Elena Kraus, Divisional Vice President of Commercial Legal Services for Walgreen Co., and Bill Cleaver, Director of Discovery Services for Huron Legal, discussed leadership strategies and how to build a high-performing team.
Bill Cleaver: I’d like to focus on your leadership style now. How would you say your background and personal journey have influenced your leadership?
Elena Kraus: I think that being in-house has definitely impacted how I see the role of the lawyer and how I lead my lawyers, because as an attorney in-house, you get very close to the business and you begin to understand business goals and needs. So I very much promote the understanding of business goals for the group that I lead and encourage my team to develop a focus on client service and the importance of developing relationships with our business clients. And another aspect of being in-house is giving people greater responsibility early on in their careers and letting them run with things, being there to support and teach but not necessarily to direct. I think that over time, my role has evolved from being less a manager and administrator to more of a strategist and a mentor and in some ways a coach, somebody who is there to help lead a high-performing team.
I know that you have a real passion for developing, nurturing and inspiring high-performing legal teams. So what makes a high-performing legal team?
To me, a high-performing team combines functional competency, outstanding client relations and an appreciation of the business goals and needs. The team must stay on top of the latest developments in the legal field and have an ability to work seamlessly as a team as well as individually as contributors for the single purpose of delivering excellent legal services. Collaboration among the team members is also very important, particularly in an organization our size where there is a lot of lawyers and other legal professionals of various interests, backgrounds and levels of expertise. Our ability to leverage our varying talents to bring a comprehensive legal services deliverable to the business is what makes us or any excellent legal team a high-performing team. Also, as clients are frequently under pressure in a performance and revenue-producing culture, they have little patience for advice that is overly complicated or academic. So it’s a combination of timeliness, relevance and practicality in delivering the legal services that makes the product of a high-performing legal team very valuable.
So what are some of the challenges of building an effective team?
I think that most people will agree that finding the right candidates is paramount. There is a lot of very smart, well-educated and competent people out there, but it’s about getting someone who is self-motivated and driven to perform at a high level. Also, it is essential to bring on people who will have the right cultural fit to the organization. Culture is key, and I’ve seen it in my own experience that if the environment is not a good fit to the individual, the arrangement will not work long-term and both the team member and the group will be unhappy. Once you do find the skilled and motivated performer with the right fit to the organization, it is then seeking out the right opportunities for that person to grow, develop and shine in their profession. Finally, I think it is imperative to take the time to understand each team member’s strengths and build on those while working on strengthening their developmental opportunities,
I know that career development is always an important issue for in-house corporate legal departments. How do you recognize potential leaders in your organization, and are there specific attributes that you’re looking for?
Up-and-coming leaders are pretty easy to spot. They are people who do not wait to be asked to do something. When they see a specific need or issue that needs to be addressed, they are the ones who speak up and suggest solutions. They are people who are results-oriented and who take responsibility for their work and hold themselves and others accountable. Leaders are also creative thinkers who will look for new ways to solve problems. They are also people who like to interact with others and who welcome new and challenging assignments. The up-and-coming leaders are people who will say, “What else can I do?” And then find ways to contribute to the team.
So how do you provide incentives for your best performers?
With tight corporate budgets, you’re always watching the bottom line so you have to look for creative ways to motivate and reward the outstanding performance. But I find that monetary rewards are not always the best way to motivate people. Of course, we all want to be well compensated for what we do, but beyond the monetary rewards, people are looking for other, less tangible ways to feel appreciated. It is therefore very important as I mentioned to take the time to really know and understand your people and what makes them “tick” in order to find the right ways to nurture and reward them. There are some people who may want a little extra time off after a particularly challenging project, others who would like to pursue advanced studies or have an opportunity to attend professional conferences to grow their skills, or it may be that they would appreciate a token of a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant that shows you are paying attention to their lives outside of work. Ultimately, I think people are motivated by working in an environment where their manager knows them well enough to offer the type of incentive that resonates with them and their unique interests and goals.
"I think that being in-house has definitely impacted how I see the role of the lawyer and how I lead my lawyers, because as an attorney in-house, you get very close to the business and you begin to understand business goals and needs."
Speaking of continuing education, what role do you think that plays in developing top-notch performers?
People who want to grow and develop in their profession and who are achievement-oriented very much appreciate when their employer invests in them. I have found that supporting educational opportunities for the highest performers goes a long way in motivating and encouraging them. A couple of years ago, our company launched Walgreens University, which is an internal educational organization providing team members with on-campus training opportunities. Wag U offers classes to a broad spectrum of employees – in everything from time and project management skills to exceptional leadership programs. As legal professionals, we constantly strive to improve our skills and stay on top of all the latest developments – that is a given. But beyond that technical legal expertise, we also have to build on our business and people skills in order to develop business acumen and confidence as overall legal advisors to the business.
So when building a strong, high-performing team, how important is diversity to the effectiveness of that team?
I think that’s very important and it’s really not necessarily always race- or gender-based. What I most appreciate about my team is the team members’ diversity of thought and experience. You get much better results and decisions from having input from a group of people offering different perspectives. As a leader, I find myself challenged by them and we have the best discussions when we share our viewpoints freely. As a retail- and healthcare-focused organization, Walgreens has a very wide and diverse client base. Whether they’re customers at our stores or on-line, or consumers of legal services at the corporate offices – the population is not homogenous. In order to serve the client base most effectively, we have to reflect that composition within our groups. For providing best in class legal services, I want a legal team that is comprised of people of various backgrounds who can relate to any client. For client relations and an outstanding deliverable, I think diversity is key.
What advice would you offer to others as they look to develop and nurture their own teams?
As a people leader, you have to get to know your team members not only as professionals but as people and understand what motivates them, what excites them and what difficulties they may have. It’s important to appreciate their differences and the unique contributions that they bring to the team. I know that this may sound a little odd, but I always tell my team that I may not treat you equally, but I will treat you fairly because you come from different points in your career development and in your life. And my goal is to understand you and help you along in your journey, just as people have helped me along in mine. Those are the kinds of things that I appreciated the most from my leaders growing up as a lawyer and as a person.
Elena Kraus began her law career at DLA Piper (f/k/a Rudnick & Wolfe) in Chicago. She joined Walgreens in 1991 as an attorney in the Law Department, specializing in real estate transactions. In 1997, she expanded her practice to include information technology and e-commerce transactions as a senior attorney and became Director of Commercial Transactions and Intellectual Property Law in 2006. Elena was promoted to her current position as Divisional Vice-President and Assistant General Counsel of Commercial Legal Services Group in 2013. She is a graduate of DePaul University College of Law, J.D., and the University of Texas at Austin, B.A. in Government.