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To be a top legal leader, you must be a top business leader

Navalent’s Mindy Millward said “context” is often hard for those raised in the legal world to understand

Mindy Millward, managing partner and owner of Navalent Consulting

Aspiring to become general counsel? Or maybe you’re just looking to advance one step up the ladder in your legal department? Either way, it’s important to know that the idea of what makes a good in-house legal leader may not be the same as what it was in your parents’ generation, or even the same as just 15 years ago.

Increasingly, high-level in-house counsel are asked to not only be legal leaders, but to be proficient in the business as well. According to some career experts, that means the characteristics that companies are looking for when hiring in-house counsel has changed as well.

Mindy Millward, managing partner and owner of Navalent Consulting, has placed a number of individuals in high-level positions, including general counsel. Navalent recently undertook a two-year longitudinal study and found that 65 percent of newly-appointed executives fail within the first 18 months. In order to combat this high turnover, Navalent suggests that companies focus on four main characteristics that companies look for when hiring these leaders: breadth, choice, context and connections.

According to Millward, “context” is often the hardest for those raised in the legal world to understand. For in-house counsel to truly have a proper context of their position, Millward said, they need to understand the business’s aspirations just as well as they do legal aspirations.

“You talk to those in the legal profession and inside counsel, and initially in the early stages, their passion is for lawyering,” Millward said. “These are people who think, ‘I love the law; I love being a lawyer.’ When they make the decision to be in-house, they find that they have to find passionate about the business as well.”

This shift has truly taken off since the turn of the century, Millward said. Boards of directors are trusting general counsel with more responsibility, but they also expect the general counsel to draw opinions from a wider base of knowledge as well.

Business intertwines with law

“Back in the ‘80s and ’90s, it really was, ‘Just keep me out of jail and from doing something stupid,’ and that’s about it. But they weren’t seen as an integral part of the team,” Millward said. But today, as business becomes more intertwined with law, she said, “especially in the general counsel role, there are some cases where what a CEO wants from a general counsel is as much a senior leader about the enterprise, just as they do their COO or other leaders.”

Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer of NiSource, Inc., agreed. Hightman has been on both sides of the equation: She worked as president of AT&T Illinois before moving to NiSource. According to Hightman, business executives and general counsel often fill the same role.

“When you’re running a team, you have the same challenges, knowing when to be in and when to be out, how much latitude and flexibility you give to folks who work for you and how much you change,” Hightman said.

Follow the leader

She also noted that employees often have the same expectations for legal leaders and business executives: “There are certain, basic things that any employee wants from their boss. They want to know how they fit into the bigger picture and what’s going on. They want to be acknowledged when they do well. They want recognition and reward,” she says. “They want to know that their growth and development is important to the leadership. All of these things have nothing to do with just being a lawyer; it’s being a leader.”

Having the intuition to handle those expectations can be troublesome for classically trained lawyers, said Millward. She said that lawyers often bring excellent analytical skills to senior level roles such as general counsel, but they need to develop other skills as well to properly succeed.

“People who have been deeply technically trained bring great analytical skills, but moving into leadership roles, you have to be able to balance that with intuition and instinct,” Millward said when describing the second of Navalent’s four keys to being a leader: choice. “With that balance, they know when to declare, when to include others, when to bring together or collaborate, and when to delegate. There’s this ability to be selective about understanding what the problem is at hand and bringing together decision-making methodology and solutions.”

For more on how to grow to be a top leader, the “Mastering Leadership Skills For Your Path to General Counsel” panel at InsideCounsel’s SuperConference will explore the topic in-depth. Millward will moderate the panel, and Hightman, Walgreens GC Thomas Sabatino, and Major, Lindsey & Africa partner Deborah Ben-Canaan will be the speakers. The event will take place May 12-14 in Chicago and will bring together senior-level in-house counsel from around the country to help attendees elevate legal knowledge, foster innovation in legal departments and help counsel become better strategic partners.

Assistant Editor

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Zach Warren

Zach Warren is Assistant Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he oversees online content submissions and administers InsideCounsel's enewsletters. Zach specializes in new media and multimedia...

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