Executive leadership: Aligning passion and purpose

Exploring the fundamental concepts and challenges of executive leadership

MassMutual Executive Vice President and GC Mark Roellig

Much in the same way doctors are not formally instructed on bedside manner in medical school, attorneys on the path toward becoming general counsel or rising to another type of senior-level executive position within their company are not taught leadership skills in law school.

This absence of professional development in the legal landscape is more commonplace within the Baby Boomer generation of attorneys rather than Generation X or Y, but this nurturing quandary is not unique to any one industry. Increasingly, law school career services staff are taking responsibility for providing professional development training to prepare students for the practice of law in today’s legal environment, according to the Association for Legal Career Professionals (ALCP). But many of those services are centered on job placement and initial advancement, so what happens when you’re ready for the big leagues?

Today’s budding general counsel and chief legal executives require a structured yet sophisticated approach when it comes to their professional development. At Springfield, Mass.-based MassMutual, the company’s leadership programs are applicable to both direct reports of Executive Vice President and General Counsel Mark Roellig and the organization as a whole, which underscores the business.

“Generally we look at our program for education and development as an introduction to the company and the department as number one. We also focus on number two, learning the basics of in-house practice, number three learning the business and general business concepts, four personal development and five continued legal education,” Roellig explains. “Once you’ve learned the basics of in-house practice, and when you get to number three direct reports continue to learn about MassMutual, our strategy and just business 101. I am a huge believer that going forward most GCs will have an MBA or similar background. I believe having a foundation in business is absolutely critical for a leadership role in most law departments.”

According to Roellig, corporate America spends way too much of its time making below-average people just average. “My view is we need to spend just as much time and energy on making our stars superstars as opposed to making underperformers performers,” he says.

MassMutual’s executive leadership programs first focus on the personal development needs of an individual. “We do an assessment to find out what areas are strengths and what are areas for improvement. When you draw on people’s strengths they tend to be happier and more engaged,” advises Roellig. “Personal assessments are a good way for getting that baseline of information from people and where their strengths are.”

Succession planning and assessments

Two years ago at Nationwide Insurance, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal and Governance Officer Pat Hatler implemented an executive development program that not only focused on leadership but also took into account the company’s future plans with an emphasis on leadership communications.

Part of the motivation for such programs at Nationwide was the number of significant retirements that started in 2013 with the departure of “people who were institutions in our senior leadership positions,” says Hatler, “adding four new people to leadership positions, which is half of the executive team.”

While three of those executives were not new to the company, all four were new to a senior-level executive role. “With help from my HR department and communications partners—we put together an initial 12-month plan…to build in every month some focused discussion and training on a topic important to the team. Teams are always more effective when they know each other,” explains Hatler. “I didn’t have five years to have these people get to know each other.”

The initial foundation for Nationwide’s legal department—which comprises about 400 legal professionals—was through a “listening tour” of sorts in which Hatler spent two months talking through a team charter with the heads of the legal department and discussing how the team would interact on a daily basis to arrive at a refreshed group mission.

“Nationwide as an organization is highly collaborative. The genesis of my focus was ‘I have to have a team that works well together,’” says Hatler. “I couldn’t just have senior people that led their own teams and not have a cohesive view of where we were going.”

Through internal programs including personal assessments combined with external resources and experts, Hatler has been able to help her legal team develop and hone their leadership skills, most recently spending several hours with a diversity and exclusion expert.

“We had someone come in and we spent an afternoon talking about how to nurture creativity,” Hatler says. “Because our business is so regulated, we needed to learn how to be creative while still discharging our duties.”

The benefits of an executive coach

General counsel and other senior-level executives are also developing their leadership styles and acumen through the help of executive coaches. These coaches can help those new to the GC position or those on the path toward a senior-level role by teaching them how to create high performing, results driven organizations as well as how to be coaches to their employees, which can ultimately improve the existing culture of an organization.

For Verona Dorch, general counsel of Harsco Corporation, her first 90 days as GC “was like drinking from a fire hose,” she says.

“One of the key things that I did that really helped set me up for success was to work with an executive coach. It was really helpful in terms of helping me understand executive presence and having a leadership role,” Dorch explains. “The first 90 days I was in ‘listen and learn’ mode. The next 90 days I spent in execution mode, which involved taking what I learned in the first 90 days and executing on some of the short-term goals, whether it was making decisions about restructuring, or how to put together strategic goals for my team, improving costs, and working on my relationship with the board. That is one of the most important relationships with the GC. It went from information gathering and learning and drinking from a fire hose to starting to think about execution on the next 90 days.”

Any good executive leadership program needs to offer transition coaching to those on the path to the C-suite or general counsel, Dorch affirms, which allows for attorneys to learn from their mistakes and ease into a senior-level role in the organization.

“One of the key components in transition coaching is helping people differentiate between being a leader and being a direct report of an executive leader. When you make that transition to the C-suite, you gain a whole new set of clients, and responsibilities you are not necessarily going to intuitively understand,” she explains. “You’ve got to make mistakes. Give yourself the grace that you are not going to just walk into a meeting thinking about the enterprise as a whole. It is important for executive leadership programs to help people make that transition to learn how to act like an executive.”

Ultimately, executive coaching within a legal department—or anywhere else in the organization—should be reserved for people who are critical to an organization’s success, or will be in the future.

“You’re only as good as your talent and your teams,” adds Roellig. “It’s all about people. I spend, I would say, if not most, but a tremendous amount of my time focusing on people, people development, teams, team development and helping them meet their objectives.”

Editor in Chief

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Erin E. Harrison

Erin E. Harrison is the Editor in Chief of InsideCounsel magazine. Harrison’s professional background includes extensive expertise in both print and online media, highlighted by...

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