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Ready, set, GC? Assessing your readiness for the top job

There’s a time in every counsel’s life where the scenarios about getting the top job shift from the imagined to the reality, leaving many with a stomach-churning wonderment, not to mention a dash of excitement and anxiety, about how to proceed: “Am I good enough? Will I ever be good enough? How do I know I’m ready?” Then, pushing such thoughts aside, they take the plunge.

Claire Bibby, professional coach and General Counsel, has spent the last few years helping some of Australia’s brightest minds make the step up to the top job. It's an experience that can shock, she says. “It can be like diving into a cold swimming pool or having a bucket of icy water thrown over you. All of a sudden they think ‘Wow, so this is what it actually involves. I never knew that.’ It can be a real eye opener for some people.”

If you’re considering moving into a GC role, there are a few things you can do to assess your readiness for the position. The first is to talk to some established GCs to get a realistic understanding of the position along with its requirements and responsibilities. “I recommend people go out and find out what being a GC really means and then ask themselves if that is what they really want?” says Bibby.

The second is to prepare yourself for the steep learning curve that lies ahead – more from an operational, people management and strategic perspective rather than legal. “When faced with new areas of responsibility, self-judgment and imposter syndrome often present themselves, either for the first time or at a much heightened level. Learning how to manage yourself and your own expectations, as well as the expectations of your clients, is critical to succeed.”

That might mean working on any exaggerated pangs of self-doubt and anxiety and switching your thoughts up so you can calmly assess your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, you could be an exceptionally gifted technical lawyer but lacking in some of the strategic elements that would help you to add real value as a GC.

“There’s a lot of behavioral testing tools available that can help you find out where your strengths lie, and you can also explore the areas where you may need to do some work and gain skills," says Bibby. “I encourage my coaching clients to set themselves up for success by working to become the sort of boss they wish they’d had when they were a younger practitioner. Imagining yourself walking in someone else’s shoes can create some powerful lightbulb moments as to who it is you want to be.”

Endeavoring to plug some of these holes will stand you in good stead for when you take up the mantle of GC. As much as the role might feel that it's about individual prowess, it's so much more, and it often requires a commitment to lifelong learning and constant upskilling.

Bibby believes the mental process is akin to getting into good physical shape. “To lose weight and build muscle you’ve got to go to the gym. Knowing the theory does not make you fit, you’ve got to have both the theory and the practical application to succeed. That means doing the work needed on yourself to step up.”

Bibby says it is important to manage your expectations and guard yourself against perfectionism. There is no such thing as a perfect time to become a GC, and neither is there such a thing as a perfect GC.

“Perfectionism is one of the worst self-sabotaging behaviors any professional can have. When you exhibit perfectionism, or if it is your go-to stress or work response, you become a bottleneck. If everything has to be perfect before it goes out to a client, nothing will go out and no one will thank you for that.”

If you wait for the perfect moment, a multitude of great moments will pass you by. The truth is, you’ll never know if you’re ready to be a General Counsel until you are one. Keep learning, keep improving, and above all else trust yourself.

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