YourABA: November 2013
YourABA November 2013 Masthead

Top female lawyers share leadership insights

Before asking a female leader you admire how to follow in her footsteps, you might want to consider charting your own path. At a recent teleconference based on the new American Bar Association book "Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in the Law," notable female leaders in the legal profession shared the most important characteristics that define a promising and inspiring leader. (For more on leadership, see First Focus.)

  1. Be authentic.

    Based on "Learning to Lead" author Gindi Eckel Vincent’s study of the topic, no successful leader mirrors another, and no studies have produced a clear profile of a leader. "At the heart of every technique, every tool and every tip, you have to be yourself," Vincent said. "You will never be good at being someone else."

    Now counsel for ExxonMobil, the third-largest company in the world by consolidated revenue, Vincent said it took her six to seven years of practicing law to stop trying to fit into a particular mold. She recommended viewing your differences as assets to feel authentic during the course of your career. "(Leading) has to feel authentic to yourself and has to be true to your own values, your own morals and your own core," Vincent stressed.

    By rejecting the approach of mimicking another woman in leadership, you can embrace your own leadership traits. "You don’t need to behave like a man to be an effective leader, but neither do you need to behave like a woman — or how women are sometimes expected to behave — to be accepted," said Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer of NiSource. "Being authentic means being who you are, not who you think others want you to be."

    Lacy Durham, senior tax consultant at Deloitte Tax LLP, encouraged women to focus on what motivates them the most. "It’s very critical as female leaders that we understand and get to the core of what it is that we like to do, we want to do and we do best. If you don’t find your passion, your leadership is going to be for naught," she said. "It won’t be genuine, and eventually that will catch up with you." Find your passion quickly, and tailor your leadership style accordingly, Durham advised.

  2. Observe other leaders.

    "Carefully observe leaders you come in contact with, and learn from their examples, both good and bad," Hightman said. "You’ll probably learn as much from your bad bosses as from your good ones. Sometimes the most important leadership lesson is learning what not to do."

    Hightman mentioned a bad boss she had in the past, who lacked confidence, and as a result, her team didn’t believe in a particular project. Hightman’s observations of this boss helped her determine that it is crucial for her to be confident in herself and her team’s abilities in order to get the job done.

  3. Be self-aware.

    "We have all been around a colleague or team member who constantly has to be heard, who always wants to have the answer to the question when it comes up and needs to be viewed as at top of their game at all times," Hightman said. "This approach can cause others to view him or her as arrogant, self-promoting or unnecessarily competitive." She said someone with good self-awareness understands when to speak up and when not to.

    Hightman recommends assessing and evaluating your impact on those around you and being willing to understand the "blind spots" in your own behavior. Development is a "continuous process" and requires that you adjust your leadership style if an assessment indicates that change is needed, she said.

    Knowing the "lay of the land" is critical, Durham said. "You need to understand where you are on the leadership pole," she said. "You need to know the demographics, or who you are up against, and what contingency you are going to lead."

    Vincent said building your network and your reputation can take years, and you have to be patient with the process. "You have to make difficult decisions that will get criticized and will get challenged," she said. "All of that takes courage and persistence and time."

  4. Practice humility.

    Good leaders know they don’t have all the answers and surround themselves with a team that can fill in those gaps, Hightman said. She once had a boss who, at his own retirement celebration dinner, honored each of his direct reports with a special story about them and presented each person with a framed copy of his or her own story. "It exemplified his powerfully effective leadership style," Hightman said.

    "To be an effective leader, you can’t do it all. You have to be in a position to situate yourself and surround yourself with equally like-minded people who can help you along the way," Durham added. "Sometimes that means delegating and giving other tasks to other people that you cannot do."

    At the same time, Hightman cautioned against being overly humble and defining yourself based on your weaknesses. She said when pursuing productive feedback, instead of characterizing a trait as a weakness, frame it as a skill and ask for help on how to get even better. Vincent concurred and instructed women to "engage in frank discussions about your strengths and your opportunities for growth."

  5. Stay intentional.

    Taking ownership of and being strategic about your career remains relevant throughout the years, Hightman said, adding, "Don’t simply let your career happen to you."

    Look for positions or assignments that take you in the direction you want to go in, Hightman advised, saying all women should have "end games," as men frequently do. She encouraged women to take risks and seize opportunities that are aligned with their intended direction.

    "I think sometimes we can get mired down in the challenges and obstacles of leadership and stepping outside our comfort zone," Vincent said. Sometimes failing puts leaders on a path that is actually more exciting and fitting for their skill set, she remarked, citing Sen. Mazie Hirono as an example. Hirono lost a governor’s race but returned to the political scene and won election to the U.S. Senate, beating her same opponent from the previous race.

    "Every leader I talked to said we have all had setbacks. We have all failed. And failing really freed us up — it took away the idea that failing is equal to being knocked off course and not being capable of leading," Vincent said.

    Through the bad days marked by difficulty or defeat and the good days highlighted by promotions or praise, experts reminded women to stay on track. "Make the decision to lead every day," Hightman said.

More resources from the event can be found online. The teleconference, "Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law," was moderated by Margaret K. Masunaga, deputy corporation counsel for the County of Hawaii, and was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and Young Lawyers Division.

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