When I first considered stepping down as General Counsel of a Fortune 500 company, a company which had been my home for 22 years, I started to wonder how I would fill my time while I looked for a new opportunity. I knew that the next phase of my career would not be about prestige or money, but would be about joy. Like many of the individuals employed by my company at the time of our spin-off, I felt that my legacy was in building the company that grew to become Ingredion Incorporated. For my next step, I wanted to again be involved in building something great. I also wanted it to be about more than a paycheck. I was looking for something that aligned with my passions and values, and that reconciled all parts of me, including parts of me that I accidentally left behind as I grew in my legal career.
Unfortunately, I had the image of becoming a slug in yoga pants during my time off, watching TV while I waited for the next big thing. Someone (and although I will not name her, check out #selfieswithsonya) suggested that I write articles as a way of continuing to be active in the legal industry. My first reaction – Umm, I don’t have anything to say. (And here, I will let you be the ultimate judge of whether I have anything to say. Just don’t vote until you get to the bottom of the article! And if you like me, Chicago style voting rules apply – vote early and often.)
Fortunately, I avoided the TV (but not the yoga pants – let’s just pretend I was going to yoga every day) and became more involved in speaking out on topics of interest to me, like mental health in the legal profession and diversity and inclusion. I also had time. What a rare commodity! I had time to reflect on my experiences in house. What went well? Where could I have done better? I had time to learn and grow as a person, and realized the importance of living an integrated holistic life and practice. How could I reconnect with the girl who was raised by a single mom in rural Western Colorado? How could I maintain the energy of travelling the world, first as a Navy brat and later in my career? I was able to indulge my personal interest in continuous learning, also an important part of who I am. For example, in April, I received the DiversityFirst certified diversity professional designation from the National Diversity Council. I was able to hear members of my DiversityFirst cohort talk about white privilege and why our country’s history matters in the diversity discussion. What an honor to be able to participate in these conversations, and to learn from others with different experiences and backgrounds. Lastly, I have been able to spend time strengthening relationships and mentoring others, some of whom have made successful transitions or other positive changes in their lives or careers. Maybe, after two decades in house, and six in the GC seat, I do have something to say?
One of my passions is the professional growth and development of the next generation of legal leaders, and most importantly, helping them develop holistic lives and practices. We are encouraged to bring our authentic selves to work, both in the diversity and inclusion space and as leaders. For example, many diverse individuals are tired of pretending to be less than they are. They want to openly live what makes them different and unique, and they want others to listen and appreciate their experiences and point of view. A family member recently told me that he was transgender and wished to live and present as a male, including using male pronouns. The counterbalance is that these conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable, and, especially in the workplace, there can be misunderstandings due to lack of conceptual context. (“What? I never thought my comment/action could be interpreted in that way.”) Some people fear that mistakes or misunderstandings can lead to allegations that are career ending. Even if not entirely true, those allegations can damage a leader’s reputation and ability to lead. And some diverse individuals feel that they have spent years having to educate others and listen to rhetoric on diversity without seeing any real progress.
We also live in a time where the rules in the business world have changed. Early in my career, I remember being taught to leave my personal life at home, which is in direct conflict with the concept of being your authentic self. When I arrived at work, especially as a young woman, I had to be 100% professional to be taken seriously. Although #metoo was not a movement then, senior women spoke about the need to maintain a professional demeanor at all times to avoid ‘giving anyone the wrong idea,’ thereby creating uncomfortable situations and relationships that could develop into what we today would categorize under the #metoo movement. This is not to imply that the victim of inappropriate behavior is responsible for that behavior – it is just a reflection of how we were taught to behave when I started my legal career. Although the rules have changed, it is not always easy to know exactly how – there is still a line between professional and personal, and there is no clear guidebook on how to be your authentic self and what might be a bit ‘too authentic.’ Even without a rule book (and perhaps a rule book is no longer needed), we all must learn how to live in this new, more open world, and hopefully create a new paradigm for the workplace and our career that recognizes and hopefully nourishes the whole person.
There is much that law firms and corporations can do to enhance employee wellness. But there is so much more that we can do if we take control of our lives and our careers with a goal not of greater prestige or more money, but of personal joy and fulfillment – a career that feeds the whole person. I would like to use #CallingOnChristine to do just that. I am not an expert in mental health, wellness or diversity and inclusion, and especially in the diversity space, there are many voices out there with much more to say than me. And trust me, I have not done it perfectly. Many of my reflections in the past year have been on what I will do better as I move into my next chapter. In #CallingOnChristine, I am willing to share my own mistakes and learnings, and hopefully encourage dialogue on topics of personal growth, wellness and career development in forum outside of our law firms or corporations (because really, there are some conversations that it is hard to have with the people who are evaluating your performance, and continued employment).
I think of my writing as directed toward those who are new to an in house practice or looking to advance their careers, perhaps to the GC seat, or even a law firm associate or law student interested in moving in house. Hopefully, however, the concepts of wellness and having a holistic practice resonate also with those of us who already have built careers or may be considering a career transition.
So, here is how it works. Please submit your questions or topics of interest (or rambling thoughts), kind of like an old style advice column. (Just online, hipper and cooler, and having nothing to do with manners, dating or bossy relatives). Questions can be about career growth, personal development, charitable and community activity, networking, what keeps me as a GC up at night, or my thoughts on leadership, wellness or management. Obviously, use discretion – please do not name names or share confidential information. (If you know me, you know I am a stickler for protection of confidential information). And keep in mind that #CallingOnChristine should be a safe space, to encourage personal development, as well as dialogue and understanding. I cannot promise to address each and every question received, but will do my best to keep this interesting. You can also share your thoughts on topics I address – the more we all speak up about personal growth and wellness, the more likely it is to become a reality.
Until next time…