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Inside Scoop from Outside Counsel: Control, Confidence, and Credibility

November 05, 2019

When three women who command a room on a daily basis offered their tips on how to control a conversation, build confidence as a leader, and ensure your credibility, we knew their advice was too good to keep to ourselves. Here are excerpts from our conversation with Ava Hahn, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary at CA Technologies; Marie Ma, associate general counsel at Gap; and Priya Sanger, deputy legal counsel at Patreon, on how to build leadership skills.

What have you found to be the most effective leadership style?

Ava: Start by building trust with each individual member of your team. Take the time to understand each of your team members as people, and recognize what motivates them. I worked harder for people I knew believed in me and had my back, so I try to do the same for my own team. I think doing so helps retain people, and those who do leave, leave happier.

Marie: I want to be sure I’m always checking in on how I appear to and am perceived by others. I tell my team you should always know what people are saying about you before you go into a room. And if you don’t know what that is, you aren’t managing a very powerful asset that makes a difference in how you are able to do your job and how effective you are. What I try to communicate to younger practitioners is the importance of knowing that what they do from the moment they step into the building plays into their brand. People will remember the first time you worked with them and that really sets the stage for what your trajectory could be.

What advice would you give to the next generation of lawyers?

Priya: In the beginning of one’s career it is really important to establish competence and credibility, even before you try to command a room. If you are a new lawyer, or even a seasoned lawyer at a new company or law firm, it helps to get a sense of the company first, to understand who the players are, the services or products, and the culture. It’s possible you could alienate people immediately if you don’t listen first, and you would never get to change that impression again. But you shouldn’t be afraid if you are an expert in your field. It will always help to know who the people are and where they are coming from when leading a new group of people, but if you have a good track record for making tough decisions, that will go a long way toward establishing your competence and credibility.

Marie: I had an eagerness right out of the gate to prove that I was worthy to be in a new role or in the room. Don’t underestimate the value of being patient. Having patience doesn’t mean being passive. Oftentimes you feel this eagerness to make yourself heard, but it doesn’t always land as you intend. You can have confidence and humility at the same time.

How do you learn from your mistakes?

Ava: One of the hardest things as a general counsel is when you get stuck between the CEO and the board of directors. The CEO is your boss, but you serve the board. I learned this the hard way at my first public company when I was 29 years old. I was in the job for two months and we were embroiled in patent litigation. The judge basically told both parties we had to settle or he would issue a ruling neither of us would like. So the CEOs met up that night and hammered out what they thought was a deal, and the next day outside counsel came in to try to document what the deal had been. Turns out they had totally different ideas of what that should be. Since we had only 24 hours to get this before the judge, we didn’t have time to formally get board approval, just a quick poll of the members indicating potential approval. When the judge asked if we had board approval and the CEO said yes, I didn’t contradict him. I regret it to this day. We ended up in a drawn-out lawsuit over that settlement agreement and the CEO was dismissed from that company. I have never forgotten that lesson.

When you make a mistake, own up to it. It builds credibility and disarms anyone who was going to criticize you for it. Say mea culpa and show that you’ve learned from it.

Priya: Every week at my workplace, we talk about the mistakes we have made, since we feel like you can learn so much from your own and others' mistakes when you openly talk about them. One of my biggest mistakes was not understanding how to read or learn from feedback. Feedback is so important. It's your friend. You may think, “Why should someone else’s feedback affect or improve me?” But someone with an outside perspective can make good observations that you may never see in yourself. My other big mistake early on was thinking my career would be fine if I just put my head down and did my work—that’s the worst assumption you could make. We live in an environment where people are dynamic, and if you aren’t out there to learn what’s going on, you will get left behind. That doesn’t mean being overly political, but it does mean being aware and adapting to situations as they change.

Marie: I hope to cultivate an environment where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Because when people are afraid to make mistakes they don’t grow, learn, or try new things. A far better indicator of someone’s character is not that they made a mistake, but how they show up after. If they have a level of humility, take it as an educational opportunity, or search for a solution, that is a much better predictor of how someone will act in the long term than the mistake itself.

Any last advice on how to be successful?

Priya: It’s really important to create a community of people who support you, and whom you support, and to foster that community before you need it. It’s a give and take—being a human and being a lawyer, it’s really important to have a community of people who make you feel strong and confident. Of course, you need to make others in your community feel that way, too. And it’s important to be authentic; authenticity is a huge part of being successful.

Ava: Be kind to yourself and have a clear idea of what your priorities are.

Marie: Check in with yourself. Ask why you are doing this, where are you trying to go? Doing that gives me a more long-term perspective so all the little stuff doesn’t get to me—I have something bigger to focus on.