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What today’s general counsel looks like as a leader

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There’s no question that the typical general counsel (GC) of a Fortune 1000 company possesses impressive legal skills and qualifications—pedigrees that often include elite educational institutions and training at top law firms. But the effectiveness of senior leaders depends on more than what they know and where they learned it—it also depends on how they lead.

Do today’s GCs have the right stuff for leadership in the C-suite? Heidrick & Struggles’ recent research using a proprietary leadership assessment methodology suggests that the answer is a resounding “yes”: GCs as a group outpace all other non-CEO C-level executives in the most prevalent leadership attributes found in the C-suite.

Nonetheless, we found GCs are less likely to score well on some leadership attributes that distinguish CEOs. And while we are not necessarily suggesting that GCs should aspire to be CEOs (the GC role at a top company is a laudable career highlight in and of itself), our findings suggest that GCs who seek the corner office may need to step further out of their comfort zone than they expect.

The eight Leadership Signatures

Several insights about the leadership style of GCs and other personnel in the legal function emerged from extensive research our firm has conducted involving more than 14,000 senior executives across a wide range of roles and industries around the world. During the research, we identified eight statistically distinct leadership styles or “signatures” (Figure 1). 

What today’s general counsel looks like as a leader_Figure 1

The characteristics of each Leadership Signature are quantitatively unique. Moreover, they resonate deeply with our experience in conducting executive assessments. And although every style includes strengths and weaknesses, no one leadership style is “right” or “wrong”; all styles can be equally effective. Indeed, individuals tend to have some degree of access to all the styles, and self-aware or well-coached executives can learn to flex to additional styles when appropriate. Nonetheless, our experience and research suggest that leaders tend to gravitate to a smaller set of default leadership styles they find comfortable or familiar—and those styles have significant ramifications for their careers and performance in their roles.

How GCs stack up

Through the lens of our assessment tool, we recently examined the Leadership Signature results for some 313 C-level legal executives and 209 other legal professionals and compared them to the collection of other executives in our research. Here is what we found:

GCs score higher on the two most prevalent styles at the C-level.

On average, all non-CEO C-level executives in our research scored highest on Forecaster attributes, followed by Harmonizer attributes. GCs on average scored highest on Harmonizer attributes, followed by Producer attributes, and then Forecaster attributes. What’s more, GCs scored higher as a group than their non-CEO C-level peers in both the Forecaster and Harmonizer categories—markedly so on the Harmonizer attributes (Figure 2).

What today’s general counsel looks like as a leader

Harmonizers bring some valuable traits to the table: they maintain high standards for quality work. They prefer settings in which everyone is using the same playbook to ensure reliable, efficient operations and execution. Harmonizers are also good at spotting problems and using their network of relationships to call on additional expertise to help solve them.

Producers, too, have unique strengths. They value results—the more tangible and immediate the better. With a strong temperament and work ethic, they also value consistency, hard work, and paying one’s dues. They appreciate pragmatism, tradition, and efficiency. And while they may be skilled at building efficient structures and processes that enable reliable execution, they have a bias toward proven approaches.

Forecasters exhibit deep subject-matter expertise, and they relish the chance to expand their knowledge. They take time to think deeply, gather data, and reflect on what they’ve observed before deciding on or proposing a course of action. They are also adept at marshaling their knowledge to generate insights about future trends and occurrences—an invaluable trait in a legal advisor, especially in highly regulated environments.

The deliberative, knowledge-driven style of the Forecaster may have many sources. For GCs, it could spring from deep-seated psychological predispositions, from the nature and substance of legal training, or from experience of what works given the demands of the role. Whatever its sources, the characteristics of the Forecaster style are highly prized by CEOs who want a consigliere-like GC who combines sage legal advice with an ability to proactively anticipate risks and opportunities.

Harmonizers are cautious when it comes to change.

As with all Leadership Signatures, the Harmonizer style comes with some characteristic blind spots. One of the most prominent for Harmonizers is a tendency to be overcautious—particularly when it comes to large-scale, transformational change or significant shifts in the way business is conducted. Because of their strong preference for standard ways of operating that have been successful before, ambiguity makes them uncomfortable. This rigidity can get in the way of formulating strategy. Furthermore, the tendency of Harmonizers to create agreeable work dynamics can make them shy away from constructive conflict and hesitate to deliver tough feedback.

Forecasters can also be overcautious despite their ability to anticipate the future.

When identifying trends, predicting their impact on the business, and formulating insights about the future, Forecasters may seek out that extra bit of information or conduct that extra analysis. As a result, they may fail to act on the insights they generated in the first place. Such a tendency can be a problem when speed is of the essence for the organization—in getting to market, introducing a new product, or seeking first-mover advantage with a new strategy. In our experience, one of the chief reasons CEOs oust GCs from a company is for being overly risk-averse.

Producers can find it challenging to incorporate new perspectives.

Producers’ bias toward proven approaches may make them appear close-minded and difficult to connect with emotionally, particularly to people they don’t work with closely. They can appear realistic and grounded, but also rigid and fervent in their beliefs.

The lower you look in organizations, the higher the Harmonizer score for legal professionals.

At the senior vice president and vice president (SVP/VP) level, legal professionals score only about 4% higher on Harmonizer attributes than GCs do. But the gap progressively widens further down the organizational hierarchy. Senior legal managers as a group score more than 14% higher than GCs on Harmonizer attributes, while legal managers score, on average, 29% higher than GCs. (While the implications for GC succession planning are beyond the scope of this article, the leadership styles of junior staffers should be taken into consideration, among other factors, as part of succession planning efforts. For more information, see “Nine steps general counsel can take to improve their succession planning.”)

Moreover, this pattern holds when we compare legal professionals to executives in other functions. At the SVP/VP level, legal professionals score, on average, about 5% higher on Harmonizer attributes than SVPs and VPs outside of legal roles. At the senior manager level, legal personnel score 32% higher, on average, than other executives at that level. And at the manager level, the spread is 38%.

The higher you look above the manager level in the legal function, the higher the Forecaster score for legal professionals.

GCs score 29% higher on Forecaster attributes than senior managers in the legal function and almost 13% higher than SVPs/VPs in the function. Because these findings provide only a snapshot of today’s legal professionals, it is impossible to say whether this means GCs learn to adapt to the Forecaster style—and dial back their Harmonizer attributes—as they rise through the ranks, or whether the findings reflect selection bias. But we do know that at the C-level, GCs are as strong or stronger in Forecaster and Harmonizer attributes than their peers on the leadership team.

GCs are less likely to exhibit attributes of Pilots than are CEOs or other C-suite members.

On average, CEOs and other C-level executives markedly outscore GCs on Pilot attributes. Pilots particularly enjoy environments that are ambiguous, complex, and characterized by significant change—like fast-moving, intensely competitive markets or start-ups where the ability to commercialize ideas and grow rapidly is essential for survival. They are capable of not only generating compelling strategies but also translating them into action, and they often push hard for organizational change. These characteristics are a far cry from the cautious style of the typical GC in our study. But the important point here is not that CEOs and other C-level executives score extraordinarily high on Pilot attributes but that, by comparison, GCs score more than 15% lower on average.

GCs are also somewhat less likely to exhibit attributes of Providers than are CEOs.

After Forecaster, CEOs scored highest on Provider attributes. Providers are motivated by two different, yet equally strong forces—the desire to lead from the front and to take care of those around them. They are confident about their abilities, they are deeply loyal and committed to those around them, and they operate with a sense of conviction—all characteristics that can be appealing to followers. Though these attributes rank fifth among the eight categories for GCs, CEOs scored only about 7% higher on them than GCs.

What these results mean for GCs

Taken together, these results carry implications for GCs and junior legal staffers looking to understand—and improve—their leadership skills. These groups can consciously reinforce their strengths, which in many cases are likely to be those of the Harmonizer, Producer, or Forecaster. And they can work to shore up their corresponding weaknesses—for example, by recognizing situations where they are overly cautious. If GCs and legal staffers lag in Provider and Pilot traits, they can learn to flex to those styles, broadening the range of situations and environments where they demonstrate those leadership attributes. And they can expand even further the outstanding leadership ability they have already shown in rising to the top of their profession.


About the authors

Lee Hanson (lhanson@heidrick.com) is a vice chair in Heidrick & Struggles’ San Francisco and New York offices; she is a member of the Financial Services and CEO & Board practices.

Victoria Reese (vreese@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice; she is based in the New York office.

The authors wish to thank Jacob Bercow, Ryan Pastrovich, and Karen West for their contributions to this article.

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Lee Hanson Vice Chairman +1 415 291 5208
Victoria S. Reese Managing Partner +1 212 8679876

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