How to be Chief Executive of your own career

It’s been a tough road to the top, but you’ve made it. What happens if the view isn’t good enough? Former editor of Harvard Business Review Karen Dillon considers how those who have achieved the role of GC can keep the journey going.

For decades, Alex had aspired to the role of general counsel. He spent the majority of his career in the legal department of a Fortune 100 company, working hard to distinguish himself not only with legal acumen, but with management and leadership skills as well. But when he finally got the nod to assume the top legal position, there was, he confesses now, a bit of a letdown. After chasing that job and that title for nearly three decades – and finally getting it – Alex found himself wrestling with an unsettling sense of disappointment.

Getting the general counsel title is still one of the most sought after ‘destinations’ for the legal profession, according to Spencer Stuart legal headhunter Catherine Nathan. ‘I get several emails a day from law firm partners at major firms wanting to move in-house to a GC role.’ But it can be emotionally complicated when you finally achieve a goal you’ve sought for longer than you can remember. Alex’s reaction is not at all uncommon, suggests Monique Valcour, a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, whose research focuses on finding meaning in work. ‘So often for people who have achieved the highest extrinsically measurable level in their field, there is a sense of “is this all there is?”’

Keeping yourself motivated, growing and achieving long into your career is just as important as charting the perfect professional path. Moreover, it’s a job that nobody can do for you, as management thinker Peter Drucker famously wrote: ‘Knowledge workers must, effectively, be their own chief executive officers. It’s up to you to carve out your place, to know when to change course, and to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years.’ For Tom Sager, who recently stepped down as general counsel of DuPont, it was a primary concern as soon as he was promoted into the role. ‘When I finally became GC, I did not want to get stale and rest on my laurels,’ he says. ‘That was probably my biggest concern. You can very easily get comfortable in those roles.’


In the centre of the action

Sager’s right. There’s often so much emphasis on achieving the general counsel title, that people don’t always anticipate the reality of being in the job. It isn’t always as glamorous as it might seem from the outside. Sager’s predecessor surprised him by confessing that 85% of the general counsel job was ‘stuff he didn’t like doing’. The traditional general counsel role was often seen as a career capstone, but one intended primarily to make sure the company stayed out of trouble. But now legal skills and the ability to build and manage a legal department and relationships with outside law firms are just table stakes for being considered for the top in-house position. A general counsel’s job is much more complicated – and stressful – than ever before.

Not only must a GC candidate have an intangible ‘chemistry’ with the CEO and survive board-level vetting and approval, they must also demonstrate a wealth of business judgment and experience across complex international entities. Even if someone has earned the GC title at one company, that doesn’t necessarily open doors at companies higher up the Fortune 500 rankings. ‘[Their experience] might just be a domestic company, or not a highly regulated company, or a company with just one line of business,’ recruiter Nathan explains. ‘Those people will drop off our list because they don’t have international experience or experience with a complex entity.’

Ben Heineman, widely seen as elevating the role of general counsel when he took the top in-house job at General Electric back in 1987, understood well the daily pressures and potential for high profile success – or failure. When he first left legacy Sidley & Austin 27 years ago to join GE’s legal department, one of his law firm colleagues asked him how long his contract was. ‘One day,’ was his response. Besides, Heineman points out, even if you start your in-house role with a small company, it’s possible that company will morph beyond recognition quickly. ‘Apple’s market cap in 2001 was $7 billion,’ Heineman points out. ‘Today, it’s something like $500 billion. What might have looked like a small, exotic company with a wacky leader is now the most admired company in the world. Who knows? What looks like a moderate company might have the capacity for exponential growth if you hit it at the right time.’

‘So often for people who have achieved the highest measurable level in their field, there is a sense of “is this all there is?’”

Growth spurt

This can also create interesting opportunities for the kind of professional growth that Drucker suggests is necessary. ‘That’s the beauty of working in a company as opposed to a law firm. If you look at most companies ten years ago versus today, lines of business, products, geography – almost everything you can imagine might have changed 50 to 100%’ Heineman says. ‘That’s the reason these jobs are fun.’ A company that’s rapidly evolving will require its GC to rapidly evolve too – adding extra pressure to an already demanding job. As Spencer Stuart’s Nathan points out, professional growth doesn’t always match up with the needs of a growing company – or a CEO’s evolving picture of what his top in-house lawyer should do. ‘We did a search a year ago for a major private company where the CEO said to me, “Look, the GC [we had previously placed in his position] is terrific. You brought us exactly who we wanted at that moment in time.” They had needed someone to build a legal department. And this guy was great at it. “But he hasn’t grown. Now I’m looking for new skills. I expect everyone to jump in with an opinion. And the guy never says anything unless it’s strictly legal advice.” So we ended up replacing him with somebody who wanted to be involved in all aspects of the business.’

The fact that a company is far more likely to morph and change than a law firm is actually one of the best reasons to seek the top in-house positions, in Heineman’s view. When he was running GE’s in-house department, his pitch to prospective recruits was that the real excitement was inside companies, not law firms. ‘As an inside lawyer, you’ll be in the centre of the action,’ he says. That will not only provide myriad opportunities to learn both legal and business skills, but also enhance your ability to do a good job because you’ll be enmeshed in the fabric and culture of the company. You’ll be learning from within ‘the belly of the beast,’ he says, providing a tremendous opportunity for diverse and fascinating work. The growth limitations on a motivated in-house lawyer, Heineman adds, are non-existent. ‘If you’ve got any imagination, the intellectual challenge is almost unparalleled.’

Even if a lawyer has achieved the general counsel title, Heineman suggests, that doesn’t need to be seen as the end of the career ascent. It can be a stepping stone to more complex or interesting in-house jobs. ‘If you’re at a small company, you can look for opportunities to move into a bigger company. Maybe an international one. If you’re in a Fortune 500 company, you can seek to move to a Fortune 100 company, a Fortune 25 company.’ Heineman himself is seeing out his career in academia, holding joint appointments with Harvard Law School and Kennedy School of Government.

That’s the sort of climb that brought Sabine Chalmers to the top in-house position at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s leading brewer. Although she started her legal career as an M&A lawyer in the London office of Lovell White Durrant (now Hogan Lovells), Chalmers quickly realised she was better suited for a career in a company rather than at a law firm. Twelve years later, she was general counsel of the North American business of Diageo plc, a company that had moved her around geographically, as well as across different lines of business. She was happily ensconced at Diageo, which had grown enormously during her tenure thanks to a merger between Guinness and GrandMet and other acquisitions, and hoped to one day be considered for the global GC role. When out of the blue, she got a call from a recruiter looking to fill the top in-house spot for the newly created InBev, the product of a recent merger between Belgium-based company Interbrew and Brazilian brewer AmBev, she thought… ‘well, let me listen.’


The prospect of reaching the GC role at a major global company – before she turned 40 – was not lost on Chalmers, who is candid in describing herself as having had ‘enormous luck and a drive to keep growing. I was very aware that it was a huge step up and that these types of opportunities did not come along every day – especially for someone who was not already in the global GC role,’ she recalls now. Ten years later, the company has grown beyond what she might have imagined possible back then. When she joined, the company’s market cap was approximately $20 billion. Now it’s $180 billion. ‘I have been incredibly fortunate. The company has continued to evolve, adding brands, geographies and people. It’s almost like starting a different job every few years.’ That challenge has allowed Chalmers to feel that she’s constantly growing in her position. ‘It’s very energising. You never stop learning.’

A journey, not a destination

Of course keeping up with a job that never stops making demands on your time is not always the same thing as being continually challenged and motivated by your work. Pressure and stress come hand in hand with most GC jobs, and that doesn’t allow obvious gaps of time for focusing on what you might find most stimulating. ‘As clichéd as it may sound, a career is a journey and not a destination,’ says Ben Dattner, an executive coach and organisational development expert. ‘Arriving at a position that one has worked hard to achieve can be stressful if it’s not clear if and how the next chapter in the adventure will unfold. In a new position, there can be new stress, higher levels of responsibility and accountability, higher stakes, and more organisational politics. People may overestimate the positive aspects of the new position they have been striving for while underestimating the negative aspects.’

Because of his long career within the legal department of DuPont, Tom Sager perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised by much about the general counsel job when he finally earned it. But that wasn’t the case. As an associate general counsel, Sager had guided the company’s litigation strategy through what he calls ‘crisis mode’. He earned a reputation as a visionary in the legal profession by radically reforming the way DuPont dealt with outside law firms and creating practices that are now standard in the legal profession for bringing diversity inside corporate legal departments. It was, in hindsight, an exciting time to be in a key in-house position. But when he was elevated to the top job, things looked slightly different than he had imagined. ‘When I became GC, I found rapidly, to my dismay, there were a lot more meetings and governance than I anticipated,’ he recalls.

Ironically, the very things that propel people to the top of their profession are often the exact same things that will cause them to become dissatisfied with it over time. People who are natural high-achievers are hardwired to thrive on rapid, tangible rewards. You put in days, months, years of hard work in exchange for new responsibilities and chances for promotion, so achieving success at work is a satisfying ‘return on investment’ of your time and energy. Promotions. Raises. Reaching the next level. Reaching the top level. But when you’ve achieved the ultimate goal, it’s often less clear where the future return on investment will come.

‘It matters that you do not have a manager who manipulates you for their own purposes.’

What really motivates people?

So do we know what really motivates people? That topic has been the source of hot debate in academia, and within companies, for decades. In the 1980s, people began to subscribe to the theory that money was, in fact, the best source of motivation. Bonuses. Pay for performance. Stretch goals rewarded by raises. In essence, a company can pay you to do what it wants you to do. ‘Your goals are achieved when the company’s goals are achieved.’ That’s the thinking that inspired the proliferation of stock options to incentivise staff in the 1980s.

But that doesn’t really explain why people who are at the top of their game – both financially and in terms of prestige – are so often dissatisfied when they finally get there. Frederick Herzberg, probably one of the most insightful writers on the topic of motivation theory, published a breakthrough article in the Harvard Business Review, focusing on exactly this. Herzberg notes that the common assumption that satisfaction with your job is one continuous spectrum, starting with ‘very happy’ on one end and reaching all the way down to ‘absolutely miserable’ on the other, is not actually the way our minds work. Instead, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, independent measures. This means, for example, that it’s possible to love your job and hate it at the same time.

On one side of the equation there are the elements of work that, if not done right, will cause us to be dissatisfied. Herzberg called these hygiene factors. Hygiene factors are things like status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices. It matters, for example, that you do not have a manager who manipulates you for their own purposes – or who holds you accountable for things over which you don’t have responsibility. Bad hygiene causes dissatisfaction. You have to address and fix bad hygiene to ensure that you are not dissatisfied in your work.

This is an important insight from Herzberg’s research. If you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job – which a promotion to general counsel will often do – you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all. It is important to address hygiene factors such as a safe and comfortable working environment, relationship with managers and colleagues, enough money to look after your family; if you don’t have them, you’ll experience dissatisfaction with your work. But these alone won’t do anything to make you love your job – they will just stop you from hating it.

So, what are the things that will truly, deeply satisfy us, the factors that will cause us to love our jobs? These are what Herzberg calls ‘motivators’. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Feelings that you are making a meaningful contribution to work arise from intrinsic conditions of the work itself. Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you, and inside of your work.

And that’s what Drucker is getting at: ‘You’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself – not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution,’ Drucker wrote in one of the most well-read articles to ever appear in Harvard Business Review. ‘Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.’ Spending time understanding what truly motivates you, personally, will make an enormous difference to whether you are happy in your job or simply not dissatisfied.

DuPont’s Sager, for example, quickly realised that if he wasn’t going to be consumed by an endless stream of meetings and board governance issues, he had to find new areas of personal engagement. Having personal BHAGs – or ‘big hairy audacious goals’, to use the term coined by Built to Last authors James Collins and Jerry Porras – was ‘an important element,’ Sager says now. He opted, for example, to focus not only on understanding and mastering how boards successfully work together, but also to develop a platform around managing risk for the company. Just as important, he realised quickly, was figuring out what not to do personally. Letting go of needing to be in control of everything, Sager says, was an effective way to free time for him to focus on the things he was passionate about. ‘There are a lot of talented people around you, both inside and out. Understand where your value add is. That’s true for any lawyer,’ he says. ‘You have to think about it because demands on your time are pretty great. You don’t want to cut corners, but you also don’t need to invest a lot of time and energy if Sally or Joe can do it really well instead of you.’ Not to mention, he points out, the personal satisfaction that comes from helping more junior team members grow and stretch in their careers too.

Research shows that as people go through their career, their priorities change and what is likely to provide the crucial intrinsic motivators may shift. ‘Once people have gone beyond the stage of looking to build their skills, what they’re looking for instead is to have a sense of authenticity and a sense that they’re doing work they care about,’ explains EDHEC Business School’s Valcour. So how do people identify the work they really care about, compared to the work they are required to do in their job? Valcour advises people to focus on tracking their personal energy. ‘When I’m talking to someone who has a plate overflowing with activities, I tell them to keep track of their time and activities. At the end of each day, ask yourself: “When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel most plugged in and enthusiastic? Who was the conversation with? What was the activity?” Then feed the insights forward.’ Make choices about how you use your discretionary time. Delegate what you don’t enjoy doing whenever possible. Add activities to your calendar that are the source of joy and inspiration. Sager, for example, became active in the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and a board member of several universities.

‘It’s important that you’re always asking yourself,  “am I still learning? Am I still challenged?”’

What’s left to aspire to?

Even when you’ve achieved the balance in your job to provide the requisite levels of stimulation and satisfaction, experts say that doesn’t mean that you can stop worrying about your personal growth. In fact, the best time to actually start thinking of your next professional step is when you’re at the top of your game, says INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity, Unconventional Strategies for Reinvesting Your Career. For some, that might involve moving up the general counsel food chain, identifying bigger or more complex companies to work for. Or even daring to aspire to growth outside of the legal arena.

Legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch had high regard for the skills of his top in-house lawyers, Heineman recalls, promoting several to positions running key business units during Heineman’s tenure. But in reality, CEOs like Welch are still relatively rare. As one highly-regarded general counsel concedes, his own career aspirations don’t necessarily align with how his boss sees them. Despite knowing that he’s very valued in his current position, ‘[my boss] is never going to see me doing anything beyond this role,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to be CEO. I’m not going to be head of marketing and finance. It’s not going to happen here.’

But that is not a finish to his career that he’s necessarily prepared to accept. So what do you do if your dreams are bigger than the dreams your boss has for you? Start working on achieving them long before you need to. ‘If you don’t start preparing for your second act while you’re still in your first one, it’s not going to happen,’ Ibarra says. ‘When you are at the top, that’s precisely the time to start diversifying your portfolio and have a better range of things on which to base your identity.’

If your current boss will never see your potential in a strictly business role, start looking to expand the ways you can develop those skills. Find opportunities to join the board. Look for opportunities within your existing job to learn new areas. But be prepared to make a move if you feel that you’ve hit a ceiling.

What if your introspection leads you to the insight that maybe you are, in fact, bored with your job? ‘I think it’s important that you’re always asking yourself, “am I still learning? Am I still challenged?”’ says Anheuser-Busch’s Chalmers. Because if that answer is no, ‘there is a natural time when you do have to step aside for the next generation and go on to your next adventure.’ DuPont’s Sager found himself identifying the exact moment that became was true for him. When Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, asked Sager to postpone his long-planned retirement just a few months more until she could get the ideal candidate into the position, he drew his line in the sand. ‘I told her, “Ellen, I’m done. You’re done when you know you’re done. I’d be going through the motions and that wouldn’t be fair to you or the company.”’ Sager assured Kullman that his number two, who was not going to be assuming the top position, would be a capable interim GC. And he stuck to his retirement plans. Which, incidentally, didn’t really involve retiring. Sager had spent the last months of his career figuring out what would continue to motivate him. After reading a book on Winston Churchill and getting daily six-mile walks in, he was ready for something new. Two days after his retirement officially kicked in, he accepted a position as a partner with Ballard Spahr – a position that focuses on the parts of work that he still finds engaging, while minimising the parts he doesn’t like. Like endless meetings.

At the end of the day, Sager observes, focus on achieving the general counsel title is misplaced. Some of the most stimulating work of his career, he says, was the work he did long before he dared to aspire to that role. Whatever your title, ask yourself about the quality of your work every day. Are there still opportunities to be creative and advance the interests of the company? Do you still enjoy getting out of bed every morning to head into the office? ‘We owe it to ourselves to say: “How am I going to use my energy and time in a way that aligns with what I care about most deeply?” advises Valcour. ‘How can I invest the time, energy and connections that I have in such a way that I’m using them to have the greatest impact on the world?’