Calm risk-takers will rule the world

Cheryl Foy
If you’re easily excited and not a mischief-maker, the world of in-house leadership is apparently not for you. This is according to a report produced by a legal search firm that mined its own data on the skill sets of executive candidates as compared with the success of these same candidates when placed into roles within organizations.
The report concludes that the most successful legal executives exhibit three key sets of characteristics:

1. Successful legal leaders have the same characteristics as successful leaders in other fields.

“The average legal executive is on par with his or her peers on most attributes such as being decisive, setting strategy, executing for results, leading teams, building relationships, and using influence, learning, and thinking and motivating.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone that successful in-house leaders have the same characteristics as other leaders. However, it is my observation that sometimes lawyers are forgiven for not having these attributes because they are lawyers. It is also true that in-house lawyers are often wrongly assumed not to have these characteristics. There is generally a bias that lawyers don’t understand the business.

While it is true that there are many aspects of the private practice of law that do not prepare lawyers for the move to in-house, I believe many of us who gravitate to in-house roles do so because we have those skills and they are underutilized in private practice.

Anyone responsible for hiring lawyers into in-house roles in which leadership is required should ensure that the lawyer exhibits strong technical abilities as well as all of the other characteristics of a strong leader. Anyone managing an in-house lawyer should demand the same and should ensure that junior in-house lawyers get the kind of experience and training necessary to develop the skills needed.

2. Successful legal leaders are “18-per-cent less excitable” than their legal counterparts and “20-per-cent less excitable” than their business counterparts.

Again, these results are not surprising. Love us or not, in-house lawyers are usually the first ones called in a moment of crisis and those of us who are better able to calmly assess the situation and provide sound advice and guidance to our clients will rise to the top.

Difficult situations require a quick assessment of the facts, identification of the objectives of any response, articulation of the possible courses of action to achieve those objectives, and a decision as to which course of action has the best chance of achieving the desired outcome. An in-house legal executive must have the self-discipline to remain calm, but what’s more, that same executive must have the confidence, credibility, and persuasive skills to encourage his or her client to remain calm, too.

Furthermore, when making our assessments, analyses, and decisions, we should never lose sight of the fact that sometimes the best course of action is no action. Taking action may only make the situation worse. The most difficult path of all may be convincing a client to do nothing in the face of the client’s perception of a need to act or react.

I often try to prepare myself for situations I might face as general counsel by imagining how I might deal with the situations others face. Recently, as I was reading an article about Labatt’s response to the publication of a photo in the Montreal Gazette of accused killer Luka Magnotta holding a bottle of its beer, I reflected on how difficult it can be for in-house lawyers to counsel taking no action at all when faced with a difficult situation.

We are trained to fix problems, not let them linger. I imagined the reaction inside Labatt as the company digested the information that a person suspected of such a horrific crime was so publicly associated with its product. I imagined the pressure inside the company to take some action, any action, to distance itself from the person and the crime. I imagined how poorly received the advice to do nothing might have been.

Labatt is now being criticized for making the situation worse as many more people are now aware of the photo than otherwise would be. One commentator suggested that the lawyers advising Labatt failed to take into account the public-relations perspective.

It is not possible looking from the outside in to know what counsel advised and whether the advice was taken. It is not possible to know what discussions were had, what courses of action considered and rejected. It is likely, however, that as in most businesses, the final decision to act was taken after consultation and with instructions from the business side of things. In the end, regardless of whether her advice is taken, a lawyer must act on her client’s instructions.

3. Finally, successful legal leaders are mischievous?

All I can say to this is I think the report relies on a definition of mischief unfamiliar to me. Having visions of leprechauns and children in my mind, I revisited the definition in my trusty paperback version of the Oxford Dictionary: “mischief” is defined as “conduct . . . that is annoying or does slight damage but is not malicious . . . a tendency to tease or cause annoyance playfully . . . harm or damage.”

Given our roles, I am sure that in-house lawyers are regularly perceived as annoying in varying degrees. However, the rest of the definition just doesn’t fit — we aren’t supposed to tease, be playful, and we certainly aren’t to cause harm or damage. So, what could this aspect of the report possibly mean?

In explaining why successful legal leaders must demonstrate “high ‘mischievousness,’” the report advises that the law department cannot be the department of “no,” that it must offer creative solutions, be willing to make decisions as information is coming in (normal business environment), and be willing to take risks.

Successful CLOs are “11-per-cent more willing to take risks than the average legal executive, and . . . almost as likely to take risks as the typical business executive.” No mischief there. Instead, the report is actually stating that successful legal executives must be willing to take risks and be creative.


The report concludes that successful legal executives must have all of the qualities of other successful leaders, be equally willing to take risks, and demonstrate the added skill of being calm in challenging situations. It is the “calm risk-takers” who will rule the in-house world.

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