By: Lloyd M. Johnson Jr.


Recently, I was speaking with an executive recruiter about what it takes to be a successful GC in this era of the activist investor (see my column in the April issue of MCC). “If you don’t have managerial courage, you’re probably not going to be an effective general counsel – or even get the job in the first place,” she told me, drawing on years of experience placing GCs in major companies. And she’s not alone in believing that. Increasingly, executive recruiters are telling me that managerial courage is part of the GC’s job description. And that means the wise general counsel will include it in his or her leadership toolkit.

More Than Just Courage

At its heart, managerial courage is the willingness to raise difficult issues openly and honestly. It means putting the need to do the right thing ahead of personal concerns about career and advancement – saying what people should hear rather than what they want to hear. For the general counsel, it can also mean asking the tough questions of an especially tough audience. “When you’re talking about having that conversation with your CEO or board, and the discussion is around a decision that could have a material impact not only on the business, but also their bonuses and how they run the company, that’s huge,” says Mindy Millward, managing partner at Navalent, an organizational and leadership consulting firm.

To get a handle on the roots of managerial courage, to understand the ways in which it plays out in both the legal department and the overall corporate setting, and to get some guidance on how successful general counsel can make sure it’s inherent in everything they do, we sat down with Millward and dug deep, looking for patterns as well as a playbook.

Understanding – and developing – managerial courage is critical, Millward suggests, if the GC is going to not only exhibit it but also infuse it throughout both the legal department and the corporation. “If you have never been a risk taker, if you’ve never been comfortable having the difficult conversations, raising the red flag when you need to as a lawyer, there is no way you are going to be able to coach that in the team below you,” she told me. “In fact, it will probably squash it out of them if any of them happen to exhibit it.”

So where do you start?

The Foundation: Confidence

Building confidence is a good starting point. It’s the foundation of courage. It can be a counterbalance to the fear and discomfort that go along with raising difficult subjects. Millward breaks confidence down into three types:

  • Confidence in one’s expertise – things like knowing your job and the law.
  • Confidence in the facts – knowing the details and information related to the situation at hand. “One of the issues with managerial courage is that quite often, the issues are gray; they aren’t black and white,” she says.
  • Confidence in relationships, especially those with the board and the C-suite. A relationship developed over time “lets businesspeople see that you’re invested in them and the business and not just yourself and the law,” Millward says. “Then, when the time comes to exhibit managerial courage, you already have the network there that allows you to be successful.” Yet, Millward cautions that these relationships should be business-based, not just friendly personal interactions. “It’s not a matter of having a beer with someone or knowing about their kids,” she says. “I’m talking about a relationship where your business partner knows that you understand the business – how business gets done, how it’s successful, how it makes money. Then, when you raise an issue, it’s in that context of understanding the business.”

Start Early and Take Risks

“Managerial courage feeds upon itself,” Millward says. “You cannot show me someone who takes risks and exhibits managerial courage on behalf of their business but has not done it for themselves.” And that means, she says, not waiting to develop managerial courage later in your career but focusing on it from the beginning.

One way to demonstrate it, she suggests, when you’re new to an organization, “is to raise the question of whether we are pursuing the right path. Are we doing all the necessary due diligence?” The key, she emphasizes, is that “if you think about the evolution of yourself as a leader, the first place you will start to take risks is with yourself. That might mean taking risks with your own career, such as taking on challenging assignments that are outside your comfort zone or moving from one industry to another to show that your skills are transferable, regardless of the industry.” And with this foundation, she notes, you have a “self-awareness about your own level of managerial courage and your own willingness to take risks, [which] is what you need in order to coach others.”

Consistency is Key

Millward stresses the importance of walking the walk. “Being consistent with your practices, beliefs, and approach is key,” she says. “When we see leaders who exhibit managerial courage, it’s clear that they have integrity, are true to who they are and to their beliefs, and are living that every day.” That consistency gives the general counsel credibility and builds trust, helping others understand that his or her actions are not self-serving.

“Managerial courage,” Millward says, “doesn’t automatically pop up when you’re 50 and in your career for 25 years, and you suddenly think, Wow, now I am ready to be courageous. It doesn’t happen that way. When we see leaders who consistently exhibit managerial courage, that’s what’s critical. Being consistent with your practices, your beliefs, and your approach. When we see leaders who are exhibiting managerial courage, it’s because that’s true to who they are, what their beliefs are, what’s ethical, and what has integrity. They are living those every day.”

Make Managerial Courage Systemic

“One of the things we’re seeing,” says Millward, “is the focus on developing systemic managerial courage.” This means not just making sure the GC demonstrates it and not just developing it within the legal department, but using it to transform the broader business. Doing this, Millward says, can be critical to enabling the legal department to be a respected partner that helps the business look ahead, rather than be viewed as the department that says no.

The general counsel can instill managerial courage in the organization by modeling the right behavior. “Do you back up your team when they show managerial courage with their business partners?” asks Millward. “Do you encourage them to ask tough questions, even when those questions are about you and your practices?

Storytelling can also be effective. For example, a general counsel talking to staff members might recount a meeting with the board where he or she had to push back on an issue. And stories can be complemented by more hands-on experience. The general counsel might take direct reports into meetings with business executives, allowing those team members to see the dynamics of courage in action, without having their own careers on the line. One general counsel I know requires the attorneys in her department to have lunch with their business counterparts at least once a month – without discussing any legal matters. This gives them a chance to build relationships and become comfortable discussing and challenging business ideas.

Make It Part of the Culture

Fostering managerial courage deep in the organization has several benefits. It lets people start practicing it early on in their careers and develop it over time. It also provides an opportunity for people to learn by contending with lower-level issues that have less risk for company and career. And when it comes time for the general counsel to push other departments or executives, having a legal department that practices what it preaches can lend weight to the argument.

Ultimately, these efforts should drive a bias toward managerial courage deep enough in the organization that it becomes part of the culture. “At that point, when people speak up and provide a different perspective, they’re just doing their job,” says Millward. “You lose the label of ‘that took courage.’ It becomes normal.” When managerial courage becomes business as usual, the legal department becomes more effective and more valuable to the business.

Next month: I’ll talk with a top management consultant about the specific ways in which managerial courage is related to the law department transformation effort.