With a sell-out crowd in attendance, Deirdre Stanley, executive vice president, general counsel and board secretary of Thomson Reuters, delivered a rousing keynote at the Aspire to Lead Conference earlier this week. Held at the Prom Center in Oakdale, Minn., Aspire to Lead has a goal of encouraging women to pursue leadership roles and to drive to make the most significant possible impact in their companies and communities.

Stanley began with the observation that technology has fundamentally changed the workforce. For modern businesses, skilled, specialized staff focused on different areas are key, where once upon a time, many jobs within a company or across companies were interchangeable. In this environment, the opportunities for leadership do not always play to the most experienced worker in the traditional sense.  Sometimes younger professionals – who may be more comfortable with technology – will benefit.  In other cases, life and other work experiences will be more relevant than institutional knowledge. This is fundamentally changing the importance of and opportunities for leadership.

“Workers need to have key skills and not act as individual contributors, but as a collective. And when you are the one defining the direction for people working in concert, that is leadership,” Stanley noted.

Stanley then shared her path to leadership. After graduating from law school, she joined a large law firm in New York. In the hierarchical environment at the firm, leadership was about the “trappings” of success she noted, including seniority, a partnership title, a big office, etc.

After three years with the firm, rotating among practice groups, Stanley began to feel like leadership was within her grasp. “I started to realize, to be a leader, you need two things. One — a vision, or perspective of where you want to go; and two — you need followers.”

Stanley wanted to lead in a corporate setting, where she could focus more on the strategic aspects of transactional work. Moving from the law firm to the board room, Stanley seized upon her skills and vision of leadership, joining the predecessor business of Thomson Reuters as general counsel in 2002.

“The CEO and CFO saw leadership potential in me. They weren’t looking for someone to come in and just be a title,” she said. Empowered by her vision and perspective, Stanley was able to lead a transformation of her general counsel team. While reorganization often leads to strife within an organization, Stanley proudly notes most of her colleagues are still with the business – many in leadership roles. She added that inspirational leadership is a key attribute for leadership success.

Recalling the need for specialists and skilled leadership, Stanley acknowledges that how we define leadership has changed. “People have moved away from a top down approach, and it’s now more about collaborating across business goals.” Stanley noted that in time, as businesses de-layer, there may be fewer management opportunities in business, but the need for leadership will only grow.

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