For in-house counsel, convincing colleagues in the C-suite —or in the rest of the company, for that matter —is rarely a simple matter of saying, “Do it. I’m the lawyer.” Influence and persuasion require strategic thinking, a deep understanding of a company’s objectives and culture, credibility in the organization, and a keen sense of timing.
Recently, I moderated a discussion for the Women’s In-House Counsel Leadership Institute (WIHCL), which is conducting a series of webinars on executive leadership. The webinar, “Influencing the C-Suite,” featured Teresa Wynn Roseborough, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of The Home Depot, and Jennifer Hightower, senior vice president and general counsel – law and policy, at Cox Communications Inc. They shared insights and practical advice for in-house counsel on the fine arts of influence and persuasion, and in this column, I’ll explore a few key takeaways from our conversation.
First, it’s important to know the difference between influence and persuasion. As a framework for our discussion, we relied upon Korn Ferry’s book FYI: For Your Improvement—Competencies Development Guide, which identifies influencing as a core competency for executives. To effectively influence, one must be adept at communicating effectively, driving engagement, organizational savvy, persuading, and driving vision and purpose. Persuading, under this framework, is a type of influence that uses compelling arguments to gain the support and commitment of others to accomplish a goal.
“When I think about persuading, I think about explaining or communicating with someone the basis for a judgment, goal or strategy, so they adopt it as their own,” Roseborough said. “If they leave a meeting and say, ‘Teresa wants us to do X,’ I know that I have influenced them. If they leave the meeting and say, ‘I think we should do X,” I know that I have persuaded them.”
Persuasion, in other words, drives buy in from others. Done effectively, it creates allies and advocates who can help drive a decision throughout the organization. “I use persuasion as a tactic when I really need buy in,” Hightower said. “Persuasion is something I really need to think about to leverage it effectively. I will use persuasion when it’s something I feel very passionate about.”
That’s not to say that persuasion is always the preferable path. Using one’s influence can cut through needless barriers, saving time and simply getting the job done. “If you need speed, and if it’s a one-time thing – something you do once and it’s done — exercising influence can be the way to go,” Roseborough said. “When you need a lot of people in the business to do the same thing, to drive it forward with training, to socialize it to the organization, you want to think about investing heavily in persuasion.”
Roseborough recalled her time as chair of a commission that was attempting to adopt a new ethics policy. She said she visited each of seven members of the commission to try to build consensus. Unfortunately, the efforts failed. Later, she met with the mayor who had appointed her and said she hadn’t been able to get everyone’s buy in on the policy. The mayor’s response? “She said ‘Teresa, there are seven of you, I’m going to teach you how to count to four,’” Roseborough said. “In that instance, influence would have been a much more effective way to get a new ethics policy adopted and to allow the commission to move forward with its important work.”
Knowing which tactic to use at a particular time is a key factor in persuading and influencing. So is having a strong sense of how one’s business colleagues think about issues. Legal skills alone may not be enough to build credibility with them. “The most effective lawyers…are the ones who truly understand the business, not just the legal issues,” Hightower said. “You have to understand financials, you have to understand the competition, you have to understand the enterprise you’re in, so you can understand what your business people are thinking and help them understand why your legal input should be relevant to them.”
Both Cox and The Home Depot have programs that allow in-house lawyers to gain a deeper knowledge of the business. At The Home Depot, for instance, members of the legal team work in a store for at least five days a year. “It allows us to couch advice in the context of what happens in the store in real life,” Roseborough said. “The people who are listening to us understand that we know how the stores operate and their challenges, and it just gives us a lot of credibility when we then speak to them about how to resolve a problem.”
WIHCL’s programs are designed to help more women achieve greater success as in-house counsel. And in this instance, Roseborough and Hightower both said the women occasionally face unique issues when trying to persuade or influence. Hightower said it’s important to “learn when to stop talking and learn how to read the room. Don’t apologize. Own the space. Own your input. Then let it sit. … If you don’t know how to own a space, you should find an ally who can shore you up and reaffirm you.”
“Women do tend to get to decisions in a more collaborative way, and that means we do spend more time building collaboration and building consensus,” Roseborough said. “I think the we need to help men develop more of those skills, and then we need to learn more about the ‘know our audience skills’ and to get to the point more quickly.”
Roseborough and Hightower also offered the following practical tips for in-house counsel who want to be more effective at influencing their colleagues:
• Ask guiding questions. Questions can allow you to inject a point of view or a concern in a way that allows the other party to know that they’ve been heard, that you’ve listened and that you will continue to listen. Roseborough said questions like, “how should we think about that?” or “what would our narrative be for this audience?” can lead to a dialogue about why a person adopted a position or why that position would or wouldn’t be in the best interest of the company.
• Be open to what you’re hearing. Listen wholeheartedly, and don’t be selective. You may miss something. “That’s how you move the ball forward,” Hightower said, “by conversing and learning from each other.” Roseborough added: “You can’t just pretend to listen; you have to actually listen and participate in a dialogue that’s a true exchange of points of view to get the best resolution.”
• Know your own brand. How you’re perceived can create challenges that you may not have anticipated. “If you know that you have some type of perception or brand challenge, you need to be mindful of it and do whatever you can to overcome it,” Hightower said.
Also: It’s critical to guard against unconscious bias. Bias can keep key constituents out of a decision-making process. “It’s important to point out to the room, ‘this person or constituency is not here,’ and to encourage a decision-making process that gets that input before the room comes to a final decision,” Roseborough said.
And try to give people the benefit of the doubt – or perhaps, more appropriately, trust, but verify. “Take what you’re hearing at face value,” Hightower said, “then go out and do your own due diligence.”