We all make mistakes. Usually, we self-identify an error and hopefully learn from it. One of my first columns for InsideCounsel discussed a mistake I made by using email to communicate on a sensitive topic that was more appropriate for a phone call ("Say it, don't email it," July 2007).
We also make mistakes that we don't self-identify. When we fail to recognize errant behavior, the mistake is often indicative of a larger issue that may be hurting our career. Let me share a recent personal example.
An attorney who I placed several years ago is now the general counsel elsewhere. We were discussing an opening within her legal department when I received a tremendous unsolicited gift. My contact pointed out a big mistake I made with her previous employer. This is a Fortune 500 company at which I have placed a number of attorneys over a 15 year period. When the client changed to a multi-sourcing approach at the insistence of HR, I must have told the general counsel that I was less than thrilled with the change. I don't remember this conversation, but apparently I came across as a complainer who felt entitled to that company's attorney search work.
Now I understand why my relationship with that client changed. More importantly, this gift of truth identified a larger professional problem. When HR dictated policies that intruded on my ability to partner exclusively with a law department, I tended to voice my frustration to the general counsel. I failed to see what seems so obvious now. Specifically, no one wants to hear me complain, especially a client. My big mouth has been undermining the good things we do to make our clients happy. I appreciate the business, but I need to demonstrate that gratitude and stop whining about how business was done in the "good old days."
I've been able to make that change, and I'm even working on a search now for that Fortune 500 client. So, thank you to this particular general counsel:You have demonstrated a core management skill - the willingness to offer valuable criticism and engage in what can be uncomfortable conversation.
Who do you have in your professional life who will "get real" with you? Former colleagues and bosses are ideal. Find truth tellers and invite them to offer valuable criticism. Don't wait for this kind of feedback to occur incidentally, as in my personal example. Seek it out. Use my example to start the conversation if you wish. Be open and explain that you want help identifying any negative behaviors. Your contacts will respect this proactive effort. If such an exercise is too uncomfortable, hire a career coach. The good ones understand how to assess your strengths and find your weaknesses.
Don't be defensive, logical, or lawyerly when you hear criticism. Take it to heart. You should always be open to self-improvement and course corrections. When someone identifies a problem that needs fixing, that person has given you a priceless gift. Be grateful for it.