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On Leadership:

A Conversation with John Kuo

Originally published in the Berkeley Law Boost

The message is loud and clear: We need more leaders in society and in business. Not just individuals with titles, status and power, but individuals with high integrity who have taken the time to know themselves and understand others. Individuals who know how to build relationships, inspire confidence, and influence outcomes.

In business, every industry is looking to develop more leaders. The legal industry is no exception. With over 10 years of slow but steady disruption, the speed of change is quickening and the need for true leadership is growing.

John Kuo, Berkeley Law alum (’88), is Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Varian Medical Systems.

He spoke to fellow alum Rose Ors (’83), Fellow at Berkeley Law Executive Education and CEO of ClientSmart, about the skills excellent leaders possess, how you learn these skills, and why they are critical to develop regardless of your title.

Rose Ors: What key skills do excellent leaders possess?

John Kuo: In my view, there are a few key traits and skills that all great leaders possess. The first and most important is a high level of emotional intelligence. To gain a high level of emotional intelligence you must spend time to understand yourself—to be self-aware. Leaders need to know their strengths, their blind spots and other shortcomings. Then they need to develop the ability to truly listen to others and seek to understand their values, needs, concerns, and motivations. A high degree of emotional intelligence also increases a leader’s ability to be comfortable with change and risk—two ever-present business factors today.

Rose Ors: What is another skill the excellent leaders possess?

John Kuo: The ability to influence people and outcomes is a “must have” skill. I will use myself as an example. A key aspect of what I do as general counsel of Varian is to set the vision and strategy for the legal department. I spend over half of my time working with my 75-member team to ensure the work we do and how we do it align with the vision and strategy. To be successful in this role, I need to influence, persuade and motivate my team to be moving in the same direction. I need them to want to move in the same direction not because I said so, but because they are onboard, committed and motivated. I can accomplish nothing meaningful or lasting without buy-in.

Rose Ors: How important is it that other members of your legal team have the ability to influence others?

John Kuo: It is critical. The legal department is always going to be a bit removed from the business units. Yet, the key to the department’s success is its ability to be a value-added partner to the business. To earn this status, members of the legal team have to take the lead to establish a trusted advisor role with their clients. The legal department, indeed, any department, needs leadership at all levels. Even if the title does not formally confer authority. You must be able to form meaningful relationships and foster cross-functional teamwork. You have to get people on board to get projects done and done well.

Rose Ors: How would you respond to someone telling you their title limits their influence quotient?”

John Kuo: I would immediately disabuse anyone of the notion that their influence is conferred by a particular title. People who believe their sphere of influence is limited will not succeed in today’s hyper-competitive and fast-paced work environment. Today, influence is much more fluid and that is a reality that needs to be embraced to succeed.

Rose Ors: How do you develop the leadership skills that you’ve just identified?

John Kuo: I think it is a combination of experience and training with experience topping the list. I always advise those who want to advance in their careers to take calculated risks that push them out of their comfort zone. Accepting stretch assignments is an effective way of learning leadership skills.

Rose Ors: Can you share a stretch assignment that honed your leadership skills?

John Kuo: When I was only a fifth-year lawyer, I was sent overseas to establish a new legal department. The company I worked for had acquired a company whose operations were headquartered in Scotland. The people at headquarters had operated with little legal oversight until I parachuted in. So, here I am: A U.S. lawyer five years out of law school and these folks were asking, “Why is this guy here?” I had to prove my value and my value was tied to my ability to forge relationships with my new colleagues. I needed them to want to bring me in on deals—not to rubber-stamp them, but help strategize, structure the deals, and negotiate them.

The challenge was steep, but it was an invaluable learning experience because this is where I started developing my leadership skills.

Rose Ors: What other lesson did you learn about leadership from this assignment?

John Kuo: I also learned that leadership skills are developed incrementally. It is a journey. A journey that for me continues to this day.

Rose Ors: You also mentioned leadership training.

John Kuo: There is an opportunity in an academic setting to create the sandbox where students have experiential opportunities to develop their leadership chops. Business schools exist to develop business leaders and many do a great job of it. Law schools should model the business school approach by adding communication, negotiation, team building, and project management courses. Today, it is simply not enough to train us to be good lawyers.

Rose Ors: What do you think is the value of executive leadership training?

John Kuo: I think it has great value because the focus is squarely on learning not just from the individual teaching the course, but from fellow students. I think the diversity of the community is important. If it can also be experiential even better since the end goal is to enhance the leadership behavior —not just impart knowledge—of those taking the course. Coupled with stretch assignments and an open mind, a leadership training program can enhance the individual and the organization.

Rose Ors: Why do you think leadership skills are so critical for lawyers today?

John Kuo: The role of lawyers has changed. This is particularly true of lawyers who work in-house. It is no longer sufficient to be a superb legal technician. You need to be aligned with client expectations, you need to manage teams, projects, and budgets, you need to be a trusted business advisor. You need to not only embrace change but anticipate it. This requires true leadership at all levels.

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