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Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, speaks to Pierre Gentin in this edition of “As the Leader.”
Q. How did you get into the field of law?
A. I studied the humanities in college and thought seriously about getting a PhD in English and becoming a professor. But, toward the end of college, I decided to go to law school. My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, was going off to law school, and I felt that it would make sense for us to be on a track where our lives were relatively lined up together.
Q. You have such wide-ranging interests. In the conversations we’ve had, you draw on poetry, music lyrics and philosophy in your answers. How have all those interests made you a more effective general counsel?
A. I view things as interrelated and interdisciplinary. I don’t draw hard distinctions between business, the arts, philosophy and law—they’re all related. The law is a human process with many conceptual and operational aspects. So, what makes human beings fascinating and want to do great things—to be creative, aspirational people—is equally true in the legal context and the business world.
I do look for connections between disciplines that allow for different lenses on an issue or a problem that we’re trying to tackle. There’s a phrase you often hear these days, about “bringing your whole self to work.” I’ve always felt that’s part of being an effective professional.
The way I look at it, there’s an incredible breadth of inspiring and useful inputs out there if we choose to be open to them and to access them. As a supplement to traditional legal and business sources and thinking, an idea from Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, or Zelda Fitzgerald can add another dimension. When you take ideas from lots of different sources, you end up with a broader solution set. I also believe that if we open ourselves to intellectual and emotional richness, the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can try to achieve.
Q. You’ve been a federal prosecutor, longtime lawyer on Wall Street, partner in a law firm, and now general counsel of McKinsey. What career advice would you give to new law-school grads?
A. Professional excellence, client service and working hard are always the starting points. But I would encourage people not to feel that they need to overly conform to some idea of who they “should” be. Be yourself. Tap into the things that you derive meaning from and incorporate them into your professional persona.
People want to hear fresh, interesting perspectives and new ideas. As long as a lawyer is committed to professional excellence, responsiveness and hard work, there’s a lot more room for individuality than people sometimes recognize.
Q. How do you think about the role of the general counsel in an organization in terms of fostering its culture?
A. A general counsel obviously helps ensure a company meets its legal obligations and also plays an important role in the reputational well-being of the firm. But I think there’s an additional role, which is helping the management team define and operationalize a company’s strongest values and best instincts.
For example, lawyers often sit with businesspeople and talk through options for handling a situation. There may be many paths that are perfectly lawful and that a company can consider, however somebody has to be the one to say, why don’t we take this opportunity to be bold? Why don’t we take this opportunity to reach higher?
If somebody gets the ball rolling in that direction, people will often back them up. It’s not that they’re afraid to sign on; it’s that somebody’s got to be the one to speak up. A person who doesn’t have line business responsibilities—such as the GC—can be a good person to play that role in a firm.
Q. Please share your thoughts on some of the nuances of the GC-CEO relationship. What’s the secret to making sure it’s a productive relationship?
A. To start with, my view of the general counsel role is expansive. A GC can be helpful on a variety of different topics, such as a firm’s strategy, culture, and judgment issues that go beyond strictly legal questions.
The same applies when you talk about the GC-CEO relationship. The GC should be respectful and supportive of the CEO and also forthright and direct in providing advice. That kind of honest, thoughtful dialogue on a broad array of issues is part of the value-add that the general counsel brings.
If it’s done respectfully and constructively, my experience is that clients value and appreciate analytical rigor, candid advice, and an orientation toward practical solutions.
Q. What were important early influences for you?
A. My parents have been the key influencers throughout my life. They are remarkable but very modest people. They’re both retired now but had distinguished careers in medicine and law. I was born in South Africa, but my parents did not want to raise their children there, so we moved to the United States when I was a child. My parents had to start from scratch. Much more important than their professional achievements, my parents’ example has been one of consistent integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and devotion to others.
I’m also an observant Jew, and my religious life is an essential part of my outlook. The Torah teaches that every human being is created in the image of God. When you think about people that way, it affects how you interact with others. To me, religion, like the humanities topics I love, helps me to live with a sense of gratitude.