We recently conducted our annual analysis of the backgrounds and demographics of general counsel (GC) in Fortune 500 companies and uncovered some exciting trends. The number of women in the group is rising, as is ethnic diversity, and in 2018, more than half of Fortune 500 GCs were external hires. The opportunity is increasing for attorneys to achieve GC status but what elements of the route to the role are essential, and what do many successful GCs have in common?
This was one of the key themes at a recent breakfast we hosted as part of our ongoing “Path to General Counsel” series. We were honored to have Judy Reinsdorf lead the discussion with a group of high-potential, senior in-house lawyers. Judy most recently served as executive vice president and general counsel of Johnson Controls International following its 2016 merger with Tyco International, where she served nine years as GC prior to the merger. Judy also serves on the boards of Alexion and Dun & Bradstreet. Judy is also well-known for her dedication to talent development. To say she has a rich and well-rounded perspective would be an understatement.
Judy shared insights gained from her impressive career as part of the conversation around career management and leadership development for aspiring and newly minted GCs. Below are some of the key takeaways for both aspiring and current GCs.
Commonalities in the path to general counsel
There are many ways to pursue a career as a GC, and Judy has witnessed most of them while mentoring countless rising stars. While each leader and situation is different, there are five common behaviors she identified as directly contributing to promotion to the GC seat and long-term success once there.
1. Be transparent about your ambition.
It’s not enough to be ambitious; you must make your ambition known: Have conversations with your boss about where your career development fits into his/her plans. Articulate what you want and be confident (without being overly aggressive, Judy pointed out). If you are currently working under a GC, definitely turn to that person as an advocate. And while it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes becoming a mentor to others is the best way to land one for yourself.
2. Establish a clear personal brand.
It is one thing to gain your boss’s support because she or he works with you every day and knows you well. It is equally important to gain buy-in from other senior management and HR leadership to support your career growth. To gain their support, you need to establish who you are outside of the legal function and build a reputation that will earn you a seat at the table.
3. Exercise agility throughout your career.
Seize opportunity and be willing to move around and try new things. Explore ways to rotate into new areas within and beyond your current role including a business role, and if possible, be willing to move to a new geographic location. “You have to be a bit fearless,” Judy advised.
4. Be unflappable in your problem-solving.
If you can consume a lot of information, distill it to its critical essence, and build an action plan from that data, then you have an advantage — and if you can do all this without getting flustered, people will trust you.
5. Embrace opportunities to build courage and character.
This means owning your mistakes, being honest when you mess up, and seeking help to fix them. Don’t play the blame game. And, when you do achieve a great result for the company, be sure to share the credit with your team.
Advice to rising stars
Musing about her own career, Judy shared that many of her career advancements were supported by her network of sponsors: people who “cared about my future — people who advocated for me. Advocacy from your mentors will get you your next opportunity.” Finding the right people to go to bat for you is an essential element of the upward trajectory of your career.
Aspiring GCs should also not be discouraged by their early roles. Almost everyone must take the work that’s available at first, and then work their way up. If you do have multiple options, Judy recommends taking the job that will have the most significant impact, not necessarily the best title. It will ultimately have a bigger payoff.
In whatever role you land, seek out mentors. Mentors come in many different packages — they are not always fellow lawyers or your managers. Sometimes, they’re peers or others within your organization who are highly regarded outside of the legal department.
How to be a good leader as a GC
The leadership aspect of being a general counsel is one that attorneys often overlook as they build their careers, but the GC position is indeed an important leadership role. Judy’s final advice centered on how GCs could be more effective leaders:
1. Set expectations and make sure your team knows them. Expectations need to come from the top, so it’s your job not just to set them, but to model them.
2. Always keep an eye on developing your team and your potential successors. Don’t be content with the status quo and push your leaders to develop their successors too.
3. Part of your team’s advancement (and engagement) hinges on having interesting, substantive work. It is up to you to ensure your people have the right types of projects to grow. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for a cross-functional project or development opportunity.
As we have seen in our work, the paths to the general counsel role are becoming more varied and doors are opening to different types of candidates. Judy is a prime example of another shift we have observed: The GC as a leader and fearless talent developer. Those who apply her key messages — from making your ambitions known to building relationships outside the function to modeling behaviors for your team — will be well-positioned to reach and succeed in the GC role.