Bill White 2018-01-23 02:13:00
While it is difficult to generalize about the key to a successful transition from law to business leadership, those who have done so well tend to build on strengths of their professional training while being mindful of a few common pitfalls. Clarity of expression. Good lawyers are clear and precise when communicating with clients or courts. Those qualities are also characteristic of good managers, who must delegate tasks and hold people accountable. Once I worked with an effective CEO who excelled in setting clear expectations for each role. In order to nurture this skill in others, he brought in an English teacher. An emphasis on crisp and precise communication also encouraged clear thinking. More broadly, the leader of any organization must clearly and consistently articulate an organization’s mission and principles to employees, customers, and investors. Sometimes those principles take the form of rules, but often the best operating principles are decision-making criteria, similar to multi-part tests in the common law. A great lawyer, Charlie Munger, brought this skill to capital allocation after joining the business of his client, Warren Buffett. Legal training, however, may be a handicap for those whose sentences are a torrent of clauses and jargon, and who have never learned to distill. Persuading, rather than “winning an argument.” A renowned corporate CEO leader once described effective leadership as “sell don’t tell.” Employees perform best when they appreciate both what they are expected to do and why. Explanations of purpose place tasks in context and invite subordinates to suggest better means of achieving the goal. A frustrated parent may end a discussion by asserting, “because I said so.” So will managers who are impatient or insecure in their authority. Good lawyers are comfortable explaining their reasoning. They know that clients are most likely to comply with law and mitigate risks if they understand the logic and consequences of the law. Most good managers and leaders—but only some lawyers—understand the critical distinction between resolving conflict and winning an argument. You may score a point at trial or in negotiation by devastating an opponent or counterparty’s position. But that comes at a high price in dealings with customers, employees, and investors. At times, teamwork is best nurtured by those who yield gracefully on something less important in order to obtain buy-in on something more important; it is not about always being right. As a reformed litigator, at times I had to be reminded by colleagues in business to take the edge off probing questions. Though as a big city mayor, when in hearings with those intent on irrational opposition, my colleagues would slip me a note: “now it’s OK to cross-examine.” In the same vein, lawyers—like law students—might resist the appearance of not knowing the answer. Effective teams are led by those who feel secure asking for advice or help, even though they suspect they know the answer. BILL WHITE is chairman of Lazard in Houston and a former business CEO and mayor of Houston, who previously practiced law with Susman Godfrey.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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