Catherine Richardson on leadership: Integrity, honesty, enthusiasm, communication

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When Catherine Richardson graduated from Syracuse University’s law school and started her law career in 1977 at Bond, Schoeneck & King, she remembers that she could count the number of women lawyers in Onondaga County on one hand – two at the most.

Nine years later, she was the first woman president of the Onondaga Bar Association. Nine years after that, she became president of the New York State Bar Association. She wasn’t the first woman to be state bar president; Maryann Saccomando Freedman of Western New York holds that distinction.

Now, Richardson is mostly retired, though she is still an advisor and board member at companies and institutions throughout Upstate New York. 

Tell me about your path to the law.  

I started out as a high school math teacher, a graduate of SUNY Oswego (class of 1963).

My dad (George, who was a prominent local attorney) had died when I was in high school. There was no tuition in the SUNY system then. Because my dad had died, I went to SUNY Oswego. That was my choice.

My brother was four years behind me, and he was dying to go to Notre Dame. He’d gotten admitted. I was a senior at SUNY Oswego, and he was a senior in high school.

My mother (Margaret) said: You know, I can’t swing Notre Dame.

So I said: What if I work, too? Between the two of us, can we swing it?

She said: Sure.

I had been accepted at law school. I said: Well, I’ll go to law school afterward.

So, I started at Westhill as a math teacher. I taught the first senior class at Westhill. I had not gotten my master’s degree. After four years at Westhill, I found a university in Colorado that would allow me to ski and get a master’s degree. I got my master’s degree in pure math – it wasn’t even in math education.

I did that for two years. Then, I came back and taught at J-D.

My brother was a children’s dentist and lived in Vermont. I was up at my brother’s and he asked me: How come you never went to law school? All you ever talked about as a kid was being a lawyer.

I said: You know, I really love teaching.

He just looked at me and then he says: Are you going to kick yourself around the block when you’re 50 that you didn’t do what you wanted to do when you were a kid?

That was in April. In September, I was in law school, at SU. I was 33.

Second year, I was interviewing as everybody does for a summer job. I was up in the top of my class, so I was getting interviews from New York City. I went down to interviews, and I decided I was wasting everybody’s time. I didn’t want to work for these big mills.

I asked the SU people helping students to get jobs: Who pays the most in Syracuse?

It was Bond. So I applied to Bond for the summer. I just loved it. My career started right here, and my entire career was at Bond.

I had some great mentors here. Jack Dee was one. He was the head of the litigation department and president of the County Bar Association. He had gotten word that I had been a teacher. At that time, the Bar Association went to all the high schools on Law Day, and he thought I could help organize that. That’s how I got involved in Bar Association work.

Charlie Beeching was the head of the business department when I joined. He taught me a lot. He taught you how, then showed you, and then brought you along. You didn’t just sit in the office and do grunt work. That was really a great experience.

At that time, Bond had five departments and when you came in as a new lawyer, you spent three months in each department. I believe in cross-training – it’s wonderful to give people a different perspective, even if they go back to their old job. You learn to stand in someone else’s shoes for a while. You might be on the same team, but they have entirely different issues to deal with.

Charlie was one of my mentors and gave me constant feedback. Sometimes, the paper looked like it was bleeding. (Laughs) I tried to mentor and give feedback all the time, because that’s what Charlie did for me.  

Growing up, were you in leadership roles?  

Not when I was very young. I do remember running for office at the Barry Park Summer School. (Laughs) Linda Hutchinson and I made signs and ran to be councilors for a day or something like that.

I was pretty quiet in high school. I went to Cathedral High School, across the street from the Civic Center. It was a small class, 60 kids, so everybody had some leadership responsibilities.

SUNY Oswego gave me the opportunity to have leadership roles. It was purely by accident. 

Tell me about that.  

I was studying in the library, my freshman year, and coming back I found I had been elected president of the dorm. (Laughs) Unbeknownst to me, a bunch of my friends nominated me and the election took place – I didn’t even get to vote.

Once you’re identified as a freshman being in some position of leadership, everybody starts grabbing you. So I did end up as a student government officer.  

What did being an officer in college teach you? 

Well, I found out that when you got into positions where people at least listened to you, you could make changes. I think I’ve done that my whole career – see an opportunity and say: Boy, I think I can help there.

Then you volunteer, show up, do the grunt work. It’s an opportunity to find where the issues are. It might be something minor, working on a committee, but you still got that opportunity.

It’s an enthusiasm thing, too. People like their leader to be enthusiastic, and I’ve never lacked in enthusiasm and in thinking: We can do this. I may not be able to think up the answer, but all of us sitting around the table can. 

What advice would you give someone to be an effective leader?  

The top one is integrity slash honesty. Nobody wants to work with somebody who has no integrity.

Enthusiasm is a must. If you don’t like the job you’re doing and you don’t love what you’re doing, how do you expect other people to say: We’ve got a challenge ahead of us, and, wow, I’m ready.

Communication would be my third one.

It’s integrity, honesty, enthusiasm, communication – and the communication is listening.

A lot of people don’t know how to communicate the big picture. Sometimes I could see the big picture and had no idea how I was going to get that organization to see the big picture. But once you tell all the people around you what the big picture is, what we’re trying to get to, the smart people you surround yourself with come up with the great ideas.

People want to do a good job. They want to make a difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re sweeping the floor or you’re sitting in a boardroom – people want to do a good job. So, you want to tell them: Here’s our big goal.

Communicate with everybody. I learned this being a schoolteacher – you make friends with the janitor first. They know where all the bones are buried and they could get you anything you needed.

Treat everybody with respect. Communicate to everyone how important they are to the organization.  

Elaborate on that idea. 

You have to have thought about what are we trying to achieve. Then you have to be able to break that down in very common words to be able to tell everybody: This is what we’re doing.

That works with change. Organizations are going through change constantly.

You say: OK, here are the facts. Here’s reality, how do we adapt? What changes need to be made? Or do we just stay the course – and die?

When new associates came in, I always found the smartest one in the pack and convinced them that they wanted to be in the business department. I wanted to be surrounded by people who were smarter than I was. Any position I’ve had, I’ve always wanted people smarter than I am around. If you give them an idea of the big picture and where you think things could go, even if it’s pie in the sky, they usually can get you there.

When you sit around the table and brainstorm, you have to create the environment where they feel comfortable to tell you that you’re nuts. I’ve had attorneys say: Do you really want that phrase in the brief? (Laughs) OK, OK. Let’s go do another one. 

Effective leaders not only surround themselves with smart people, but listen to them?  

Listening is a big thing.  

And the leader has to be willing to accept their criticism.  

Right.

And it’s not just about having smart people. It’s giving people opportunity, right from the janitor up. Any organization that doesn’t make sure that all employees or members have an opportunity to grow and develop is just going to die. Part of that is listening to them, whether it’s an argument back and forth or even just saying: Give me a day to think about this one. You’ve really made me think about something.

Communication is not just you talking. It’s listening a lot. A lot of people have trouble with this, and I had trouble with this in the beginning of my career. When I would hear something, I would just react, because it gave me an idea, and I would blurt it out instead of letting that person continue to give me the full thought. It would be enough to spark me and I would say this would be great and not letting that person work it all out themselves.

I learned early on: You have to listen, and you have to pause to listen.

I think leaders are nothing if they can’t praise the people around them and thank them. You have to take the time to let people know they are valued.  

Why?  

Well, do you want to work in a place where you don’t know if you’re making a difference?

Don’t you like to have people say to you: Stan! That was great!

You like that. It feeds you. It makes you feel better. It gets you ready to go on and say, what’s the next problem I have to deal with?  

What does it hurt to give praise? When someone does a good job or is kind or does something or gets an award and you say: Wow, the whole community knows what I’ve known all along. You’re terrific.

What does it take? I write notes on little cards and send them. People tell me that they have notes I wrote to them 20 years ago. It’s amazing.

I have had kids I taught who tell me they still have a note from me – whether it was they won a baseball championship or whatever.

Praise and thanks go a long way. Tell people when they’ve done a good job.

If they haven’t done a good job? Take some time to help. There are very few people who get into a position that don’t have talents, and just some times they don’t get a chance to develop.

Help people, whatever it is. Always give people the opportunity to get smarter.

Howard Berman was president of Blue Cross when I was handling the merger of Blue Cross and Blue Shield. It was all moving together. Howard said to me: Listen, I’m convinced the company with the smarter employees wins.

That’s why he was willing to pay for a degree. He didn’t care what the degree was. He said: You owe these people that are working hard.

Maybe they weren’t ready for college when they were out of high school. Maybe they weren’t ready when their first couple of kids were born. Then, all of a sudden, they are ready. People come to stages of their lives at different times. Why not encourage their education?

It’s a great philosophy. Help them, whatever it is. Maybe it’s not paying for a degree, but help them learn, help them get smarter. 

What qualities do you see in effective leadership? 

The things we just talked about. People have different leadership styles. If you get down to the core, effective leaders have high integrity, they’re enthusiastic, they communicate well. 

What attributes do you see in poor leaders?  

They barely listen to the people around them, whether it’s the board members or anyone else. They don’t communicate well. They want to micro-manage everything. They don’t want to give anybody a chance or to help them learn from mistakes. Poor leaders take credit for everything that others did. 

The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected] Last week featured CIA spymaster Glenn Carle, who said: “Leadership is not the ‘man on horseback’ or the steely-eyed CEO.” Rather, it is a collegial enterprise in which being a peer and teammate are important.

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