Preparing to Pitch Yourself for Corporate Board Roles: Corporate Board Series, Part 3


Bright meeting room interior with city view

At some point in your career, if you have achieved a certain of success as an executive, you may be considering a corporate board role as a possible and logical next step. Yet the process of creating a “board pitch” can take you out of your comfort zone, as it requires you to view your career through an entirely new lens.

Boards want candidates who are poised to lead an organization and leave the day-to-day administration to someone else (i.e., management). They are focused on high-level, high-impact decision-making, so as you brand yourself and prepare your “why me?” pitch, these are the qualities that should come into greatest focus.

Here are some key points to consider:

Your Audience

The audience for your board pitch should be a carefully selected group of individuals that includes networking contacts, board recruiters, board-marketplace groups and the actual target boards of directors:

(1) Networking Contacts. Your networking contacts often serve as the most fertile ground for your board pitch, as the majority of board roles come from board members’ current networks and word-of-mouth communications. (The percentage of public board roles filled from these sources is nearly 70%, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Corporate Directors.)

If your current network does not include CEOs, sitting board members and others with access to boards, I suggest that – before you consider yourself ready for a board role – you take steps to expand your network in that direction. (My next post in this series will explore how to make connections to land a corporate board seat.)

If your current network does include the right mix of networking contacts, you will need to muster up the courage, gravitas and good sense to leverage those connections and create mutual benefit for you and the individuals who will be referring you. In other words, the benefit to you is the chance to make your pitch to the right audience, and the benefit to your networking contact is to have successfully delivered a viable, poised and compelling board candidate.

(2) Board Recruiters. There are a number of recruiters who routinely conduct and complete board searches, and many of them are focused on expanding the talent pool beyond the “usual suspects” of traditional board candidates. (I have posted links to some of the top recruiters here.)

The best corporate board recruiters will have an in-depth understanding of the companies with which they are placing candidates, including corporate strategy, board dynamics and culture fit. Getting in front of these recruiters can often be as difficult as getting in front of the boards themselves, so you may need to rely on your network for introductions here as well.

In any case, take care not to get ahead of yourself. In today’s world, don’t expect many recruiters to have the bandwidth to help you assess whether you are ready for a board role, especially a recruiter you do not know well. Recruiters are hit with too many candidates vying for their time – for board search as well as job search – to be able to provide that level of hands-on, personalized attention to all but a handful of candidates. Instead, prepare yourself as a board-ready candidate with a convincing elevator pitch first, then approach the recruiter, so you do not lose that ephemeral chance to make a solid first impression.

(3) Board-Readiness, Education and Marketplace Groups. There is a range of organizations that can help you prepare yourself for a board role and/or broadcast your candidacy to a wider audience, with differing barriers to entry and effectiveness. In addition, many graduate schools of business offer executive education in corporate governance for board members. Links to some of these organizations and aggregator sites with further links are here. For many of them, you will need to submit an application, which may include some of the documents I list below.

(4) Actual Board Targets. Lastly, don’t forget that the ultimate and most important audience to whom you will be pitching is the specific board itself, namely the Nominating & Governance Committee in most cases and thereafter the wider board. Do your diligence on the board and company so that you can speak directly to their needs for a new board member.

Your “Portfolio” of Board-Ready Communications

While the above constituencies are the audiences to whom you should make your desire to join a corporate board of directors known, there is also the question of how you can best communicate your pitch to join a board. I have mentioned above that before you formally start the process of consistently putting yourself out there for a role, you should make sure you are a board-ready candidate. In addition to gaining the right experience to be a compelling candidate, here are the different and related means of verbal and written communication to have at your disposal:

(1) Board Biography. Your central document as a board candidate is the board bio, which is often a short narrative (one to two pages, sometimes with attachments) that presents you in third person and illuminates the value you bring to the board, including leadership, industry and substantive experience and what can be loosely described as “caché.”  Unlike a traditional U.S. resume, it also may include a small photo in the top right or left hand corner.

The board bio should be clean, inviting, well-written and distilled. If you have current or former board or committee service, including with non-profit entities, this is often listed near the top. Significant honors or awards, certifications and educational qualifications should also be included, with the aim to produce a document that signals you are of the right quality and caliber for a board role without sounding stuck on yourself.

(2) Value Proposition and Elevator Pitch. Building on the exercise of creating a board bio, you can further distill what you offer a board into a short value proposition that can serve as the basis for an email or cover letter regarding your board candidacy as well as an elevator pitch that you can give (and tailor more specifically to) one of your target audiences. 

(3) Board Resume. Sometimes, a board resume is also requested during the board search process, although it is less commonly used than the board bio. The board resume differs from an executive resume principally in its emphasis on those accomplishments and characteristics that would be relevant to board service. I will cover board bios and resumes further in Part 6 of the corporate board series.

(4) LinkedIn. Just as you make your network aware of your availability for and interest in a board role through informal conversations and other interactions, you can take another look at your LinkedIn profile to determine whether it conveys your board-ready expertise and gravitas or could use some more help in that regard. I will give some specific suggestions for LinkedIn profiles as they relate to seeking out a board role in Part 7 of this series.

Copyright 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.

For additional articles in the Corporate Board Series, click

For links to corporate board resources, click here.

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Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice. 

Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development. 

To join her mailing list, click here.

Understanding How Corporate Boards Evaluate Prospective Board Members: Corporate Board Series, Part 2

In my prior article on corporate boards, I explored how you can build out and articulate your vision for board service. This time, I will take the other perspective. What do (and should) corporate boards have in mind when they evaluate prospective board members?

Corporate Board Series, Part 2 - Evaluation Process -

In my prior article on corporate boards, I explored how you can build out and articulate your vision for board service. This time, I will take the other perspective. What do (and should) corporate boards have in mind when they evaluate prospective board members?

The list of board-ready qualities is long, and in almost every case it will include:

  • culture fit
  • expertise
  • thoughtful engagement
  • integrity

A company might have different ways to express the above, and it will often add other important factors to the list, such as international experience. As a concrete example, here is the list of independent board candidate qualifications for Colgate-Palmolive.

Let’s explore each of these four core qualities in more depth:

Culture Fit. Just as a prospective employer is looking for candidates who would be a fit for the culture of the organization, so is the board of directors. At the same time, you need to be a fit for the specific culture of the board itself.

Here is an article by three leaders in board recruitment at SpencerStuart that speaks further to the importance culture fit on boards, including ways to help define this elusive concept. As a prospective board member, you will be well served to learn as much as you can about the board and company culture – including who are the heavy hitters and how they drive the board conversation – so you can both appeal to the board that you are a fit and determine (for yourself) that you actually are.

Many nominating/governance committees are (thankfully) moving away from using “fit” as a proxy for compiling a homogenous board. Diversity continues to be a priority for board refreshment among many of the surveys of board trends.

Expertise. Another key aspect boards use to evaluate candidates is their expertise across the range of areas that the board would need to span. Financial acumen is clearly one area of expertise that is in high demand, but it is not the only one. Leadership expertise is also clearly important, and this couples with an ability to appreciate (and put into practice) the role of the board as providing oversight, not “doing” the work of running the company.

As Betsy Atkins illuminated in her interview with Alexander Lowry on Boardroom Bound (see episode #30), board candidates should think about where they can add the most value in differentiated expertise. For example, she notes that you may have functional skills (like financial, marketing or product expertise),  specific industry knowledge (such as deep domain expertise in steel or financial services) and/or stage-of-company expertise (such as with taking early-stage companies public, turnarounds or large-cap global multinationals).

It also pays to do some research into how your functional role can add to the board composition. For example, if you happen to be a General Counsel (GC) and seeking a board role, as many of my clients are, you will want to be able to articulate what General Counsel can add to boards (even if the company already has a GC, as they likely will). Since often the value a GC brings to the company cannot be easily expressed without an understanding of the big picture – which is harder than saying you brought revenues from $X to $Y – finding another way to get your message out there can help boost your candidacy while adding to your cache (#4 below).

For example, here’s an article in Modern Counsel about Audrey Boone Tillman, EVP and GC of Aflac, that highlights both her work on corporate governance and regulatory compliance and her appreciation of cultural differences in a very readable manner. It would be tough to communicate the same breath, depth and range of compatible skills in a few bullet points or sentences on a resume or board biography.

Articles such as this one demonstrate not only individual skill sets but also what a candidate brings to the table as a “full package.” (Note: I am not commenting on Ms. Tillman or anyone else’s motivation for the article, simply speaking to its effectiveness.) For executives who have access to company-generated or external media coverage that can help tie together the threads of their careers, it is worthwhile to invest the time to create a compelling and cohesive career narrative.

Thoughtful Engagement. Boards consistently state that they want members who will be actively engaged in meetings and are not afraid to ask the tough questions. One way to demonstrate your potential for engagement as a board candidate is to be apprised of the top issues facing boards today. (Note: For public companies, the NACD public company governance survey offers key insights, and many of these translate for private companies as well.) Another is to have and make known a genuine passion for the company itself and its customers. Further, as most board recruitment is through connections, being known as someone who is actively engaged in your current role(s) will position you as an attractive candidate for a board.

Integrity. With the increased scrutiny on boards, it also goes without stating (but should be included for completeness) that boards are placing greater value than ever on a board candidate’s integrity. In most cases, in fact, this is the most important quality a board member can have.

Copyright 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.

For a preview of future articles in the Corporate Board Series, click here.

For links to more corporate board resources, click here.


Anne Marie Segal Post Banner

Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice. 

Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development. 

To join her mailing list, click here.


Articulating Your Vision for Corporate Board Service: Corporate Board Series, Part 1

Corporate Board Series, Part 1 - Vision -

Is corporate board service a top goal for 2020?

What about 2022?

As the average search for a corporate board role takes one to two years – barring the occasional “right place at right time” serendipitous match – if corporate board service is in your sights within the next 18 to 24 months, you may want to start taking overt steps to prepare yourself now. In addition, learning to “think like a board member” can help you take a top-down view of your current employer and the greater playing field.

To be clear, corporate board membership is not the goal of every senior or mid-level executive, even if there were enough boards to accommodate everyone looking for a role. (Clearly there are not!) Nonetheless, the competition is quite high, so if board membership is one of your priorities, there are many aspects of your candidacy you will want to shore up as you pave a path to the boardroom.

Is board membership right for you? Is it worth the effort?

And what can you offer in return?

You will need understand your goals and direction for board service and get a handle on what board service actually entails. 

As you create your vision for corporate board service, here’s where you can start:

Understand your motivation.

Why do you want to serve on a corporate board?

You may have a range of goals, such as:

  1. Making a difference
  2. Engaging in intellectual rigor
  3. Being part of a high-impact team
  4. Increasing your earnings
  5. Diversifying your income
  6. Expanding your expertise
  7. Leveling-up your network
  8. Learning more about an adjacent industry
  9. Growing your leadership capacity
  10. Moving up within your current firm

Being part of a board is a singular experience that cannot easily be replicated elsewhere. If you understand your goals and priorities, it will help you craft your vision for the types of boards you should target. At the same time, consider whether a board role is the best means to achieve your objectives and be aware you will need to craft a pitch about your board interest (that does not sound self-serving) as and when you are actually vetted for the role.

(I will cover board pitches later in this series.)

Identify the types of companies that could be a fit.

To state the obvious, taking on a board role in a direct competitor to your current employer is generally not a good idea. Yet beyond that, do you know what you are looking for in a target company? If you want some prompts, try browsing a list of open director positions, such as this one.

Think about “fit” as you contemplate which board roles you want to pursue. Fit implies a match on both ends and is based both on what you want and which boards will be best for (and want) you.

What is the profile of an ideal company for you?

What size, markets, domestic or global reach, mission, prevailing view and corporate direction would fit your interests and expertise?

With which companies do feel an aligned sense of mission and shared values?

Think about all the ways you can define for yourself what fit might mean, including the stage of the company, size and composition of the board, geographic location and other factors.

Is a tech-driven company the right fit?

Do you have experience in a heavily regulated industry and an interest in translating that experience a board?

Is there an adjacent industry to yours that would be a natural fit?

Finally (and for some of you this may be obvious), boards can differ greatly based on the stage and size of the company,  current board composition (including whether private equity or other investors hold roles on or control the board) and many other factors. 

Consider where you may have an “in” or find support.

As you think further about your vision and target company parameters, also consider (1) where you may have or could make connections or an edge and (2) those roles your current employer would most likely support (because what you gain from the experience will be helpful to your current company, among other reasons).

On a similar note, if you are thinking seriously about landing your first board role, you should start talking to your current company’s board, CEO and/or direct manager as applicable to secure their blessing (avoiding potential conflicts or misunderstandings later) and garner support. They may even be asked to serve on a board that is not a match and put up your name instead, but they can only do that if they know you are looking.

On the other hand, if you happen to work for an organization that does not support outside board membership, consider whether a job change may be in order depending on your priorities and other factors that could play into a decision.

Explore what value you can offer to boards.

As we will explore further later articles, it is never too early to start thinking about the value you offer to a corporate board. Not only will knowing your value boost your board candidacy, but it will also build your confidence (as you come to own that value) and help you discern the best board(s) for you to join.

Vision and Leadership Skills

Think about the vision, leadership and other soft skills you can offer a board. 

  • Boards value members who can both work collaboratively as a team and challenge the status quo when needed.
  • Directors should exhibit high integrity, exude executive presence and hold sufficient caché, as they are the face of the organization to its customers, vendors, suppliers, competitors, regulators and the public.
  • Boards also want members who can build key relationships and are excellent communicators.

Substantive Expertise

They are also searching for candidates with substantive expertise in their industry and areas of business (technology, manufacturing, healthcare, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, supply chain management, etc.) as well as most or all of the following, in varying orders:

  • leadership
  • global business
  • financial strategy
  • P&L
  • investor engagement
  • organizational planning
  • diversification
  • CEO succession planning
  • talent acquisition/HR
  • entrepreneurship
  • M&A and/or IPOs
  • regulatory compliance
  • product launch
  • marketing
  • operations
  • intellectual property
  • enterprise risk management
  • litigation and disputes
  • change management
  • crisis management
  • corporate reorganization
  • investment oversight
  • corporate governance and/or ESG
  • QFE and/or audit committee
  • sustainability
  • data privacy
  • cybersecurity
  • insurance and regulatory matters
  • executive compensation
  • government affairs
  • health and safety

Interests (such as a love of news, fashion, the environment, sports or technology), specialized training and language skills can also give you an edge with (1) companies that are seeking that skill, passion or input and (2) board members who share similar interests and skills.


Diversity is also playing a greater role in board recruitment among some companies, from diversity of gender, race and ethnicity to diversity of thought and approach (based on life experience, education, interests, background, age and other factors). Yet not all companies are considering board composition as a criteria for new board member recruitment, and not all categories of diverse candidates are making significant strides.

If you are a diverse candidate, you can raise your candidacy by being able to clearly articulate how your perspective adds value to the team. For example, it may help the company understand and connect with its target audience’ needs, values and demographics or provide a different perspective to problem-solving. All things being equal, you may also wish to target those companies that value your diversity rather than making the hard sell to those that don’t, at least for your first board role.

(I will further discuss the value of diversity and how diverse candidates can market themselves to boards in a later article.)

Build board-ready attributes.

A track record of taking risks, initiating solutions, raising new ideas and taking the lead on multiple projects are key attributes that will accelerate your path to board of directors positions.

While CEOs and CFOs of established corporations are clearly in demand, they are not the only sought-after candidates.

  • Having experience on or frequent involvement with a corporate board, board committee (e.g., enterprise risk, acquisitions, nominating, compliance or audit) or executive committee will provide you exposure that increases your board readiness.
  • Starting your own business (or nonprofit) and chairing or serving on its board is another path to serving on a corporate board.
  • Non-profit boards and advisory board roles can also provide great experience and help you understand how boards and organizations function well (and when they don’t).

If you take a volunteer board position for a non-profit organization and wish to build on that experience to land a corporate board role, make sure that you are (1) aligned with the mission of the non-profit and not merely using it as a springboard, (2) gaining experience that rounds you out as a candidate (e.g., working with financial statements, if that’s a gap in your current expertise) and (3) joining a governing board, not a working board with cross-over executive responsibilities, so you can greater appreciate the distinction between board oversight and senior management’s hands-on involvement with an organization.

Further, you can increase board-readiness by keeping apprised of the issues currently facing boards.

Know what you are signing up for.

The major responsibilities of a corporate board of directors span the following:

  1. CEO: Select, evaluate, oversee, retain (or not) and approve appropriate compensation for the company’s chief executive officer.
  2. Strategic Direction: In many cases in collaboration with the CEO, (1) provide the mission, goals and strategy for the organization, (2) determine whether to approve major corporate decisions, such as mergers and acquisitions, (3) address enterprise-level major issues that arise.
  3. Governance: Determine enterprise resource allocation, risk tolerances and rules that govern the organization, in accordance with law and best practices.
  4. Financial Management: Oversee and collaborate with the auditors and approve the company’s financials.

In all cases, the board also is accountable to protect shareholder value, which comes with a formal set of fiduciary duties. It also can require a serious time commitment, both in terms of hours and (failing any change in your own or company circumstances) expected years of service.

Boards of directors can also (and in some cases are required to) have committees that consist of a portion of the larger board with special responsibilities, most often the Nominating & Governance Committee, Compensation Committee and Audit Committee and sometimes additional specialized committees (see, e.g., page 10 of the Stanford Business Corporate Governance Research Initiative). For more about the Board’s role in a corporation, take a further look at the Stanford presentation from the previous link or the Principles of Corporate Governance posted by the Business Roundtable on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance site.


Take a range of approaches to craft your board vision, so that you are prepared for the experience, more likely to be chosen for a board role that is right for you and can get the most out of your board service.

Keep an eye out for future articles on corporate board service in the following months that will help you further understand corporate board membership, craft your message and boost your candidacy.

If you have comments on something covered here or that you would like to see in future articles, feel free to send them to me or add them below. Thanks!

Copyright 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.

For a preview of future articles in the Corporate Board Series, click here.

For links to more corporate board resources, click here.


Anne Marie Segal Post Banner

Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice. 

Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development. 

To join her mailing list, click here.


Introducing Corporate Board Service: A New Monthly Series Launching in January 2020 @

Corporate Board Series - From Vision to Close -

If you are considering corporate board service among your goals for the New Year, mark this site for a 10-part series launching in 2020.

During the second week of each month (other than August), will feature a new post on a key topic for prospective corporate board members, with particular emphasis on landing your first board role.

The first article, coming out on next Monday, January 13, 2020, is Articulating Your Vision for Corporate Board Service. For the full list of upcoming articles in the series, please click here.

If you are or wish to be on a corporate board and would like to provide input or be interviewed for this series, please contact me as soon as possible by email or through the Contact Page on this site.

To join my monthly email list, click here.

I have some other exciting series and articles launching in the New Year, along with a new course on Excited to share them in the coming weeks!



Anne Marie Segal Post Banner

Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice. 

Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development. She also hosts an online learning site at

General Counsel and Other Lawyers as Business Partners – Building Vision, Capacity, Judgment and Leadership

To succeed as General Counsel, you need not only to build relationships and move outside of what may be your comfort zone – a lawyer with excellent substantive legal skills – but also position yourself as a strategic member of the leadership team. Enclosed is a list of articles to help you explore and master the expanded General Counsel relationship.

Eight Core Qualities of General Counsel and How to Achieve Them is my most-read article on this blog, receiving many hits per day and more than 2,500 views since it was published in the late summer of 2016. (Click here to access the article.)

As a coach, I often receive requests from General Counsel, Assistant General Counsel and other in-house attorneys – as well as law firm partners and others who wish to obtain those roles – to coach them on building their capacity and visibility as a business partner within an organization.  Both of these aspects are important – exercising the right proactivity, judgment and skills and being recognized and rewarded by the Board and senior management for such contributions. This involves not only building relationships and moving outside of what is commonly called one’s comfort zone – a lawyer with excellent substantive legal skills – but also learning how to position oneself as a strategic member of the leadership team.

AdobeStock_131225997 (woman GC or CEO).jpg

To succeed as General Counsel, you need not only to build relationships and move outside of what may be your comfort zone – a lawyer with excellent substantive legal skills – but also position yourself as a strategic member of the leadership team.

I intend further explore the expanded General Counsel role in the coming months, so please subscribe to my blog or sign up for my mailing list if this is a topic that moves you. In the meantime, I have started to compile a list of articles around the web from recent years that have addressed the evolving General Counsel role, which I am posting below to help you explore and master the expanded General Counsel relationship.

If you hold a CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, CTO, General Counsel, law firm or other role and would like to post another resource in the comments or join the conversation, I appreciate your input.

I may update this list from time to time. Thanks in advance!

Attorneys – General Counsel and In-House
Vision, Judgment, Capacity Building and Leadership

Eight Core Qualities of Successful General Counsel and How to Achieve Them,” Segal Coaching Blog, Anne Marie Segal.

So You Want to Be General Counsel? How to Maximize Your Chances,” ACC Docket, David M. Love III, Mark Roellig.

Do Lawyers Make Better CEO’s than MBAs?,” Harvard Business Review, by M. Todd Henderson

The General Counsel as Senior Leader: More than “Just a Lawyer,” Korn Ferry Institute, John Amer.

What GCs and CCOs Can Learn from Each Other,” Thomson Reuters, Thomas Kim.

An Open Letter to GCs and Law Firms,” ACC Docket, Daniel Desjardins.

General Counsel: Guardian and Conscience of the Company,” Forbes, Mark A. Cohen.

The Rise of the General Counsel,” Harvard Business Review, Ben W. Heineman, Jr.

General Counsel’s New Role: Business Strategist,” Forbes, Brian Jones.

Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, writer, resume strategist and former practicing attorney (including as a law firm partner and Deputy General Counsel of a private equity and hedge fund). The majority of her clients are senior attorneys, and she has coached hundreds of professionals across law, finance, engineering, technology, marketing, non-profits, government and other fields.

Anne Marie is also author of Master the Interview and the newly published Know Yourself, Grow Your Career: The Personal Value Proposition Workbookavailable at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers. 

Click on a sharing option below to share this post on LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media sites. Please leave a comment if you want to join the conversation or share an article, video or other resource for the list.

Image credit: Adobe Stock.

8 Core Qualities of Successful General Counsel and How to Achieve Them

If you are currently in a GC role and want to raise your game (or emphasize your value proposition in an upcoming interview), or if you are looking to become a GC from a law firm or in-house counsel spot, here are eight qualities that you must cultivate to be a successful General Counsel.

AdobeStock_52598491 (GC:CEO).jpg

Becoming a General Counsel (GC) or Chief Legal Officer (CLO), or making a move to a more senior GC or CLO role at a more prominent company, is not simply a matter of rising through the ranks or toiling away for years at a law firm and then deciding one day that you would like to throw in your hat for the position. Years ago, longevity in the legal field, motivation to fill the role and a projection of confidence may have been sufficient to mint a new GC or CLO, but the world has changed and the role of General Counsel has evolved along with it.

In today’s complex and competitive marketplace, successful General Counsels and Chief Legal Officers need to excel across a range of key, identifiable areas (spelled out below) and demonstrate their ability to be a key asset to their companies, helping make or break their long-term success. Often,  GCs and CLOs also run a legal staff and provide leadership and management of other attorneys, compliance professionals and/or administrative personnel. In addition, they may be members of an executive team and collaborate with cross-functional groups to give input on diverse areas such as product development and marketing.

Successful GCs need to excel and execute across a range of key, identifiable areas.

If you are currently in a GC role and want to raise your game (or emphasize your value proposition in an upcoming interview), or if you are looking to become a GC or CLO from a law firm or in-house counsel spot, here are eight core qualities you must cultivate to be successful in this key role.

Know the business inside and out.

1.  Understand the big picture of the business and industry. This point is emphasized so often that the words “big picture” begin to sound cliché, but it is nonetheless #1 on the list of attributes for a successful General Counsel.

The most effective GCs focus on the business first and understand that the legal aspects of any deal, regulatory requirement or dispute must be viewed from the lens of the business goals. (In the case of a non-profit organization, the “business” is the “mission,” and the same principals apply.) This point is especially relevant for attorneys who are aiming to switch from a law firm setting directly to a General Counsel role, as they may not have been as close to the day-to-day needs of the business while working on high-level matters such as acquisitions, litigation or other big ticket items.

To facilitate your top-down understanding, you should ask yourself questions such as:

Corporate Matters:  How does the current acquisition, joint venture, contract or other transaction create value for our company? What risks or implications does it hold, what failures are possible (and how likely are they to happen) and how does it fare in the overall cost-benefit analysis? How will we integrate what is new into what we already have, and who needs to be on board? What should we be thinking about that hasn’t yet been raised?

Compliance: What is the impact and true cost of compliance with current and proposed regulations, and how can we effectively meet our obligations or, if appropriate, obviate the need to comply?

Disputes and Litigation: What is the best approach to meet our short and long-term objectives in the case of a dispute? What unintended consequences can result from our range of possible litigation strategies and how could they affect our business? Is there a better way to get to the right answer?

Marketplace: Are there disruptions in our industry that present opportunities or threats, legal or otherwise? How should we address them and/or get ahead of the game?

Generally: How else can or should we be pro-active in any areas that could have an impact on our business or legal strategy and what economic, political, technological, industry and cultural developments should we monitor? How often? Whom shall I engage (in meetings, conversations and otherwise) in order to stay informed and make the best decisions on that front? 

And personally, you should ask yourself:

How does my role as an executive and attorney fit into the big picture? What do I bring to the table, and how can I bring more?

A key part of understanding the big picture is having a strong handle on financial matters. Understand and take ownership of P&L (even if at first it is only for a single project, or you have “derivative” or shared ownership), speak about your accomplishments in terms of the value you add (money in or costs and risks avoided) and know how to maximize the return on your company’s investment in you and your team.

2.  Demonstrate good judgment. Gain a reputation for making the right calls and connecting the dots with limited information to help your team make it to the finish line on deadline and without any snags. (Note: The best way to cultivate good judgment is by rolling up your sleeves and practicing decision-making under pressure – which may mean stepping out of your comfort zone – to gain exposure, confidence and feedback. It can only learned by doing.)

Good judgment is sometimes called a “sixth sense” or an “ability to see around corners” from business and legal perspectives. Whatever you call it, you cannot be an effective GC without it.

Talk like a business person. Not a lawyer.

3.  Don’t talk like a lawyer. Talk like a business person. Sometimes this is called “talking in English rather than legalese,” but it goes beyond that. The best GCs can prioritize and communicate the key business points and know how to signal and address potential legal issues without dragging business leaders into the fray or wasting their time on concerns that the lawyers need to work out among themselves. They also know how to gently reign in business folks who get ahead of themselves by ignoring those legal risks with which they actually should concern themselves, including business risks that are masquerading as legal risks.

One of the best ways to learn how to talk like a business person (or, more specifically, unlearn how to talk like a lawyer) is to spend time with them, hear them converse, get into their heads and internalize their concerns. In other words, the road to GC is not paved by putting your head down and doing your work. Like good judgment, you can only learn to communicate better by doing.

The road to GC is not paved by putting your head down and doing your work.

4.  Be humble. At the end of the day, the legal function is a support function. Yes, lawyers help steer the boat, but a successful GC understands that sometimes business leaders make decisions that do not follow the best advice of counsel, taking on what a “reasoned head” might decide is too much unnecessary risk. Your potential recourse in this situation, if you disagree with your business counterparts on whether your legal advice is required or simply “advisable,” is fourfold:

(a) you could move over to the business side and do a better job yourself,

(b) you could leave (if you feel consistently disrespected or are concerned about ethics or the longevity of the company or your role);

(c) you could find ways to strengthen your own and/or your team’s standing within the organization so that your advice is taken more seriously (if not always followed); or

(d) you could hold your ground (withholding legal approval) and/or escalate your concerns.

Save the fights for when they really matter, not for when they help you feel vindicated, save face or appear to know best. Having a reputation for “resistance” to business needs is not a good long-term strategy at any company, as it undermines your authority. If you feel that you are too often at loggerheads with your business folks, the best strategy may be to move on to a company that you believe has better business practices or is a better match for your own risk-tolerance levels. (Conversely, if you are at a company that loses out on opportunities because it never takes sufficient risk, in your opinion, you may also be well served by seeking a stronger fit.)

5.  Take leadership roles. Don’t wait for opportunities to present themselves; you need to create them. This means getting in front of the Board of Directors, President or CEO whenever appropriate and possible, making presentations to industry or key clients, spearheading/overseeing important projects and making yourself known as a person of vision and action within the company and outside of it. The best way to get tapped for a GC role, or increase your impact if you are already in one, is to be (and create the reputation of being) someone who effectively leads, mentors, sponsors, motivates, teaches and influences others. In short, make leadership a centerpiece in your professional mission and personal brand.

Make leadership central to your professional mission and personal brand.

6.  Cultivate your political capital. Form relationships and maintain consistent lines of communication with key people inside your company, across your industry and beyond. The greater your political capital, the more you can leverage your current role and be considered for positions with increasing responsibility. If you are a law firm partner or counsel hoping to transition in-house, increase your network of in-house players and business leaders, so that you understand their perspectives and have them in your corner when the need arises. In addition, if you have raised your political capital in the marketplace, you will present as a stronger candidate if and when the opportunity for a lateral move or promotion becomes available.

7. Learn to manage others and delegate work. There may be many GCs and CLOs who have taken on the role without knowing how to manage a group of talented professionals and assign the right tasks to the right players, but to build a successful career as a General Counsel, you will need to guard your own time while managing the performance and workload of your team (which may include outside counsel). 

8.  Have a solid and broad range of substantive legal skills. Increasing and broadening your substantive legal knowledge is only one piece of the GC equation. I address it last because while having a well-developed legal “head” and intuition is a baseline, legal knowledge alone is not sufficient to be an effective General Counsel.

The problem with many legal roles is that an attorney becomes siloed (or niched) into a particular area of practice, whether it is litigation, contracts or otherwise. To be effective, GCs need to address directly or oversee all legal needs of their company or organization. This means they may need expertise or at least a passing knowledge (to “know what they don’t know and should find out,” as the phrase goes) in commercial matters, corporate governance, employment, litigation, real estate, tax, executive compensation, compliance and risk management, in varying orders and degree.

If your goal is to raise to the level of General Counsel or (if currently a GC) become a bigger fish or swim in a bigger pond, you should conduct what I sometimes call a “gap analysis” to determine what is missing in the mix, then work on how you can deepen and round out your skills. Not only will this make you a stronger GC candidate, it will make you a better lawyer and add to your ability to provide judgment in a crisis and day-to-day.

Find and close any gaps in your substantive legal skills. 

Clearly the role of a General Counsel is dynamic and requires a broad range of talents and skills that cannot all be captured in a short summary. Instead, treat these seven points as a roadmap, and feel free to leave me a note in the comments section with your own insights. For further reading, I also suggest “So You Want to Be a General Counsel? How to Maximize Your Chances,” published in the ACC Docket and also available here.

Anne Marie Segal is a career and leadership coach, writer and resume writer for attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. In her practice serving lawyers, she coaches General Counsels, law firm partners, counsel and associates, as well as government, academic and non-profit attorneys. 

© 2016 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Do You Need a Personal Board of Advisors?

woman boardroom

The board of directors of a company addresses high-level business objectives, with voting authority and fiduciary obligations. A board of advisors is more informal, providing non-binding strategic advice that can benefit a start-up or smaller company by giving it third-party insights, encouragement, market knowledge, accountability, connections and other resources. Savvy individuals have come to realize that, especially in the new economy, we are each our own business to a greater or lesser degree, whether or not we officially operate as one. Does that mean we each need our own board of advisors?

Many successful professionals intuitively create a loose association of advisors without formalizing the relationships. They have mentors and occasional professional advisors that function in an ad hoc way to support short-term projects or “put out fires” in their business lives. This approach is a great first step, and formalizing this core group frames your trajectory in a foundational way and keeps you on the path to success.

Clearly, you do not need to hold meetings in a fancy boardroom with leather chairs or even get all of your advisors in a room together. While it may help focus the conversation, it can also prove a distraction if it is not a place or assembled group that feels comfortable enough to relax and creatively brainstorm and troubleshoot according to your needs. In fact, your respective advisors do not even need to know each other, since you are not a company for whom they are collectively setting policy but rather an individual seeking guidance, support, grounding and the oh-so-important reality checks. I do suggest, however, that you take more than an occasional, eccentric approach to incorporating one or more boards of advisors into your significant life and professional decisions. Have the infrastructure already in place for the moment of truth when you really, truly need it, so you can call on your advisors without triangulating their whereabouts or struggling to identify whom these angels should be.

I use the word “framing” above very deliberately. With my coaching clients, I often discuss reframing an experience to take ownership in a new way. For example, sales becomes less scary (and ceases to feel inauthentic) if you believe passionately in the service you are providing. A board of advisors becomes less of a foreign concept as an individual if you believe passionately in your own success and wish to give others the opportunity to share in that experience, with a willingness to offer your own help in advance or give back in return. Your passion fuels their willingness to be involved.

In my own life, I have found greater success in those periods that I had a “board”, whether it was a formal group of colleagues meeting on a regular basis or roster of individual mentors and professional advisors that I turned to regularly. Much earlier in my career, I was nervous or fearful that I was taking too much time from people who already had busy careers. At the same time, I failed to invest in myself, financially or otherwise, to get the professional insights that would have made a decisive impact on my advancement.

Why? I thought putting my head down and cranking out whatever was asked of me in the moment showed my “worth” more than cultivating relationships. My accomplishments would speak for themselves, I thought, not realizing the entire world that I was shutting out while I repeatedly closed my door to do some “real work”. I also failed to understand the value I would create by involving others in my experiences and sharing my insight for theirs in return. Value for all, not only for me.

Electing the right mix to your board of advisors and tapping into them is not  an exercise in taking – which is a dead end – but rather in creating value through meaningful personal interactions. In short, you are tapping into the electrifying power of collaboration in a formal way. By electing these mentors, colleagues and advisors to your “team”, you are fostering buy-in for your success. If you are respectful and show gratitude for their investment in your future, your newly-formed board can provide a critical backbone and sounding board to help you frame, keep sight of and reach your goals.

If you liked this post and want to know more, you may also wish to read Five Key Questions to Ask When Creating a Personal Advisory Board.

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