Gail Sharps Myers is the General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer and Secretary of American Tire Distributors. We recently sat down with Gail to discuss her career trajectory, the importance of women supporting women in the workplace and her advice to women starting their careers. The interview has been edited for publication.
Q. We have all read articles suggesting that women should change the way they speak to project more confidence in the workplace – saying “sorry” less or avoiding the words “like” or “just.” Are there any strategies you have adopted in order to be successful in the legal profession and corporate world?
When I came into the legal practice, one of the things I wanted to do was study the people that seemed to be successful. Of course, the more senior I became, the fewer women there were. I picked up speech patterns, and I was intent on learning the word du jour. There was always something neat that everybody was saying. I didn’t try to act like a man, but I definitely tried to speak like one. Because it’s all about communication and how to best communicate with the person on the other side of the conversation so that he or she receives your message, and so that you are able to hear what that person is saying to you. I picked up a number of key words that meant something particular in that environment.
In many ways I thought of it as visiting a foreign country and learning the customs and cultures of that country. I am from Jamaica and I have always had to learn the local customs and ways of saying things, so that is how I started thinking about communication when I entered the workforce. Perhaps that was the way I had to frame the issue to keep from getting angry. But at the same time, being accustomed to adapting and being sensitive to different communication styles has served me well in my career. Because in reality, it is not as simple as different speech patterns between men and women. Within this country, people communicate differently from state to state, city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood, and in my position now, I communicate every day with people from all over and being adaptable is crucial.
Q. Are there any creative or effective strategies you have seen law firms use to retain diverse talent?
I have not seen any unique approaches, which is why I think you have an increasing number of general counsels challenging law firms to show us more diversity among their attorneys. For example, as part of an RFP I conducted for outside counsel at a prior company, we included questions about diversity because I truly believe, in today’s world, you need all types of diversity—including age, ethnicity, gender, and geographic and economic backgrounds—around the table to bring in novel ideas and approaches. Law firms do a decent job in hiring diverse attorneys, but more work needs to be done to retain those attorneys. I think partners will have to be more purposeful in truly trying to create culturally inclusive environments at law firms. All firms have diversity committees, but in reality, what law firms need is for the head of the firm to also function as the head of diversity. The head of the firm and partners are the ones who have to drive diversity from the top down.
Q. Do you think associates can effect change at law firms?
That’s a really interesting question because associates are not doing that work from a position of power. Usually I would say you need someone in a position of influence—male and female partners alike—to effect change. However, one thing associates can do is try to make points of contact with each other, to break down barriers between one another. One day, some of those associates will be partners, and at that point, hopefully, they will already be primed toward an inclusive environment. It takes some courage, but associates should get out and leave the office and show a willingness to form real connections with their peers who are different from them on a human level. Once you start to see people with very different backgrounds from you as friends, you have already contributed to building a more inclusive law firm.
Q. What would you say to associates who may feel that it’s too risky to open up at work?
You can’t be afraid. There is no room for fear. The only thing you should be afraid of is can you feed your kids? Can you feed your parents? What about your partner? Otherwise, what are you afraid of? Now, I understand nervousness, and having concerns about stepping out on a limb and being rejected. But what is the worst thing somebody can say? No? How’s that going to impact you? What is there to be afraid of?
As a woman it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you cannot be vulnerable or divulge any personal details, or that you should always be all about business. However, it’s incredibly surprising the types of bonds you may form when you are willing to be vulnerable.
Q. How did you find the confidence to open up?
I won’t pretend that I was always comfortable just being me all the time. It took some practicing to get to the point where I felt comfortable saying: “You know what, I am who I am.” But when you get to that comfort level with yourself, it becomes so much easier. But now that I’m there, my filter is hard to find sometimes. It’s like a retainer – where did I put that?
But it does feel better to walk tall and talk straight.
Q. What do you think makes a really good leader? What about a good female leader? Are they different?
I believe that a good leader is just a good leader. I believe that a good leader is a leader by influence and by being open to being influenced, because perhaps your position is not necessarily the only position or the right position and it may need to be challenged. I believe that a good leader has inner strength, a strong belief system and a healthy respect for those around them.
Now being a good female leader? I personally believe that all women in the workplace should be supporting one another. It drives me nuts that there are female leaders high up in power structures that are not helping other women, even if they can’t do anything for them other than spend time with them and talk to them and maybe talk things through with them. I feel very strongly about that.
Q. What is the most important piece of advice you have gotten and would give to younger female attorneys?
In addition to the advice I have already shared, I would add stay true to yourself, present what you want people to see, which is your authentic self, and don’t stop being nice. Oftentimes women get a lot of advice about being more aggressive. There’s a time and place to be aggressive—and you will see it—but don’t let anybody tell you that you have to stop being nice.