The Importance of Being Your Own Advocate

This article was written by Rob Williams, originally published in the Corporate Counsel Business Journal (CCBJ).

When it comes to being the CEO of your career, one size does not fit all, according to a panel of GCs and C-suite executives.

APART OF OUR ongoing Women in Business & Law series, Corporate Counsel Business Journal recently hosted our second installment of “Be the CEO of Your Own Career.” Kristin Calve, publisher of CCBJ, invited four successful women executives, including general counsel and other C-suite executives, to share their experiences via a panel discussion hosted online for an audience of more than 200 guests.

The group discussed their careers and offered advice on succeeding in business and in life. The panelists included Stacey Babson-Smith, vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer at Terex Corp.; Michelle Banks, former general counsel at Gap Inc. and current senior advisor at BarkerGilmore; Mary Dent, CEO of Green Dot Bank and former general counsel at Silicon Valley Bank; and Olga Mack, former general counsel at ClearSlide.

Babson-Smith kicked things off by noting that while discussion of these issues is beneficial, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being the CEO of one’s own career. “We each have to think about career development in a way that works for us individually,” she said, a sentiment that was echoed by the others on the panel.

Banks talked about the importance of being open to new things, especially early on in one’s career. She recalled the year she spent working in the legal department of a Japanese client despite having never been to Asia before and having no experience working with Japanese clients. She also worked in the legal office of an NBA team, even though she had never been to a professional basketball game. “I saw new things as opportunities to learn and to grow,” she said, adding, “I believe that my willingness to take risks was important to my becoming a senior legal leader.”

Mack noted that one’s sense of what is important changes as he or she progresses through his or her career, and that this may be especially true for women. “When I was fresh out of law school,” Mack said, “what I wanted was very different from what I wanted when I had my first child, and what I wanted when my kids were six and eight.” Today, she said, “success is really more than just my professional life. It includes my family, my community and, frankly, the world.”

All the panelists pointed to the importance of making connections and building relationships. Throughout her career, said Dent, “each step has been something that’s come about because of the relationships I had developed. … That question of who are the people in your life and how do you listen to them and see yourself through their eyes is very important in coming to understand where we fit into our own career.” She also noted that “you build a network by looking at who you can do things for,” rather than trying to find people who can do things for you.

Finally, the panelists highlighted the importance of being one’s own advocate. In addition to being open to opportunities, success depends on “being willing to ask for opportunities,” said Babson- Smith. Hard work alone is often not enough. “A lot of people work really hard,” she said. “So, if you’re interested in an opportunity, ask for it. The worst that can happen is you do not get the opportunity, you learn why and you look for your next opportunity. If you don’t ask, others won’t know you are interested and the opportunity you want may not happen.”