Nancy Gerrie is a partner in the Employee Benefits Practice Group at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, where she started her practice as a summer associate in 1987. She advises companies and individuals on employee benefit matters and speaks and writes frequently about employee benefit topics. Nancy was appointed Partner-in-Charge of the Chicago Office of the law Firm in 2010. Among the many initiatives that Nancy has developed inside and outside her Firm, Nancy has committed herself to improving gender diversity in large law firms. Under her leadership, McDermott has developed policies and initiatives designed to enhance diversity at the Firm and to hire, promote and retain the most talented lawyers. She has received the McDermott Mentor of the Year award for her efforts to enhance the environment for women within the Firm, and she is a strong supporter of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, working to foster involvement in the WBAI by the Firm’s women attorneys. She is an original member of the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Alliance (WLMA), an organization designed to bring professional women together to mentor and support leadership opportunities in Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. Nancy is the mother of two children, and speaks frequently about advancement of women in their careers.
Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” has become central to much of the discussion about what women should want from their careers and lives. Is the current discussion focusing on the right questions?
I must admit that I really agree with a lot of what Sheryl Sandberg has said. I think it’s important for women to show initiative, to put their hands up and, as she says, lean in. Those are the qualities that impress me as a senior partner in my law firm, and I look for those qualities in both men and women.
There are some who say that say women shouldn’t have to try harder than men, that that’s not a fair playing field for us. But I think women have to try harder. Everybody has to try harder. The people who become leaders are the ones who have stick-to-itiveness and perseverance. They believe in themselves and toot their own horns.
My father was my early role model. He was an attorney and general counsel at Morton Salt Co. He persevered. He went to work every morning; he rarely missed a day. His life was as regular as clockwork. My sister and I saw that as a model when we were growing up and it was impressive. He came home on the train every evening to be with his wife and kids but first thing the next morning he was on his way out the door and back to work. He never shirked his responsibility.
It’s very difficult for anyone to balance the demands of a fast-paced career with the other components of their lives. But if you are serious and committed about wanting to make your mark in your chosen career, you have to realize that you’re going to have to work hard.
It’s not something that’s handed to you. Of course there’s an element of luck and sometimes you’ll meet someone who had a plum client fall in her lap or he went to college with the head of General Motors or something. But those people are few and far between. The rest of us have to get there by perseverance and stamina.
You say that women may have to work harder than men in order to succeed and that’s a common belief among women who built careers in the latter half of the 20th century. But do find that the young women with whom you work and whom you mentor accept that as true?
I don’t think they believe all the workplace problems and challenges have been solved. But many of them do have a different emphasis in their careers: They’re more balanced. They want to make sure they have more time for the other things in their lives, which I admire.
I came up in the go-go 1980s when everyone was a workaholic and there were stories about women and men being at their family’s Thanksgiving dinner table for a half hour and then rushing back to their duties and their work. That’s not healthy. So I’m proud of younger women who have put boundaries around their lives.
At the same time, if you are coming up in your career and you don’t think you need to work harder than everyone else around you, you’re crazy. You have to work hard. And some people shouldn’t be in a profession that requires that level of commitment. Maybe they won’t enjoy it.
One thing I’ve learned that I try to pass on to my younger colleagues is that if you’re not having fun at what you do, I don’t think you’ll be happy over the long term. If there’s not at least an hour of the day where you’re having fun doing what you do, maybe you should consider another avenue where you’ll be happier. When you’re doing something that makes you happy, time flies, your stress goes down and you’re just healthier. Being happy in your work is one of the greatest gifts in the world.
Has your work always made you happy? Or did you have to find a balance between working hard and having fun?
My career path was a little unusual: I went to [Northwestern] law school after having been out of college for 10 years. I had one child when I started law school and a second child while I was in law school. So I had some perspective on that other life from the beginning and I believe it helped. There is nothing like coming home at the end of a day and having your children rush to the door saying, “Mommy’s home!” It is a completely refreshing experience. You use a different side of your brain with that life and it gives you perspective. Because of my circumstances I was forced to balance the rest of my career and my home life right off the bat.
What had you been doing during those 10 years after college?
I had a variety of very interesting jobs. I worked in publishing for a while as an editor in a college textbook company. I was a secretary; I was a sales rep; I worked for a financial planning company and I went to financial planning school at the end. A lot of my last classes there dealt with legal issues: estate planning, retirement planning and the like. I started getting fascinated by the legal aspects of what I was doing and that started me thinking about law school.
Even though my dad was a lawyer, I never expected to follow that path. I was an English major in college and was an artsy kid. But as I was out in the world for a few years I realized what lawyers do. I realized how cerebral it is and I became more and more interested. When I went to law school, I was surprised how many other liberal-arts major there were.
My real-world experience was a benefit. And it’s interesting that a lot of law schools are now reorienting their incoming classes along the lines that business schools have used for years and are recommending a few years of work after college before starting grad school.
What do you think were some of the benefits you gained?
Life skills. I knew how to work with staff because I had been a secretary myself for a year or so. I understood what they were going through and I knew better how to work with them in an office. I just had learned how to act with people in a business setting.
Clearly you moved up quickly in your legal career. What do you think you did right?
I think showing initiative is crucial. And that has become a real watchword for me over the past few years. It’s what I look for in young people; I think it’s what I showed when I started my career.
I had just started my law career in 1990 and then we had a recession in ’91. It was a scary time. Some of my colleagues were laid off and there was some down time for us all. I decided to use it to put together a list for my department’s attorneys of all the items that had come out of recent tax legislation. These were things that we needed to review for the pension documents that are crucial my practice area.
I sat down and looked through books and magazine articles and talked to senior partners and put together the list. I thought it was silly that the younger members didn’t have a road map for understanding the changes. I saw a need and stepped forward and said, “I think we should solve this problem.” That resulted in a checklist that my whole group used for several years. Looking around and seeing what needs to be fixed, even if it isn’t something handed to you, and then answering that need is really important.
I see it in a number of my young colleges. They’ll stop me in the hall or send me an email and say, “You know, Nancy, don’t you think we need X, Y or Z? Here’s how I think we can get that and I would like to head that initiative.” That really impresses me. That says you are going above and beyond the necessary.
Is taking the risk of saying “I will lead that” important, too?
Absolutely. It’s believing in yourself and saying, “I can do this. I can solve this problem” That’s important.
Don’t get me wrong because I feel the up-and-coming generation is fantastic, but if I have one quibble it’s that some of them say they want to be trained on something before they attempt to work on it. You give an assignment and they’ll say, “I don’t know how to do this. I haven’t been trained.” So many of us older people just jumped into the pool and did it.
Training is great and crucial and I’ve spent a lot of time with my firm on training initiatives. But it’s good to be able to have that faith in yourself that allows you to say, “Even though I haven’t been trained on this, I’m going to use my common sense and think through this problem. How would I take steps to solve this problem?” Even if you haven’t been given the blueprints for a solution, you have some thoughts of your own. Use your common sense to put together a proposal on how to solve the problem. That’s what lawyers do every day!
So I say initiative is the biggest attribute that I look for.
Is initiative an important component in leadership to your thinking?
It is, definitely. I have headed the Chicago office of my firm since 2010. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to step into this role. But once I did, I started thinking of all the things I’ve said that we need or that I said someone should do something about. I realized it was an opportunity to do all that and to establish those initiatives and reach out, build consensus and guide people in ways that make best use of their skills.
I believe a leader sees problems that need to be fixed and either constructs the solution herself or puts in place the team that can do so. I love organizing teams of people to work on new efforts. Kicking the ball and watching it roll down the hill and gather speed is fun to me.
Before you took charge of the office, did you have role models from whom you gained your leadership skills and manner?
I’ve taken a pretty different approach than my predecessors. Each one of them brought great skill sets to the job, but I think I’ve taken a different tack. What was inspirational were those people who believed in me over the years and who gave me good assignments and leadership opportunities. I have tried to emulate them by turning around and doing the same thing for the younger women and men who are coming up behind me.
The heads of my department, Al Nesburg and John Hendrickson, gave me a lot of leadership responsibility with clients. John handed me his largest client when he was asked to run our compensation committee. That was a real mark of respect and belief in my abilities and I was very appreciative. I’ve tried to do the same for younger attorneys. If I have a client with whom they are working hard, I try to make sure that I turn over a lot of the responsibility for client matters to them as I see they’re ready to handle it.
The predecessors you mention are both male. Do you think your leadership style is different in part because you’re female?
Yes, definitely. I’m more consensus oriented. I try to bring out the best in the younger people and I’m more emotionally intelligent as a woman. I can read people very well and figure out what’s motivating them.
I’m very good at putting people in positions where I know they will be motivated by one thing or another. Some are motivated by personal compensation and I can offer opportunities to maximize compensation. Others may be motivated by being able to lead a team, and I can detect that and put them in those leadership positions. For others it’s intellectual activities and becoming an expert that drives them and I can put those opportunities in their paths. Some are social and I can provide networking opportunities. That’s really fun.
If you reported to yourself how would you assess your motivation?
Furthering group achievement is very rewarding to me. I’m a rising-tides-floats-all-boats kind of person. I love to see others do well and to see them put in positions where their best attributes shine through.
I also love the intellectual side of practicing law. We’ve talked about leadership and management but I also have an active practice that I love. I like solving problems for my clients; communicating in a simple, concise way; and helping people understand sophisticated concepts by boiling them down to their essence. That’s fun for me.
It sounds like you feel you’re in the right position in the right place.
I would say so. One of the managing partners at my firm came to me at the end of 2009 and offered me the opportunity to run the Chicago office. I was having so much fun in my practice that I wasn’t expecting to be asked to take on a management role. I was taken aback.
Were you hesitant about making the change because you do enjoy your practice so much?
Yes, a bit. It’s hard to balance a full-time practice and this management role, but when I thought about it I decided, “Darn it, I think I could do a pretty good job.”