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As an employee benefits attorney at Poyner Spruill in Charlotte, Kelsey Mayo finds the way to “yes.” Rather than discredit unconventional proposals or write off passion projects for lack of time, Mayo pauses to ask herself: “How do I find my way to ‘yes’?” In other words, what compromises need to be made to reach the goal?
“I like to fully vet an idea to decide whether it’s really worth it,” says Mayo, who graduated from Wake Forest Law School in 2008. “Engaging people in this way — rather than shutting them down — is much more productive, even if you come up with a totally different solution.”
In addition to serving her clients, Mayo acts as Director of Regulatory Affairs for the American Retirement Association, an organization that advocates for legislative and regulatory matters to benefit America’s private retirement system.
Despite her packed schedule, Mayo said “yes” to a quick interview during which she shared her personal philosophies on work, life, and balancing the two.
You are an employee benefits attorney. What does that mean exactly?
I work with human resources professionals, legal counsel, and business owners to keep retirement plans in compliance. I generally don’t go to court like traditional litigators. I laugh that what I do is the much softer side of law.
How do you juggle working with clients, advocacy, and your other personal passions?
People joke with me and say that I’m a lot. I always laugh and say, “Oh, you should’ve seen me when I first started.” I was very, very driven and Type A. But I’ve always had a strong desire in life to find the way to “yes.”
Wanting to say “yes” does lead to a very full plate. People ask me all the time, “How do you balance it all?” A more honest answer is that I don’t do it alone. I have a team–both personally and professionally–and I’ll go to them to ask, “Can we do this?” And then we talk about how we can get to “yes.” Sometimes we rearrange work schedules or partner with someone outside the firm. Oftentimes, they find a way to get me to “yes,” and that’s fantastic. Sometimes, we all regret it in the midst of stretching ourselves to meet the goal, but we get there together.
And sometimes I do go through the analysis and I know it’s not right to say “yes.” For example, I am routinely asked to do volunteer work for causes I’m passionate about, and I really want to say “yes.” But it doesn’t always happen. I’ve had to learn, particularly over the last few years, to say “not right now.” Then, I’ll offer a way to add value or stay connected in the meantime.
“Find the way to yes.” That’s a very interesting mantra. What’s the origin story?
It originated from my mentor within the firm. I had a fantastic partner who retired a couple of years ago. We had lots of long discussions about balancing. When he was counseling me, he always suggested that I needed to say “no” to things. I think during one of those mentoring conversations I said, “I’m okay with saying ‘no,’ but I’d rather find a way to ‘yes.’”
After that, when we were talking about new opportunities, he started to say, “What’s it going to take to get you to ‘yes’?” That would allow me to reframe the question in what do I have to do–to acquire, to give up, etc.–to achieve this goal.
So your mantra is a prompt for reflection?
Yes, and I like it because I’m frustrated by “no” people. I’ve worked with folks who, when you come up with an idea, seem come up with every reason not to make it work. They start with “no.” I like to start the other way. I say, “Okay, let’s think about your idea. What does the idea take? What is the result? What does it take to get to ‘yes’?”
After being named one of Charlotte’s 50 Most Influential Women, The Mecklenburg Times asked what your greatest accomplishment was. You mentioned handling a situation in which two partners at your firm had left. Can you talk more about that experience?
At the time, I was a younger partner. I had three experienced partners, one of whom was very part-time. One of the partners, unfortunately, had a medical incident and left the practice overnight. On Monday, we had to come in and take over his clients. It was a very stressful few months. I worked so much. I woke up as early as I could and worked as late as I could. I went to sleep, and then I did it again. But we did a great job as a team and we didn’t lose a single client due to his departure.
After seeing this very close friend go through a life-changing medical issue, my other full-time partner decided to make a change and retire. So I went from having two full-time partners to one part-time partner in a matter of months. Managing the work during that time felt like being in a hot forge every day.
Fortunately, we were able to rebuild quickly. My practice administrator and paralegal really stepped up during the turmoil. I hired the partner that I still work with now, and he’s freaking amazing. Our associate has been with us since that time — she joined us in the midst of all of this — and she’s fantastic. And we’ve had other wonderful attorneys contribute to the team over the years.
The forge analogy is really fitting–it was a tough time, but we came out stronger and built a brilliant team. We are preserving the legacy of the practice for the firm. It’s one of the biggest accomplishments I can think of.
Wow. During those months, did you ever have moments of doubt? Did you ever question your career path?
In the midst of it, I definitely questioned whether this was what I wanted to be doing. I wondered, “When is this going to end? How long can I sustain this?” But at the end of the day, the firm stood behind me, supported the changes I wanted to make, and I ended up taking over the practice.
What did you learn about yourself?
That was the high watermark of my personal tolerance. When anything bad happens now or we worry about what could happen, I always think, “It’s not as bad as that.” If I can get through that, I can get through pretty much anything.
What did this experience teach you about work-life balance?
It’s funny because I don’t know that I have a great work-life balance, but I will go to the ends of the earth to protect your work-life balance. The other side of that coin is that when I do sign off, my team will bend over backward to protect me and give me space to disconnect. My team has created a culture of protecting one another. My team also understands that work-life balance doesn’t mean that you don’t put in the time when it’s needed. It means you take the time when you can.
No matter our title, we are always growing and developing in some way, shape, or form. With that being said, what’s a new skill you’re learning right now?
I’m a very passionate person and I have very strong feelings and opinions. When I see someone who disagrees with me, I tend to want to convince them of my opinion. But I also believe strongly that we should be able to have robust dialogue and not agree and it still be okay.
So, I’m trying to be sure that when I communicate my ideas to people that it’s with a very clear intent that we’re on the same team–we both likely want a positive outcome. This is just a discussion of how to achieve a positive outcome. You’ll see my point of view and I’ll acknowledge yours. If we don’t agree, that’s okay.
Who are the people you are potentially disagreeing with?
I’m on our management committee for the firm. We have seven partners who are on this committee and we’re from very different walks of life. We’re in different practice areas, we’re in different geographies, we’re different ages, and we come at things very differently. But, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: We want the firm to be successful and prosperous.
I think it’s really important to have strong, passionate dialogue with people who disagree with you and then to walk away still liking each other and wanting to do it again.
Does this want for civil disagreement conflict with your solutions-oriented personality?
It does. Like most people, I’d love it if everyone thought I was right all the time. Who doesn’t like to be right? Disagreeing can be frustrating; it can discourage you from engaging.
But my law partner has this saying: “You have to remember to question their methods, not their motives,” which I believe he took away from an address Joe Biden gave at Yale. In other words, we’re all on the same team and we want the same things. Just because we have different views on how to achieve those things doesn’t mean you should avoid engaging with someone. In fact, I want to engage more with them because I want to understand where they’re coming from so that I have a better understanding of how to serve.
When you do have to step up and put in long hours, what makes it all worth it?
The unique nature of our role is that we’re here to serve people. They need us. I will absolutely tell you that part of what gets me up in the morning is being of service. That’s what I love about being a lawyer. Each day, I add value to my clients.