Listen Like a Lawyer is pleased to share this Q&A with executive coach Greg Riggs. Greg is the former general counsel of a Fortune 100 company and he has also serve as Associate Dean at Emory Law School. Greg has devoted his career to professional development and now has a national practice as an executive coach with Novateur Partners LLC.
Q: My first question is very basic: What is executive coaching?
A: That is a good question, and the answer is not obvious. There are many different types of coaches to help us with various aspects of our lives. We have all heard of athletic coaches, fitness coaches, wellness coaches, life coaches, and so on. Executive coaches work principally with professionals or leaders in organizations who want to do better at their jobs. They want to be more effective managers, team members, and performers. That is the scope of my approach to executive coaching.
Q: What types of clients do you work with, typically?
A: My practice tends to focus on senior and mid-level executives in the fields of business, law, and higher education. I have wanted to leverage the experience I gained from 35+ years in the legal, corporate and university environments and from serving as General Counsel in the C-suite of a Fortune 100 company. My clients have tended to be general counsels, law firm managing partners and other firm leaders, vice-presidents and above in large organizations, and university officials, including deans. I also coach high-potential individuals who are on their way to those positions.
Q: The academic, legal, and business sectors all have different cultures and different ways of being effective. How do you work with people in those different sectors?
A: You’re so right that the cultures can vary dramatically in these different sorts of environments. But they all have one thing in common. That is, organizations in all of these areas need effective leaders to be successful.
Very often in the legal arena, people find themselves named to leadership positions without really having had any training for the job. In law firms, for example, people who are terrific lawyers—high performers and high earners—are often the ones chosen for management positions. But they may have had no significant management experience whatsoever.
In the general counsel arena, people who have been really good in-house attorneys or outside attorneys find themselves in leadership positions and have to develop management skills on the fly. It’s the same with doctors in the hospital environment. Academic deans are another example. Deans who have been great academics, terrific writers, teachers, brilliant in what they do suddenly become CEO of a major, intricate, highly demanding organization. Executive coaches can be a very valuable resource for these academic leaders as they take on major challenges and handle dangers and traps they have never faced before.
Q: There are an increasing number of classes and resources on law and leadership. But “law and leadership” is definitely not a common offering in the typical law-school curriculum. How would a lawyer or future lawyer get the information that they need for leadership when it’s not typically a part of their formal training?
A: There are two sides to that question.
One of them is, where is the information? There are entire libraries and cottage industries built around teaching people how to be better leaders.
But then there is the application of that information. So it’s similar in a way to your own area of expertise, legal writing. When we are in our 1L year in law school and we are trying to figure out how to gain our bearings in legal writing, we all take a course in legal writing and advocacy. But I think I have heard you say that for many of us it is a lifelong undertaking to be a really good legal writer.
It’s the same with leadership. We have to pay attention to what we are doing and apply principles that we learn that are meaningful to us. Then we have to receive feedback and do it better next time. And next time might be this afternoon or tomorrow, because we are being called upon to exercise our leadership skills constantly when we have management positions.
Q: What are some of the common themes that you seek get across with the professionals you coach?
A: The number one headline is to develop an approach that allows you to leverage your own strengths and talents to find and bring your own personal best game.
We have all seen people who read books on leadership and then try to fabricate their approach to leadership using textbook methodology. It rarely works very well because there is often a lack of authenticity. To be really effective we have to be ourselves—our best selves to be sure.
And the key there is to identify and then develop and bring out into the workplace those core skills, core talents, traits, and dispositions that we have inside of us in a way that is most effective in our interactions with other people.
Q: Well, I can definitely understand how the idea of being authentic and being yourself is attractive. But what about a person you might work with who needed to work on a weakness—such as ineffective listening skills. How would you go about working with someone on their listening?
A: So listening is a vitally important skill, and very few of us do it very well. But let’s back up a little bit before we actually get to the act of listening, because when we talk about listening a preliminary question is: what are we listening for? What are we trying to capture in the listening enterprise, the listening moment?
One thing that I see fairly commonly for people who want to be more effective listeners is, they haven’t had a broader conversation with themselves along the lines of, what am I missing? Sometimes people are perceived as not being good listeners when actually the issues they are grappling with are much broader. It is my observation that most don’t stop to ask ourselves, what are my blind spots? And, what do I need to get better at?
If I could come up with one word that applies to most of us, describing a skill that we need to be better at, it’s this: awareness. Being aware of how we are coming across to other people, for example. Many of us are not very good at discerning that.
Once we get a feel for how we come across in different settings, then we might ask, how are we affecting other people? How is our behavior being received by others? How is what we say landing on other people? We are often not very aware of that.
And we are also not aware of what’s happening in our minds. We don’t notice what are we thinking about and what’s happening with our emotions. Without that awareness, we behave in ways that are often suboptimal.
So when we are listening to other people, there are various levels of listening. Often when we think we are listening it is at a superficial level with a lot of distracting chatter going on in our minds. We are not really focusing; we are listening to ourselves in our minds more than we are listening to the other person.
Then there is a deeper level of listening, where we are really focused on paying total attention to what the individual is saying, not thinking so much about ourselves or our to-do list or how what the individuals is saying is affecting us. We can call this “Level 2” listening.
And then there is a third level, a deeper intuitive listening where we are capturing—often without even being aware of it—the emotions of the other person, the way of thinking that the other person is displaying, the micro-expressions that we all have that reveal things about each other that we often fail to notice. If we can bring good listening skills to the workplace, to the dozens of conversations we have every day, we can capture much more information, use it much more effectively, and be more successful at what we do.
That’s a long answer to a good question.
Q: Someone who can get to that third level of listening is in a much better position to be professionally effective. But what if you have someone who is just not that good at listening? What can that person do to become more skillful?
A: That is one thing that executive coaching is all about. I mean, if we could read a book on better listening, or on being a better conversationalist, on paying more attention, or focusing on the other person and then actually apply that knowledge in our daily interactions, that would be great. We have all read those types of books, but then do we apply the learning? Usually not, or at least not consistently.
How executive coaching is different than say seminars and courses and symposia is that it involves enabling feedback over an extended period of time. In my experience, it usually takes six to twelve months of leadership coaching for someone to notice consistent improvements in their effectiveness. Coaching engagements sometimes last longer than 12 months, but six months seems to be about the minimum length of time to heighten our awareness, learn to focus keenly on our interactions with others, and draw in the feedback we need to fine tune our approach. So that’s where coaching can really help. We all need a partner, a thought partner, a mentor, a sounding board, a traveling partner as we explore better ways to be a leader. That’s what a coach does.
Q: True, so that was actually one of my questions. I think a lot of people might want to be a better leader or a better communicator, but they may not have access to an executive coach. Can a person sort of “self-coach”? How can you get better on your own?
A: It’s a great question. Let’s examine one example. Let’s say I want to be a better listener. People have told me I need to be a better listener. Okay, the next step is to make a decision: “I am going to be a better listener, and I am going to make a commitment to myself and maybe to others to do that.”
What’s the next step that we can do without seeking any help, without getting on anybody else’s calendar? So we begin let’s say for the next week to make a commitment: “I’m going to experiment this week, and I am going to pay attention to listening and see what I can figure out, see what I can observe. I’m going to investigate this.”
So we begin the day with a pre-brief driving to work. “I’m going to be a better listener today, I commit to that. It may even involve putting a little note on the calendar before a meeting, before I go into a meeting I’m going to have a 60-second huddle with myself. I’m going to try to listen better in this meeting.”
And then after the meeting have a debrief with onesself, because we need feedback to improve. So the meeting lasts an hour, we come out of the meeting, and if we do not then think about that meeting, anything we may have learned or may learn from that meeting is gone forever, it’s just lost.
So part of the exercise then is giving ourselves feedback: “How well did I listen in that meeting? Where was my mind? I may have had a hundred thoughts that were extraneous to the meeting. If I could recapture the flow of conversation that happened in that meeting, could I do it? Was I really paying attention?” And then as we expand our awareness, we can think, “Alright, what can I notice about what I said in response to other people? How did I come across? What were the facial expressions of people around the table?” This type of exercise is about awareness and intentionality and feedback.
Q: I hear you are breaking it down into distinct behaviors that you can think about and reflect on if those behaviors happen or not.
A: Yes, so the beginning word is intentionality: “I intend, and I am really going to try to be a better listener this morning.” And then mid-day, renew or refresh that intention: “Listening is going to be my aim this afternoon.”
Q: Have you found that people are too easy on themselves or too hard on themselves? Because when you were talking about how you might debrief with yourself, I can imagine some people saying, “I was an incredible listener, I did everything right, it went so great.” And then another group of people saying, “Oh it was terrible, I was a horrible listener all my efforts are of my efforts are you know for naught, and I’m never going to get better at this.”
How do you help people as a coach to have the accurate self-critique but also not be so tough on themselves?
Q: In my experience, most lawyers are very self-critical. That inner critic comes out and interprets and seizes interpretations of themselves usually in a negative way. So there is a writer, Marilee Adams, who has done some great work in identifying that mode that we get in most of the time of being a judger: judging other people, judging ourselves, usually critically, often quite harshly.
That mode contrasts to being in a learner mode where we are curious instead of beating ourselves up. In learner mode, we want to be a learner and we’re curious in a non-judgmental way about what just happened: “What was I doing? What was I thinking? Where was my attention?” Then, for the next hour now, having been aware of what was happening to me in the last hour, I’m going to see if I can direct my attention in a more positive productive way.
Then it is uplifting, then it’s positive, then it doesn’t hurt, it actually feels good because learning feels good. Rarely do we put ourselves in learning mode. But we can, and it helps a lot.
Q: Before we close the Q&A, are there any other important topics we might talk about regarding executive coaching?
A: So the one message that I have with all of my clients, the one huge need that I see is the leadership arena, is taking time to pay attention to leadership. People that you and I work with, they work all the time—maybe 200 or even 300 hours a month or more. That’s a lot of time spent on their careers.
Most of the people that you and I work with are leaders or have leader or management responsibilities. But they usually spend sometimes close to zero minutes thinking about their leadership. They don’t spend any time thinking about how to be more effective, more influential and happier and more satisfied with what they do.
So to give priority, to pay a little bit of attention to leadership—just one percent or two percent of their time—can have a huge return on investment. We can all be better leaders and be happier in the process. That’s my message.
Q: Sounds like a win-win.
A: It really is. Everybody wins.