General counsel have what it takes to make it to leadership roles in the C-suite, according to a new report. In fact, they outpace all other non-CEO C-suite execs when it comes to some leadership attributes. That said, there are certain other characteristics important to ascending the corporate ladder that GCs may be lacking.
Executive leadership firm Heidrick & Struggles released Tuesday its first-ever "What Today's General Counsel Looks Like As a Leader" report. In putting the results together, the firm looked at eight statistically distinct leadership styles that are common among business leaders. Based on research involving more than 14,000 senior executives from around the globe, the eight styles explored in the report are: harmonizer, forecaster, pilot, collaborator, energizer, provider, producer and composer.
The report then assessed how more than 500 legal professionals stack up when it comes to these leadership styles, in order to help GCs more effectively lead and to offer insight for other execs looking to assess in-house attorneys.
On average, all non-CEO C-level executives scored highest in the forecaster—which means learning-oriented and a visionary—and harmonizer—reliable and execution-focused—categories. Comparing results from some 313 C-level legal executives and 209 other legal professionals to the collection of other executives, the findings show that GCs scored higher as a group than their non-CEO C-level peers in both categories.
"The goal was ... to really reach out to our network and get further insight with this tool in how [GCs and other legal professionals] track against other C-suite executives," said Victoria Reese, global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles' legal, risk, compliance and government affairs practice and an author of the report. That's helpful, Reese said, whether looking to hire in-house counsel from outside the company or promoting from within because it allows companies to "assess the qualities they are looking for" when it comes to these roles.
What companies are often looking for in a legal department leader, Reese added, is the proactive ability to not only look ahead and see where the legal and regulatory trends are going, but also to look at gray areas. "I think the forecaster is a natural description of what our clients are looking for," she said.
While GCs score well in the harmonizer and forecaster categories, illustrating that they thrive when it comes to some of the most prevalent leadership attributes, the report noted that both harmonizers and forecasters have their so-called "blind spots," namely a tendency to be overcautious. What's more, the results also showed that when it comes to the pilot category, which includes as an attribute the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, GCs score more than 15 percent lower on average than CEOs and other C-level executives.
Beyond where GCs are scoring well, the aim of the report was also to "uncover what those Achilles' heels are" for different leadership positions, said Karen West, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles, who also contributed to the report. The results confirm that GCs are thorough and data analytical, she said, and that may not necessarily fit in well with the pilot category, which includes the ability to make decisions without 100 percent of the data.