Women General Counsel: Universal Issues, Unique Achievements: Part I

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 13:35

The Editor interviews Michele Coleman Mayes, General Counsel, Allstate Insurance Co., and Kara Sophia Baysinger, Partner, SNR Denton. Ms. Mayes and Ms. Baysinger are co-authors of Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500. Part II of this interview will appear in the March, 2012 issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel. (http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/17570/women-general-counsel-universal-issues-unique-achievements-part-ii)

Editor: Tell our readers about your background and current practice.

Mayes: I have been general counsel at Allstate Insurance for just over four years. Our legal department is the fifth largest in the country, with approximately 500 lawyers representing our insureds and 130 attorneys dedicated to other matters.

Among the bigger issues we manage are natural disasters and federal/state regulatory compliance – not just from the legal perspective, but also coordinating with senior management on broader initiatives. For example, we are working to get national legislation enacted for graduated driver licenses, which will save the lives of teen drivers.

Baysinger: I practiced in-house for ten years before moving to private practice. I am a partner at SNR Denton in the San Francisco office, co-head of our insurance practice globally and a member of the firm’s executive committee. Among the more rewarding aspects of my role at SNR Denton is furthering the firm’s commitment to diversity, which is evident in its support of this Courageous Counsel project.

Editor: What was your inspiration for writing Courageous Counsel?

Baysinger: Lloyd Johnson of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association really provided the spark for the idea of writing a book that collects stories from women GCs in the Fortune 500. Michele and I already had met in the course of our professional lives – we are both frequent speakers on diversity issues and quickly discovered our shared passion for supporting the advancement of women.

We had two main goals for the book: to celebrate the achievements of successful women GCs and to serve as a mentoring tool for people who work in organizations that may not provide them with role models and/or mentors like the incredible women we interviewed.

While our primary focus was to provide career advice for women lawyers, the book offers universal lessons, irrespective of gender or profession. For example, the popular notion that simply doing a great job will advance one’s career is a misconception. No doubt, successful people work hard, but they also understand the need to be advocates for their own development and courageous about taking risks.

Editor: What are the characteristics of great leaders? Are any considered to be gender-specific?

Mayes: In my experience, leadership attributes are not gender-based, in the sense of being innate, but rather are products of socialization. Traditional characterizations of women as nurturers or consensus-builders overlook this key point. In reality, women skew very differently along the leadership spectrum. Many of our interviewees for Courageous Counsel would not necessarily fall under the nurturing umbrella, for example.

Leadership starts with being both a superb communicator – one who inspires people to follow – and a good listener. Leaders must be able to paint a compelling vision The reality is, the more a person advances within an organization, the more hampered she becomes in her ability to hear and receive intended messages. Among the obstacles, her employees may fear delivering critical negative messages. Effective leaders know how to break down this fear, so they can hear what they need to hear, not just what others want to tell them.

One of the most overrated beliefs is that leaders always know what they’re doing. They don’t. In truth, good leadership requires the ability to doubt and ask good questions. Further, effective leaders have the courage of their convictions. They understand that relying on prevailing political winds within a company can lead to bad decisions and trouble. Finally, leaders know how to influence and inspire, which requires the trust and respect of their people.

Baysinger: Yes, and trust operates from multiple perspectives. Certainly, the ability to motivate and lead a team depends on establishing trust, but great leaders also earn the confidence of those to whom they report. GCs serve as trusted advisor to the board and to the C-suite as a whole, and they must have the ability to see the big picture, to triage, to develop talent and to cohesively move towards business goals. Great lawyers are a dime a dozen. Great lawyers who can move a business forward are hard to find.

While there are many perspectives and leadership models, there is no definitive strategy for developing leadership skills toward career advancement. The key is for each person to take ownership of this process in their own lives – to be self-aware and to know and respect the needs of the organization. Courageous Counsel sought to make this broader point and then offer a menu of options, including mention of specific models as examples of potential strategies.

Editor: What are some key initiatives to attract, retain and advance women?

Mayes: This effort is, and will remain, a work in progress because the world is fluid and priorities are constantly evolving. For example, today’s workforce comprises as many as four generations, ranging from the Greatest Generation to Millennials. People are waiting longer to retire, given today’s economic realities. Working alongside these older workers are Millennials who simply are wired differently, though I would challenge the belief that they are coddled and have unrealistic expectations – that’s inconsistent with my own experience.

Like everyone else, Millennials are the product of their environment and socialization. While we all have much in common, there are differences, for instance, between Baby Boomers who worry about an unstable Social Security system and Millennials who dismiss the system as ”already broken.” Given these two mindsets, why wouldn’t they have different expectations? For managers, finding solutions involves learning the real concerns and aspirations of all team members. You miss the boat if you proceed based solely on what you think people need, rather than listening and responding appropriately to what they actually tell you.

Case in point: Allstate offers flex time. While this policy helps women, ironically, it was a younger, single, male employee who had neither elderly parents nor young children in his care who raised this issue with me. He asked me why we don’t have more opportunities to work from home, saying, “What’s the big deal?” When I realized I didn’t have a good answer, it became clear that we were operating under outdated notions. My generation grew up believing that you had to be in the office. That is so old school.

Allstate already offered flex arrangements, but use of them was not actively encouraged in the law department. We formed a group to develop an updated policy and then assigned a gatekeeper to oversee the program. Of course, technology is a key enabler, both of management’s intention to offer the program and the responsible use of it by employees. Now, even more experienced employees have become ardent supporters and participants.

Baysinger: SNR Denton has many diversity initiatives, starting with a recruiting program that mandates a broad slate of qualified diverse candidates. We do a lot of on-campus recruiting and seek candidates through diversity organizations, which are a major source for talent.

The ultimate challenge in maintaining a diverse workforce is developing and retaining talent. Diverse or not, talented people are in high demand; thus, an organization must create an inclusive environment in which their perspectives are valued and contribute to the greater good. Real inclusion involves offering job growth and advancement within every diversity vector: generational, geographic, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious preference and, of course, gender.

Our staffing efforts also focus on junior attorneys and creating paths for advancement that tie in with their individual talents, steering away from cookie-cutter programs that drive toward a uniform result. We evaluate our associates based on legal and business skills, life experience and overall competencies, not necessarily years of experience or which law school they attended, so that the most talented lawyers can advance quickly and, with assistance, obtain the skills they need.

Editor: Please talk about the mentor relationship in all its forms.

Mayes: We don’t have a formal mentoring program, but we reach out to connect people if we see a specific benefit. We also work with outside mentoring groups, such as WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. and Menttium. As a rule, I believe in self-help and encourage my lawyers to find their own mentors, stressing that they should not seek someone who looks like them. I believe strongly that we have the most to learn from people who are most unlike us.

Managers cannot force or manufacture the mentoring relationship because it requires mutual trust, chemistry and the mindset to make it work. It is much easier to deliver and receive constructive criticism when a mentoring relationship has trust at its core.

Editor: How can organizations measure the success of gender diversity programs?

Baysinger: Different thinkers on the subject have created different benchmarks; however, the real success of diversity and inclusion programs is recognizing and advancing talented people. The most successful programs also track quantitative factors – compensation and advancement disparities based on diversity factors – with the goal to ensure that, in the aggregate, diverse professionals are given equal opportunity.

Succession planning provides an excellent opportunity to measure success at a profound level because it forces you to think about your team in a different way. This process involves assessing the delta between a team’s current capabilities and where they would need to be should a senior manager suddenly be lost to the organization. The resulting matrix of lacking skills can provide a basis for productive team and personal development. This becomes a proactive tool for team development, diversity efforts, rather than a passive measure after the fact.

Editor: What are some particularly striking themes from the women you interviewed?

Baysinger: We conducted the Courageous Counsel interviews without real expectations; thus, it is truly compelling to report that, almost to a person, these women stressed the importance of taking risk. As Michele says, these women eat fear for breakfast. They will take on a seemingly impossible or politically dangerous project with the attitude that success is fabulous and failure is just part of the process and something to learn from. I see it in my own career: when I take a flying leap, something great usually happens.

Another important theme addresses the common misconception that careers run along paths. As one of the GCs we interviewed, Susan Lichtenstein says the more accurate description is a bowl of spaghetti: you end up with this great job, but it took some twists and turns to get there.