May 12, 2020
In coaching lawyers and other professionals, such as actuaries and consultants, one of the comments I hear most is “I am great at my job, but my management is not promoting me or viewing me as a leader.” This is followed by, “I don't understand this. I am so much a better lawyer or actuary than Monique down the hall. I draft fabulous briefs that will make opposing counsel quake, but I am not being invited to pitches or up the corporate ladder.” The ugly truth is your management most likely views you as a technician or an individual contributor and not a leader. If this is the case, you are unlikely to be promoted. To determine if management is not considering you for promotions and opportunities (including stretch assignments) you want, you need to take a hard look at your behaviors. Ask yourself if you are self-aware (not everyone is), or ask your personal board of directors to evaluate whether you exhibit any of the traits or behaviors below. If the answer is yes, you must create a plan to modify how you behave or communicate. The further up the organization ladder you go, the more critical these skills become, and the expertise that got you in the door will not get you to the next level.
College and graduate school train us to issue spot. Then our entry-level positions reward us for finding these issues and identifying risks. The training and rewards make us focus and home in on becoming an excellent issue spotter. To be a leader, you must not only identify problems and risks, but you must proactively compare those risks in the context of other threats. Is this risk high, medium or low, and what would be the impact if it came to be? And guess what? You need to do this well and accurately. You cannot assess all of the risks as high. You must be able to calibrate risks.
Moreover, leaders don’t only understand the risks; they come to the table with solutions and risk mitigation strategies. This skill is essential for all professionals especially in-house lawyers who need this skills to establish themselves as trusted advisors. In-house counsel should strive to be a strategic partner — not as the person who prevents business from moving forward. Being solutions oriented does not mean saying yes to everything. It means understanding the objectives, assessing the risks and helping to determine the best course.
Related to the issue spotter is the Henny Penny communicator. You know the person who always is saying the sky is falling and communicates excitedly and talks about how bad things are? Corporations and law firms are looking for calm and unflappable communicators who assess risk correctly and exhibit a command of both the situation and themselves. While you cannot sugarcoat situations, but you can make sure that you must make sure that you are presenting issues fairly and completely. You must exhibit this behavior when communicating with internal, as well as external stakeholders. If you cannot exhibit the right level of gravitas internally, your business partners will not believe you can do it when talking to a significant shareholder or the press or negotiating with another company or regulator. Also, you should not only communicate this way in dire situations; it should be your usual tone. Again, if it is not your standard way of communication, management will be uneasy that Henny Penny will come out.
Do you focus only on areas inside your technical expertise? If so, you may have a narrow worldview. Leaders, on the other hand, have broad worldviews. They understand the broader impacts of information and can connect dots across functions and businesses. Leaders also view enhancing their soft skills and always learning as part of their development plans. They are interested in their firms’ or companies’ broader objectives and industry trends. Leaders know that they can still become better and improve and that the more knowledge they have, the better they can be at connecting dots and envisioning a future.
Are you always communicating? Have people commented that you take up all of the air in the room? When you take a breath, are people fiercely trying to jump in and say something? If this is the case, you could be a talker. The best leaders are active listeners. They use their ears more than their mouths and focus on what others are saying and why they are saying it. Listening allows leaders to learn and understand others’ perspectives — which they can use to persuade or to refine their positions. Being able to let others speak also demonstrates confidence, which exudes leadership.
Do you hesitate to make decisions? Do you always look for consensus? Leaders make decisions and are willing to be accountable for their results. If you cannot make decisions, the world will not perceive you as a leader. One senior associate I worked with was trying to be made equity partner, and management had told her that they wanted to see her own her matters — but she kept going back to the relationship manager with each decision. This indecisiveness is not leadership. It can be scary to be accountable, but it is also freeing, and you get to show what you can do. More often than not, you have to act like you already have the role to obtain the role.
If you exhibit any of these behaviors, management will view you as a technical expert or individual contributor and not a leader. There are three steps you need to take to address these behaviors and become a leader. You must identify the traits and or behaviors impacting your leadership skills. Then you must create a development plan to address those issues. One of your steps should be an assessment of whether your current organization or management will recognize the change in behavior or continue to view you as a technician. If the latter, you need to consider whether you need to change your position. Finally, you need to act on the plan and make leadership behaviors a habit. Change does not happen overnight and takes real commitment. However, if you focus forward, you can do this.