Real Leaders

Reaching for Success vs. Red Flags: How to Understand the Difference

Senior executives across every industry are feeling the pressure. Investors are growing more impatient by the day. Technology is disrupting the workforce and uprooting traditional business practices.

Lawyers — in-house counsel in particular — are particularly at risk. Regulators are growing more assertive. Our political environment remains increasingly dynamic. To help companies navigate this complex business landscape, senior management is leaning more on their general counsel than ever before. This can make a GC’s job much more exciting, but it also increases the pressure.

Every company views success through a different lens. As a former general counsel in the financial services and technology space, I know this all too well. As a leader, I’ve learned to live by what I call the Kenny Rogers Rule of Business. In other words, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away, and know when to run. Growing into success as a legal executive is not only about learning business competencies — it’s also about knowing when to spot red flags and walk (or run!) away.

Competencies and Characteristics of Strong GCs

When we talk about the traits of anyone in a leadership position, we usually like to qualify these characteristics as learned versus innate. Wherever you stand in this discussion, I believe many of these traits can be instinctive and developed through learned experiences. This is why companies would do best to look for a general counsel who demonstrates a combination of sound judgment and a growth mindset. Many characteristics make strong legal leaders, but below is a list of some of the most prominent:

Tested Judgment

It’s vital that senior executives not confuse “good brains” with “good judgment.” I’m paraphrasing a Wall Street Journal article written by Peggy Noonan over a decade ago, but it’s still a powerful message today. GCs, in particular, must be able to evaluate and weigh the impacts of every single decision and course of action made by a company’s senior executives. In-house lawyers must also use their judgment to lead cross-functional teams. So when looking for a general counsel, don’t look just for intelligence, but rather for people who can show good and tested judgment.

Versatile Communication

GCs must regularly communicate with diverse audiences, from the company’s senior management team to the board to its employees. Whether you are the GC or looking to hire a GC, a good legal executive needs to adapt their communications to any group and simplify complex legal matters whenever necessary. Versatile communication skills are not just intuitive; they are learned through experience. Good communication skills are also a key part of a growth mindset.

Strategic Thinkers

When asked about choosing people for a team, General Colin Powell once said to look for those that “see around corners,” and I believe this applies to general counsels as well. GCs must anticipate and prepare themselves for issues and risks before and after they arrive. Strategy-oriented GCs can proactively identify solutions to eliminate risks and grow the business. A purely reactive lawyer without a strategic “see around corners” focus may react too soon or, worse, too late.

Cultural Fit

Anyone that works for a company must fit in with that organization’s culture, including the legal team. They must work directly with senior management while also meshing with the company’s other employees. If they aren’t a good cultural fit, it could be damaging to that company’s growth and success, as well as that of an in-house lawyer.

BUT, sometimes, the expectations senior management has for a general counsel are meant to cover up red flags within the business. GCs must look for these red flags, as many regulated businesses have personal liability for them.

Red Flags: Knowing When to Run

Serving as a general counsel or legal executive often comes with personal liability. Here are some business red flags I’ve uncovered during my time in-house:

Values Mismatch

If your values as a lawyer and those of the organization you’re serving don’t line up, it’s time for a new job. Whether the misalignment is because of the culture, diversity, or other issues within the organization, if senior management is cultivating these values, it may not be the place for you. In my parents’ era, people stayed in their jobs for decades, maybe even for life. However, as you grow your career, you can no longer be afraid of leaving a job that doesn’t align with your values because a short stint with an employer “doesn’t look good on your resume.” The costs to your reputation may be far higher for staying than for leaving quickly. The same goes for companies who hire lawyers whose values don’t align with those of the company!

Risky Business

As a lawyer, it is often your job to manage business risk. This can mean everything from financial risk to employment risk to premises risk. At first, risk management can seem like a way to work hands-on with senior management, but it can also have a darker side. If you believe people within your organization are hiding or misrepresenting risks to you, run, don’t walk away. 

Blame Game

This isn’t a popular thing to talk about, but occasionally, senior executives choose to “blame the lawyer.” As general counsels, we’ve all experienced this at one point. It’s a common refrain from the boardroom to the courtroom: “My lawyer told me I could do it.” 

If a company wants you to succeed, you’ll succeed. But if you’ve noticed any of these red flags working with your company, follow the Kenny Rogers Rule of Business and know when to run.

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