According to Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, adept in-house lawyering requires a range of complementary competencies, and it has been Princeton Legal Search Group’s experience that these competencies or skill sets can be the tie breaker when there are two finalists for a CLO or broader role.
“Develop the range of a CEO. Heineman repeatedly stresses the importance of developing a broad skill set to be an excellent in-house lawyer. Comprehending all sides and considerations of a business decision—and weighing them appropriately—is an invaluable skill that will make for better in-house lawyers, especially later in their careers when they are more senior and advising on those final decisions. https://thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/the-inside-track/”
Executive level decision making is core to the on-going success of ANY General Counsel. If there is one core competency to focus on- this is the most critical and fundamental area of expertise to hone.
What we have seen when recruiting for the GC/CLO role in organizations is that the GC/CLO that demonstrates executive level decision making, specifically the ability to garner multiple sometimes conflicting perspectives, synthesize the data and come to a conclusive position are the general counsel who succeeds in leadership opportunities. This combination of skill sets is a differentiator and generally has a clear advantage in recruiting and most likely promotion cycles, including board readiness assessment.
So how does one acquire, deepen, or broaden the”CEO like” skill sets? Here are several suggestions- Find the strategies that are most applicable or adaptable to your career trajectory.
Non-Profit or Corporate Boards
Seek out leadership roles on non-profit boards or if possible corporate boards. For the purposes of acquiring the ability to “weigh all considerations when making a business decision,” find the opportunity that will provide the broadest decision-making latitude as a means to develop the competency. We see professionals who are on boards but are not engaged. While that is a starting point, assuming responsibility and engaging others in the business decision-making process is where the skill and competency development will occur. A smaller non- profit board may allow for broader decision making than a larger board or a corporate board. Ask yourself, where will I have the greatest opportunity to execute decision making expertise?
Spearhead a “Board Committee.” Quite frequently, boards will create internal committees (internal to the company) to address, assess, and sometimes resolve an operating or market challenge. If you are able to assume leadership of the Committee or a defined function of the committee, particularly as it requires decision making, you’ll be on the right track. Leading a Committee or Group through a business decision making process with a diversity of perspectives demonstrates one or more of the components of the “range of a CEO” Competencies. Before you begin, you may want to consider, how will your success be measured? What are the expected outcomes?
Look for leadership development programs that focus or promote executive-level decision making as part of your professional development or CLE requirements if possible. Seek out programs where applied knowledge to achieve results is one of the expected and hopefully, measured outcomes. Look for learning experiences that incorporate “tabletop exercises” wargaming simulations, unpracticed runbooks, or collaboration on case studies.
Initiate a task force to address an issue, such as spearheading introduction of the legal operations function into the organization. Can you join a committee or task force in a leadership capacity that is evaluating the pros and cons of a new product or service, preferably in the marketplace versus internally? Special Projects or Assignments that directly affect the customer will have the greatest risk/reward outcomes and therefore, will have the greatest visibility. To the extent that you are working with groups in addition to leading your legal team, you will broaden and deepen your ability to comprehend and weigh all sides and considerations of the decision-making process AND demonstrate your initiative in risk-taking opportunities.
We have seen GCs who have left large organizations for the chance to work for a smaller organization where they will be given the opportunity to work more broadly and be given more exposure in developing broad business decision making expertise. It is a calculated risk. We have seen this when lawyers have stepped off the professional legal trajectory on an interim or on a permanent basis. We have also seen how this strategy has launched a legal career forward- allowing the individual to garner traction where they would not otherwise have had the opportunity.These opportunities can provide the confidence or risk-taking development needed for advising on final business decisions required of the C-suite.
If your goal is to step up to executive level decision making then developing “the range of a CEO” is vital to your personal and professional development. Navigating legal teams and just as importantly, other professionals through the considerations of final business decision making will be a fundamental key to your success.Seek out those opportunities that will garner the hands-on learning to develop the expertise and results from being accountable for final business decisions.