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October/November 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 7| Page 34

Leadership Profile

Leading by Reading the Room


  • Partner, Bowditch & Dewey
  • Executive Director, Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success
  • Author, Ending the Gauntlet
  • Member, ABA Board of Governors

Constant consciousness. For most people, several adjectives come quickly to mind when characterizing effective leadership: motivational, decisive, visionary, persuasive, savvy, smart and strong. But some leaders also possess something we might call “strategic empathy.”

Consider the top-of-mind answer Lauren Stiller Rikleen offers when asked to name her best leadership skill. “I’m constantly aware of the dynamics of the room that I’m in,” she says. “I can tell you in a heartbeat who’s looking -angry, who’s feeling okay, who’s comfortable, who’s tense.”

Rikleen is the executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, which helps professional services firms attract and retain women professionals, as well as a partner at the Worcester, Massachusetts-based law firm Bowditch & Dewey. She is also known in the profession for her groundbreaking 2006 book Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law. Plus, in August of this year she began a three-year term as a member of the ABA Board of Governors.

Whether she’s leading a meeting, running a seminar or organizing a project, Rikleen says she maintains a constant consciousness of the sentiments of those around her. This clearly helps in shaping group dynamics and fostering inclusive teamwork, although it can also be exhausting. “Often I get tired from certain situations,” she says, “because I’m paying such close attention to what’s going on, or I’m asking someone directly how they’re feeling and drawing people out.”

Over her career Rikleen has developed leadership experience that reaches broad and deep. Among her many roles, she has been president of the Boston Bar Association, chair of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, a founding member of the Council for Women of Boston College, and president of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. She was also the first woman to chair the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had opportunities to lead in a variety of organizations, and with each one you come out a stronger leader,” she says. “Each teaches you new things.”


Finding Pleasure in Teamwork

While Rikleen has gained insight and perspective through her involvement with many different groups, which role does she feel taught her the most important lesson in directing others? Interestingly, it wasn’t a role related to the legal profession. Instead, it involved community service activities.

In 1989, she helped create and then lead MetroWest Harvest, a group in her Massachusetts community that works with grocery stores and restaurants to collect and transport food to people in need. It was there, in her six years as the organization’s president, that Rikleen learned just how important it is to help people enjoy their volunteer experience—a realization that has carried over into her team-building approach in her legal practice, her service at the Bowditch Institute and other endeavors.

“What I learned at MetroWest Harvest—which I’m very proud to say is still operating—has stayed with me and is a part of everything I do,” she says. “When I’m running a meeting or leading in other ways, I try to make it a fun experience. I think you have to have a sense of humor and encourage people to enjoy the process. That’s important whether it’s a volunteer effort or your work.”

Of course, it’s not easy injecting fun into every experience, something that Rikleen is very aware of, as she acknowledges that any time a group of people are engaged in a common goal—whether it’s a philanthropic organization fighting homelessness or a law practice group boosting its client base—there will be tension. “You have to make sure that nothing is ever personal in that [group] context,” she says. “You want to help people learn how to disagree with each other in a respectful way so that everyone feels valued in that experience. Ultimately, people need to feel valued. I don’t think there’s enough appreciation of just how much that matters on a day-to-day basis.”

So how does an effective leader instill that important feeling in others? Well, Rikleen says, it requires saying thank you a lot and giving plenty of private and, more importantly, public recognition.

While she has successfully captained many efforts in her career, Rikleen has also experienced her share of struggles, learning from those as well. For example, she recalls her years in the mid-1980s as a regional enforcement lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency. At that time, the EPA was working under many new laws and regulations and its upper management offered little guidance to its people on the ground. Like other agency lawyers, Rikleen was forced to think and act on her own and make important decisions essentially in a vacuum.

“My husband always comments that I find myself in situations where something is always brand-new, where there’s no background or history, and that was certainly the case at the EPA,” she says. “It was also what happened to me when I came to this law firm and created an environmental practice where none existed.”


Facing the “Myth of Meritocracy”

Rikleen blazed new trails when she founded the Bowditch Institute to help address a problem she finds endemic within the legal profession: the struggle of women to succeed and advance. Rikleen also explored and exposed these issues in researching and writing Ending the Gauntlet.

She believes women are making progress in climbing the ranks to become leaders within law firms, but they need to do more to position themselves in leadership roles. First, she says, women need to understand “the myth of meritocracy,” that they shouldn’t buy into the idea that if they simply perform very well in their career, they’ll be rewarded and advance accordingly.

“Women need to get beyond the notion that merit alone will result in achieving management positions in the firm,” she says. “They need to learn to navigate within and outside the workplace to develop strong relationships in a way that can pave a path to leadership roles.”

However, it’s also critical that men’s views change as well. “Male leaders in a law firm must be trained about the ways in which their unexamined, unintended biases emerge,” Rikleen maintains. “I see this happening a lot: Someone makes assumptions about somebody based on certain circumstances that are not grounded in reality. And until men who are in leadership roles in law firms understand these dynamics and how their unintended biases affect the evaluation process and the judgments they make about women succeeding, there will not be enough change to make a difference.”

About the Author

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who writes on various subjects in the legal media.