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Act like a leader,
think like a leader

INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra’s insights on leading and developing your own role, as well as that of your team, are surprising in the fact they are rooted very much in the here and now. We outline her pragmatic thinking and ask general counsel to weigh in with their thoughts on Ibarra’s work.

skills in management and leadership

Catherine McGregor

Editor-in-chief

Email Catherine

So you keep hearing from people like us that you need to function more like a leader in your legal role. The problem is, you’re too busy dealing with all the other requirements that your role keeps throwing at you, to even get a moment to think about how to develop like a leader.

You’re not alone

‘I’m like the fire patrol, I run from one corner to the other to fix things, just to keep producing.’ This quote from Jacob, a manager in a food production company, leads off Herminia Ibarra’s book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. The sentiments expressed may seem familiar to many of us in management roles, but may be even more pertinent to general counsel, where balancing the demands of being a lawyer with being a manager is a constant struggle for many.

Ibarra is the Cora chaired professor of leadership & learning and organisational behaviour at INSEAD. She is currently ranked number eight in the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential business thinkers in the world. Her work focuses on how individuals can redefine their careers, particularly in the management and leadership sphere. Her most recent research and book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, focuses on one of the most pertinent challenges for many executives – that of gaining the outsight of a leader, while still doing the day job.

I am sure I’m not alone in wondering how much of a manager or an executive I can ever really claim to be, as it seems as though I spend so much time metaphorically chasing my own tail with the sheer amount of tasks to get through. I always imagine I’m alone in this and that the world is full of other managers, blessed with the time to reflect and strategically plan. Ibarra’s book shows me though that I’m definitely in the majority! Her solution is to turn the whole dilemma on its head and to suggest that to truly become a great leader, you do actually need to do your job, stating, ‘You can only learn what you need to know about your job and about yourself by doing it – not just by thinking about it.’

But before we happily keep immersing ourselves in the day-to-day, Ibarra cautions that leaders do need to change and develop. She cautions that the way we think is a product of our past experiences, so to change our thinking we need to do different things. A simple example from the in-house legal world is that lawyers who wish to be thought of more strategically also need to act more strategically. If you spend most of your time on legal technicalities, you will ipso facto be thought of more as the lawyer. Ibarra advocates outsight as the key tactic in redefining what we do and therefore how we think about things. ‘Outsight comes from a tripod of sources; new ways of doing your work (your job), new relationships (your network), and new ways of connecting to and engaging people (yourself).’

Moving away from being siloed in the legal department is a clear trend that comes up again and again across a range of areas that we at GC Magazine speak to general counsel about. In defining the role of general counsel as leader, there is a clear issue at play in being able to engage with all the stakeholders both within and without of the company. As Peter Beshar, general counsel at Marsh & McLennan, comments ‘Clearly you have lots of stakeholders in organisations, but in addition to cultivating a strong relationship with the board, it is equally critical to build relationships outside the walls of the company, as there are so many stakeholders who have an impact on the success of the modern company: regulators, rating agencies, journalists and so forth.’

Sabine Chalmers, general counsel at Anheuser-Busch InBev agrees. Chalmers takes her definition of good leadership from a former boss who was the CEO of a business unit and one of her role models. ‘I asked him the question “what do you look for in someone who has the potential to be a really effective business leader?” His response was: “the combination of great judgement, influence and drive.” I firmly believe this to be the case and often use it to identify folks who have the potential to be leaders within our function.’

‘Judgement is critical as a lawyer. Of course you are expected to have a good grasp of the law; but the biggest differentiator is the judgement you apply to that knowledge – knowing what is relevant in the context of a business, plus when and how to take a risk. The ability to influence is also critical – will people actually listen to what you have to say? Do they seek out your judgement because they value it? And finally drive is the energy and passion to make things happen – especially in the face of adversity.’

Redefining your Role

One of the key traps managers can fall into which prevents them from truly embracing leadership is what Ibarra defines as the ‘competency trap’. There are three factors that contribute to competency traps:

  • You enjoy what you do and do it well, so therefore do more of it and keep getting better.
  • As you allocate more time to what you do well, you devote less time to learning other things.
  • As time progresses, it gets more difficult to invest in learning new things.

Ibarra advocates that to act like a leader you need to devote time to four key tasks:

  • Bridging across diverse people and groups.
  • Envisioning new possibilities.
  • Engaging people in the change process.
  • Embodying the change.
photo of elephants walking in a line

Easier said than done some might argue – particularly if you are still engrossed in the demands of your current role. But according to Ibarra, there are five steps you can take immediately to make your current role more of a platform for expanding your leadership outsight:

  • Develop your situation sensors.
  • Get involved in projects outside your area.
  • Participate in extra-curricular activities.
  • Communicate your personal ‘why’.
  • Create slack in your schedule.

Developing your sensors

In her research, Ibarra points to one key characteristic successful leaders have: understanding the context and bigger picture in which they operate. To do this effectively, she argues you need to develop sensors to orient yourself to what’s really important in a vast sea of information. This is more key the more senior you become, and the more widespread your responsibilities and purview.

How this works is via developing a very broad understanding of your business. It also requires the ability to synthesise information and not completely get lost when finance is speaking numbers or supply chain is speaking supply-chain-ese. Ibarra argues, ‘If you are not very quickly able to distil and understand the big themes, you are going to be completely overwhelmed when your boss suddenly pulls a question you weren’t expecting out of the hat.’

Tim Murphy, general counsel at MasterCard, who spent ten years in management roles inside the business before transitioning back to legal, echoes this point. He says, ‘Being conscious of the different forms of human intelligence and things you know you don’t know, can help you and your team as executive leaders and partners to the business.’

Peter Wexler, general counsel at French energy management and automation company Schneider Electric, adds that to really excel in a company in a senior legal role you have to think big picture. ‘One of the most critical things to do is lose the lawyering. To make a decision you have to understand the broader context and you have to think outside the law – then you are three quarters of the way there. You really have to understand not just the legal implications, but whether it’s a strategic play, a defensive play; all those things are really important and have a huge impact on the bottom line of the corporation.’

A hugely pertinent example for many general counsel in today’s world is the issue of cyber crime. Arguably no one is going to realistically be able to have the expertise of an IT specialist, however, getting IT to explain as clearly as possibly in layperson’s terms and gaining an understanding of the core issues is vital, as many commentators have argued that cyber issues are going to be one of the fundamental front lines of the GC role over the next 10 to 20 years. Arguably, too many people are still acting in a reactive way, partly due to a lack of understanding and engagement.

Peter Beshar in his role at Marsh & McLennan has made cyber something of a personal mission. This has given both his role and insights new value and pertinence with the c-suite. He explains, ‘Cyber is in the GC bailiwick, although not entirely so. But three years ago, I decided that I would make it a focus of my professional life. I also saw this as an opportunity to make a contribution to an issue that society was grappling with. Through making this a dedicated focus of mine it has really developed me as leader. I have been invited to testify in front of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and meet with foreign governments on the issue. As a result, the business begins to see you as someone who can contribute to bottom line.’ This of course not only has ramification for Beshar, but for the business generally, ‘It all contributes to the wider perception of Marsh as a thought leader in this field – business for us in advisory work is up and significant people are beginning to understand that there is a public-private partnership that can be struck in issues like cyber. So as general counsel, there really is an important role you can play in trying to help the bottom line of the enterprise.’


‘Arguably, too many people are still acting in a reactive way, partly due to a lack of understanding.’

Ibarra’s research with managers who are more successfully developing as leaders show that they are able to, as one puts it, ‘develop a nose for the trends’, which allows them to take initiatives. Sabine Chalmers, general counsel at Anheuser-Busch InBev, concurs with this, both for existing and prospective GCs: ‘At the end of the day the folks who will rise to the top are, I believe, better described as generalists. They have a perspective on everything and are naturally intellectually curious, including with out-of-the-box areas like popular culture. They are constantly aware of the bigger picture – both within the company and in the world around us.’

Outside of your comfort zone

One of the key ways to develop sensors is to find a project that takes you outside of your regular day-to-day mandate. As part of her research, Ibarra has conducted surveys around what most helps people step up to leadership and one of the consistently most successful tactics is ‘experience in an internal project outside of my usual responsibilities’.

While Ibarra realises that for busy people, the idea of doing more outside core competencies may seem counterproductive, she cautions that doing more of the same doesn’t develop us in the same way that working across business lines will do. She explains that in terms of big picture career progression, generally speaking, hierarchical ascension is being replaced by ‘jungle gym careers’ consisting more of lateral moves and that ‘hot projects’ are a key component of this type of career mapping.

However, sexy, innovative internal projects may not always be available. In that case, Ibarra advises, it makes sense to look outside of your organisation and therefore also outside of colleagues’ preconceptions of you. One challenge that many in-house lawyers face can be that of being pigeon holed as ‘the lawyer’ or ‘the department that says no’. Even if this designation is historical, it can be hard to shift and show proactivity in other areas within one’s own company. In this case stepping outside of the organisation can be incredibly beneficial. Beshar at Marsh & McLennan concurs:

‘I feel strongly that as a general counsel you should be out trying to build relationships and getting to know other GCs as this can be an incredible resource. You build a c-suite contact in another institution and when business alliances or issues occur in the future, it is helpful to be seen having high placed contacts and to be cultivating opportunities and to diffuse difficulties that have arisen. I would start with cultivating general counsel who are key participants in your particular industry and then go beyond that.’


Key steps to redefine your role and think like a leader from Herminia Ibarra:

  • In the next three days, start observing someone you consider a strategic thinker or visionary. Learn how they think and communicate.
  • Over the next three weeks, find a project (internal or external) outside of your area of expertise and sign up for it.
  • Over the next three months, watch some TED talks. Watch carefully as to how the speakers tell their story and get their point across. Find leaders in your industry who are good at telling stories to make a point and see how they do it.

Communicating your personal ‘why’

Interestingly one of the fundamental skills that Ibarra links to good leadership is the ability to tell stories – but not in the sense of covering ones back! Rather, this is in the sense of communicating why and conveying what is important through story telling. Ibarra references the work of psychologist Jerome Bruner, who claims that a message is more likely to be remembered accurately and for longer when conveyed through a well-constructed story. Ibarra points out that it doesn’t occur to many of us at work to reveal our personal sides and that this becomes a lost opportunity. She says, ‘You probably already know which stories are your best ones. What you need to learn now is how and when to tell them in the service of your leadership.’

This is an interesting point for lawyers. On the one hand, many lawyer’s fetishisation of their professionalism can potentially allow them to lose sight of the individual beneath the legalese. But on the other hand, lawyers as part of their skill set have to be consummate story tellers, particularly in regards to litigation and trials. Stating a case can obviously draw very strongly on the skills of telling a well-constructed narrative.

For our general counsel interviewees, the story-telling aspect and drawing on their personal narrative resonated very strongly as something that enhanced their leadership styles. Peter Beshar remarks that, ‘The use of metaphors and analogies are great in breaking through the clutter; people’s attention spans are not as extended as they used to be – it’s best to jettison power points and dry treatises and rely on tools like video and within that tell a story that humanise the individuals.’

For Beshar this point was really driven home when he was asked to merge legal and compliance. To illustrate this, he told a story about his recently deceased father and his love of Stetson cowboy hats, despite not coming from Texas. ‘I distributed hats to the team to demonstrate the idea of many hats, one team. So that was using what is personal to me in a way that was relevant. What was fantastic was that members of the newly merged team from all over the world took photos of people, individually or in groups wearing the hats. We had a town hall meeting around the merger and did a slide show of these photos; so that showed how that piece of authentic communication really resonated and got the message across.’

Chalmers also cites the value of using stories based on personal experience. She says, ‘One of the presentations that I most enjoy making is to our new hires and relates to career planning. I structure it around personal stories and experiences – my childhood, the role models in my life, people that have inspired me and how I have learnt from successes and failures.’ However, Chalmers adds the caveat that while personal stories are powerful, they have to be delivered in the right way – and for the leader who is not truly comfortable with the sharing of themselves honestly, the tactic can misfire. Authenticity is key.

In the same way for Wexler, at Schneider, the use of examples from his personal life in work is a key factor to operating as an effective leader. ‘It’s a package deal. The biggest strength of you is yourself. Everyone can smell BS and you have to walk your talk, authenticity equals consistency.’

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