Do you enjoy hearing stories about how people built their careers through a series of changes, some planned, while others were unplanned and unexpected? It shows a lot about a person’s character to see how they react to situations, how they learn and grow. We recently had a conversation with Michelle Asselin, Director of Deal and Contract Management, at Rogers Communications, about her unique and interesting career path. Read on to learn more.
Q: Looking back at your education, you started as a History Major and then went on to get a certificate in Project Management and another in Executive Management. Can you talk about these competency components and how they have shaped who you are today as a professional?
A: I think that my formal grounding as a professional is definitely in Contract and Project Management, but my education journey started with an MA in Social Sciences. This built a strong foundation in critical thinking, which to me means taking a lot of information and distilling it into a cohesive and relevant argument. My degree doesn’t apply directly to any position I’ve held during my career, but I find that those critical thinking skills are something that I leverage every day in the office. Also, the heavy writing assignments associated with a major in History are something that I still leverage in my day-day work.
As a contract manager, the core function of my job was to write and manage the legal language in our contracts, but I was very focused on the impact that language would have on our business. Striving to learn why and how a clause impacts the business negatively instead of positively in any given situation was fascinating to me. So, I was always trying to become something of a legal-focused business person, instead of a business-focused legal person.
Q: Out of school, you started as a legal assistant managing contract databases, then moved to a position in corporate law. How did this lead you to your current role as Director of Deal & Contract Management?
A: I was living in Montreal when I got my undergrad degree at McGill University and wanted to go to graduate school but didn’t have the funds. I decided to work for a while and save the money. I’m bilingual, so I could find work in Montreal, where speaking French is a requirement for pretty much any business role. I went to a placement firm and secured a two-week placement in the legal department of a telecommunications company. Shortly thereafter, that company asked me to apply for the job permanently. I took the job even though I had never considered law as a career option. Until then, I thought of the legal field as closer to something from a Perry Mason or L.A. Law episode, which didn’t interest me at all. But I learned quickly about the field of Corporate Law in this position, and it kept my interest because frankly I was good at it and I could see a career path in front of me. My role as a legal assistant acted as a stepping stone for my career – from that position, I moved into a role as a paralegal and then into a Contract Manager role.
Fast-forwarding a bit, I’m now working at Rogers Communications for a few years and realized I had gone as far as I could in the Legal Department without being a lawyer. I wanted to move horizontally within the organization, leveraging my strong expertise in contract management but stepping away from the legal focus –I was always more focused on the business aspects of contract management.
I started by getting my Masters Certification in Project Management, to help me build a wider skill set applicable to the business role I envisioned for myself. I also took an Executive Development series of courses known as a Mini-MBA, for the same purpose. I wanted my resume to demonstrate what I knew about putting legal and contract issues into a business framework. On top of these additional certifications, I also addressed the issue of management experience, or lack thereof. I was given a direct report while still in my role in the Legal Department. The experience I gained while managing this direct report helped me prove that I could handle managing individuals.
That additional training and experience proved to be the catalyst for my move to a business role as the Director of Bid, & Contract Management. The jump from Contract Manager to Director of Bid, & Contract Management was going to be a big step on many levels. First, I did not yet have much experience managing groups of individuals. I also needed to prove that I could function and apply my skills in a business role, and last but not least, the position didn’t even exist yet! It’s hard to convince somebody who doesn’t know you personally, such as a hiring manager in a different business unit, that you have the skills to do a job that don’t match the job description of what you’re currently doing. With that in mind, you have to pull together a case for yourself any way you can to be your own evangelist and advocate.
I also did market research on the benefits of a “Director of Bid & Contract Management” position and made a case that this role needed to be created at Rogers. I was in a prime position to make this case because I was able to analyze and measure the current effectiveness of our contract management process from the inside and combine it with the proof points from the market research to prove that Rogers Communications would benefit from the creation of this role. Once it had been created, I was prepared with my newly gained management experience and my business certifications to make the case that it should be me who was hired for the new role. Needless to say, I got the job!
Some advice I’d like to share here is that you must be your own champion and you need to make your own breaks. Don’t be afraid to be bold, decide what goals you want in life and identify how to achieve them, then work hard to prepare for the opportunity when it finally comes. I made my own lucky break, by identifying an opportunity to move laterally and preparing for that move. One of the great things about Rogers is the encouragement to try new things and take on new roles across the organization.
Q: You’ve received numerous accolades and awards from Rogers Communications which pertain to the value of the support your team provides. What does this say to you about the role that a Contract Management team plays in the bigger corporate picture?
A: My team primarily supports sales, so most of the awards were given to me and my team by this department. Sales teams are very motivated to close deals. When you can use your role to help sales move forward to closure, they are usually very grateful for the support and pay it forward with the accolades and awards. I also got very good at finding gaps and holes in our deal process, and helping to make this process more efficient yielded satisfaction for both the sales teams and the customers themselves.
The role of the Contracts Management team is to make the deal as smooth as possible and to craft the contract in such a way that it reflects each individual deal appropriately. If you hear that the customer is concerned about something and you know that you can insert a clause that addresses that concern, you end up with a signed agreement, a happy customer and a longer lasting relationship.
Q: You’ve built quite a career history at Rogers Communications. What are the benefits and challenges associated with working for one company for a long period?
A: The benefits, in my opinion, are that you learn all about the ins and outs of the organization. Rogers is a very large company, and one of the important things is identifying how to navigate the organization.
Rogers has been my employer for 12 years now, and I’ve gone through different iterations of our product offerings throughout that time. There have also been a number of changes, as the company evolves. The changes have given me a sense of variety.
This was the case when we rolled out Apttus; even though the software and processes we put in place were ultimately intended to make our sales team more efficient, the change from the old to the new was a challenging process. Change management is crucially important to all projects and, if done improperly, it has the potential to torpedo the whole thing. Even if we installed the software perfectly, if the users resist the change due to poor change management and training, the project could easily fail.
In the same respect, I always challenge my new team members to share how they did their job previously, so that we can learn about new ways of doing business which may or may not be beneficial for Rogers. Trusting our amazing employees to know what’s best for our company, as well as keeping an open mind, are values that I hold highly as a manager. I encourage other managers to keep an open mind whenever they hire a new employee; it encourages growth on a personal level too.
Q: Do you see the role of Director, Deal and Contract Management as more legal focused or sales focused? Or is it 50-50?
A: I would say that I am 25% legal focused and 75% business focused. We have a large legal group at Rogers that I am familiar with and can tap into when a job becomes heavily focused on the legal side. What is helpful is my background in legal, because I understand why certain clauses are important and how to explain them in a way that the business understands.
But the bulk of my focus is always going to be on the business side of things, due to my main role as providing support to the sales team. My job is to find the best answer to the challenges our sales team present in our deals. I can’t just throw my hands up and say “that’s the law and we’re stuck”. I must leverage my experience and seek out help from others in the organization to find practical solutions.
Q: How has the digital age and SaaS movement impacted the contracts management department and/or the sales department at Rogers?
A: As an enterprise that sells a highly variable set of products under a high variable set of terms, we very much need a cloud based solution to handle that level of variability. We could not use a static on premise solution and still adapt to meet our nimble business needs. We need something that can change very quickly and we don’t want to be beholden to heavy IT release processes.
The digital age hasn’t just changed the way that we manage our sales tools, but it has also drives what Rogers sells.
Q: What advice would you give to a young professional who is just starting out in Contract Management or Deal Management?
A: Be your own evangelist, and frame all your arguments in terms of the business benefit for your organization. You can certainly build strong relationships with executives and sponsors, but it’s on each individual person to advance their own careers. You need to explain why hiring you for the new position will help the organization and be able to quantify that benefit in terms of both dollars and risks and opportunities.
I would also say that you should get as strong a grounding in technology as possible because I can’t think of too many industries these days that don’t leverage some aspect of technology. For my career, I’ve always thought that the more I understand what I am contracting for, the more effective I am as business resource.
I also recommend building a strong mentor base to learn not only what your mentor does, but also how they do it. Make sure to cultivate these mentor relationships through honesty and regular contact. If you have that strong network of people who know your abilities and your interests, you can call upon them for when the time comes for helpful insight or a strong recommendation.