First and foremost, I would like to thank so many readers for their kind remarks and endorsement of the recent article 14 Top Mistakes Made by New In-house Counsel. The content for these articles comes first-hand from some of the most successful GCs in the business and the business executives with whom they work. I am asked daily by lawyers aspiring to become a GC, “What must I add to my resume to be considered for a GC position?” Based on my conversations with law department leaders, CEOs, and board members, both past and present, the keys to success will not be found on your resume.
Following are key attributes which helped propel top GCs to their leadership role today:
1. Coaching. Virtually every GC ranked having a coach - at some point during their career - at the top of their list. Most commented that having an experienced and trusted advisor who is not exactly like you is critically important. Your coach must act like a mirror, telling you what others see in an unfiltered way. This true, 360-degree assessment is hard, but invaluable to your success.
2. Understanding the Business, Inside and Out. Understand how the company makes money. If you don’t have a grasp of the company’s financials, sit down with the controller or someone in finance to help fill any gaps. Meet with business leaders to learn their portion of the business and how it impacts the success of the organization. Having a solid understanding of the business is necessary to speak the language of the business and allows comprehensive risk analysis and solution recommendations.
3. Relationships Across the Organization. The GC must rely on the knowledge of key personnel in all departments of the company. Facilitating strong working relationships allows the GC to gain a better understanding of the mission of the company and to use this understanding to provide strategic legal and non-legal advice.
4. Integrity. Being someone with the highest personal integrity is imperative. Executives must be able to trust you with significant issues and confidential information. High integrity makes others want to work with you and enables you to get involved early in a potential problem, rather than after an issue has grown into a serious concern.
5. Respectful Demeanor. The GC must be able to collaborate across the entire organization and treat every person in the company, from the janitor to chairman of the board, with dignity and respect. Be open and available to everyone who looks to you as a leader. This approach will help you be much more effective because other departments will look at you as a trusted resource rather than a potential source of conflict. You must have the trust and respect of everyone in the organization to ensure that actions and issues do not fester before coming to light. Never make policy changes that will have a major impact on others, without sitting down and sharing your intentions with the key stakeholders who will feel the impact.
6. Thoughtful Questions. From outside counsel to company employees and colleagues, being able to ask the right questions, listen well, and interpret the answers is key. Think about the different situations served by thoughtful lines of questioning. Sometimes the goal is greater understanding of a function or business process. Other times it’s to help in addressing specific business issues. And often questioning can be a facilitation approach that brings different perspectives together. Practicing critical thinking is invaluable in building GC skills.
7. Be Viewed as a Strategic Advisor. Being a strategic advisor does not come automatically with having the title of General Counsel. It’s earned over time, and here are a few tips to set you on the right path. Your area of responsibility needs to be under control and recognized by others as a dependable, well-oiled machine. You need to be heard and your communications need to be clear, crisp, and concise. Most importantly, you need to earn a seat at the table. Those who build strong relationships, can defuse conflicts, and empathize with others are more likely to be welcome to sit at the table.
The leading response for everyone who shared their thoughts with me was the importance and gratitude of having a coach in their lives. I believe this is what motivates so many GCs to be generous with their time and help those around them succeed. One of the most satisfying components of my career as a search consultant is being able to work with such incredible leaders who are inspired to help others succeed.