Revealing Hidden Strengths with Diagnostic Testing

A First-Ever Tool to Help JDs Target New Careers

Attorney journalist Nancy Stein sat down with Dr. Donna Hamlin, CEO of the board of directors consulting firm Boardwise, for a wide-ranging discussion of her partnership with ex judicata, the use of diagnostic testing in helping lawyers forge new careers, and as bonus coverage, the path for lawyers who want to get on Boards of Directors.  The linkage is that corporate boards typically give a Diagnostic test to board candidates along the lines of what was created for ex judicata.

What follows is Part 1 of a 2 Part interview.

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Part One

Nancy Stein: Okay. Well, thank you for doing this, Donna. I’m excited to hear about the projects you’re working on with ex judicata. What got you to partner and what is the partnership all about?

Donna Hamlin: Kim Fine reached out to us and explained what she and Neil Handwerker were working on. They were still very much in stealth mode and it’s all pretty interesting. What they want to be able to do is create opportunities for people who have been in legal practice and want to try something different. And the trick is, of course, understanding where their assets are as individuals and then directing them correctly so they’re not wasting their time with experimentation at the expense of everybody.

Kim and Neil wanted to create a way for ex judicata to get a profile of someone’s background based on that person’s experience and preferences, and the directions that would be a good fit, which is really, in our language, creating psychometric modeling for mapping. It involves assessing needs and what’s out in the market. My company, Boardwise, has done a lot of that for other reasons. We do a lot of work with finding people positions on boards of directors at the right places. We have a psychometric tool that includes each candidate’s background plus how the candidate solves problems. There are five styles. Our profilers take a look at people and their styles because how they operate, and their approach, is part of what makes a good fit for a particular board.

NS: So, how is that interplaying with the work you and Boardwise are doing with ex judicata’s projects?

DH: We suggested to Kim some ideas for creating a profiler, and we’ve been working on that for the last few months. We are really happy with where it’s going. ex judicata will be able to have people complete the profiler in about 25 minutes. Then, ex judicata will have a library of data on talent from which it can draw for placements.

NS: It’s interesting how people perceive themselves versus really where their strengths are. Like me, I hated the idea of getting up and speaking before an audience. At least I thought I did. Actually, I love it. I was afraid of the tech aspects. So, I partnered with a tech person. But that sense of what your skills are is really important and a person’s perception may be way off. When you decide to make a change, it’s so intimidating. So, the fact that you’re able to show people where their strengths are, where they ought to be looking, and where they need to build strength is vital. Your partnership with ex judicata will accomplish a lot with courses to build strength, advice from experts, and far more. ex judicata can help place people and help them develop the confidence to be able to go forward and do it.

DH: It’s true, often people don’t know their strengths. They think they know, and then they find out they’re different. There was a conference Boardwise had in Canada and there was a husband and wife in attendance. We had a drawing where people could put their business cards in a bowl to win a free assessment. We pulled out the name of this one woman. She said, “Well, I’ve been listening to your whole discussion about profiles. I know which style is mine.” Her husband started saying, “No, no, no, you’re wrong. It’s this . . . .” Well, I think I saved their marriage because the results showed that they were both wrong.

NS: (laughing) I had a feeling they were both wrong.

DH: Exactly. So often we’re wrong. Learning more about oneself can open doors never considered.

NS: Then you have people who are overthinkers and people who lack confidence. Being able to show them where they can excel and sending them in the right direction is great. They can develop confidence. They can see a future. The profiler is something objective that shows them that. So I think having this evaluation is an important first step.

DH: Yes. It’s a start and it’s a sound one. It gives them ways to look at opportunities they’d never have considered otherwise.

With all that, ex judicata is helping JDs target the right range of opportunities.

NS: How careers are organized is really interesting. You can go where you feel your strengths are and focus on areas of interest. Somebody took me through it and I was like, Wow, this is great!

DH: Yeah, we’ve been working on it. You don’t have to hate what you do. There’s opportunity out there and ex judicata is creating the space for people to be able to see it. And it’s helping the lawyers prepare for and attain these roles outside of law.

NS: It’s both sides because it’s serving the corporate world and that transitioning lawyer clientele. ex judicata is serving the people seeking these positions and putting them together with the companies. Board placements are a big area that you handle and are among the most desirable roles out there. How do lawyers position themselves as viable candidates for these board positions?

DH: Yes, board positions are popular right now because the way boards are structured is changing. For example, they’re taking the audit and risk committee and breaking it into two and adding more people. As a result, there are more open seats, which is great. However, everybody is interested all at once so it’s competitive at the same time.

We get people board certified, which is not legally required in the United States, but it is in a lot of other countries. Certification still makes sense for those in the U.S. because it gives people more credentials, which makes them more worthy candidates when seeking a board role.

NS: With so many businesses operating on a global basis or in global markets, being certified would seem to be a significant step. If they’re not now in markets around the world, companies ought to be and many of them will be. So, certification sounds like an important step to take.

DH: I think so. And I understand and appreciate the whole notion of the diversity on boards, but whoever gets that chair better do a good job so it doesn’t blow back on everybody.

NS: And if it does blow back on everybody, the entire board pays for the mistakes, right? And so does the company, as a whole.

DH: Absolutely. So we’re pushing for creating a strong bench of talent that’s available and certified. The duties are getting greater because so many accountabilities are being imposed, including regarding climate change and cybersecurity, and there are many new topics many directors know nothing about.

The board should have talent that understands the business, not just the legal aspects and issues. The job is more than looking at legalities as a lawyer. You have to be able to contribute on the business issues, what it means for the business and the overall plan and strategy going forward. So, the people who are adviser experts often are reticent in board meetings to speak out. They recognize what it took to become an expert in their field so they are quiet on any subjects outside their domain. They just listen and hesitate to contribute. We have to help them broaden their understanding of the business so they can contribute more.

NS: They also need alliances on a board, people who are going to support their point of view. If you build these alliances, you can accomplish a lot more. So how do you work with people who want to be on boards? You mentioned the certification program. What else do you do to help them?

DH: If they are already on a board or have been on one and they are looking for new positions, we have them complete the profiler and join our registry. This makes them available[NS1] [DH2] [DH3]  for opportunities. When a company asks us for qualified candidates, we run a search based on the specs needed for an ideal fit and put names forward.

We also help candidates with their board bios so they are picked up for the right reasons by any committee that’s looking.  A lot of people don’t know how to write about themselves very well. We help with that and then we also help expand their networking because 86% of the placements are still done through peer-based associations. I’ve been on 14 boards and in every instance, I was recommended by someone who knew my work, not through a search. Writing a really good board bio and giving it to every friend they have, which we call “spray and pray,” doesn’t really work.

NS: But if they target where they’re looking and build the right network, they improve their chances greatly.

DH: Exactly. I worked with a colleague years ago who was an upstream oil and gas executive. He decided he wanted to look at some board opportunities and he did what I call a lateral arabesque: he looked at the supply chain and said if these suppliers understood upstream better, they would be a better supplier. He drafted a one-page letter making that case and gave it to five companies, mailed it to the chair of the board, and he got five offers.

NS: Wow. Yeah, it’s all about how you’re networking and taking the right approach. You have to demonstrate your value.

DH: Yes. You need to understand the right targets for yourself. There are privileges and choices regarding where in the life cycle of a business you will be happiest to contribute. It may be early-stage, traction and growth stage, or it may be distressed turnarounds. You need to know which stage is best for you. And sometimes, the orientation of problem-solving is a better fit for one type than another. We help people understand that, which narrows the number of targets and accelerates the rate of success.

NS: Right. That’s because you’re applying to the right places. What are companies looking for in terms of the skills that make a candidate a good choice for a board position? The example you just gave of that guy who wrote about how to do things better was brilliant. Companies want candidates who understand their business and know their industry.

DH: When you look at skills for candidates, what really stands out in board members is different every time. If a company is doing the job correctly, the decision-makers should be looking at what competency sets they have with their existing board, the skills, and experience. Then, they have to think about what they need to get from A to B five years from now. They should make a list of necessary skills that may be missing from the board’s current composition. Those are what I call the gaps. Then decision-makers at companies should study the market to see who out there can fill their gaps. They have to be very conscientious about looking for the right combination while considering group dynamics and other factors that go with that.

Public companies are really conscientious about bringing in fresh blood. It’s interesting, to your point about knowing the industry, companies are bringing in people who know nothing about the industry to mix it up so that they can learn from different industry thinking.And it works, provided the group is very good at inclusion and accepting differences in the way people think.

NS: I’m seeing that, too. It’s becoming more popular now to try to get people outside of the industry to get a different perspective. Look at accounting firms and what they’re doing when it comes to marketing and content, what they’re sharing, and how they are serving clients. The big accounting firms are doing what law firms ought to be doing, and I spoke about that specifically at a recent conference. So it’s really bringing in a different perspective, I guess.