The Academy Award-winning movie, The Right Stuff, inspires us to think about having the “right stuff” from a new perspective. This mysterious mix is not one single quality, but a composite of attributes driven by a commitment to an ideal and a willingness to keep striving to achieve new levels of success. I’m struck by how this was reflected in the lives of the pilots in the movie who eventually became astronauts; they had to reach beyond their professional status as pilots to embrace a much broader vision of themselves — and that is what eventually defined them.
During my many years as a C-Suite legal officer, I coached the lawyers on my teams to be more than just lawyers so they would be on track to become leaders. Here are my thoughts on the “right stuff” of what in-house counsel need to do to succeed.
How to Develop from Lawyer to Leader
1. Maintain a sterling reputation
Be known for your thoughtfulness, clarity, helpfulness, and accuracy in advice and behavior; there should never be a cloud hanging over you and your good name. In other words, you should be like Caesar’s wife, and beyond any doubt in terms of your character and your capacity to get the job done as the in-house counsel.
2. Learn everything you possibly can about the business and the applicable law.
It’s vital to know as much as you can about the company and the industry. After you learn about the business, the jargon, and how it’s run, if you want to be a General Counsel, you better learn a little bit about corporate governance and SEC law. When I became GC, I had never taken an SEC course, so I went to the local college and said, “Okay, who’s teaching securities law?” Do your job as a lawyer, look beyond the horizon, and become really good at the critical areas that would be expected of a GC based on the legal needs of your company. You then will be ready to perform as both a legal and business advisor.
3. Empower and encourage others.
Enable people to succeed and earn a reputation for being not only collaborative, but empowering. Give key assignments to junior lawyers, paralegals, and others. Why? First, because they’ll have your back when you need them. Second, they’ll make you look better. Finally, and most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. Be respectful of everyone in the enterprise whether they’re a level 2 or a level 22. Yes, it’s a matter of decency, but also realize that you never know where people are eventually going to show up because people do get promoted within a company.
4. Make the hard calls sooner rather than later.
Don’t equivocate; don’t pussyfoot around. Do your homework, and if you’ve done your homework, make the hard call. People will respect you. If the client needs an answer, find out when they need it. Prioritize your work, get them an answer, and you will have the reputation of being somebody who never dilly-dallies or equivocates or flip flops on issues. Stand out by standing up.
5. Demand greatness of yourself and others.
Forgive mistakes and failures as long as people are trying their best and have the capability to do the job. Remember, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself, and you’re not pushing the envelope. The whole challenge with law is finding the right way to get to yes without taking undue risk. If mistakes happen, say, “I forgive you - good try. Let’s do better next time.” My point is to demand greatness, but forgive mistakes and failures, especially if you’re empowering new lawyers in challenging positions. They are not going to get it right or they’re going to overlook something or forget something.
6. Be confident in saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
My advice to young lawyers is don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” What you want to say is, “Here’s what I think based upon my knowledge in this area, but I’m not positive, and this is a risky area, so let me get back to you with a definitive answer.” Then get back to the client as soon as possible with a definitive answer. You will gain credibility and respect because they perceive that you are really working hard on their behalf.
7. Stand up and serve as the guardian of the enterprise.
There are too many sad episodes, whether it’s an Enron or another company, where the lawyers looked the other way in regard to an issue or weakened when there was a point of risk. At the end of the day, the regulators, the plaintiffs, the board of directors are going to look to the lawyers and say, “Where were the lawyers?” You can’t say, “I was under orders.” You work for the company; you don’t work for the CEO or the CFO, and you have to have the guts to say, “This ain’t right.” It all comes back to integrity and the understanding that you’re who your client really is when all is said and done.
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