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Own your space: Leadership advice from a trailblazing chief legal officer

Q&A with Susan Blount, former general counsel for Prudential Financial, Inc.

How can legal professionals develop the skills needed to reach their career goals and take on positions of leadership? In a conversation with Lori Lorenzo, managing director, Chief Legal Officer (CLO) Program, Susan Blount offers well-honed advice on owning your space and getting into the “click” of leadership.

A former CLO mentors young leaders

As executive vice president and general counsel for Prudential Financial, Inc. for 10 years, Susan Blount was one of the first women to advance to the top in-house legal position in a Fortune 100 company in the US. Today, Blount spends some of her time coaching mid-career in-house lawyers through the Center for Women in the Law to help them reach their goals and take on positions of leadership. She recently spoke at Deloitte’s Next Generation CLO academy where she described two critical elements of success for anyone seeking a chief legal officer or general counsel role: “Owning your space” and making the “click.”

As we sat down with Blount after the presentation, she noted, “As general counsel, I needed to be in tune to the leadership potential of the team and active in helping to develop others. I’d go so far as to say that developing your team is one of the most important roles a leader has, whether it’s the general counsel, CFO, CEO, or other c-suite executive. My leadership advice is based on the work I do now, as well as many years in which I was accountable for building a strong, diverse team.”

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Own your space, own your career

Owning your space is a proactive mindset that demonstrates that a rising leader is adding value to the organization beyond just technical skills and is taking charge of his or her career. It means going beyond day-to-day demands and anticipating questions, adjusting strategies and identifying opportunities without being asked, and developing key relationships. When you own your own space, others begin to see you as someone who analyzes issues through a broader lens, exhibits business acumen, and adapts management techniques to your responsibilities. Demonstrating this strategic mindset is growing in importance as a valued skill, as businesses look more and more to the general counsel for focused guidance.

Through this affirmative embrace of responsibility, the emerging leader demonstrates knowledge, insight, leadership.

    — Susan Blount, former general counsel, Prudential Financial, Inc.

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Five key elements for owning your space

While owning your own space looks different for everyone, here are five key elements that can help anyone develop a leader’s mindset:

  1. Create your own opportunities. In many jobs, there are chances to stand out without being asked—don’t wait for someone to knock on the door and offer an opportunity. Start simply by making it a practice to the review the agenda for every meeting you are asked to attend, and identify something that you can contribute before you go.
  2. Stay connected. An important building block to owning your space is learning about your industry from a broad array of people inside and outside of your company. Evolve your network by staying in touch with law school friends, joining a law-related professional organization, or serving on the board of a non-profit organization. Executive recruiters have a good pulse on the industry and can help you identify the most highly sought-after skills to hone.
  3. Strive to be self-aware. A key component of self-awareness is using this knowledge to adapt to the needs of others. If you understand how you best interact with others, how you are likely to respond in times of stress, and what you enjoy and don’t enjoy doing, you can better manage your work, transactions, even your schedule. Being self-aware allows you to show your best self to the world. 
  4. Ask for feedback. Obtaining feedback helps you identify your own blind spots and how you are perceived by others. Seek out others who have a reputation for developing talent and being insightful or may have a different view of the organization than you. Make it clear that you are looking for constructive suggestions; ask questions for clarification but never argue the point, even if the feedback is difficult to hear. 
  5. Ask for what you want. You are likely to miss some excellent opportunities if you wait for others to find them for you. Keep your eyes open for changes in the business, talk to people throughout the organization, and let others know you are interested in making even bigger and bolder contributions. Don’t be afraid of being specific about your aspirations when the opportunity arises.

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Embracing an attitude of perpetual growth and development helps prepare legal professionals for the challenges of leadership, and it serves them well throughout their careers.

Make the “click”

The “click,” a term used to describe the point in your career when you have adopted the mental framework of a leader, was borrowed by Blount from her friend Linda Chanow at the Center for Women in Law. Embracing the transition from specialist to strategist, from issue spotter to problem solver, from lawyer to trusted advisor. “It is the ‘click’ from one approach to work to a leadership-oriented approach that will become a habit that stays with you as you move up the ladder.”

Contact us for more information on how aspiring chief legal officers can take charge of their careers.

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Ready to develop the leadership skills that will earn you a seat at the table? Read on.

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