Playing the Corporate Game

This is the first career advice column exclusively available at Insidecounsel.com, and so I want to start out ambitiously.

Instead of discussing specific strategies on compensation, promotion, or changing employers (all likely topics for future columns), I want to suggest a general approach for success as you climb the proverbial corporate ladder. Most attorneys are bright and hardworking, yet many fail to understand what it takes to succeed in corporate America. Others grasp a need to play the corporate game but could use some tips for getting better at it.

The idea for this column originated with my own struggle to get a failing roof replaced. A town home association is responsible for roof maintenance, so it was not as simple as picking up the yellow pages and calling a roofer. As water continued to find its way into our home, I navigated a maze of Board decisions, roof consultants, contractor bids, city permits, and more. As my frustration grew with the process, I realized that I was living in a world many of you probably recognize on a daily basis, one that requires action from others and overcoming red tape.

Whether you have a great idea you wish to implement at your company, or if you are just trying to do your job as in-house counsel properly, you are faced almost daily with inter-personal political challenges. Your success depends on cooperation from co-workers at all levels of the organizational chart.

When do you seek consensus and compromise? Always? Are there moments that require fist pounding on the table? How do you recognize when getting something done is possible versus when you should back off? The ability to play nice in the sandbox and still get results is everything in corporate America.

We all have limited political capital when it comes to agitating for change, asking for cooperation, or disagreeing with colleagues. You can only push for what is "right" so many times before people start tiring of you. Lawyers, thinking they are simply doing what good lawyers do, can find themselves in the persona non grata category without even realizing they have stepped on too many toes. What you think of as persuasion can easily be interpreted as being pushy.

Teamwork is the first and most frequently mentioned off-the-resume attribute for which we are asked to screen when providing candidates for an open position. Managers want a happy work environment. General counsel value assistant general counsel and staff attorneys who make problems go away.

A good general counsel seeks feedback from business units on the "user friendly" nature of the lawyers in his or her department. Are you someone the client would call proactively for advice? Are you creative and helpful? When you have to deliver a "no" answer to a client, can you do it in a forthright manner that is not judgmental or confrontational? Are you too wishy-washy and therefore unable to earn the client's confidence? All of these daily personal interactions become what your job is about.

My advice on how to play the corporate game -- embrace collaboration. Become really good at it. For role models, you might learn something from the "Millennial" generation now making an impact in corporate America. These are the 20- to 30-year-olds who were raised in a culture of sharing, not competing. Everyone gets a trophy just for participating. Everyone is valuable and special. Many of these "spoiled" post-college professionals are a bit soft, and your first reaction might be to dismiss or run over them. That would be a big mistake.

The new generation of professionals is smart, creative, and more industrious than you think. Learning how to manage this group may be the most important part of playing the corporate game successfully. First off, the word manage is old school. Young professionals hate being told what to do. You have to incentivize, coax and cheer to gain the cooperation and results that will make you look good. Pulling rank or motivating by fear will fail.

Nice guys, and gals, finish first. Everyone is a diplomat. Patience is critically important. If all of this warm and fuzzy talk is making you a little ill, I understand. As a recruiter, however, I know what my corporate clients want. I see the personality traits that are common among my candidates who succeed after taking a new position and rise to become general counsel. The most common denominator: they are extremely well liked at all levels of the organization.


Mike Evers recruits attorneys for legal departments throughout the United States. He can be reached at (888) 324-0154 or via www.everslegal.com.

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Mike Evers

Mike Evers recruits attorneys for corporate legal departments throughout the United States. Please visit www.everslegal.com. His...

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