the idea was that I would come in and take a relatively active management role in that litigation portfolio. But in the interim time between my accepting the job and actually starting, we settled some cases, and the need state evolved, and my to-be boss called me up and said, “Hey, so I know you’re a litigator and you like that, and that’s the only thing you’ve really ever done… want to do contracts and marketing review?” (laughs) And I remember thinking, “Um… (laughs) okay. We’ll try it out.”
Lauren:
And actually it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I mean, like anyone, I was a little… nervous, to transition the entirety of my practice area to something I’d never done before, but at the same time, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it rounded out my portfolio, gave me some of the holistic general counsel level experience that I needed to bob and weave in a lot of different challenges the business was facing. I ended up working on a major digital project that gave me context and connections across the brand. And so, I’m really grateful for the pivot, despite the fact that I may not have architected it that way in a vacuum.
Melissa:
Once you made that pivot to the transactional role, what have been some of your biggest opportunities?
Lauren:
This is true across the board, whether you’re litigating or in a transactional role, but I think it’s particularly true when you’re, when you’re making deals most of the time. It is so important that you understand the strategic business objectives. And also just how the business works.
Lauren:
So a big part of the challenge was making sure that I could read a P&L (laughs) you know, and really understand the finances. That I understood the strategic aims that our marketing team had, so that we could execute those while managing but mostly facilitating risk, frankly. So that we can speak to our consumers in the way that’s most authentic and organic to them.
Lauren:
So a lot of the challenge was just really digging in outside of what I would call my core skillset and learning the business.
Sean:
It seems like an incredibly competitive and crowded business though. Pizza Hut certainly has a phenomenal reputation, a phenomenal brand, I mean, what have you seen of that, that has allowed you to see how Pizza Hut differentiates itself within the business?
Lauren:
So innovation is really important to us. It’s important to us both within the product category and with the customer experience. When we think about that, Pizza Hut’s known for some really interesting products, you know, the Cheesy Bites Pizza, stuffed crust was an- an innovation that started at Pizza Hut. We have a great history of surprising and delighting customers with things they’ve never seen before. And that’s in our bones, it’s something we know how to do pretty well.
Lauren:
Now, the next step, where we have spent so much time and energy, is continuing to innovate against the customer experience. So when you think about things like autonomous delivery, or driverless vehicles… One of the things I’m incredibly proud of is that we have forged great partnerships. We have our own DNA as innovators, and then we do a really nice work- a job, I think, of forging partnerships with innovators in their own rights. So, whether it’s T-Mobile, the NFL, and the way that they’re thinking about media and kind of the – the NFL experience and how that’s evolved. We have great partnerships with food innovators like Cinnabon, for example, and Kellogg.
Lauren:
So, our holistic slate of partnerships forces us to think differently and puts us in rooms with people who are really challenging us. And that’s what I want out of law firms too, right? You find people who are extraordinary in their field, who are doing innovative work, you lock arms, and the rising tide lifts all boats, which is really what we’re getting at. And, on the Express side specifically, we’re working to navigate and leverage those partnerships to take the learnings and, and bring them to our licensed units as well.
Lauren:
One of the things I’m really proud of is recently we opened up, on Sunset Boulevard, something called the Hut-and-Go, which is, we have now pizza cubbies, where you can walk in, you pre-order, and you’ll see your name on a digital locker or cubby, your pizza will be waiting for you and there’s virtually no human interaction for you to pick that up and go.
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
Which is a really fun and innovative concept that Pizza Hut’s proud of and thinks is an interesting platform for the future.
Sean:
So is there a research lab somewhere where we would actually see the next, you know, pizzas being experimented on, and?
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
You know what’s the best part? Is I can smell it from my office.
Sean:
(laughs)
Lauren:
So we have a big beautiful R&D lab with more ovens than you could imagine, and a great product portfolio that’s always churning in that R&D lab, and every once in a while I’ll get a whiff of something and go, “You know, I got to… I got to make my way downstairs right now.” (laughs)
Melissa:
You’ve actually cooked pizzas in a Pizza Hut store, haven’t you?
Lauren:
Oh, yeah. That’s a routine for all of our executives. We spend time in the stores and really try to remind ourselves that this is a tough… it’s an exciting and important job for those team members who are on the ground, but it’s also tough on a Friday night. So one of the things we do, we have an onsite restaurant as well, we will bring in the Boys and Girls Club or other community organizations and replicate a busy Friday night, and go work the back of house, and remind ourselves what that feels like. So that as we are creating innovative new products, we don’t couple that with operational complexity that makes those products nonexecutable.
Melissa:
Yeah, that’s amazing.
Sean:
Pretty important, it sounds like, for that perspective.
Sean:
Let’s talk about Express because we all, we go into a stadium and we see, there’s the Pizza Hut store, they’re ubiquitous in Target, you can’t get-
Lauren:
(laughs) Right.
Sean:
… in the entrance without going by a Pizza Hut kiosk or a store. Is that a separate business unit?
Lauren:
We treat it as an independent business unit more or less. Now we’re incredibly well integrated with what you would consider the more traditional side of the business, and we work very closely, but the product offering is different, the menu is different, the platform is different, the client base is different, and the business model is a little bit different. It’s a licensing model as opposed to a franchising model.
Sean:
And you’re general manager of that Express business?
Lauren:
That’s right.
Sean:
And in that role, do you have non-legal responsibilities?
Lauren:
Almost exclusively. (laughs)
Sean:
Again, the Renaissance woman, innovator-
Lauren:
(laughs)
Sean:
… you’re now running a pretty big business and not only do you know what a P&L is, it’s a very large P&L you’re handling.
Lauren:
It’s a privilege. It’s an incredible privilege, and there’s no question that it takes some courage on Pizza Hut’s side to give an opportunity like that to someone who, you know, didn’t just walk out of B school yesterday or ever, frankly.
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
But it’s also… it situates itself very nicely with the strategic thinking skills you have to have as general counsel, and I’m really excited by the challenge.
Melissa:
I also remember a time, Lauren, when you were serving as the acting CFO for Pizza Hut as well?
Lauren:
Yeah (laughs). Yeah. I played a CFO on TV for-
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
… for a few months, and,… I’ll tell you, our current CFO is actually qualified and head and shoulders above what I brought to the table. But, it was an incredible opportunity, again, for me to really get out of what you might consider my newly modified comfort zone in law now to include transactional experience and say, “Okay, how do I… how do I really dig in on some of the financial reporting and the collaboration efforts we have across Yum!, etcetera.”
Lauren:
I was grateful when Mike showed up, because, he brought tremendous know-how that I didn’t have, but at the same time I wouldn’t trade those few months where I was keeping the seat warm.
Sean:
And can you give us a hint of anything we might expect to see in the future from the Express stores?
Lauren:
We’re taking a really innovative approach. We’ll have our first on-campus robotic delivery, on a university campus, in connection with the Express sites. We’re doing some really exciting work when it comes to how we reach out to college and university campuses in a very different way with some sweepstakes and partnerships with Sodexo.
Lauren:
We are thinking really critically about the cinema experience and how we partner with Cinemark. We just opened our 100th unit there, and there’s been some really exciting partnerships, that we’ve been able to develop in that space.
Lauren:
Stadiums are obviously an exciting place with our NFL partnership, so you’re going to continue to see us think creatively there. But the world’s kind of our oyster.
Sean:
That’s quite a boon to whichever college is going to get that robotic delivery. I can see the admissions office trumpeting, “We offer-
Lauren:
(laughs)
Melissa:
(laughs)
Sean:
… Pizza Hut at 2 AM!”
Lauren:
There’s an element of innovation and there’s also just, what is convenient for a college kid? And it’s really, believe it or not, I mean, for our drivers, it can be incredibly frustrating as well to pull up to a university campus, park on the west side of campus and navigate your way through 47 dorm buildings and up 36 stairs. So some of it is just about making that experience more streamlined for the customer and our service team.
Sean:
I understand also, you’ve clearly got a full plate, literally and figuratively, at Pizza Hut.
Lauren:
(laughs)
Sean:
But you’re also pretty involved in the community. Tell us about some of the things you’re doing outside of work.
Lauren:
So… I try to be strategic at work about, you know, where do I put my time, what are the strategic pillars that we’re working against, and that’s given me some healthy discipline in my private life as well, thinking about what are the strategic pillars of how I want to invest my time in our community. And for me, those three strategic pillars are human rights issues, poverty issues, and access to justice issues. And so, I have spent quite a bit of time on the human rights side with Human Rights Initiative, Bill Holston and his crew here in Dallas, on a host of cases through them. In fact, V&E was very supportive of that work when I was here, and was a tremendous advocate for that partnership, and since then have joined the board of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. I’m really proud of the new location that we opened in September, and I’m so excited to be a part of that crew.
Lauren:
On the poverty side, John Wander of all folks, who’s just been an incredible mentor kind of throughout my journey and career, brought me in as a Board member with Vogel Alcove, which provides school and care services for kids who are homeless, and now has a multi-generational strategy to provide services for parents and the holistic family with mental health, physical health, and some broader job-opportunity locating services.
Lauren:
And then finally on the access to justice side, I am a chairperson for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program’s annual campaign, as well as a leader on the Access to Justice Endowment which is called the Justice Forever Fund, where we’re raising money to make sure that we can provide free legal services to low-income people in Dallas who really need those services.
Melissa:
In addition to the work that you do in the community, what are you the most proud of when it comes to your career?
Lauren:
I have the most incredible crew of people on my team of all time. I could not be prouder of the community of people that I get to spend my day with. And some of that I fell into by accident, you know, some predated me. Many have been a product of kind of mutual choice, “Let’s go into this endeavor together.” But I just feel as if the team, both my executive team but also the lawyers that I get the privilege to work with every day, are… look, they’re smarter and better than I ever could’ve dreamed of, and they work smart and hard and with such courage, and I’m so proud of the culture that we’ve built.
Lauren:
I think the other thing I’m proud of looking back in my career is not approaching it with too much rigidity. I was the type who, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, like, somewhere near birth.
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
I had never met a lawyer. I didn’t even meet a lawyer until I was in college. Like legitimately I never met a real-life lawyer with a pulse until I was in college, but I thought, “Darn it, I’m going to be a lawyer and I’m going to be Perry Mason and this is how it’s all going to play out.” I was very process-oriented step by step about what my career was going to look like. And of course it looks nothing like what that plan really was. And I’m proud of myself for taking chances along the way, because I think it’s giving me a much broader panoply of experience to draw from, and made me a better lawyer.
Melissa:
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to work with some people on your team and I know that you so genuinely feel proud of them and feel like you all work so well together and make each other better. What advice do you have for other people to follow the path that you have in getting the right people on your team?
Lauren:
First, I would say be picky. (laughs) I know that’s something V&E has developed a good healthy reputation for.
Melissa:
(laughs)
Sean:
(laughs)
Lauren:
I say that knowing that I slipped through the cracks, but… you guys do that well and are very discerning. I think it’s all about finding people who can be the most authentic versions of themselves within your walls. And that means you have to think critically about, how do I create an environment and safe space where my team can really feel like they don’t have to put on armor every time they come to work, and elevate that experience for them?
Lauren:
The other thing for me has been when something gets a little off track, just deal with it immediately and honestly. Take feedback upwards too, so you don’t end up in a position where you, where people are afraid to tell you what’s really going on. And hopefully you get to a place where you’ve got a transparent, authentic, very real work environment where everyone’s just working hard against the same agenda.
Sean:
It’s pretty impressive what you’ve done with your internal team. There are obviously times when you get to look to Melissa and you get to look to outside counsel, but, you know, tell us, what is it you look for from outside counsel?
Lauren:
Most of the same things I look for with my own team, right? Where is a place where they and I can be an authentic, honest version of ourselves? I don’t want someone to tell me that I’m smart. I want someone to push back and to have an honest and authentic conversation about whether or not I’m analyzing an issue with the right lens, and provide certainly the competence and expertise… I mean, look. There’s no question that somewhere like V&E, you guys have competence on competence on competence, you’ve got an incredibly talented team of people. But then it’s about how do you package that in a way that makes me think, but doesn’t put me on my back foot, right? How do you set me up for not just what are the tactical steps I need to take, but what’s the higher order strategy that we’re executing in a way that I can explain in a sentence or two to my board with a lot of confidence and knowing that I’ve got people in the trench with me that are going to execute against that strategy.
Lauren:
And then, you know, just like I look for with my internal team, there is no question that culture really matters. And that extends to the way that people treat each other when they’re sitting at the table together. I don’t love it when I hire a firm where the young associate at the table can’t get a word in edgewise, because typically that’s the person who knows the most about what’s going on (laughs) and probably where the, all due respect Sean, but that’s probably where the most, kind of, bang for your buck (laughs) is when it comes to the work that’s going on the file.
Lauren:
How do people treat each other, what is that experience like, and are folks getting promoted and grown in ways that make sense? And there’s obviously a D&I component to that, right? You’re looking not just at what are the firm glossies but what’s the pipeline look like, and how is the firm investing against that in a very tangible and data-driven way?
Sean:
When you see some outside firms doing things right on D&I, what is it that you’ve seen?
Lauren:
A lot of it comes down to culture, again, but it’s also about, do you have representation and authenticity at all the meaningful levels of the firm? So, young associates, mid-level associates, senior associates, partners, and your executive team. Because a lot of times it’s really easy to talk to yourself and think, “We’re doing right by this particular group of people,” except that none of them are at the table to tell us whether or not that’s true. And that happens in all kinds of corporate contexts, but as we’re hiring firms, those are the real- the firms where I see the most differentiation and that cultural change, the proof is in the pudding in the top-down waterfall.
Sean:
We mentioned at the outset you and Melissa go back quite, quite some time, um, it seems like, uh, first week of orientation at V&E must’ve been pretty effective, because here we are, it’s a decade later.
Lauren:
(laughs)
Melissa:
(laughs) That’s real.
Sean:
So, tell us, it sounds like you two have been there for each other and been able to be a support system and sounding board for each other?
Lauren:
Yeah. For sure. I mean… Listen. And I say this respectfully and agnostic to V&E in particular… big law life is inherently competitive. Okay? There are more associates than there are partners, that’s how it works. And it’s very tempting as a young associate, anywhere, this is true anywhere, to get some sharp elbows. Because you just… want to succeed. You want the hours, you want to prove that you’re smart.
Lauren:
Melissa and I looked each other in the eye very early on and said, “Nope. We’re not going to do it. I’m going to make you look good, you make me look good. However it shakes out, it shakes out, sister, but we got this together.” And I think that’s a brave and really important thing for folks to do. Because ultimately, look, we both won.
Melissa:
It all worked out in the end, you know, there-
Lauren:
There is enough pie. It may not all look the same, and it may not completely come according to the plan that you have, but, when you’re loyal to each other, and honest and kind, it’s just a lot easier to wake up in the morning and want to come to work. And Melissa was so much of that for me. And I look back on those days and think, when you feel safe in the trench, you do better work for your clients, you’re happier with the people that you work for, and you feel a lot safer. And I still have such gratitude for that time.
Melissa:
Lauren and I were there for each other when we had our first children, which was I think about three months apart.
Lauren:
Yeah.
Melissa:
And, you’re about to embark on the life of having a second child.
Lauren:
(laughs)
Melissa:
(laughs)
Lauren:
Yeah, you got to tell me how that goes, Mel (laughs). You beat me to the punch and now I’m, I’m walking into the chaos, so we’ll see.
Melissa:
You know, you and I both have a commute to work, a little bit, and I never appreciated anything about my commute until I had my second child.
Lauren:
(laughs)
Melissa:
And then it started to feel like a little bit of alone time that I get, you know, it kind of is a buffer between when I leave work and when I get home, and, so, now I talk to you half the time, or-
Lauren:
(laughs)
Melissa:
… I listen to the radio or decompress. And so, that’s been a helpful thing for me to have.
Sean:
Pretty impressive being able to balance all that you both have and, you know, Lauren, looking at, we just heard about all the roles, and the hats you wear, and also to be a mother of one, now soon to be two children, that’s very impressive and, I mean, how have you been able to balance everything?
Lauren:
I have this incredible mentor who gave me the best advice I’ve received about, air-quote, “work-life balance.” And what she said is, “Look, at any given day, you’re going to be juggling a whole lot of balls, right? You’re going to be traveling, you’re going to have this brief you’ve got to look over, you’re going to have an issue over the contract, you’re going to be managing the Express business, whatever it is. And then your kid’s going to have a recital, and your husband’s going to be out of town, it’s all going to be messy and hard, and you’re going to be juggling all these. And balls, the key is to figure out which ones are rubber, and which ones are glass, and drop the rubber ones.”
Melissa:
I love that.
Lauren:
Because if you think you’re going to keep them all in the air, you’re out of your mind. So just get comfortable with the fact that some you’re going to have to let go and they’ll bounce back. And that’s been the best advice I’ve had, try and be really selective about the things in your life that are fragile, and let everything else ride.
Sean:
Right way to think about it.
Sean:
Well Lauren, you’ve certainly, uh, taken this discussion to some really interesting places, and we know how busy you are, and we really appreciate you taking the time to come on back to V&E where you’re always welcome. And again, we appreciate your time and we are so impressed with everything you have done. So thanks for sharing some of your afternoon with us.
Melissa:
Yes. Thank you.
Lauren:
It’s good to be home.
Sean:
(laughs)
Melissa:
(laughs)
Sean:
Thank you for joining us for this edition of Empowering Exceptional. I’m Sean Becker. Please join us again next time for another episode.