By Rich Cohen, Former President and General Counsel of Corporate Creations (recently retired)
Time has a tendency to slip by and then you wonder: where has the time gone and what have you accomplished professionally? What do you want to do the rest of your career and are you a satisfied and fulfilled professional? These are common questions as you enter into the midpoint of your career. Like an American football game’s halftime, in-house counsel need to make the necessary adjustments to make sure they’re successful by the end of their careers. But all too often, our definition of “winning” changes between the first and second halves of your career. It’s important for in-house counsel to take the time and examine their current career paths and where they want to grow in the future: is success about prestige and finding fortune? Or is it more about balance between personal and professional lives? At this stage of your in-house career, you must be willing to assess yourself and your talents in an honest fashion in order to make careful, knowledgeable, and hopefully, positive changes. You control the outcome through careful introspection, planning and discipline - you can change your career path.
I have set out ten questions for in-house counsel to consider as they make adjustments to get ready for the second half of their careers. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in writing them.
1. What has gone well and why?
As our careers progress, the story of our successes hopefully has many chapters. What was the common theme of your effort that drove your triumphs? What type of people did you surround yourself with that helped you? What type of work made you the happiest? Create a list of all your successes and what skills were determinative in the positive outcomes. This is not the time to be humble with yourself, but be honest.
2. What did not go well and why?
It has been said that the tree that faces the wind has the strongest wood. Our failures provide us with opportunities to grow. Being truthful about our professional shortcomings can be challenging. But if you have a weakness, it’s better to examine those limitations and think of positive changes that will help you grow. Is it your skill level, your attitude, interpersonal interactions or the people you gravitate to that have been significant contributors to your less than optimal performance? Determine the common threads in your failures and leave your ego aside. Try an incremental approach to modify these vulnerabilities and recognize that the desired change is a process and not an event.
3. Where Have You Been and Where are You Going?
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend Rod Stewart wrote “Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain, some guys get all the breaks and some guys do nothing but complain”. Which are you? Do you have a balanced view of your professional and personal worlds or is it out of balance? Ask yourself what is really important to you both professionally and personally. There is no wrong or right answer as long as it is truthful. What price does success come with and is it something you are willing to continue to pay? Focus not only on the benefits of success, but also on the emotional and physical implications of your career trajectory. Remember you choose your attitude every day and do not let others control how you feel.
4. Has your career slipped?
Sometimes our egos, emotions, biases and dreams anchor us to a non-productive career situation. Again, it’s important to assess yourself and your professional performance honestly. Why are you faltering in your career growth and what is the reason? We can be afraid to leave the comfort of a predictable job, but staying where you are will not change the outcome. Evaluate your current situation in an unemotional way and determine how you might expand your comfort zone to broaden your opportunities. Create the image of your ideal career and then plan with measurable goals to methodically reach the desired outcome.
5. Is there a newer colleague or teammate coming up behind you who wants access or visibility?
This is always one of the hardest issues to balance. You cannot pursue your career worrying about every in-house counsel entering the workforce around you. But you need to face the reality that someone may have new skills, energy and be at a lower salary. It’s important to continuously prove your value. Aging athletes develop alternative skills to keep them relevant, and in-house counsel can learn from that. You need to think about ways you can continuously add impact. Reinventing yourself is not an event, but a process. Think about additional ways you can increase your relevance to your company and get started immediately.
6. Who do you trust?
The Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, is credited with saying that a true friend will stab you in the front, not in the back. Taking that into consideration, who are the people that you trust? We all need colleagues, mentors and friends, but we must be open to what they have to tell us. Sit down with a trusted individual and ask them what they think you should focus on for career improvement. Make sure to digest their honest assessment of your skills; you need to develop a systemic approach to address their suggestions. The long-term benefit for your personal growth is limitless. Talk with a trusted friend or group of colleagues often and do not forget to thank them for their investment in you.
7. What is your professional brand?
The ways we have behaved throughout our careers have allowed us to develop our reputation in an incremental fashion. Whether you are the best transactional lawyer, contracts lawyer, litigator, etc., you have the ability to brand yourself. Professional social media sites (LinkedIn and others) allow for us to put forward our professional achievements. Using these social media tools, make sure you highlight your talent and successes. Do you write or speak on topics that you know best? Utilize your network to showcase your expertise. What is the new and improved version of yourself and how will you socialize your value?
8. What are your options if you transition out of your current position?
What is the first thing you would do if you needed to find another job? Is your resume up to date and has it been vetted by a professional service? Do you have a relationship with a legal recruiter who will work with you to help you package the good and the bad of your professional experience? Who in your network can help you with introductions? Do you have access to the ACC Jobline and other services where targeted jobs might be found? You must remember that finding a new position is full-time work in and of itself. You must be disciplined in your approach and creative in meeting new people and identifying opportunities. Always be prepared to respond to the changing tides in your career.
9. How well positioned are you for your “second half” career i.e. savings, insurance, retirement, etc.?
In Law School, we were never taught how to manage our money, use health insurance or set up investments. Once you were hired for your first full-time job, your company informed you of your benefits options. But once the tasks associated with our initial planning were completed, we often forget to reassess and update the policies and plans on a regular basis. Many of the decisions you made early on do not apply today as your situation may have changed. Do not neglect your personal protections and do a regular health assessment on your policies before they become too expensive, unavailable or are irrelevant.
10. Don’t be afraid to trust your own professional instincts and try something new
At this point in your career, you have the experience to know what is the right thing to do at the right time. You can take calculated risks and know that the chances of succeeding will exceed failure when you use the disciplined approach that has allowed you to enjoy your current success. Your ongoing unvarnished self-assessment, personal accountability and openness to change will lead to your continuous improvement. You can never become complacent. You must have the courage, clarity of vision and wisdom to drive your success in the 2nd Half of your career. Stay positive, focused and optimistic and you will achieve more than you ever thought possible!