(From left, Kristin Coleman, Maryanne Lavan, Dana Rosen and Diana Toman. Photo: Erin E. Harrison)
(From left, Kristin Coleman, Maryanne Lavan, Dana Rosen and Diana Toman. Photo: Erin E. Harrison)

Navigating toward an executive leadership position isn’t easy—especially if you’re a woman, even in the year 2016.

Five senior in-house counsel from a cross-section of industries gathered at the 4th Annual Women, Influence and Power in Law conference on Sept. 23 to share their experiences climbing the ladder during the keynote entitled, “Lawyers as Leaders: Storytelling and Advice from Women Leaders in Law.” Megan Belcher, former vice president and chief counsel at ConAgra Foods, moderated the panel, which explored six main concepts: 

  1. Individual Contributor to Leader;

  2. You Have to Stretch to Grow;

  3. Be Confident. Be Bold. Take Chances;

  4. Be CEO of Your Career;

  5. Leverage Your Human Capital; and

  6. Avoid the Derailers.

Despite being different kinds of lawyers and different kinds of leaders, each woman stressed the importance of being thoughtful about growing beyond being solely a technical expert to being an inspirational leader. Key themes were authenticity, transparency and managerial courage, Belcher noted from her pre-keynote interviews.

Kristin Coleman, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Sears Holding Co., recalled the time she once inherited a “very unhappy team.” Right after she started, she was given the results from a company engagement survey, “which were about as bad as you could imagine,” she explained.

The survey asked questions like, “Do you trust your leader? Do you understand the mission? The scores there were abysmal,” Coleman said. “One of the things we did…we had each person do an individual development plan. It’s a thought exercise, no two people should have the same individual development plan…the results were fascinating.”

“Stretching to grow,” the second concept, was illustrated by examples of making mistakes along the way helped, which helped in the women leaders’ individual development. Making mistakes can be a tough concept for lawyers, said Dana Rosen, general counsel of ALM Media, the parent company of this site.

Rosen recalled her first stint as the GC of Wenner Media, the publisher of Us Weekly and Rolling Stone. One of her biggest responsibilities was a weekly legal review of each issue of Us Weekly magazine before it went to press. She had only hours each Monday to review the contents of the issue before it went to press late at night and delivered the next day.

She said her experience at a law firm was vastly different: as an associate, she had time to pore over her decisions and make recommendations. However in this role, she was being asked to make decisions very quickly.

“I thought, ‘I have to be able to make these decisions’. It was a great training to be able to quickly size up the issues, communicate what the issues were, what the risks were…but ultimately how to be decisive,” Rosen said. “It’s very easy as the law firm lawyer to say ‘no’ here and ‘not there.’ When you are in-house, you have to pick your battles. I learned how to know when to push, and when something was high risk that I had to say something.”

Maryanne Lavan, senior vice president and general counsel, Lockheed Martin, said women today need to “raise their hand” more to get the opportunities they seek. She noted that when she started her legal career there weren’t as many women in the field as there are today.

“I always had that voice in my head, ‘can I do this?’ Over time, I started to get more confident,” Lavan explained. “So the voice has to start changing…by getting experiences all along the way and developing it into your own style. But I think there comes a point in your career where you have to raise your hand and say, ‘would you consider me for that?’”

Diana Toman, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Compass Minerals, who became GC of the company at the age of 37, said it’s important for aspiring GCs to focus on how they can help the company.

“My view is if you focus on how you can help the company. You end up doing more for your career then if you were very methodical … if I know I am helping my company, I know I am helping our shareholders and I am helping people,” Toman said.

“Raise your hand but raise it well. Think about your message.  Know your audience,” Coleman added. “I got my first GC job by asking, but I didn’t get it when I asked. Don’t assume just because you take a risk and you maybe fail a little bit that you aren’t going to succeed down the road,” Coleman said.

Coleman also emphasized the important of tapping into the company’s “secret source” of power for women to move ahead in their careers.

“In every organization there is a secret source of power. As a GC your relationship with your CFO is extremely important….and some places you might not think of as a secret source of power,” she said.

Each panelist offered a piece of advice for women aspiring to move forward in their in-house legal careers:

Toman: “Always look to continually develop yourself.”

Rosen: “You can ask for anything, but it’s the way that you ask for it that matters.”

Lavan: “Find your own style but make sure it’s authentic.”

Coleman: “Get yourself a seat at the table. You have more power than you think you have.”

Belcher: “Don’t leave here and do nothing. Leave here and commit to doing one thing around your development.”

Added Lavan, “We all get disappointed, there is only one top job. But it’s how you handle that disappointment that will help determine how you will move forward in your career.”