Archive for July 4th, 2010

Leadership Lessons from the Chairman Of My Firm

About two weeks ago, only days after beginning my new job at Vedder Price, I had the special privilege of having lunch with Bob Stucker, the Chairman of our firm. In addition to making a good contact at the firm, and eventually making my way onto a couple of his interesting projects, I also had the thrill of seeing first-hand how a top lawyer and revered leader in Chicago navigated his way to the top and what his thoughts were regarding the future.

It was about 11:10am, and only my second week at the firm. I had a lunch scheduled with a couple of associates in the office, one whose office is across the hallway from mine and another who sits right next door.  At Vedder, most people tend to head to lunch around noon, so at the time, I was rushing against the clock to get a few things printed and to draft a couple of emails before heading out.  But as I was typing up my first email, I looked up and saw Maryanne head into my office.  Maryanne is the Chairman’s Executive Assistant, and she told me that the chairman wanted to take me to lunch.

“What a remarkable opportunity I thought to myself.”  So of course I told Maryanne that I was excited to head to lunch with Bob, and she replied that he’d drop by my office to grab me at 11:50am.  So after rescheduling my lunch with my coworkers and getting started on a couple of emails, Bob dropped by at 11:50 on the dot. He had on a nice gray suit that day, despite the fact that our office recently went business casual in the summer.  Fortunately though, I haven’t followed that trend, and I’ve been wearing a shirt and tie to the office every day. So I was dressed for the occasion.

So Bob and I headed toward the elevator, walking past reception on the 26th floor.  I noticed that Bob spoke to every single person we passed on the way out, addressing each one by their first name, including our great receptionist Vickie, who sits by the elevator. And although he’s a very busy guy, not once did Bob seem like he was too much in a hurry to say hello to anyone.

On the way down the elevator, he explained that he loved being at the firm and that it was a great pleasure to get to know everyone there over the years. And it was clear that he was sincere about it. After all, he had been at the same firm for his entire legal career and took the time to know everyone by name and learn about their families.

In the elevator, Bob said we would have lunch at an Italian restaurant, Coco Pazzo, which was a few blocks down. It was lightly raining that afternoon, so instead of walking, we hopped in a cab.  Bob had an umbrella but unfortunately I didn’t bring mine, a fact that Bob noticed before I did. Bob told me to wait inside while he waived down a cab. We hopped in, and then he sent me to the restaurant while he paid, so I could avoid the rain.

When Bob walked in, all the waiters said hello to Bob and greeted him by name. As it turns out Bob if pretty well-known in Chicago and at a lot of the local restaurants. So they sat us down ahead of the line, took our orders right away, and Bob and I had a nice discussion for the next eighty or so minutes.

We kicked off the conversation with a little business, first discussing an upcoming project he wanted me to get involved in, where we were retained by a CEO to help negotiate an employment contract. But the conversation quickly diverted into more interesting things, such as his background and mine. The practices I thought I’d be interested in and his process of choosing a practice back as a younger attorney. I also talked a bit about my personal history and Bob talked a bit about himself.

It’s funny, how when you’re having good conversation, eighty minutes can feel like twenty.  And before I knew it, we had finished our meal, paid our tab, and had to head out. Fortunately the weather had cleared up, so we walked back to the office, which was the perfect way to finish off our chat less abruptly.  On the way home, I brought up a few people I’d worked with in the past, including the Practice Chair of my old consulting firm, who Bob knew directly.  That was a good way to really connect with him at the end.

Upon reflection, here are a few lessons I learned from the discussion:

1. Good leaders are also good entrepreneurs. Bob spent his entire legal career as an entrepreneur. Out of law school, he turned down a couple of white shoe firms to join Vedder Price, which at the time was still an up-and-coming law firm in Chicago.  “It gave me the opportunity to have real impact” he said.  But rather than simply playing a part in an up-and-coming firm and taking what came his way, he also decided to make his own opportunities.  And along the way, he helped build a couple of practice groups, including the financial institutions group and the executive compensation group. Today, Vedder Price does more work with financial institutions than any other Chicago firm, and Vedder’s executive pay practice is second to none in the U.S.  Most law firms, and business for that matter, are not wildly successful entering new markets, but Bob was an exception to the rule because he sought out new opportunities.

2. Good leaders focus on their people. Bob was the kind of person who inspired others in the office. As I mentioned above, he said hello to everyone we passed and remembered everyone’s name and personal story. “It’s critical to retain every single employee that comes here” Bob said at lunch.  Not only because it’s economically better for a firm to do so, but also because we want everyone here to be successful and build a career here.  And it wasn’t just rhetoric. In fact, Vedder Price has done a great job of not letting many of its attorneys go during the economic downturn, and it didn’t let a single staff person go, despite the worst of the economic downturn. Bob had a laser-like focus on everyone at the firm. He knew there names, knew where they sat in the building, and reached out to them when it made sense. After all, he was even taking me, the new and only summer associate this year, to lunch during my second week.

3. Leaders reach back and develop leaders. Just a few days before lunch, I was speaking to one of the firm receptionists, and she mentioned that Bob had been a great mentor to many of the attorneys at the firm. At the time, I was glad to hear it, but she had also never worked directly with Bob, so I solicited a few other opinions.  I went to lunch that day with two senior partners here at the firm, and one of the them was the lead for partner recruiting at the firm. He said the same thing about Bob, that “Bob has mentored me over the years at the firm and that’s why I’ve done so well today.” And for the last couple of weeks I heard similar comments from a few others. “Was it all just rhetoric?” I asked myself a few times. After all, balancing the tightrope walk of managing client development and people development has always been difficult at services firms.

But for Bob, the answer is a resounding “No.”  Bob has already gone out of his way a few times now, to bring me into meetings and teach me lessons about the world of law firms.  And after the meetings are over he’ll always imparts a few lines to me.  He has also set me up with a couple of attorneys that he works with, so I could learn more about the firm.  I was glad to see this was Bob’s style. In fact, I recently wrote about this myself a few weeks back (click here to see the post).

4. To get to the top, do something you like. People who make it all the way to the top do because they are passionate about what they are doing, something I talk constantly about here on my site (click here for one of my favorite posts on passion).   Not only do they have good ideas but they actually have a real desire to go after them.  During lunch Bob told me that he’s always loved practicing law and that he’s never thought of leaving the firm. He also mentioned how much he like the legal aspects of executive compensation, financial institutions, and securities work.  And even though it wasn’t that hot of an area legally back then, because Bob enjoyed it and thought there was opportunity, he paved the way for Vedder Price by initiating work in those areas. That passion is especially evident now given the fact that he’s stayed with the firm and practice areas many years later, despite the modern trend that many professionals have of hopping from firm to firm.

5. Leaders are humble and kind. And it goes without saying based on my story above that Bob was as humble as firm Chairmen come. As I mentioned, Bob knew everyone’s name at the firm, he made sure that I didn’t get wet in the rain, and he even made sure I got enough to eat for lunch, ordering an extra plate while we were there. I was also impressed by the fact that Bob actually showed up to take me to lunch at 11:50 that day, rather than a little earlier or later. Leaders at his level are often so busy that they prioritize their work over other people’s schedules. In fact, many lawyers and client service professionals do. I was particularly impressed that Bob didn’t do that, because he valued my time.

Conclusion. Today’s leaders are called to help tomorrow’s leaders learn all they can, especially now, as the business and legal worlds are changing, as they become filled with new technologies and expand to the ends of every continent, and as they reshape themselves to thrive in today’s changing economy.  Fortunately, there are people like Bob who are already engaged in this process.  These leaders dedicate serious time and energy to prepare the next generation to face these new challenges and to take on some of the current ones.

That’s because the best leaders know that mentorship is critical. That a leader’s job is not only to cut costs, meet with clients, and negotiate deals but also to make sure the up-and-comers in the organization are well-equipped to do the same. Leaders set the tone and inspire others on how to produce results and eventually how to become leaders themselves. And when they do, these up-and-coming leaders will be inspired and committed to take on more than they ever could have before, which is critical in the ever-changing business and legal worlds.  And in the end, these lessons, meetings, conversations, and even lunches with interns can make all the difference.

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Sunday, July 4th, 2010 Careers, Leadership 10 Comments

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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