Business services professionals are taking the lead in law. Lines between traditional business functions have become more blurred as firms realise the opportunity to integrate skills and capabilities to achieve firm-wide objectives. This has opened up more opportunities at the most senior levels, with more professionals moving out of their functional specialisms to take on wider responsibilities in roles such as COO and CEO. Here, they define and deliver upon the strategy of the firm.

Not surprisingly, such roles are in high demand. And there are personal challenges too. While you may have shined in managing a business function, stepping up to a leadership role needs preparation. You will not only require new skills but also the ability to think in a very different way.

If your ambitions are set on leadership, how can you equip yourself to be a genuine contender for the top business roles in law today?

Taking on the leadership mantle


It is a big transition from overseeing one area of a firm to having to look strategically at how all the different functions work together to deliver business goals. Whereas managers are often focused on the details, leaders need oversight of the bigger picture. Managers may typically only have to deal with a limited number of stakeholders, the business leader, meanwhile, must become a master of communication across the firm and beyond, to groups including suppliers, the media and clients.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, ‘How Managers Become Leaders’, Michael D Watkins, a professor at IMD business school, discusses his research into some of the common pitfalls. He notes that if someone has been responsible for managing just one function and is thrust into a broad leadership position, they can fall into the trap of over-managing the area they know well at the expense of others. A loss of confidence can quickly set in when someone is suddenly out of their comfort zone, and they seek cover in familiar territory.

Leaders also need to move from being problem-solvers to agenda setters. “Many managers are promoted to senior levels on the strength of their ability to fix problems. When they become enterprise leaders, however, they must focus less on solving problems and more on defining which problems the organisation should be tackling,” he says.

Leaders need to take an holistic view of the business, its competitors and how future threats and opportunities might play out. While some element of this may have been necessary in previous management roles, this overarching responsibility to define the issues may take the new leader by surprise. Previously, as manager, they will have looked at the business through the narrow lens of a particular unit, now they need to balance the different needs of each department, while aggregating the talents of each to deliver strategy. Leaders may need to look at the minutiae still, but they also know when to step back and delegate it.

Mental preparation for the role is required. Your behaviour will be under the microscope and such scrutiny may be unpleasant. Your actions will impact the culture of an organisation, and reflect the values of the firm. And yes, it is tough at the top: you may have to take the blame for tough decisions (even when they are based on factors outside of your control).

Some leaders revel in the power the role gives them; others buckle under the pressure. Neither reaction is recommended. Leadership needn’t turn you into a vainglorious despot, nor leave you quaking in the corner office. Good leaders don’t see asking advice as a weakness but do know that responsibility for a decision is ultimately down to them. The strong leader also knows that displaying confidence – not arrogance – in what they do is crucial. Employees look to the leader to be inspired. Managers give instructions to their teams to reach certain goals; leaders unite people behind their vision.

Action plan


In our experience, those who are most successful in moving up to leadership are those that plan in advance. They are the ones who start building the right skills and networks before they are actually needed. Steps that you could take include:

  1. Volunteering for firm-wide projects to get exposure to different business units.
  2. Accepting duties that go beyond the day job to broaden experience and involvement.
  3. Developing networks from the start (both inside and outside the firm), joining relevant business groups, sharing expertise, and acquiring advocates and mentors who can help on the journey.
  4. Taking opportunities to lead wherever possible – including outside of work.
  5. Pursuing training and development opportunities, particularly in leadership and communication skills.
  6. Learning how to sell yourself, and seeking recognition for a job well done.

And do not be put off by the phrase ‘born leader’. According to an article in Psychology Today, most of the research estimates that leadership is one-third born and two-thirds made. Some innate characteristics are indeed helpful such as social intelligence, empathy and assertiveness but much can be learned.

While self-development courses are useful, the article notes that many tips can be provided via the many books on leadership development. Read widely, think about your leadership style (and be authentic and true to yourself), pick up advice on what makes great leaders – and do what sports champions do: visualise yourself succeeding in the role.

In the words of American football player turned peak performance strategist Matt Mayberry: “If you can’t picture yourself in your own mind being extremely successful, dominating your market, and running a phenomenal business, then chances are you never will.”


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