My willingness to speak up is one of the reasons for my success. Speaking up isn’t always easy, and, as a woman, speaking up has added complexities. Finding your voice so that you speak with authority without being a source of antagonism is key.
When I graduated high school, I was voted “teachers’ pest.” I like to think that was because I asked a lot of questions and seemed to have some ability to encourage other students to join in challenging the teacher. While I have not recommended this to my daughters, thinking for myself—not always accepting the answer given and convincing others of my views—has served me well.
Another factor in my path to leadership was seizing opportunities. When I started at the University of Pennsylvania I joined the concert committee. As a freshman, my job was stapling posters for concerts onto kiosks. Before long, I was asked to run hospitality for the bands that came to campus, and I seized the opportunity. Cooking (and burning) shrimp Creole for the B-52s was a big promotion and much hipper work, and by senior year I was elected to run the programming board. I learned a huge amount from leading the organization and I still have my gavel.
In the context of a corporate organization, consensus-driven leadership is certainly not the only kind of leadership, but it is the style that has worked best for me. I used to think consensus meant getting everyone to agree with my opinion. However, I have learned that it is much more complicated than that—aiming for total agreement will prevent advancing the agenda. A sense of humor helps, but must be used carefully: one person’s funny joke is another’s affront. I have defused many occasions with a humorous remark and consider it one of the best tools for dealing with strong egos. However, beware of inordinate self-deprecating humor, particularly when you are young and female.
During the succession process for who would be the next chair of Akin Gump, when asked if I was interested, I said to all who asked, que sera, sera. Two people independently told me never to say that. If I wanted the job, I should let my partners know it, and I should work hard to convince people that I was a good choice—that was good advice.
What advice would you give young women building/preparing for a career?
No one is born knowing how to be a lawyer. One day after graduating from law school, you find yourself sitting in an office with someone telling you to answer interrogatories. Investing not only in developing your skills, but also in understanding the client’s business, anticipating questions, and developing relationships is necessary to build confidence in your abilities.
With confidence, those instances where you feel challenged are easier to navigate. For example, I’ve had a magistrate question whether I had settlement authority because I looked young and was female. I’ve been asked whether I was the court reporter. In each instance, I’ve relied on competence and confidence, with a strong measure of good humor, to get through those moments. (The gentleman whom I deposed who thought I was the court reporter did not question my role after the deposition.) Strong skills and confidence in your abilities not only help you through challenging times, they also serve as the foundation for a strong sense of investment and enjoyment in your career. Being of high value to your organization is a great motivator, and being highly valued begets new opportunities.