Learning to lead: Kirstin Gould

Following her international law firm career, alumna Kirstin Gould joined the legal department of XL Group (formerly XL Capital) in Bermuda, becoming General Counsel in 2007. She talks about moving in-house and discovering herself amid the financial crisis.

Becoming a lawyer wasn’t a lifelong dream. Like many, I fell into it by happenstance. When I finished college, having a graduate degree was seen as a good career move, and it is even more so today. I also looked at skillsets and chose graduate studies that would play to my strengths, writing in particular.
Having sampled both litigation and transactional work as a summer associate, I soon realized that I preferred the corporate side. I spent my first years out of law school in New York City primarily working on mergers and acquisitions and securities offerings. By 2000, I was with Clifford Chance in London on the US securities team.

It was the dotcom boom. I remember that my office mate wanted very much to go in-house at a tech company and was urging me to do the same – new paradigms and all. Ironically, around the same time a former colleague who had previously moved to XL Capital called to ask if I was interested in an in-house role. I wasn’t, but I was curious so agreed to meet them, despite that the company was a far cry from the ultra hip dot-com world!

When I found that I liked the people and the company environment, I decided to make the move – both in-house and to Bermuda. It was quite a sea change as the roles are so different. Luckily, my private practice involved a wide variety of matter types; having a generalist view is good grounding for the in-house counsel role, which involves a lot of issue spotting.

I would encourage young lawyers to get exposure to different practice areas, which will round you out and provide a better sense of where you truly wish to concentrate down the road.

In terms of accomplishments, navigating the global financial crisis in 2008 was one of my greatest professional achievements. Our company’s stock price dropped from $90 to under $3; we experienced a ratings downgrade and the need to negotiate a very complex deal with key stakeholders.

I learned that I actually thrive in stressful situations … and under challenging circumstances. I also learned leadership in a new context. Colleagues were looking to me for answers, and I had to make very painful decisions around staff reductions. Getting through the crisis required all of my energy and skills but also instilled a sense of responsibility for others and a mindset of developing them. This is the most important part of a leader’s job.

Another side of that learning is team building. When interviewing job candidates, I look at substance and focus on diversity as a basis for developing my slate. I pay close attention to energy level, attitude and EQ. The latter speaks to a person’s curiosity and flexible frame of mind, both of which I value highly.

Looking back, I would advise my “younger self” to find the right work-life balance and actively seek out mentors and role models. Young lawyers are perfectly right in looking for guidance from colleagues – not necessarily a formal mentorship, just someone you trust and respect to help you bounce ideas around, especially when making career decisions.