In an increasingly digital world, crafting the perfect email is sometimes the most effective way to get somebody’s attention. So why are they so rarely sent?
Often emails are too long, too confusing, or just poorly structured. Messages like this are often overlooked – and if your subject line isn’t convincing enough, they may not even be opened. On the other hand, a simple and direct missive may be your ticket to success.
Both Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review offer articles with helpful tips about proper email etiquette: the former urges the 5-sentence format to make your email more concise, while the latter provides some format quick tricks that produce a more convincing message. Curious? You can read them here and here.
Recently named Managing Shareholder at Mackie Shea O’Brien, Michelle O’Brien handles environmental and land use permitting and related litigation for various types of development including residential homes, commercial buildings, waterfront properties, wind turbines, and solid waste facilities. She defends companies in environmental enforcement matters at the federal, state, and local levels. She also handles claims and transactions involving contaminated properties. Prior to joining the firm, Michelle was a Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General in both the Environmental Protection Division and the Trial Division. At the BBA, Michelle served on the Council from 2009-2012 and the Executive Committee from 2010-2012. She has been a member of the Environmental Law Section since 2002 and served as its Co-Chair from 2006-2008. Michelle is also an appointed member of MassDEP’s Waste Site Cleanup Advisory Committee; a member of New England Women in Real Estate; and a founding member of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Society for Women Environmental Professionals.
1. As the managing shareholder of a boutique firm, how do you execute decisions effectively and diplomatically?
I just assumed the role of managing shareholder on July 1st so I haven’t had to execute any significant decisions yet! However, I hope to practice what I preach and always be respectful and open to listening to ideas that may differ from my own. I want to convey through my words and actions that my decisions are made with the best interest of the firm in mind.
2. What are unique aspects of being a leader in environmental law?
I have found that the environmental bar in Boston is relatively small – most environmental lawyers know each other or at least know of one another. One’s reputation is key, maybe even more so than for other lawyers. It is really important to treat colleagues and opposing counsel with respect and to do a good job in everything you do.
3. How do you establish yourself as a leader in the ranks of a nonprofit organization?
It’s been said numerous times, but it is really true that the best way to get value out of a membership in an organization is to join a committee and get involved. If you are interested in a leadership position, make it known through your words and actions. When I left the attorney general’s office and went into private practice to re-enter the field of environmental law, I immediately got involved in the BBA. I attended brown bag lunches and CLEs, and the next thing you know, I was speaking on the panels of CLEs and chairing a committee of the Environmental Law Section. I went on to chair CLE programs and become the Section co-chair. I was elected to the BBA Council and served on the Executive Committee as well as several ad hoc committees and task forces. I am really proud to have established myself as a BBA leader; it has been invaluable.
4. Are there particular behaviors or actions that leaders should categorically avoid doing? What?
Leaders should try to avoid rushing to judgment or jumping to conclusions. Certainly a leader may have a good idea of – or even know – what his or her decision or position will be in a given situation, but it is important for the leader to listen to different points of view and be open to differences of opinion. Leaders must always be respectful.
Have you ever promised a contact that you would follow up, provide information, or otherwise communicate with them on a certain date, only to realize somewhat guiltily the next day that you have neglected to do so? Maybe you forgot to put it in your calendar, or maybe you didn’t have whatever information you expected – but for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen.
It may not seem like a huge problem at the time, particularly if you reach out not long after you promised you would, but being reliable and prompt goes straight to your credibility. Everybody is busy, but the person or persons at the other end of your line of communication can’t read minds and won’t know why you haven’t answered them – and may think you simply flaked.
The best way to become a leader is to have others entrust you with critical tasks and then prove that you can handle them; likewise, as a leader, it’s important to maintain your commitments.
Bill Sinnott serves as the Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston. In representing the City, Bill’s clients include the Mayor, all City Departments, including the Police and Fire Departments, and the Boston City Council. He oversees the Law Department and a staff of approximately sixty attorneys, paralegals and administrators. Bill was previously an Assistant District Attorney and then an Assistant United States Attorney and prosecuted narcotics, gang, and money laundering cases for the New England Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. At the BBA, he served as a Council member from 2009-2012, and has been a part of the Diversity & Inclusion Section, the Joint Audit Committee, and several selection committees.
How do you manage the stress of working in a government environment with political pressures?
First of all, you have to be comfortable with chaos. Government lawyers, especially those in a position similar to a general counsel, engage in a lot of legal crisis management, and dealing with the political side of the job is just part of that. It helps when you have clients that understand your role and the constraints of the law and legal ethics. I am fortunate to work for a chief executive who values lawyers and understands what lawyers do. That has lessened any political pressure I might feel. When all’s said and done, you have to make decisions based on the law coupled with the best interests of your client. That means not always providing answers your clients want to hear, but you’ve got to do your job.
In this business, friction is a constant. It may be more apparent at some times than others, but there’s always an undercurrent of conflict. We can’t make everyone happy, and you have to remind yourself of who the client is. That makes decisions somewhat easier. So long as you stand by your legal responsibilities and the decisions that flow from those, you’re going to be in the right and have the confidence of knowing you’re doing your job.
What are some of the most critical leadership dos and don’ts?
The most important leadership trait or ‘do’ is to lead by example. You can’t expect your personnel to do things that you wouldn’t do. Frankly, as the leader of a legal operation, your expectations of yourself should be even higher. Beyond that, consistency in how you deal with people is essential. Employees and staff may not like a particular directive or practice that’s put to them, but if they understand it’s being applied consistently and is devoid of any personal animus, then they will accept it and perform.
As far as “don’ts” — never lose your temper in front of your staff and attorneys, never embarrass anyone publicly, and treat your staff the way you’d want to be treated.
Why is it important for you to volunteer your time and experience to an organization like the bar association?
I learned soon after I assumed my current position as Corporation Counsel that the BBA and the City had a longstanding partnership. This was evident in many forms, but most apparent in the large number of community service programs managed by the BBA in which the focus was the city of Boston, especially Boston Public School children. It was easy for me to become involved with the BBA, and as I became more involved, I came to appreciate even more the role that this organization plays in the bar and the community in Boston. Plus, it’s a terrific group of people. I’ve really enjoyed working on the BBA Council, the Committee on Legal Services for Veterans, the Audit Committee, Diversity Committee, and other groups where everyone seemed to be devoting a lot of their personal time and professional talent towards some very worthy goals. The great thing is that there are people with very different outlooks, political perspectives, and very different practice areas – yet under the umbrella of the BBA’s efforts, they come together and work together and enjoy working together for a common good. The BBA was the vehicle for this collective effort, and that’s why I’ll continue to stay involved. It’s a great feeling to be part of an organization that embraces that collaborative effort. Finally, it’s allowed me to meet legal professionals whom I probably would not have dealt with in the course of my duties for the City, and I’ve become friends and admirers of many of them.
In particular, I think the BBA has a special role in teaching the ropes to younger lawyers, and I’m thrilled at the efforts that the BBA has made on behalf of law students and aspiring attorneys because that’s the future of the bar in the greater Boston community. And we’ve had some talented young lawyers and students looking for that direction and the signal from those of us who have been practicing for these many years that they are valued and their input is welcome. The BBA has taken on that responsibility and really excelled at it.
Christina Miller is Chief of District Courts and Community Prosecutions for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, where she oversees the office’s operations in the Boston Municipal and District Courts, manages the hiring and training of Assistant District Attorneys, and supervises hate crime prosecutions. Christina is a member of the BBA Council and Co-Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Section, as well as a member and former Co-Chair of the BBA’s Criminal Law Section, during which time she organized a number of BBA programs, represented the BBA on the Governor’s Anti-Crime Council, and contributed to the Boston Bar Journal. Christina is an Ex Officio Chair for the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association and served on its board for six years.
As a leader, how do you manage frequent demands for your time? How do you prioritize?
I constantly triage what deadline is coming next, or the issue that is the hottest to deal with at the moment. I make lots of lists! I should probably learn how to say no better, but I don’t. All of the things I do are really labors of love, and that makes it easier to find the time to do what I enjoy doing. I particularly enjoy working with the Mayor’s Youth Council and the Boston Debate League through the BBA because I get to connect with young people in Boston and watch the growth of our future leaders. That excites me a great deal and really pushes me to fit in that time for mentoring and shaping the future of our city. I love my job and the work we do with District Attorney Conley in supervising young ADA’s, protecting the public, and ensuring justice is done the right way. I also love the work we do in the BBA’s Diversity & Inclusion section in trying to help those who are shaping the future of the legal profession. Diversity is so important to expand who we are so that the law expands with us, and so that we think in new and potentially nontraditional ways. All these efforts are truly important to me.
Going into a new leadership position, how do you evaluate the organization’s needs and assess how you will help to make those happen?
You want to do a lot of listening to a lot of people. You have to view an organization as a whole being, and in order to know the direction of an organization or a mission or a new idea, you have to get a full scope of that being. That means talking and listening to the people who are on the ground, the people who have dealt with this issue in the past – while being careful not to limit yourself to their visions or old habits or compartmentalization of what they think it has been. But you need to know an organization’s history in order to shape the future, and you need to know everybody’s perspective and their roles – not just the roles they’ve been playing, but the roles they could potentially play. You want to assess strengths and fit people into the areas where they can be the strongest. Just because somebody’s not performing the way they should doesn’t mean they do not have value; it could be they’re not in the right position. You have to keep an open mind and conduct a needs assessment for the whole organization, as well as for individuals, and see how everybody fits within the whole.
And sometimes, you just need to step back. Often I think people come in headstrong with tons of ideas and want to implement their vision right away; this can be dangerous. You really have to get the full picture, which requires a step back to see, before stepping forward and potentially painting a new picture or adding to the current.
Do you have any advice about leadership that seems counter-intuitive at first? What?
There are different types of leaders, and it is limiting to imagine that a leader is only a person who comes in and implements their vision. I think the best leaders know how to grow other leaders and how to share credit and bring up those who have grown, as well as fostered those who are struggling. Sometimes we get into a mentality where we think leadership is just a singular focused endeavor, that it’s just about the leader’s future and their ‘mark,’ but really it’s much more about being a servant – and that might be counter-intuitive. A servant-leader to an organization is a servant to its people and whoever the organization serves, and so we have to redefine leadership as someone who is truly at service and a servant to those whom they lead. It’s not a triangle or top-down mentality, it’s the mindset of, “we’re all in this together and all have different roles.”
You also sometimes need the leader who says, “This is what we’re doing, everybody get in line” and who makes the final decision. It can be the servant-leader, who makes the decision while assessing the needs of group – because they’re the ones who are going to implement it.
4. What haven’t we asked that’s critical to your conception of leadership?
One of the most critical aspects to leadership that I didn’t realize was important when I started to become more of a manager was confidence. The only way to get confident is do the best you can and learn from your mistakes. In order to make mistakes, you have to take risks and sit with those risks. If you’ve done your homework, risks become a little less risky; but ultimately, when the buck stops with you, it’s your decision. Through taking risks, succeeding, and sometimes failing, you gain confidence. The more decisions you make, the more you learn what you did well versus not as well, and I think it’s so important to recognize the value of that and learn from whatever comes after taking risks.
The other big thing is not worrying about what people think about you. Not everybody’s going to like you, so you just have to accept it and say “what I did, I did with good intentions, I thought it was the right thing at the time – and maybe it didn’t end up right or maybe it did, but at least I took the risk.” Be kind to yourself when you do make mistakes, learn from them, and move on to new growth opportunities.
Perhaps more than ever, the idea of company or corporate culture has gained traction as a critical aspect of any organization, whether in terms of hiring, mergers & acquisitions, or internal productivity. A quick Google search will bring up pages of articles with titles like “A Look at the Corporate Culture of [XYZ]” or “The Importance of Company Culture.” There is no one definition of company culture, but it is loosely defined by the Business Dictionary as “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.”
But perhaps the biggest influence on corporate culture is the ‘why’ that drives it – specifically, why does the organization exist, what is its purpose, and why should anybody care?
This is a piece of the puzzle that sometimes goes missing because it is easy to get caught up in the trappings of corporate – the basic “what do we do” of the organization. As a mission statement and the encapsulation of an organization, it’s not particularly inspiring, but collections of phrases like this often become the default answer to defining a particular corporate culture because these surface details are the easiest to access and explain, so they are typically what we use. But is that the most effective way to communicate a corporate culture, especially one that will inspire confidence in others, differentiate you from the pack, and allow you to lead in your field?
There is a key flaw in this method of thinking, which Simon Sinek analyzes in his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” He explains that while most people think in terms of the surface details, great innovators and leaders think from the inside out – that is, they start at the ‘why’ of their organization and build out from there, which presents a much more convincing, worthwhile, and inspiring culture. He cites Apple as a frequent example, saying:
“If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Want to buy one?” “Meh.” And that’s how most of us communicate…We say what we do, we say how we’re different or how we’re better, and we expect some sort of a behavior, a purchase, a vote, something like that. “Here’s our new law firm: We have the best lawyers with the biggest clients, we always perform for our clients who do business with us.”….But it’s uninspiring. Here’s how Apple actually communicates: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Totally different.”
We all know how successful Apple is and what a loyal following they have; it is due to the time and effort they took to cultivate the identity of their brand, which is indeed based on thinking “outside the box.” In the words of Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
He goes on to explain the biology of the human brain that drives this, but rather than paraphrasing the entire talk, we definitely suggest you check the entire video yourself. We would only add that as a leader, it’s just as important to think “outside the box” when helping to define and promote a corporate culture, and instead of getting caught up in the “what” of your brand or organization, it is critical to success to address the “why” first.
Navjeet Bal is a member of Nixon Peabody’s Public Finance group. She was formerly the Commissioner of Revenue for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a post she was appointed to in February 2008 by Governor Patrick. She is also a Board member of the Federation of Tax Administrators. Prior to her appointment, Navjeet practiced at Mintz Levin for 17 years, where she co-founded Mintz’s Domestic Violence Project. Navjeet is on the BBA Council and is a member of the BBA Executive Committee and Annual Meeting Steering Committee. She is a Board member of the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and was appointed in February 2010 by Chief Justice Marshall to the Access to Justice Commission. Navjeet is a member of the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston Advisory Board and was a 2008 recipient of the National South Asian Bar Association’s Cornerstone Award.
How do you think a leader can most effectively explore and manage in areas outside their primary professional responsibilities?
I was an attorney for 17 years at Mintz Levin until 2007 and was then appointed the Commissioner of Revenue by Deval Patrick, so I was in charge of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. At the time, I didn’t know much about state tax laws, and I inherited a department of about 2000 employees, about 1400 of whom were tax administrators who were very experienced and very knowledgeable. I dealt with that experience by educating myself – I would stay late and read the Massachusetts Tax Code. I also asked questions, and I very much empowered and encouraged those more knowledgeable than I was to speak up – I had no ego issue with that, which is really important for a leader. I was the department head and people knew that, but I was more than willing to let others have their voices heard. A mixture of intelligence, humor, and humility is necessary. That will help to bring out the best in others, and no one can do any job alone.
In terms of extracurricular, service-oriented areas, you need to find causes and projects that you’re passionate about, otherwise you won’t be compelled to make the time to do it. You also need focus – I’ve learned that if it’s not where I want to be, it’s not something to take on. In the end, it’s not as much time as you might think, and you need that break to focus on the issues you care about. I try to keep in touch with the legal services community because that’s something that means a lot to me – it’s all about access to justice.
What advice would you give to those looking to start and promote a major project, such as the Domestic Violence Project you helped to found?
First, you need to be aware that you won’t know everything or have all the skills, but other people might – it’s important to build a network of those who do. The other part of it is to be smart about how a pro bono project benefits not just those it is aiming to assist, but those actually doing it. I think pro bono projects are great for the service that they provide, but also because it promotes cohesion and unity within a firm – and for younger lawyers especially, it’s really important for them to feel that they’re making a difference; so don’t lose sight of how a project helps all parties involved, including the institution. Last, you need to be respectful of the provider community and build alliances with them – don’t think you know more than them or can do their job better than them, because you don’t and you can’t.
How do you continue to grow and develop yourself as a leader?
Most of it is looking for new challenges that force you outside your comfort zone. My skills are in the organizational level, so I look for roles that will utilize those but still present something a little different.
4. Anything else to add?
In leadership, it’s important to have different voices to create a diversity of viewpoints. Bringing disparate voices together – not just in race and gender, but overall different perspectives – is what encourages true progress.
Recently, we stumbled across this article on the Harvard Business Review blog. The post emphasizes the value placed on inspirational leadership, what inspiring leaders do, and how they do it. We certainly don’t want to give too much away and spoil the article — but we do have some questions, and we hope other readers would agree!
At the end of the piece, the authors start to go in a very interesting direction: can leaders become more inspirational through effort and self-improvement? Is the capacity to be inspirational an innate or learned trait? Their research suggests that it can be the latter: in a focus group of 310 executives who attempted to improve their inspirational abilities, they collectively moved “from the 42nd percentile (that is, below average) to the 70th percentile.”
Positive news, certainly – but what has provoked our curiosity is the conclusion of the article, which, in referring to improvement in inspirational abilities, says: “This is a statistically significant positive gain, and compelling evidence that when leaders use the right approach they can learn to become more inspiring. In other words, with awareness, good feedback, and a plan of development, leaders are able to improve this most important of all leadership competencies.”
This made us wonder: what is that “right approach?” What exactly did these leaders do to become more inspiring – what areas did they alter, how did they change their approach, and what did their ‘plan of development’ entail?
As ever, Tipping the Scales would like to know what you think. In your opinion, how does someone become more inspirational? What has to change?
“That person is a born leader” – does the phrase sound familiar? For most, it is a casual figure of speech; for academics at the Arizona State University, it could be the literal truth.
The research of David Waldman, a management professor at the university, and his team has studied the neurological patterns of successful leaders – entrepreneurs, CEO’s, and various others – and found certain measurable physical features of the brains’ electrical activity in common across the board. For example, according to the research findings, “subjects rated “inspirational” by their employees generate high levels of coherence in the right frontal part of the brain, which is responsible for interpersonal communication and social relationships.”
What does this mean from the ground? To start, the early conclusions could indicate that if these results can be artificially replicated in the brain, then leadership responses thought processes can be learned. Waldman and his colleagues are already formulating neurofeedback-based leadership training, which could turn out to be a much more effective way of developing and educating better, more plentiful leaders.
Another question to think about is whether there are ‘leaders’ who display this electrical activity and ‘non-leaders’ who do not; and how definitive might these results be at predicting who would and wouldn’t make a good leader?
As always, Tipping the Scales welcomes constructive feedback. What do you think about these findings? Are you convinced by this relationship between neuroscience and leadership?
Over the last couple of years, this TED talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, about the paradoxical power of vulnerability made huge waves on the Internet, catapulting it to popularity as one of the most viewed videos on the website. By now, TED lists it in their playlist of “classic” videos. The talk focuses on the roadblocks to interpersonal connections created by shame and fear; the relationship between self-worth, courage, and vulnerability in establishing connections; and the problematic tendency to numb vulnerability.
If you are skeptical about how applicable this might be to leadership, consider this: one of the most frequently cited skills of a great leader is his or her ability to connect and communicate with others. In a recent forum through Inc.com, Brown translated some of her original ideas into a more pragmatic setting. Her target was to bust four common myths about the role of vulnerability in leadership:
Vulnerability is a weakness.
You can opt out of vulnerability.
Vulnerability means “letting it all hang out.”
A person can go it alone.
To read her explanations negating these myths, you can find the article here.
You may have noticed we have a live comment box, so feel free to sound off! Is this a valid connection? Does vulnerability have a place in leadership? If so, how much?