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Reflecting on Mr Wolf: The GC Soft Skills That Get Things Done

CEEIHM Issue 1.2.
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Artur Chrzanowski, Head of Legal at Eiffage Polska, shares his thoughts on the development of soft skills critical for a General Counsel.

“?”, “!”

A famous writer sent a manuscript to his publisher. He didn't get a reply for some time, so he sent his publisher a letter saying "?". The publisher quickly replied: "!".

You can list many soft skills that are important in our daily lives, in our legal, managerial, and all other roles, but communication is king. 

I know that we – lawyers – learn how to be great, eloquent speakers, how to convince others of our arguments, how to write beautiful, lengthy pleadings (which is especially nice when we are paid by hourly rates). Sometimes just “?” and “!” won’t be enough, but let’s try to find a sweet balance between the comprehension of our expression and its condensation. A receiver will appreciate it. What are my tips?

Concentration. During meetings (I have to plan well), I keep my phone on mute and sometimes try to be offline with my mailbox, so that I am not distracted by new messages, and I focus on the interlocutor and on what he wants to tell me. It would be a waste of our time to recreate the same information again, so I try to capture it the first time around.

Listening. Only by listening may I learn more than I have known so far. I try not to interrupt someone else's speech, but let the interlocutor feel that I am listening carefully and with interest. I refrain from prejudices, judgments, and criticism.

Asking Questions and Paraphrasing. Finding the point. I try to find out what is going on, what the problem is, and how I can help in solving it. It is my role to understand it well, so I feel free to ask questions, even if they seem funny. I paraphrase what I have just heard to make sure that's what it was about. Sometimes I take notes.

Structuring. Before starting to write anything (or while preparing a speech or presentation) I spend some time thinking about what and how (and in which order) I would like to write or present. As with everything else, the more time I spend preparing, the better I do later. 

Precision. I try to provide answers in a language that is understandable to the recipient. This is easier if I am talking to someone from the industry in which I work. I avoid linguistic ornaments, pleonasms, and tautologies.

Simplification. Apparently, if we cannot explain something the way a child understands, we do not understand it ourselves. Consequently, when explaining, I try to adjust the detail of information to the knowledge and needs of my interlocutor. If I see such a need, I assume that my interlocutor knows nothing about the matter. I prefer short sentences to long ones. When writing, I like to use bullet points.

Summary. In the case of a longer statement, I try to summarize it briefly.

Finally, when emailing, I pay attention to addressing precisely and indicating a subject. Thanks to this I avoid spamming and difficulties in finding my correspondence on a given topic later. By indicating the subject I may draw the recipient in, to read the rest.

Knowing the above, I can also help my colleagues develop their communication skills – It will benefit them and me. And I remember that advice from Mark Twain: “If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” 

“I’m Winston Wolf. I solve problems.” 

Do you remember Mr. Wolf from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, played by Harvey Keitel? An excellent example of a problem-solver, he leads Jules, Vincent, and Jimmie to get the job done efficiently. His leadership and persuasion skills, and time and stress-management mastery, pushed the teamwork of the other characters to a higher level. A dream boss! And he drove an Acura NSX!

But you wouldn't be reading this if you were Mr. Wolf or if Mr. Wolf were your boss, right?

Problem-solving orientation requires a certain level of experience. Passion and engagement could be of some help, but, without a solid track record, it's hard to know what the best way is to reach your goal. First, you have to assess what your objective is, which again depends on your communication skills. Do you know the feeling when you have a great solution but have to wait for someone else's decision? Because I know it. We will never be efficient in solving problems if we do not have autonomy in them, or if we are not able to reach the decision-maker quickly.

Chauncey Gardner said “I like watching,” as he gained his experience from observation, from watching TV. Observing people who are more experienced than us is a good solution, but it is worth supporting with practice, even on our smaller scale. It will bear fruit for us.

“Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?”

Paul Gauguin (it's always a good idea to recall the name of a French artist if you work in a French company) summed up human existence in his painting with the above title. In this crazy, rushing world, time becomes a real luxury, and self-reflection assumed a greater value, without which it is difficult to develop self-awareness.

We can only know ourselves by reflecting on ourselves through others’ eyes and by introspection. Knowing our own values, strengths, weaknesses, feelings, and behaviors we can experience our own personality. Does it matter? For me, yes, as thanks to this I can be happier and derive greater satisfaction from my work and relationships. Interesting supporting tools that I use are the Hogan tests, Facet 5, or Insights, but the simplest feedback from colleagues or annual appraisals are very valuable. For hygiene and balance, I like to ask others what they think about what I said, did, or write – I think it builds my self-confidence and self-control (even if I am criticized).

What is critical thinking about? It’s about a rational approach, the ability to recognize and understand connections, the ability to evaluate the importance of arguments, to establish and justify one’s reasoning, and to argue and defend one’s position.

It is worth paying attention to: 

  • getting to know your own strengths and weaknesses and understanding their impact or influence on the decisions you need to make 
  • obtaining the necessary information from various sources, including possible scenarios and the effects of their implementation, and evaluating them
  • evaluating the results, thanks to which subsequent decisions will be more accurate.

Here's a little test to see whether you are thinking critically: How often do you take in other people's opinions? Isn't it better to be curious and make your own decisions?

“It’s easy if you try”

Would you agree with John Lennon? What is certain is that you won't do anything if you do not even try.

How does one succeed in developing soft skills? Well, I don't know the secret recipe, but I can tell you how I try.

A lot depends on me. I like people and I feel great job satisfaction working as an in-house lawyer. I talk and listen a lot and naturally work on developing my communication skills. I am happy when I can share with my colleagues insights that help them grow, as far as communication, problem-solving, self-awareness, or similar skills are concerned. I know that thanks to this, my work will also be better and more pleasant because it is more effective to work with professionals. That's why I'm not greedy and selfish like Ebenezer Scrooge (well, maybe a bit malignant sometimes, but – as Jack Lemmon’s character heard in Some Like It Hot – “nobody’s perfect”), and I like to share my experiences.

I believe that the path of personal development leads to the implementation of more and more difficult tasks, which is why I engage my colleagues in more and more complex projects, supporting them with advice if needed. I am very happy with the achievements of my team and I like to highlight the individual achievements of my colleagues. 

I am happy to work for a company with values – exemplarity, responsibility, trust, transparency, lucidity, courage, and pugnacity – that are also mine. Transforming them into internal initiatives, such as mentoring programs, the creation of the so-called “shadow management committee,” internally-prepared training programs (like contract management or business excellence), all support and enhance the development of my colleagues and myself.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of the topic, which, perhaps, amused you a little bit, or maybe it encouraged you to think about which soft skills are important for you, which of them you would like to develop, and how.

Ok, so “?”.

This article was published in issue 1.2 of CEE In-House Matters. The full edition is available here in pdf format, here in e-reader format, and here in electronic format.

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