I have always been impressed by those who seem to come to “leadership” effortlessly. For some, it’s charisma and likeability. For others, it’s the aura of gravitas that emanates from them. Many become leaders because they survive the crucible of a crisis and their leadership skills simply emerge. Whatever it is, I think most in-house lawyers wonder how people become good leaders because, ideally, in-house lawyers want to be good leaders themselves (of people, projects, etc.). Sometimes, I look at myself and ponder how did I get to be the leader of three different legal departments? I can tell you for sure that it wasn’t something I was born with. Luck played a part. But I think most of my leadership abilities derive from having tremendous mentors over many years who were not only excellent role models but were generous with their time and feedback on things I did well and things I could work on (usually more of the latter). But, not everyone is so lucky. Sometimes, you have to teach yourself what it takes. For example, I learned a lot from watching people who I thought were not good leaders, and promising myself to never be like them. As I have come off the bench to take on my third general counsel position, I know that leadership matters. It is expected from the Board, your boss, and your team. Without it, you’re probably doomed in long run to hold onto the role. Over the past few months, I have been looking back on the things that worked or didn’t work during my first two tours and am trying to be a better leader every day. As I have thought it over, I have prioritized the qualities that I think make for the best leaders for legal departments (or anywhere for that matter). This edition of “Ten Things” shares what I think are the key traits for legal department leadership:
1. Be a good follower. You don’t necessarily think of being a good follower as being important to being a good leader. Yet, they are completely tied together. If you don’t know how to be a good follower, you will never learn how to become a good leader. I say this because of two things. First, a good follower is someone who listens and takes direction well, who anticipates what is needed, and delivers at least what is asked for and usually more, and does so on time and on budget. If you think those same skills are not important to leading, think again. Leaders get instructions, orders, or whatever you want to call it and need to “deliver” results, just like the members of their team. There is no leading without delivering. Good followers know how to deliver. Second, good leaders let members of their team take the lead – in meetings, on projects, during presentations. They are not afraid to step aside and follow someone else’s lead, especially people on their team. If you are a leader who always has to have the spotlight and the glory, you’re not a leader – you’re a jerk.
2. Know what you are “leading” to. Getting to be the boss is great, but you’re the boss for a reason. What exactly is it that you are trying to accomplish and where are you taking your team? Knowing where you are going and what you want to/need to accomplish to get there is critical to being a good leader. Are you trying to win a lawsuit, or meet a budget, or get an M&A deal across the finish line? Do you need to reorganize or expand the department, or just be a stabilizing influence when there has been a lot of change? If you want to be a good leader, you need razor sharp focus on what exactly it is you (i.e., your team or the department) are trying to accomplish – that day, that week, that month, or that year? A good leader always has a plan and ensures (overtly or quietly) that everyone is rowing in the same direction with those same objectives in mind. You must always think bigger than yourself and whatever your personal goals are at any moment. You need to make sure that the goals and efforts of your team all align as well. If you’re focused just on what you personally are trying to get done today, you are a leader of one. This is why leading is so hard – it’s rarely about you and almost always about your team and where you are taking them.
3. Be available. The worst thing you can do as a leader is shut your door. A close second is telling your team not to bother you with issues or questions outside of regular office hours. Guess what, problems and issues don’t have office hours and they don’t call in sick. They arise when they arise and if your team feels like they cannot reach you when they need to reach you, you are leaving them leaderless. Yes, it can be a pain and it’s never fun to get interrupted on a Sunday or on vacation. But, it comes with the job. Or, it comes with the job if you want to do it right. Keep your office door open as much as possible and invite your team to pop in if they need you. Everyone should have your phone number(s) and know that you want them to text or call you if there is something urgent that they think needs your input. The alternative is so much worse. Let them know that you might not be able to get back to them right away but you will get back to them and it is not a bother for them to reach out. Odds are if they feel they can speak with you if they need to, they will rarely call unless it is a true emergency. Just knowing they can talk to you can be a big relief as they try to solve problems on their own.
4. Empower them to make decisions. Some of my favorite things to write in an email to someone on my team are “you make the call, I trust you” or “go ahead and sign it if you think it’s the right deal.” Nothing will reduce your workload more than your team knowing they are empowered to make decisions and that they do not need to “run everything” by you. Hire smart people and let them do their jobs. Learn how to properly delegate and then let your people work their way through issues. They might not do everything exactly the same way as you would, and that’s okay. It’s the result that matters, not the exact steps they took to get to the result. If the result is wrong, then you need to figure how why and help them improve. Moreover, if you truly empower your team it is even less likely that they will call you over the weekend or late at night because they know you trust them and that they have the skills to make the right decisions. Simply put: If you are a micro-manager, you are a programmer and not a leader.
5. Be transparent. Be as open and truthful with your team as you possibly can be at all times. Before I first became a general counsel, I used to have a saying I would use when one of our leaders would try to hide something or obfuscate the obvious: “If I am as dumb as they think I am, I shouldn’t be working here.” Face it, you probably have a very smart bunch of people working for you. They will figure most things out. Unless there is truly a good reason to keep something from them (and there are times when that is certainly the case) if your team is asking questions, go ahead and share as much as you can or let them know that you will share what you know as soon as you are able. More specifically, tell them why you or the company are making the decisions you are making. If they know they can count on you to give them information (good or bad) they will trust you when you say you can’t and will otherwise believe what you are telling them is true. Break that trust, however, and you have big problems. If you have attended a strategy meeting, or board meeting, or senior executive meeting, think about what you can share you’re your team proactively. Further, remember when you were in their shoes and how hard it was to do your job if you only knew part of the story. For example, it’s one thing to tell your team the department needs to cut back on spending. It’s another thing to share the spending numbers with them and show them where the money is going and why there might be issues. No one has more obligations of confidentiality than lawyers. So, trust your team to be able to receive information and keep it within the department or to themselves as the case may be.
6. Treat their time like your own. Being the boss is not a license to be a butt head. If you have set a meeting, be there on time and end on time. Waltzing in 10 minutes after the meeting you called started is not leadership. If you’ve asked everyone to attend a company “town hall” or a charitable function, you don’t get to blow it off yourself because you’re “busier” than they are. If you’re in a meeting with your team, put your phone down or close the lid on your laptop. If you’re so busy you cannot even listen to them then cancel the meeting. No one wants to talk to the top of your head. Everyone’s time is precious so be respectful of it just like you would want your team and business colleagues to be respectful of your time. Granted, it’s not possible to always be on time or end on time. If it happens, at least apologize. Make sure that you are leaving yourself time to get to meetings. Back-to-back-to-back meetings mean you are probably going to be late for something. Work hard to avoid this situation or build in buffers between meetings. Similarly, I will never ask anyone on my team to do work harder than I am willing to work myself. If something needs attention at night or over the weekend or even on a holiday, I will be the first one raising my hand to pitch in. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean somehow your non-business hours are more precious than those of your team. If your team knows you’ll put your time where your mouth is, they will do the same.
7. Be a teacher. Really good leaders are like teachers. Well, like those teachers you really enjoyed learning from in school. The fact that you have risen to a leadership position means you have skills or knowledge that is worth passing along. Share it. If someone prepared a PowerPoint that misses the boat, don’t just tell them it’s “wrong” and you’ll fix it. Show them why the presentation misses the boat and how they can fix it. If one of your staff got creamed in a Q&A with senior management, help them understand how to better prepare next time or where their answers got them into trouble. You rose to the top because you figured out these types of landmines. Maybe you did it all on your own, or more likely someone helped you. When I was just starting my career as an in-house lawyer, my boss would spend hours with us preparing for presentations to the General Counsel or senior management. At first, I thought it was a complete waste of time and then I got into my first meeting and realized how lucky I was that we had prepared for just about every type of questions that could possibly come – from straight down the middle to big, dropping curveballs. Finding and taking advantage of teaching moments is another path to empowering your team to make good decisions on their own. When your team shines it reflects well on you. It’s also a good idea to let your team be the teacher and you be the student. Nothing instills confidence like the boss asking someone to spend the time to explain something to them. There is no weakness in admitting you do not know everything. Let your team help you.
8. Have their backs. Near the top of everyone’s wish list regarding the boss is knowing that he or she will have their backs if there are problems with the business. It is almost a cliché that if there is a delay in getting a contract done the business will blame it on Legal. While sometimes it truly is stuck in Legal, usually it’s not. And your team knowing that you will step in if needed to take unfair pressure or criticism off of them is worth its weight in gold. If someone calls you up raging about one of your lawyers, your first thought needs to be “there is another side to this story and I am not doing anything until I hear from my person about what is going on.” How many times have in-house lawyers been stuck in a contract negotiation where the hardest part of the negotiation is dealing with their own business partner who has, for some reason, become an advocate for every contract position the customer wants (vs. what is best for the company)? Your team needs to know that in such case you are willing and able to step in and support them. Likewise, if you see that other departments or groups are getting some benefit or “perc” that is not being made available to your team, you need to fight to get them treated fairly or, at a minimum, be able to tell them why they are being treated differently.
9. Do what you say you will do. You need to be a man or woman of your word. If you tell your team you are going to do something, you need to follow through. Don’t hope they will just forget about something you said. They may not follow up with you but trust me they have not forgotten. As a leader, you need your team to be able to trust that you will stand by your words. For example, someone on your team may want a raise. You tell them you will look into it and come back to them. Follow through. The answer may not be the one they want to hear but they want to know that you looked into it and that you have a principled answer – good or bad. Equivocation is a leader’s worst enemy. Your word is your bond. Treat it as such.
10. Break the tie. What I mean by “break the tie” is that being a leader requires you to make hard decisions. Sometimes you will have to choose between two valid positions and someone is going to be unhappy. People being unhappy with you comes with the job. In fact, it should be part of the job description, i.e., “some decisions you make will be very unpopular.” Get used to it. This also means that you need to be consistent in what you do and how you act. At its simplest: don’t pick favorites. Treat everyone the same, especially on your team. Additionally, bring a consistent mindset to how you run things so people know what to expect. And keep an even keel – don’t get too high or too low. Your team will feed off of the energy and attitude you bring to the office each day. If you’re calm, they are calm. If you’re in a bad mood and are letting it show, odds are good they be grumpy as well. So, it is key that as a leader you understand that what you project and what you say has a tremendous impact on your team. For example, if you say “it would be nice to know what happens if [X] occurs,” understand that this request has probably moved to the top of someone’s work list because rule number one at most companies is “keep the boss happy.” Be sure to tell your team where things fall on the priority scale as just about everything you want done moves to the top, even if that’s not what you intended. Use care in what you say because even what you think is the most innocent teasing can ruin someone’s day because it’s coming from the boss. On the other hand, a “well done” or “thank you for all your hard work” from the boss can boost someone’s confidence by leaps and bounds, and it cost you nothing other than some basic encouragement. Words matter when you are the leader. Choose yours carefully at all times.
There are so many things that go into being a good leader. The above is only a start, but all of these are important. If you’re interested in a good resource, I recommend the Harvard Business Review leadership website. At the end of the day, however, you have to find what works for you. The best thing you can do is find someone you want to emulate. Someone’s who’s style and methods jive closely with what feels right for you. Even if it’s not a formal mentor relationship, just watching and learning is valuable. Likewise, pay attention to leaders who you think fail and work to avoid the same pitfalls you see them fall into. Finally, and most importantly, be the type of leader you would want to follow. If you ever thought, “boy if I was in charge I would never do [X],” be sure not to do [X] when you get your shot. This is the only way to be true to yourself and constantly thinking about what’s best for your team. And those are the best leaders.
February 16, 2018
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Another important article, thank you very much, Sterling.
Thank you Maros! I appreciate you reading the blog and taking the time to post a comment. Best regards – Sterling
Lately, it has been for me as though all am doing as a head of the in house counsel is falling ahort of expectation. Your tips will surely go a long way.
Hi Maureen – thanks for reading and for writing. Definitely a tough job. I hope this helps. If you ever have a question, feel free to reach out. Rgds – Sterling
Very nice write-up. A lot sounds obvious and familiar, but if I were asked what is leadership, I could not express it that clearly. Thanks.
Hi Richard – thanks for the note and for reading. Yes, definitely not solving world hunger here so most of this should just be common sense – hopefully! Best regards – Sterling
Thank you, great advice.
I feel like most of it should be obvious, yet it is so often neglected, especially when the job market is bad. It’s good to be reminded of what a good leader is, or how to aspire to be one, whether you’re the boss or not…
Hi Maude – thanks for reading and for the comment!