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Directions to the GC seat: Establishing GPS coordinates for the emerging leader

Most people no longer take a road trip without a GPS. Why would a trip to the GC chair need any less guidance?

Most people no longer take a road trip without a GPS. Why would a trip to the GC chair need any less guidance? This is the first in a three-part series on how to navigate to that coveted position. This article addresses the starting coordinates—the “emerging leader,” at about five years away. The next two installments will address progress from the road: at three years and one year away.

Of course, this series cannot address everything a GC candidate needs in order to move to the next milestone on the path, nor the differences between the extremes of becoming GC of a Fortune 500 company and a privately held company. It will, however, outline the general types of skills needed.

The basic experience, capabilities and attributes needed to become a GC include:

  • Substantive legal expertise;

  • Management and leadership skills, including executive presence and influencing up, down and laterally;

  • Exposure to and experience with the board of directors;

  • Business judgment, financial acumen, and budget management skills; and

  • Ability to collaborate with business leaders.

To be an emerging leader, you are probably in house already and have desire and experience. What else do you need?

To establish the baseline, I asked Mike Evers, head of Evers Legal, a boutique firm that only places in-house lawyers, for some ways to assess one's current status and move down the road. From the recruiter's perspective, there are two sets of criteria: what is on the resume (i.e. education, prior positions and experience) and the personal capabilities that are revealed in an interview.

Evers noted that an ideal resume includes a top law school, solid transactional, M&A, securities and finance experience. Interview and references reveal attributes of emotional intelligence, gravitas, and leadership. At five years away from a GC position, candidates should be calm under pressure, able to navigate corporate politics and have business judgment and executive presence.

You can assess your own resume to see where you stand and then create a plan to fill the gaps. Work to obtain industry knowledge and basic financial acumen; some companies support external courses while others provide internal resources. Ask to be involved in business areas where you can learn. Deborah Ben-Canaan, a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa focusing on in-house counsel placement, suggests seeking out stretch projects, such as tackling an acquisition if you are a litigator. Set a two-year target to get to the next level, and meet with business people with no agenda other than to just talk about business. Sit in on earnings calls to understand the process and what is important to business leaders.

To evaluate your personal characteristics, conduct your own 360, and review any external assessments your company has provided. Ask what you should be working on to be more effective as an adviser to the business and for your personal development. Build deeper relationships with C-suite executives and one layer below, particularly the chief financial officer and finance group. Work on developing your business problem-solving skills rather than just recognizing barriers and giving advice. See what programs your company provides for emerging leaders, internally or externally.

One last idea: keep a folder of achievements and activities. Trying to build the list of accomplishments when you are a year away from the GC role may tax your memory and take time. Also, build and track your network of contacts.

The next article in this series will explore what to add to these ideas at three years away from the GC role, the next “stop” on the road. Meanwhile, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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