The path to leadership roles may not always be obvious in legal departments and law firms, but leveraging experience, having confidence and seeking opportunities with mentors can be important steps in moving forward, according to a panel of experienced lawyers speaking in Toronto last week.
Gaining leadership skills and getting noticed often has to be achieved through one’s own initiative, according to Caroline Tsai, deputy general counsel and chief regulatory officer at BMO Financial Group, speaking as part of the “Tales from the Front: Lessons on How to Lead” panel of the 2017 Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum held in Toronto June 22, sponsored by Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute.
Tsai, who is based in Chicago, joined BMO in 2014 as chief legal officer of U.S. and commercial banking and took on the global role she has now two years ago. She was previously at Bank of America for nine years. She explained that most law departments are “very flat” and at her first in-house role historically there wasn’t the opportunity to be promoted from assistant general counsel to associate general counsel unless you were promoted to manage people.
“I took the advice of the associate general counsel I reported to and the deputy GC who joked that ‘You need to take the advice no one has ever taken and get out of your office, network and build connections with people outside our group; get to know the business, get involved in affinity groups and that will be your path to building leadership skills because you don’t manage right now.’”
Tsai embraced the suggestion and got involved in the bank’s women’s leadership network and in community outreach.
“I think Bank of America was one of the most hated banks in America during the [financial] crisis. My observation was we did so much great work in the community, but the non-profit community didn’t think that,” she said.
She took the opportunity to build out a program that enabled women at the bank to develop public speaking skills and coach clients in the Dress For Success program.
“We were serving two purposes — giving back to the community and building out our brand and providing ospportunities for raising talent at the bank. That was launched in eight cities across the globe,” she said.
A year later when it was time for a promotion discussion, the bank considered Tsai and gave her a promotion because the impression was “she may not manage people now, but she has demonstrated leadership.”
Katherine Kay, partner and commercial litigator at Stikeman Elliott LLP, agreed that women especially need to realize what their own strengths are and find ways to propel themselves forward to get the work and leadership roles they want to do.
She said that in her own career there was “a tipping point” where she realized she needed to take control.
“At some point, probably after I became a partner, I realized if I wasn’t confident in my own abilities, how did I expect anyone else to feel that way about me?” she said. “Some people would accuse me of not being subtle enough and I think that’s a gender point. But in a number of ways I just tried to push myself forward. We need more people to be that way. Look to your right, look to your left — all of the guys think they rock; you rock, too. So. if you’re not going to be an advocate for that, I’m not sure who is going to be.”
Sumeet Dhanju-Dhillon, partner at Torkin Manes LLP, who acted as moderator of the panel, pointed out that when male lawyers in a firm have a big win they tend to “walk around and talk about it and make sure everyone knows what happened,” even for the smallest win, while women are “more timid” about sharing what happened.
“I had advice early on from someone in my department who said, ‘You have to make it known the good things you do out there,’” she said.
Kay agreed. “I’m not the type to come back from court and walk around the halls and say I totally rock, but I am the sort to say ‘I do this kind of work, let me spend 10 minutes talking to you about it.’ No one knows your career, your skill and your capabilities like you do. You have to find the right way to communicate that and be an advocate for yourself.”
She emphasized the need to push oneself. “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. If you don’t go for it, you’re never going to know, and if you do go for it, the worst thing that is going to happen is you’re in the same position if you had never gone for it. Why would you deprive yourself of that opportunity?”
Tsai pointed out the need to be “courageous” but that getting there involves being well prepared for the task ahead.
“For me, it did not come naturally. I was an immigrant who grew up in Queens, New York. and if you pulled out my high school yearbook, I was voted the shyest person of my class and carried that through until I graduated college. It’s that concept of being courageous and not being quiet,” she said.
“When you’re having to make difficult decisions and trying to lead, it’s that extra step of speaking up and having the confidence. How you get there is something you work on every day. My advice is to really prepare for important meetings. Know your stuff so you walk in with confidence. If you are prepared, you will be confident. That is the most important trait.”
Preparation and confidence is key, agreed Kikelomo Lawal, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at Interac Association/Acxsys Corporation.
Lawal noted that she “benefited greatly” from a male mentor and in fact most of her mentors have been men who saw the potential in her and gave her opportunities.
“I was in my second year of practice and had a federal court trial. I was tasked with doing the legwork for the questioning of a witness. Then I was told I could question the witness, but I was prepped and primed within an inch of my life and able to do it — it was the fact someone believed I could do it that lifted me up a little more. You gain a lot of confidence by being prepared. It’s an extra boost to have someone believe you’re capable of doing it,” she said.
The panel also spoke to the value of mentors and sponsors in propelling careers forward. Ken Fredeen, general counsel at Deloitte LLP, pointed out that in choosing to mentor and sponsor others it’s important to keep inclusion in mind as a guiding point in building and developing teams.
“Being executive sponsor of the LGBTQ group for 10 years taught me so much I didn’t know and the same is happening with leading the disability network as a typically abled guy. It allows you to be a better leader of people. At the end of the day, you need to find the very best talent and if you’re biased to that you will not see the great talent that exists outside of your otherwise blindered view. You don’t get that simply by reading about it,” he said.
“I don’t think you can be a leader without being an inclusive leader these days — the talent is too rich. Hang out with people not like you — you have a responsibility to sponsor people who might not otherwise get that opportunity for leadership positions and you will find they are almost always successful.”