Leadership: Grit, Hustle & Calm
Verona Dorch, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for Peabody Energy, was recently interviewed by Kristin Calve of Corporate Counsel Business Journal. Dorch shared several strong messages that resonated with me personally, so much so that I wanted to highlight how they’ve been important in my practice and work with clients.
Like Dorch, I’m a strong believer in teams. She says, “I’m a strong believer in building a team of leaders. I like to give people the ability to lead, and I sometimes do it before they are ready.”
This describes how I sometimes work with my in-house clients. Budgets are tight, few in-house folks in small companies are issue experts, typically, and often my legal advice is paired with coaching on how to deliver the appropriate messaging to internal clients. Are there times when we send folks into the field before they are fully trained up? Yup. That’s the nature of start-up life. What seasoned fractional GCs or other outside corporate counsel bring to the table is the ability to serve as a counterbalance to that. Coddling your in-house legal department client isn’t helpful, and it is expensive. Offering them opportunities (with the right safety net) to grow and learn on the fly is invaluable. As a seasoned in-house counsel, general counsel, and adjunct law professor, I know how to look for those moments, without being pedantic.
Skills & Traits
“I look for grit and hustle to not just do the task requested by the client but to go beyond what is needed in figuring out what else can be done to be helpful and productive,” Dorch says. … “I seek confident, energetic and enthusiastic people who are problem-solvers that our clients can look to for a maximum level of competence and for that extra level of calm.”
How often are clients abused by an “issue-spotter” who raises problems and anxieties unnecessarily, and who has no bedside manner? There are times when the delivery of legal services needs the same delicate touch as the delivery of professional therapeutic counsel. Knowing what message needs to be delivered, and how, can’t be quantified by pedigree, specialized credentials, or an inferred value tied to a high hourly rate. Clients need to hear legal advice in a way in which they can act upon it sensibly. This will vary by client. Having worked as a GC and been on the receiving end, as well as having given such advice, I can tell you there is no such thing as a standard answer, or one-size-fits-all. Specialized knowledge deserves customized delivery, and delivery that eases client tensions — not amplifies them.
Knowing All the Answers
I love this part of her interview. “Don’t be afraid to fail or take a challenge on when you don’t have all of the skills. Patrick Decker, a CEO I worked with, taught me that. Before then, I really thought I had to present myself as always knowing the full answer when it’s acceptable to give a partial response, or the most informed answer, and validate the rest later.”
So, I’ll give my spin here. What Dorch is saying is that it is ok to give an informed opinion, even if it’s not an explicitly researched opinion – though, depending on the situation you may have to tell your client your opinion may change once you’ve researched the question. That’s what modern business demands. And Dorch is also advocating for a path I ascribe to, which is the “no bullshit” path. Bullshit serves no one and runs the high risk of flinging back to the face of the person who delivered it.
I was an experienced engineer and patent attorney when I was tasked with building and overseeing a public company patent portfolio. Was I the most qualified person for the job? Who knows. What was important was getting the project underway immediately and gaining traction. That meant assuming risk. I rose to the occasion. Well-run companies do the same every day. We as attorneys need to be comfortable with this kind of risk, especially in fast-moving industries, such as energy.
I am thrilled to see women GCs in the energy field like Verona Dorch receive this kind of attention. As the sustainable energy field evolves, we need more outside-the-box leaders.