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Gail J. Cohen

Don’t be a speed bump

At last month’s Canadian Corporate Counsel Association spring meeting, I sat in on a few sessions and panels that focused on various aspects of one’s legal career. One was a lunch panel with a group of high-powered women general counsel discussing their careers and how they broke through into the upper echelons in their companies. While they were all women (who will be featured in a book coming out in the fall called Breaking Through), their tips for success are universal.

I would say Norie Campbell, executive vice president and general counsel of TD Bank Group, has had some professional success so I wasn’t surprised her thoughts on feedback hit home. They apply not only for in-house lawyers but for all lawyers and just about anyone else who, well, works and is looking to move up. She made two key points about feedback that I’d not considered before:

1. Demonstrate that you’re receptive to feedback; and

2. Ask for feedback about the people who are in the roles you want.

Campbell noted that if you’re only getting good feedback, you’re never going to improve. And there are often reasons why you don’t get constructive feedback and it’s not usually because you’re perfect. “Be suspicious” of constant rah-rah feedback. In terms of the first point, she said you have to want feedback, be open to it, and “treat it as a gift.” People will give you feedback, she pointed out, if they also feel it’s worthwhile for them; so create an environment where it’s comfortable for the giver to give.

On the second point, Campbell said you should find out what skills those people in the jobs you want have. If that person is respected, those who work with them can give you valuable insight into what skills you might need to work on to get that job. That led to the idea of self-feedback. Brigitte Catellier, VP of legal affairs and secretary of Astral Media Inc., says she keeps a black book or professional diary in which she jots down all manner of notes such as interesting news stories, conferences she wants to attend, people she meets who she’d like to have lunch with, etc. It helps keep track of a lot of the small things that can help build professional relationships and will lead to individual growth and success. “It allows me to connect the dots,” she said.

Another session looked at advocating for yourself, not just personally but in terms of getting things done and having decisions go your way: as the session leaders pointed out “advocating” and not “bragging.” So once you’ve got that good feedback, put it into action for those conversations that will impact you and your staff. Great pointers from that session:

1. Plan a good time for the conversation;

2. Know your audience and tailor your message. If your boss needs data, charts, numbers, etc. to make decisions then make sure that’s what you bring. Giving them what makes them comfortable will make them more likely to be on your side;

3. Do your research and be prepared. It will make you more confident;

4. Deliver what you promise. A good track record makes you a better bet; and

5. Be authentic.

What I got from all the input I heard that day is flexibility and knowing yourself and your audience, no matter what the ask is, will likely lead to success.

The best quote of the day about getting things done — especially if you’re a lawyer who may be eyed suspiciously by other parts of the business — came from an in-house counsel for a police department: “Don’t be a speed bump, find a new route.”


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