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Directions to the GC seat: The top 5 competencies at one year to go

At one year away, a step from the chair, you need to show that you are ready to assume the role

"You have arrived.” Those are the words we hear when the GPS finally gets us to where we are going. This is the third in a three-part series on the experience, capabilities and attributes one needs in order to become general counsel.

Part one (August 2014) established the starting coordinates for the emerging leader, including the need for exposure to the board, legal and management skills, and developing business judgment and financial acumen. In part two (September 2014), I addressed moving from being a legal adviser to being a legal and business adviser, taking financial skills to a higher level, developing leadership skills and deepening board involvement.

At one year away, a step from the chair, you need to show that you are ready to assume the role.

Based on discussions, panels and interviews with GCs and executive search professionals, the single most important skill is to be able to obtain feedback on your performance, look in the mirror and learn, grow and adapt.

Here are some actions to enhance your chances of being viewed as a GC:

  • Consistently demonstrate a high degree of executive presence. My February 2014 column describes the characteristics of one who has executive presence, and provides a resource for developing this skill. You must be cool under fire, be ready to stand your ground, handle difficult situations, and manage potentially conflicting C-suite and board relationships. Some ways to prepare: Work on a project with a board member; make significant presentations to the board; lead a cross-functional merger team.

  • Show your ability to think and act strategically. Legal knowledge may guide your thinking, but your true value comes from being a trusted member of the executive team. Be ready to consider issues from an enterprise-wide perspective and weigh-in on directional decisions. Development opportunities include: Asking to expand your portfolio of functions; getting involved in succession planning, from the C-suite to the board; taking the lead on budgeting.

  • Demonstrate your capacity to both lead and inspire others. Empower and motivate your team so that they will take initiative on projects and with executives. Learn what is important to your direct reports and their careers. Give credit to members of your team and across the enterprise. Provide both rewards and development opportunities to your team and develop a succession plan for them. Development opportunities include: Creating an enterprise-wide playbook for M&A; taking the lead on a process improvement initiative that collaborates with investor relations, public relations and other functions.

  • Show you have the skills to discern and address legal, reputational and financial risk. Meet with C-suite executives, business unit leaders and board members you have access to and learn what keeps them up at night. You may soon be the final word on legal matters affecting the company, so learn the risk landscape if you don't know it already. Development opportunity: Working on a public interest project with regulators, such as a child food safety initiative if you are in the food production or distribution industries.

  • Demonstrate the ability to absorb, synthesize and prioritize disparate facts and make decisions, often with limited information. As you get closer to the GC chair, you will need to apply good judgment, take appropriate risks, make decisions and take responsibility for them. At one year away, you may still have a GC backstop, but when you have the chair, the buck stops with you. Development opportunity: Whatever projects you take on, take full ownership of your part, only seeking guidance as if you are the decision maker.

As you contemplate moving from emerging leader to GC, ask yourself:

  • Where am I now?

  • What development needs do I have and what opportunities are available to move me to the next level?

  • Do I have champions, sponsors, mentors or coaches to help me get there?

And ask whether you really want the brass ring. It's not for everybody. If you want it, take the steps you need to get there.

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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