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Making the GC indistinguishable from the vice chair

Becoming a GC/vice chair and confidant to the CEO takes effort and self-awareness

What kind of general counsel are you? Are you a subject matter expert? An adviser? Or someone the CEO relies on, like the vice chair?

Recently, Bob Marcus, founder and managing partner of Brimstone Consulting Group, shared the characteristics of that vice chair. He has spent countless hours coaching CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and noted that in some meetings, the GC was indistinguishable from the vice chair. He said this at the Mary Ann Hynes Leadership Institute, hosted by InsideCounsel magazine and Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP. It was attended by about 40 direct reports to GCs, including panels of public company board members, CEOs, CFOs and GCs.

Becoming a GC/vice chair and confidant to the CEO takes effort and self-awareness. Marcus shared tips for this transformation in an interview with Rhonda Ferguson, vice president, corporate secretary and chief ethics officer at First Energy Corp. Here are some of the highlights, along with some additional thoughts:

View from the top

Even GCs who have a seat at the table may spend too much time on either legal work or advising on risk. C-suite executives need to elevate their view to see the big picture, not limit themselves to their specific function, and think strategically from an organizational perspective. Effective leaders determine where they can add their own unique value, support the company and help others become better leaders.

To lead others, first know yourself

Many leaders do not know enough about their own style and approach to leadership. Understand your own style to help you lead consistently and effectively. Some ways to do that:

Have others hold up the mirror for you to help you see yourself as you really are. 360s are a good start, but they are only the beginning; you may not be getting complete and accurate feedback. Try deploying a truth-telling squad. Marcus described how one leader picked 10 trusted people in the company and asked them to get feedback about him. It worked.

Understand how you learn and think. Some learn by doing while others by reading or listening. It is important to know your own style. For visual thinkers, PowerPoint could work well. For auditory people, having others explain things is better. Marcus shared a story about a leader who needed to hear all his direct reports debate their points so he could cull the facts he needed.

Learn your leadership style and how you address change, conflict and challenge. Influencing is one of the more effective leadership styles and is better than micromanaging. What has worked, and what has not? How do you encourage direct reports to challenge you openly? Creating an environment that allows for freedom of thought without repercussion in meetings is one way.

Master speaking “truth to power.” Get skillful at learning the time, place and tenor to deliver difficult messages. Be sure the CEO is ready to hear the truth, and that you are in a position to provide it. Two suggestions: build trust and ask permission.

Create teams and leaders

In the past, many executives led by command and control. Now, successful leaders empower their teams, share leadership and build consensus. This allows the team to shine and provides growth opportunities for team members. The team will be more effective, which frees up the executive to focus on the long-term and big picture. 

Create scale with your relationships

For C-suite executives, building intimacy and deep personal connections with many people is essential. While leaders often know how to build intimacy one-on-one, doing so with many, without much direct contact, is difficult. One suggestion is to share personal stories.

Act like you won

A final thought: If you want to be an executive, Bob shared, “act like you won.” That became the theme of the conference and is solid advice for any transformation.

Stewart Hirsch

Stewart Hirsch, Esq. Managing Director of Strategic Relationships LLC, is an executive and business relationship coach for general counsels, lawyers and other professionals. Formerly, Stewart was...

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