Gillien Todd, a consultant with Triad Consulting Group, executive coach and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, recently joined us at Debevoise’s New York office to facilitate a workshop on Leadership and Identity for women lawyers at all levels in the firm.
Following the workshop, Gillien sat down with the Debevoise Women’s Review to discuss what draws her to this work, how identity plays a role in shaping leadership challenges and how lawyers can become more effective leaders and mentors.
Q: Gillien, you have been a lecturer on negotiation at Harvard Law School for the past 16 years, and recently led a workshop for the Women's Resource Group at Debevoise on leadership and identity. What drew you to this work, and what projects are on your plate?
I was drawn to this work because I am interested in helping others transform the way they think and their capacity to communicate; I am motivated to help others learn and grow professionally and personally. Teaching law students is wonderful because they are in a special moment of their development as adults – in the final years of schooling, ready to enter the professional world.
I have a variety of things on my plate! In my work as an executive coach, I work with leaders to help refine their leadership model and understand their strengths and learn how to expand their leadership repertoire. A key part of this work is self-awareness, understanding their own patterns of interaction and how that influences their teams.
Q: Tell us more about where the idea for a workshop on leadership and identity, which you recently gave to a group of women at Debevoise.
The idea for this workshop came out of conversations I have had with former students who have since entered the working world, including many at large law firms. We have been following a theme from the Harvard Negotiation Workshop, which is about how identity shapes our reactions to various situations. What these students are experiencing, now that they are no longer at school and are now working, is that identity impacts their ability to exercise effective leadership – perhaps in ways they had not anticipated.
Q: How have you seen identity play a role in leadership challenges for some of your other clients? Do these leadership challenges differ between your clients that are law firms and other private or public entities?
I see identity playing a role for my clients so often. One client, a high performer, for example, was having trouble raising a concern with his boss, and finally recognized that he was afraid to “whine” which was basically forbidden in his family growing up. But it was preventing him from negotiating for things that would have improved his satisfaction with the job–and he was thinking about quitting as a result.
Another client had always been the smartest growing up. As a CEO of a small organization, he found himself running a team where all the ideas came from him and others were more or less silent and agreeable – to his great frustration, as what he really wanted was a team of thought partners. His leadership challenge was to learn to become more open-and even solicit-alternative perspectives.
In legal careers, I see people struggle with what it means to be an advocate. In negotiation settings, sometimes the senior partner negotiates differently than the junior partner – and this can require some difficult conversations. Sometimes a client prefers a more or less aggressive approach to negotiation, and this can go against an attorney’s personal preferences.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader in your profession?
My personal challenges have been several – not all necessarily related to being a woman, but certainly related to being a leader in my profession. One challenge has to do with abandoning a desire for total competence; by avoiding failure I wasn’t fully able to engage. Another has had to do with voice – how to find a powerful voice to speak to a room of 100 people with some authority. What does that mean as a woman – who am I to be talking to them about this? Why would they want to listen to me? As someone whose work requires a fair amount of public speaking, these were questions with which I have really had to wrestle.
Q: In your various roles, you not only teach and mentor law students, but you also coach lawyers at all levels in law firms. Particularly as law students move into junior associate roles, do you think they have been well prepared by law schools for the challenges of law firms?
I have noticed that many of my law students have a very narrow view about what can be discussed and negotiated at large law firms. Before they start working, they believe that what the law firm wants is for them to work hard, accept all assignments and never complain. A typical concern is how to say no to work that might fall on the weekend of a friend or sibling’s wedding, for example. In their imagination of a “big partner” at “big law,” they will simply have to miss the wedding. This can be a set-up for failure– this approach is probably only sustainable in the short term.
What is happening is that they are running into an identity theme around “saying no” and what it might mean to negotiate at all in the face of another’s differing needs. Wanting to say no is competing with an identity theme of “doing their best” or “competence,” which is of course one reason the firm hired them.
In my negotiation course, I encourage students to develop skills to at least raise their concerns with bosses and mentors. They need to believe that they can have conversations about roles and responsibilities, getting helpful feedback, work-life balance and their own professional development.
Q: What advice would you give to young lawyers who are working towards a successful career and want to become leaders in their field?
There are many articles on how to succeed in a legal career. What my particular field – negotiation and managing difficult conversations – contributes to this conversation is the importance of developing critical leadership competencies. These are: speaking up about your own needs and interests, understanding others’ concerns, and finding mutually agreeable solutions; being able to raise and navigate important, but difficult conversations with balance and grace; and managing your own emotional reactions and knowing your identity triggers. So, effective leadership comes, in part, from self-awareness and from developing skills in representing yourself and understanding others.
Q: What advice would you give to someone undergoing a challenging time at work? How about to their teammates?
For someone undergoing a challenging time at work, I would encourage them to find someone – whether that is a mentor, a peer, HR, a supervisor – to talk with about the situation. It is important to stay engaged in conversations about your own needs and concerns, and to hold the assumption that the firm’s interest is in having a happy and productive employee. But too often, we are afraid to raise them for fear of being seen as incompetent, difficult or not up to the job.
As for their teammates, I recently read an article from the Harvard Business Review about something called the “Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome.” The idea is that bosses are often complicit in an employee’s poor performance, but tend to blame the employee. Sometimes an employee makes a single, but significant, early mistake, and this sets up a pattern of interaction between boss and employee that is self-perpetuating. The boss might decide to micromanage the employee, being fearful of future mistakes, which further stresses the employee, who begins to doubt himself, leading to more mistakes. This in turn leads the boss to further micro-manage. This reminded me that, as teammates, we need to continually question our assumptions about others, and look to the broader dynamic.
Q: To what extent has mentorship been important in your career?
Mentorship is critical. Senior mentors have quite simply provided opportunities and guidance – “try this approach” or “stop getting in your own way.” “Don’t be afraid to turn on a dime,” someone once told me when I was indeed not turning quickly enough. Peers play an important role for me as well – as allies and confidants, and also as mentors in a specialized niche.
Now I find myself doing more mentoring of others. What continues to surprise me is how rewarding it is to be a mentor to others. I appreciate the opportunity to help and to watch others develop. Remember this when you are afraid to ask your mentor to have lunch or a coffee! The relationship may be as rewarding to them as it is to you . . . albeit sometimes hard to schedule.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?
I think there is a traditional model of a successful law firm partner – and what their career path looks like. In order to increase the number of women in partner ranks, law firms need to, and are starting to, think outside this box, and be open to a variety of paths to partnership.
To some extent law firms need to initiate, not just react to, these conversations with their associates. How is your work-life balance? What do you need from us to support your development as an attorney and the growth of your practice? How can we help you be successful and stay with us?
Anna Gressel is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.
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