Women in Business Q&A: Sonia Menon, Chief Operating Officer, Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP

Sonia Menon is the Chief Operating Officer at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, a Chicago based law firm with over 140 lawyers, where she oversees the management of the day-to-day operations of the firm, including human resources, knowledge management, marketing, facilities, records and space planning. She is responsible for the design and implementation of talent management initiatives and operating policies for lawyers and staff. She provides strategic advice to the firm's leadership on the development of policies and procedures and works to ensure that the recruitment, development, advancement and diversity policies and programs are aligned to support the firm's strategic agenda. Ms. Menon is an active member of the firm's Women's Network, Pro Bono and Diversity Committees, developing new initiatives to enhance the advancement and retention of women and minority lawyers.

As a certified practitioner of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Ms. Menon conducts training workshops for leadership development, team building and management development. Ms. Menon has been a featured speaker on subjects relating to law firm economics and profitability, competency talent management, recruiting strategies, diversity and inclusion, career planning and alternate career models. She is an active member of NALP, and most recently served as the chair of NALP's 2015 annual educational conference. Ms. Menon is also actively involved with SHRM, HRMAC, ALA, the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms and the Professional Development Consortium in Chicago. Ms. Menon graduated in 1988 with an honors degree in Psychology.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Over the course of my life, I have lived on three different continents and in essence, very different cultures. I was born in England and spent my early childhood in London. Our family moved back to India, and I attended college in Mumbai. Upon graduation, I returned to London and started building my career there. And then, 19 years ago, I moved to America. Each place I have called home has its unique cultural norms and values that influence every aspect of life, from how we interact with strangers, to how we build a social life, to how we conduct business. While each move brought apprehension over how I would build relationships, integrate into a new community and succeed, it has been exciting to learn new things, keep an open mind, and draw unreservedly from my very diverse experiences. I learned to embrace change as a constant and an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

This has greatly influenced who I am today as a leader. Through inclusive and intentional leadership, I allow myself to stay flexible and guide my organization to stay relevant, evolve and thrive in this constantly changing environment. As a leader, I focus on building teams that bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the table and where individuals are comfortable challenging each other and the status quo.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg?
Throughout my career, I have been interested in human behavior and how I can contribute to an organization's success by improving the satisfaction, performance and well-being of its employees.

With an academic background in organizational psychology, I started my career interning with a psychologist, conducting research on the use of psychometric testing in the hiring process. I came to understand the importance of "fit" both for the individual being hired and the culture of the organization. The challenge of finding this "fit" was fascinating to me, and led me to the world of search firms. I loved the opportunity to learn about an organization's business and culture and then challenge myself to find the right individual for their needs, not just in terms of qualifications and experience, but almost more importantly, the philosophical and cultural fit. At Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, human capital is our most valuable asset. Finding people who are qualified to do the work, and who also genuinely like our environment and want to stay and advance throughout their careers, is the most rewarding experience for me.

My one detour from talent management was a three-year stint with the Hilton group of hotels in London. I was very fortunate to have a terrific mentor who taught me everything I needed to know about the business operations of a hotel. As a revenue generator it was important for me to understand the business, and about business development. It was fascinating to learn about the hospitality industry, business projections, forecasting and budgeting. That experience and training has translated into every other role and held me in good stead.

In my current role, I have the unique opportunity to draw on all of these experiences, in efficiently and cost effectively managing the operations of our law firm, and more importantly, managing our talent.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg?
Before I came to Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP I found it challenging to stay at an organization for more than three years - I got bored if I was not stretched in my role. Fifteen years later at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, and every day is still a new challenge. I get to work with very smart individuals, and have been presented with interesting and somewhat daunting challenges in my various roles at the firm.

Each day that I come to work, I am reminded of what a special place the firm is. It is extremely rewarding when that sentiment is echoed by individuals you hired who sincerely appreciate the culture and the people. My first role as Director of Professional Recruitment and Development was very gratifying because I got to see how excited law students were to accept an offer from the firm, and then watched and helped as they thrived and developed as lawyers. My job was "cradle to grave". I was involved in our attorneys' development and advancement from the time they were law students all the way through their progression to partner, to helping them gradually transition out of active practice.

The ability to be creative in my strategic approach has been a privilege and a highlight for me. As a single office law firm, I am fortunate to have access to all the key decision makers. Our leaders have always placed a premium on exceptional quality and a true commitment to client service, and we are encouraged and challenged to innovate and try new progressive approaches to problem-solving every day.

The huge shifts in the practice and business of law in the last decade challenged us to stay true to our identity and vision, while providing the same level of individualized support to our clients, and remaining fiscally sound. We have the benefit of being nimble as a smaller firm, to adjust course and capitalize on new, innovative and cost-effective ways of delivering legal services as a trusted advisor to our clients. While the legal industry is still in a state of change, this has provided us with an exciting opportunity to focus on the future and our unique position in the market, our succession plan and strategy.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a leadership role?
Do not try to fit someone else's mold, shape your own. It has always been important for me to stay true to myself, and to have courage in my convictions. Develop a leadership style that feels right to you and reflects who you are. Try new strategies, particularly those outside your comfort zone. You should be willing to take meaningful risks and to challenge the status quo. Women often talk about wanting a seat at the table. While I don't believe you need to wait to be asked, you do need to feel comfortable carrying the mantle of leadership, projecting confidence and most importantly, being well prepared so that you are viewed by others as a strategic thinker and thought leader. Don't be afraid to speak up and contribute your ideas, even if you are the only woman in the room. Standing out and speaking up can sometimes be difficult, but if you are prepared, it will be recognized and appreciated. Purposefully seek out meaningful opportunities that you are passionate about and that will allow you to stand out through your enthusiasm and excellence. Finally, don't forget to give back. Nurturing talent is a responsibility we all share, and in a leadership role it is important to be a role model and mentor to others.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think balance is a deceptive word. I am not sure what it means to truly achieve balance, so what I strive for is harmony. I recognize that I will never be everything to everyone, but what is important to me is to pay attention to what balances and challenges me. My career is a very important part of who I am, and I need to recognize and respect that. It is equally important for me to be a good mother and wife, and so I strive to be truly present in each situation. When I am working that's what I am focused on, without feeling guilty about not spending more time with my family. When I am at home I am present and not pre-occupied with work. Also, rather than compartmentalizing the different aspects of my life, I try to create synergies that allow me to recognize how each experience impacts the other. I am fortunate to have a terrific husband who is very supportive of my career, and a very hands-on dad. I have a wonderful relationship with my teenage daughter, and even with my busy schedule, we are always able to spend quality time together and have fun. I don't try to live by others' standards or riddle myself with guilt for not baking homemade cookies for a school event. Rather, I decide what's truly important to me and my family and focus on achieving those things.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
While we still have many issues in the business world as it relates to equality of pay, the glass ceiling, and the lack of gender diversity in leadership, it is more useful for me to focus on issues that women can influence by helping themselves in the workplace. I think women need to give themselves permission to value their careers, to speak up, and not be so apologetic.

Women too often try to be perfect at everything, both at home and at work. This is an unrealistic expectation, and as a result of this high bar that we set for ourselves, we end up letting someone down, often ourselves. We need to stop beating ourselves up, and realizing that while excellence in the things that matter to us is a worthwhile goal, perfection is not.

Rather than let tradition or circumstance dictate your future, women must be more fearless in standing up for their ideas and taking credit for their accomplishments. We need to be willing to be disruptive and challenge the status quo. Women have a particularly hard time with this. I think this is because there is often a gap between their actual competence and their self-confidence. I too often come across women who are so much better than their own image of themselves. Business is a mental game and self-confidence and projecting that confidence, is a significant part of being successful.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been very fortunate to have terrific mentors through my life, both male and female. My parents, both of whom have been true role models to me, instilled the importance of integrity, respect and hard work early in my life. My mother taught me to be bold and fearless, while my father guided me to be effective within the constraints of the business world. My mother never felt the need to conform to any norms that the traditional Indian family and societal structure imposed. She often took on very non-traditional roles in her professional life, from starting and running a successful investment company to becoming the sole agent for a Scotch whiskey brand in India. She was never afraid to go outside her comfort zone and always encouraged me to be a zealous advocate for what I believed in. This gave me the confidence to grow up believing that I always had a seat at the table if I wanted it. My father, who was a successful corporate executive for an international pharmaceutical company, gave me a view into the workings, often political, of modern business. He taught me the need to be strategic, to think about how to be most effective in the long term, and how to bridge cultural gaps for the benefit of the company and its stakeholders.

Right from the beginning at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, senior leaders at the firm have been generous with their time and willingness to guide me through my career. While I have not been part of any formal mentoring program, different people have supported me along the way, whether through the innovative leadership of our managing partner who encourages me to be creative in my problem solving and think outside the box, or the wise counsel of a senior partner in navigating and managing the different personalities, each individual has had a significant and lasting impact on my outlook and developing my own authentic leadership style.

Recognizing the impact great mentorship has had on my life, I make every effort to pay it forward. I enjoy helping others to discover their authentic selves and develop their careers, and watching them flourish and succeed gives me great joy.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many women leaders, some more well-known than others, who have had a tremendous influence on my philosophy, leadership style and outlook. While it would be difficult to list all of these women, Melinda Gates' life captures many facets that I admire. Melinda had a successful career at Microsoft, took time out to focus on bringing up her children, and is now one of the most influential and powerful women globally as the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She has changed the way funders across the world think about effective philanthropy. Her strategy has not only been through very targeted campaigns, but she has directed her efforts on global goals through global collaboration, and has made the impact tangible and meaningful through sophisticated data-driven monitoring. Since I consider myself somewhat of a global citizen, her broad reach and business strategy are particularly appealing. Moreover, what speaks to me in particular is that much of her attention is focused on championing investments in girls and women around the world, including providing better access to funding for women in economically stricken areas. She has become a vocal advocate for access to contraception, and through this advocacy and aid her foundation is empowering women worldwide to decide whether and when to have children. This will have a lasting transformational effect on third world countries.

Many leaders are driven by a desire for the limelight, but Melinda seems truly driven by the need to make the most out of her talents and opportunities to create positive outcomes. I relate very strongly to her approach and philosophy, and believe that leading is about influence and impact, not power.

What do you want Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg to accomplish in the next year?
This year is a milestone year for the firm as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. Reflecting on what this milestone means to me, I am reminded of the core values on which our firm was founded - our steadfast commitment to being true business partners with our clients, retaining the brightest legal talent, our culture of teamwork, and the importance of cultivating long-lasting relationships that are based on integrity and respect. As COO, I would like to see the firm remain true to its core values and identity as we grow in size and scope, while staying nimble and building on our unique market position. To further meet the changing needs of our clients the firm is exploring innovative and cost effective solutions, including value enhancing technology, sophisticated pricing strategies and creative staffing models. I look forward to shepherding the firm through this next exciting phase of growth and development.

As we celebrate and innovate over this year, we are also undergoing our first major change in leadership. At the beginning of this year our first managing partner, a baby boomer has passed the mantle to a generation x leader, making him only the second managing partner in the firm's history. While change can be difficult, and this one had a direct impact on me, I have recognized it for the opportunity it is to disrupt the status quo, and allow us to continue to evolve to stay relevant to our changing client and employee population. As I look forward, I am excited about this unique opportunity to work alongside our new managing partner and to help him realize his vision for our firm's future, a partnership which responds quickly to opportunity, where partners are responsible to and supportive of each other's business endeavors and where each individual feels valued for their contributions and included in the life of the firm.