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From Tipping the Scales: Learning from Leadership – Deborah Manus

Deborah J. Manus is co-managing partner of Nutter, McClennen & Fish and a member of the Firm’s Executive Committee. She focuses her practice on estate and trust administration and estate planning for high net worth individuals and families. At the Boston Bar Association, she is a member of the Trusts and Estates Steering Committee and serves as one of two representatives on the ad hoc committee formed by the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Women’s Bar Association to recommend proposed revisions to the Commonwealth’s current elective share legislation. She previously served on the Steering Committee of the Boston Bar Association’s Annual Law Day Dinner and co-chaired the Steering Committee for the Boston Bar Association’s 2012 Annual Meeting. Deb is also a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows and the Society of Fellows Committee. She is a member of the Boston Probate and Estate Planning Forum.

1.      How do you facilitate consensus in the face of controversy or general push-back against what you’re trying to accomplish?

The first thing you have to do is really listen to what people are saying. This helps you identify the common ground– and define the real areas of disagreement. It can also be helpful to try to frame the areas of the disagreement differently: using different vocabulary and avoiding “charged” language can be very effective. It can also make a real difference to take the problem out of the ‘big room’ and talk to the parties involved one-on-one. People feel more comfortable being honest like this, and you can see where they’re really coming from and what really matters to them, which can make it easier to work out a compromise. If, as a leader, you ask someone, “Can you help me? I need your help to understand this issue,” people tend to respond positively — people like being asked what they think. Finally, always be respectful. If you are respectful of all sides, you’ll have the respect of all sides. In the end, you’re working on relationships, and oftentimes, especially within the same organization, the parties all basically want the same thing; sometimes it’s a matter of remembering that.

2.      In your experience, how can someone ‘get noticed’ enough, or what can someone do to get noticed, in order to be asked to hold leadership positions?

To start, you need to show up to whatever it is you’re going to be involved in and really be there. It’s not enough just to be present, either: be genuinely interested in the topic, whatever it happens to be, and you have to prepare, prepare, prepare. After that, you need to participate. If you prepare enough, you’ll have something worthwhile to say, which will give you the confidence to participate even if you’re shy. Once you’ve shown that your input is valuable, people will start asking you what you think, or they’ll ask you to take on something. When they do so, you make it your mission to do an absolutely fabulous job; then they’ll ask you to do something else, and the cycle continues as you eventually rise into leadership.

In short, you have to care, show up, prepare, participate, and always do a great job. Another tip: always be yourself, because it’s easier to market the genuine product.

3.      What have you learned in your progress as a leader that you would share with those just starting out?

I’ve learned that you have to let go of preconceptions of what leadership looks like. There are lots of different ways to be an effective leader – everyone has the ability to be a leader and everyone’s leadership style is going to be different.  For me, the focus has to be conduct. A leader is someone whose conduct and behaviors make him or her effective at moving groups forward.

Mentorship ties into this. I have had many fantastic mentors and I have learned a lot from watching how they lead. My mentors taught me that leaders are great listeners, fair, devoted to carrying out “the mission” (whatever that happens to be), open to new ideas, consistent in their conduct in a way that inspires trust, and they have a vision that they are tireless in implementing. I also think the best leaders leave a little space for themselves. I attribute my own style, which is very consensus-based, to my mentors. It’s really crucial to invest in the next generation, and I feel like I owe it to my mentors to try to “pay it forward.”


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