Alex Dimitrief’s career trajectory shows the possibilities for general counsel when they embrace leadership. After positions as GC of GE Energy, GE Capital and GE, he became president and CEO of the company’s Global Growth Organization. WIN spoke to Alex about leadership in the GC role and beyond.
When you started your CEO role did you feel underprepared? What was the steepest learning curve you encountered?
There wasn’t a huge gap in my knowledge, with one glaring exception: the commercial and economic ramifications of given transactions and, in particular, the trade-off between market share and robust margins that business leaders face when closing transactions. As a lawyer, I never really wrestled with the implications of settling on a particular price point for a transaction on the long-term success of a business.
Business leaders constantly face trade-offs between the importance of share (market share as a sign of leadership in that market) versus strong margins (which investors gauge as a barometer of whether a business has its act together in terms of charging a significant price for its products). Robust margins signify that the products have value for customers and that you have your costs in order. When I moved to a business role, I found myself in constant discussions with other business leaders about how low to go on price or whether there was a particular larger strategic significance to a given transaction. But other than that, being a GC prepared me very well.
It can be transformative to understand and properly utilise the advantages that your training and experiences as a lawyer bring you in leadership.
First, there’s a huge benefit to thinking like a lawyer. We’re taught to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a position, but also to respect and hear out the other side. I’ve encountered a lot of leaders who don’t want to hear bad news or contrary opinions. Our training as lawyers helps us identify and address weaknesses in our own arguments.
Second, lawyers – particularly litigators – by definition work with mistakes that businesses have made and, if they are smart, they learn from them. Having been involved in several transactions and commercial strategic relationships that had gone sour, I was able to learn from the mistakes that people made in those situations.
Third, I was able to see the importance of allowing other people to learn from mistakes. As a GC, trouble rolls downhill to you, and you’re involved with people in the business who have made mistakes: sometimes honest mistakes, sometimes serious lapses in judgment. As a leader, it is fundamental to recognise the importance of second chances.
Are lawyers well-placed to hold a mirror up to the failings of their organisations?
All lawyers should take a hard look at how they communicate the importance of integrity, and the credibility and persuasiveness of those communications. One of my tests for whether a GC will be effective and able to make the transition is whether they can communicate judgment without being judgmental. Lawyers don’t develop if they see themselves as above the fray, and simply sit on the sidelines talking about integrity and not making mistakes. They need to get their hands dirty.
The ultimate leadership goal is communicating the importance of integrity in a way that resonates with teams on the ground. This helps lawyers transition from a control function – where they’re seen as criticising, preaching and second-guessing – to a leadership role where they’re actually part of the team that’s making decisions as they go, understanding that there are compromises to make at every turn.
How can general counsel develop as leaders while doing their day job?
I never really felt pigeonholed as a lawyer. Again, it’s all about how you communicate: if you’re always talking about the legal issues and risks, you’re going to be seen as “just the lawyer.” There are a couple of ways to break out of this mould.
Dive into the business. Understand your customers, the business model, and what’s important for commercial success. Think of yourself as a member of the senior leadership team. Don’t hesitate to express well-informed opinions on personnel, commercial, strategic and reputational matters. Don’t limit yourself to the types of issues that lawyers are conventionally involved in.
Jeff Immelt, a former CEO of GE, gave me some great advice. He was frustrated with how I was limiting my comments at a particular series of reviews to legal issues. He said: “I really want to hear your opinion on some of these business issues. I have you at the senior leadership table because I like your judgment. I don’t want you to always be the lawyer.’
But the most damaging way in which lawyers reinforce the stereotype is by overstating risks and hedging the likelihood of a positive result. You need to pick carefully how you communicate and quantify risks.
When there’s a 5% or 10% chance of a bad outcome, lawyers have a tendency to express it in ways that lead to business leaders thinking it’s a 50-50 chance that something bad will happen.
When I was in private practice, I worked on a significant matter for a client facing bankruptcy. It was a company-defining moment. And I told that client that we should win a particular dispute 85-90% of the time. The client was flabbergasted; he wasn’t used to lawyers telling him that something’s better than a 50-50 proposition. I just laughed, but came to realise over the years that he was right. Have the courage to express your views honestly, knowing that no prediction is guaranteed to be accurate.
What does authenticity mean for how you communicate as a leader?
Being honest and transparent is paramount. Authenticity means sharing your true views on something, rather than a view that protects you or always puts you in the best light. Business executives often get frustrated when they get a laundry list of problems that could happen, rather than an authentic communication that focuses on the true risks and issues of importance.
Authenticity is also having the self-confidence to admit when you don’t have all the answers; when you need help. It is having the humility to listen to your team and leave them in no doubt that you value their input, which is an increasingly important trait for modern leaders.
Are there any particular leaders that helped you?
There are two leaders that stand out for me. The first is Mitch Daniels: he was the head of intergovernmental affairs for President Reagan when I worked for him, and my very first boss. He went on to be the Governor of Indiana, and is now President of Purdue University.
Mitch taught me the importance of facts and evidence, of doing your homework and valuing expert advice. He’s a lawyer who never practiced law for a day in his life – but he’s a classic example of someone who was taught to think like a lawyer. I’ve always been impressed by how he takes an evidence-based approach towards things, coupled with common sense. And I’ve always admired how he is able to address incredibly complex and sometimes controversial issues in a way that inspires confidence in others.
The second is Jeff Immelt, whom I had the pleasure of working for at GE. As well as just being a brilliant guy, he exemplified the importance of being multicultural in today’s world. Jeff led GE into 180 markets, and was fascinated by and respected the cultures and approaches that were taken in different countries. That fascination and eagerness to be multicultural is a strong skill for a leader.
Jeff is also a great example of the power of inclusion. I will never forget one occasion when he was speaking at a global diversity and inclusion meeting at GE. One of my colleagues asked Jeff why he had come to the meeting. He said, “Because I want to make sure that you know GE is everyone’s company.” That was such strong evidence of his approach towards inclusion and making sure that what mattered in GE was how good you were. I’ve seen the power of inclusion – particularly the power of including people who don’t feel they’re included elsewhere – drive a company to great things.
What traits define a good leader?
The first is what I call “integrity plus.” That means integrity and a personal commitment to integrity that’s so strong it seeps throughout the organisation. It’s impossible to have a rulebook that covers every situation people are going to be in, so you need to have a baseline commitment to integrity. Leaders must embody that.
The second is self-confidence. Not just in your judgment and abilities, which is important for any leader. But as a leadership trait, I mean the self-confidence to bring in the very best talent, including people who might be smarter than you in certain areas. I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was self-confident enough to bring in the very best political rivals to advise him. The ability to do that, and not be worried about people outshining you, is a mark of a successful leader.
Third, you need to be willing to admit that you’ve made mistakes; that you’re able to learn from them. I see many leaders who think that admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness. I view it as a sign of strength, because it gives teams confidence.
And following on from that, the fourth is humility: that you don’t always have the answers, but have a willingness to ask question and to listen. I worked for our CEO John Krenicki when I was GC of GE Energy. We would sit through these detailed, lengthy reviews, and John wouldn’t interrupt. He’d take it all in, then at the end of a one- or two-hour session, he’d ask questions or give a couple of comments that showed he’d really listened.
The fifth, and last, leadership trait is something I say a lot to my teams: “I’ve got your back.” You make sure to give the team credit for their ideas and advertise their success to the business. But you also let them learn from mistakes. If it’s an honest mistake, I’ve got your back. I’m also going to make sure it’s safe for you to learn and have a chance to try again, to grow as a person. This point is, to me, the ultimate test of a leader in today’s environment. We’re working in this hyper-connected world that’s moving at warp speed. We don’t have a lot of time to make decisions, and we’re often acting on imperfect and incomplete information. So mistakes will happen.
Any final thoughts on leadership for law firms in particular?
From what I’ve seen over the past ten years, law firms need to do some soul searching about their missions and broader purposes. Whenever I took on a new job at GE, I’d go on a listening tour and summarise the team’s aspirations in a mission statement. When I became GC, the team identified our primary mission as “empowering GE to sell life-changing digital and high-technology products around the globe based on clear-eyed assessments or risks and rewards.” Another aspect of our mission was to serve as “proud but humble advocates for the rule of law and to strive to serve as a trusted resource for governments and regulators around the world.”
I suspect that most leaders at most law firms haven’t taken their partnerships through exercises like this. But partners, associates and recruits want to be inspired by missions that are more meaningful and satisfying than simply winning cases and negotiating great deals for clients so that the firm can make a lot of money. Articulating these broader purposes is critical if law firms are to win the war for talent in the decades ahead.
Interview facilitated and written by Dr Catherine McGregor for DLA Piper WIN.