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Turning Lawyers into Leaders and Developing Successors

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Turning Lawyers into Leaders and Developing SuccessorsSenior Advisors A.B.Cruz III and Marla Persky discuss the differences between leadership and management, how you can help your high potential performers become legal leaders, and ways to develop a succession pipeline. Our respected and highly successful former GCs and business leaders share their experiences, lessons learned, and practical tips for developing leaders within your legal department and preparing your successors.

Below are highlights from the webinar. To learn more, the video recording, slide presentation, and podcast are available on this page.


Learning how to manage and lead is not part of the law school curriculum and often continues to be overlooked throughout one’s career. Today’s legal executives, however, understand that these skills are the new imperative. Learn how to identify the qualities of successful leaders, how to foster those qualities in your high performers and prospective successors, and how executive coaching can be an effective tool in both leadership development and succession planning.

“When you become a leader, success is about growing others, making those around you smarter, bigger, and better.”
— Jack Welch, CEO General Electric


Where do you learn the essential elements of leadership?

A truly successful General Counsel leads people, projects, and teams. One can learn to be a leader by watching others, borrowing their positive traits, and avoiding the negative ones. Acquire additional skills through formal training, but continue to observe the leaders that you encounter both within and outside of your organization. It is important to ultimately take what you have learned and observed and develop your own style of authentic leadership.

What skills do successful leaders have in common?

A research study conducted by the Harvard Business School asked CEOs to identify the necessary skill sets for successful leaders and provides a clear definition for personal development.

What Leadership Skills Do You Need Most?

What are the qualities of a good leader?

Skill sets don’t tell the whole story; leaders have special qualities in common. The right combination of leadership skills and personal traits is necessary in order to be effective. Traditionally, the qualities most associated with a good leader are:

  1. Intelligence
  2. Toughness
  3. Determination
  4. Vision

One trait stands out above all others, however, in defining a good leader — a high degree of emotional intelligence.

Psychologist Daniel Goldman, author of Emotional Intelligence, discounted IQ as the sole measure of one’s ability to lead. In his research which involved nearly 200 international companies, he discovered and defined the components of EQ as:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skills

“I correlate the two — the skills and the qualities as what you do and how you do it. And I think how you do it is the emotional intelligence or EQ piece of it. I think this is important not only for leadership, but for management.”
— Marla Persky


How do you help your high potential performers to become leaders?

Modeling sets the stage for your high performers to learn leadership skills and techniques. They see what you do and learn from you as you “walk the talk.” Show them what good leadership looks like. Don’t just tell them to go out into the world and be a good leader. Discuss your vision of leadership with them. Describe what you are doing and how it is an example of good leadership. Explain why you made a certain decision, how you made the decision, what you took into account, what you wanted to achieve, and how you needed to rely on other people to make it happen. Hopefully your high performers will be able to take these insights, adapt them, and make them their own.

You can develop the people on your team to be your successors.

BarkerGilmore’s recent succession study surveyed 241 sitting GCs/CLOs and found that 33% were internally promoted to the GC role. The majority of those promoted had the benefit of professional and/or leadership development provided by their company before their promotion.

Company Provided Development Prior To Promotion

“Succession planning should be part of a strategic plan and incorporate or integrate the performance review process, the professional development process, and a mentoring and coaching program. You need to make sure that you are doing all that you can to prepare your successors to be more than lawyers and helping them to become leaders.”
— A.B. Cruz III


Attendees submitted questions to our distinguished Senior Advisors and their answers provide additional information on this topic.

1. Many superb lawyers are technical experts but introverts. In a “ME, ME, look at ME” society, they are often perceived as lacking leadership capabilities by businesspeople. What are your thoughts on developing those people as successors and the ability to teach what is perceived as “missing”?

Some of the most successful and powerful leaders have been introverts … Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates, just to name a few. These, and other successful introverted leaders, typically learn to capitalize on their strengths, such as their elevated listening skills and thoughtful reflection, and then work to gain comfort and confidence engaging with others, including in very public/high visibility settings. So how does one nurture our high-performing, high-potential introverts into successful leaders? A few suggested actions:

  • First, read this to dispel the myth that introverts can’t be good, motivational leaders: Why introverts make great leaders (thehustle.co)
  • Help them use their natural observation and listening skills to add value and gain the support of others.
  • Ensure that they communicate their decision-making process. While they may need time alone to reflect and think through a matter, know that they are not “doing things on their own in secret.” Encourage them to let team members know that their input is welcomed, valued, and needed, and that such input will be thought through and “internalized”.
  • Help them find ways to allow their performance to speak louder than their words – publicize their results and help them find ways to do it themselves since you won’t always be there to be the cheerleader.
  • Push them to be in front of people, to “work a room” full of strangers, but ensure that they have time and space afterward to recover and recharge.
  • Don’t get hung up on the introvert label. Confidence and gravitas can be displayed without verbosity, often most effectively in one-on-one and small group settings.
  • Encourage them to prepare speaking points before meetings to ensure their voices are heard.
  • Have them build small groups to focus on projects/issues.

2. The best leaders that I have worked with weren’t always the most “visionary” but were tremendous communicators – frequent, direct, and with clarity. What are your thoughts on communication?

Good communication amongst team members is critical. Communication can be viewed in terms of circles that must be closed. Good leaders follow-up and recognize that in the absence of information/communication people will draw their own (often incorrect) conclusions. Information is a gift; bestow it generously. Avoid “need to know” mindsets. Not everything requires confidentiality. Those who hoard information often do it in an attempt to exact power or control, often to the team’s detriment. Power and leadership are not the same thing. Good leaders are powerful because they can communicate their vision through clear messages.

3. Private practice seems to drive EQ out of young lawyers and even discount the value of EQ. When we bring these lawyers into an organization, how do we help them break out of that training and value the willingness to look at themselves and their interactions?

Put your money where your mouth is – reward and measure the behaviors you seek. Set clear goals for new employees stressing that the “how” is just as important as the “what” when it comes to their accomplishments. Model the behaviors you expect from them. Give timely and constant feedback. Give them a buddy to help them settle in – someone who possesses the EQ you seek to engender in all members of your team. Help them transition from the firm mindset to your company’s mindset. Take the time to help them understand the company’s values and hold them accountable to act accordingly.

4. As a new leader, how can you provide your reports/team a safe environment and channel for providing constructive criticism to you?

Ask for feedback and act on that feedback. New leader assimilation, where a new leader has a discussion with his/her team facilitated by someone else, is one exercise that can help in this regard. The facilitator leads a discussion with the direct reports (without the new leader present) to learn what they liked about the last leader, didn’t like about the last leader, expect/hope from the new leader, and questions the team wants answered. Then the facilitator works with the new leader to fashion responses to the anonymized information collected from the direct reports and helps the new leader respond. The new leader also expresses her/his expectations of their direct reports as individuals and as a team. This begins the relationship between the new leader and the team with openness and a willingness to give/get feedback.

5. If one is looking for a new opportunity, how do you inform a potential new organization that you have leadership skills and the chief components of emotional intelligence?

It is all in how you answer and ask questions during the interview. Share your philosophy on leadership, team building, and adding value. Then back up the philosophy with concrete examples of how you lead, live, behave, what you believe, and how such has resulted in the success of the teams you’ve led. Practice your interviewing (play-act with a trusted colleague) and come prepared with questions about the values and culture of the company with which you are interviewing.

6. Do you have recommendations for where and how to find a “good” executive coach?

Ask those leaders/colleagues you respect whether they have used/know of a good coach. There are several exemplary coaches at BarkerGilmore. Reach out to Marla, A.B., one of the other BarkerGilmore coaches, or to Bob Barker about what you are seeking, and we can recommend some coaching candidates for you to interview to select someone you feel comfortable with and would be a good “fit” for you.

7. There has been research showing women don’t have sponsors – something necessary to progress – but men tend to. Do you have some advice for how women can find and/or solicit a sponsor?

It is hard to solicit a sponsor because, ideally, it should occur organically. The best way to get a sponsor (someone who will stake their reputation – use their “chits” – on you) is to work with someone who has a good track record of advocating and having their people advanced/promoted, and then making yourself indispensable to them. Gain their attention, earn their trust and respect, and speak with them about your career and leadership aspirations. Ask for their advice, input on your career goals, and whether they can suggest actions you take. Get them invested in you and your success and they will likely become your sponsor and helpful advocate.

8. Coaching by internal leaders clearly would be powerful because of the direct knowledge of the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses as well as needs of the business. Can you explain the process and tools used by external coaches to help develop individuals who initially might be a new acquaintance to the coach?

Provide the coach with information about your company (vision, values statements, articles about the culture) – things that are available to employees but not necessarily available through a “Google” search on the company. Also share your past performance reviews and/or any feedback you have received. Help the coach understand the culture and environment of the company. The coach can also speak with people from the company (a mini 360-degree review of your strengths and areas for development). During those discussions, the coach gains insight into what is important for success at the company. It is often easier to be very candid with an external coach than it is with someone internally. It takes time for a coach to get to know a new client, but one or two conversations is usually sufficient to clarify coaching goals and identify areas for development and strengths.


A.B. Cruz lll, Marla Persky, and our team of professionals are happy to help accelerate the initiatives that you're already pursuing or to supplement your current strategic thinking to help you realize your vision. Please reach out if you or your organization may benefit from our recruiting, leadership development and coaching, or legal and compliance department consulting services.

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