10 Leadership Lessons from Regina M. Pisa, Chairman Emeritus of Goodwin

January 12, 2018
Take risks! This is one of 10 leadership lessons from Regina Pisa, chairman emeritus of Goodwin.

1. Take risks!
When the firm asked me to be chairman and managing partner, I called the CEO of my largest client and told him about the opportunity and my uncertainty around accepting it. He said, “So, let me understand this – they offered you the top job, and you are wondering whether you should accept it? A man would never ask that question. He would take the corner office! Take a risk. Women don’t take enough risks in their careers.” With the benefit of hindsight and a little experience, I am in full agreement with him. If you want to move ahead in your career, you need to take some risks.

This is also true for organizations. You have to take calculated risks to make any progress. As an organization, you might make some mistakes, but as long as you are not risking the franchise or being reckless, it is all part of the process of change and transformation. As a leader, what is most important is to acknowledge the mistakes, take responsibility for them, determine the lessons learned and then move on.

2. Do it with passion.
If something is worth doing, it is worth doing with passion. You can be good at almost anything, but you will only be great at something that you love to do. So, my advice to younger people is to figure out what you love to do, and then focus all of your energy on doing that with passion.

This is the way that I have approached my career, and it is the way that I have approached leadership at Goodwin. My entire team and I were passionate about transforming Goodwin. We knew we were on the road to something special. We felt it. We believed in it. That kind of passion is not for the faint of heart; it takes courage and grit.

3. Be your best self.
To be a good leader, you have to be your best self. Each person is unique. One size does not fit all. What is most important is that you are the best that you can be. That starts by making an honest self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses before you can move forward with whatever your goals are. It is all but impossible to establish and meet goals without this self-assessment.

To be most effective, you also need to find your own style and voice – one that is authentic to you. Of course, you should look around and be aware of what styles are most effective in others. At the end of the day, though, the key is for you to be effective, and it is hard to be effective if you are always trying to emulate someone else’s style.

When I was a young lawyer, I wanted to do M&A work. There were few women in that field at the time, and it was not an easy path. I would watch some of my role models yell and pound tables during negotiations and wonder if I needed to be like that. I soon realized that it was not about how loud or tough you were, but how effective you were in achieving your client’s objectives.

Finally, to be a good leader, you cannot be afraid to be compassionate. Women have a tremendous advantage in business and in life. We listen, and we care. This makes us extraordinarily adept at leading and managing people. I not only led a law firm – I led 1,000 lawyers, one at a time.

4. Invest in your strengths.
Most of us are a balance sheet, with both strengths and weaknesses. Often, when people review their personal balance sheet, they focus on their weaknesses, rather than turning the things they do well into extraordinary talents. When we assess somebody, we do not really assess that person as a blend – our view is shaped by what we consider to be his or her strongest attributes. If a person can do one or two things extraordinarily well, we will often overlook the weaknesses.

My perspective on working with younger people is to figure out what they do well and how I can help them make those things extraordinary talents. It is a positive exercise. For the things they do not do as well, I advise them to focus on bringing those up to a minimal level, to ensure they do not become detractors.

5. Live your values.
To lead effectively, you have to live the values that you want embodied in your leadership – fairness, integrity, a fundamental belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that the result will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

When I was elected to lead Goodwin, I was 42 years old and having a great time building an M&A practice. With no formal management training, I asked the obvious question: “Why me?” One member of the selection committee responded by saying, “We are a firm in search of our moral center, and you represent that to us.” I did not fully appreciate those words then, but I do today.

6. Create a vision that inspires.
Organizations are like people. They have hearts and souls, and they have to be inspired. If you want people to follow you, you have to give them something to believe in – something that is bigger than themselves. You have to create a vision that inspires even the most cynical.

A vision is not the same as a strategic plan. It is really an articulation of both your aspirations and your values, and it has to be authentic. Without it, it is hard to imagine that you could capture and sustain the imagination of those you lead. Of course, there will be a thousand reasons to go off track, but your job as a leader is to keep everyone moving forward despite those. To do that, you will need to be a tough-minded optimist.

Our vision at Goodwin is a lofty one, “Goodwin. Unprecedented.” Unprecedented for us means not just what we accomplish, but what our clients accomplish. We want to enable our clients to do things that have never been done before. We are determined not to be the latest in a long line, but the first in a new one.

7. Take the time necessary to build the right strategy.
It took me almost two years to formulate a vision and determine the right course for Goodwin. In the end, we developed a strategy unlike any other law firm in the country, which was to reorganize along industry lines, not legal specialties. We opened offices only in markets where our industry sectors presented a strategic opportunity for us.

The bar we set for ourselves was high – to be among the top five law firms in each of the industry sectors we chose. It took enormous commitment on everyone’s part. Everything I did as a leader was laser focused on driving the organization toward that goal. All of our investments were aligned with that goal, and we did not detour.

8. Focus on execution.
While vision and alignment are important, there is no greater ensurer of long-term success than a track record of execution. Regardless of how wonderful the vision is, the secret sauce is in the execution. It is all about the execution.

I was once at an event at which I was speaking about our strategic plan, and an audience member asked whether I was worried that I was giving away all my secrets. My response was that there was no magic in our strategic plan.

There are no brilliant strategic plans. There are only thousands of daily steps along the way to executing a strategy. What will determine whether a plan is a good one is not what it says, but how well it is executed. In that regard, the actions you decide not to take will be as important as those you decide to take.

9. Leverage the power of communication.
As chairman, my direct reports included the COO, CFO, CMO and CHRO. People would often ask why I did not delegate marketing and HR to others. The reason was simple – transforming an organization requires extraordinary communication. Having marketing and HR aligned with my vision and working closely with me allowed me to leverage all the channels of communication both within and outside the firm and to harness their enormous power to reshape the firm’s culture.

10. Transformation never ends.
One thing that you realize once you start down the road of transforming an organization is that change never ends and that transformation and renewal – whether personal or organizational – must become an essential part of who you are. Transformation itself becomes a virtue, not just a process or an objective. I like to refer to my career, and to Goodwin, as a work in progress. And, of course, the process never ends, and there is no turning back.

Access more of the insights gleaned from our conversation with Regina Pisa here.

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