Leading a law department, the inside scoop

Legal leaders say empathy is essential to effective leadership

Many general counsel are great lawyers and boardroom consiglieres but struggle when it comes to leading the many personalities that make up any sizable law department. A few micromanage with an iron fist while, more commonly, others take a hands-off approach and fall short when it comes to maximizing their team’s potential.

This month’s panel of GC experts offers extremely helpful advice from the top. These are individuals who have clearly accepted the time consuming responsibility and challenge of true leadership. They are John Howard of Grainger, Janice Block of Kaplan and Jonathan Feigelson of TIAA-CREF.

I asked the panel to offer a suggestion for how a new GC or managing attorney can develop leadership skills, and this yielded some great observations on leadership generally.

“The most important and really effective thing, although it may be trite, is to always put yourself in the position of the listener,” says Jonathan Feigelson. He notes, “Our perspectives are different. Think beyond yourself. This helps build a sense of empathy and genuine concern, which is an important part of being an effective leader.”

John Howard puts it this way: “Leadership may come easier to some than to others, but everyone needs continual work to stay the type of leader that people respect and follow.” Howard says that leadership can be learned, in part, by following. “Practice being a follower – and experience what it feels like to be lead by people with differing approaches. This has helped me appreciate that leadership is really just another relationship between individuals and has shown me that there is not just one effective style.”

Janice Block echoes Howard’s point that good leadership starts with a willingness to focus on it.  “I’ve continued to be passionate and focused on leadership – on continuously honing leadership skills and on helping to develop leadership skills in others,” Block states. While at Microsoft, Block benefitted from structured leadership courses and focused retreats. “I’ve definitely carried the learnings from them forward to my career in the present day,” she emphasizes.

So avail yourself of any company-backed leadership program in which you are eligible to participate. But also understand that you must take ownership of your own leadership development. Howard devours business journals and he is generous in sharing ideas, both new and timeless, with others. Block notes that she is “an avid reader of leadership books,” suggesting Patrick Lencioni and John Kotter as authors she favors on the topic.

Feigelson points out the importance of credibility and trust. “I try to be as genuine and transparent as possible,” he says, which is not always as easy as that may sound. “If I am asked a question that I know for company-specific reasons I can’t answer, I won’t give a vanilla corporate response because that doesn’t benefit anyone. I simply won’t answer the question. That’s being transparent.”

Howard, who credits the Harvard Advanced Management Program and the people he met in that program with helping him become a better leader, adds that “leaders must communicate clearly because no one else can read your mind.” Howard offered the humble comment that he is working on being clearer on expectations.

A theme that runs consistently among this panel is continual self-assessment and a desire to keep improving. My biggest take-away from our experts is that leadership is a learned skill and you must spend time and effort to develop it. As Howard puts it, “One way to fail is to assume that one is a natural born leader.”    

Contributing Author

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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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