Gail Balcerzak on Learning How to Lead

At Hexcel Corporation, Gail Balcerzak is always finding new ways to evolve and excel in her position

When Gail Balcerzak first stepped into her role as deputy general counsel of the Americas for Hexcel Corporation, she worked with an executive coach whose words would shape her approach to her work: “Leaders never have a bad day.”

Balcerzak is quick to explain. “We all have bad days. We’re human. But I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing, what I’m going through on any given day, is not impacting the people around me.

“I’m learning how to take that step back and give people what they need, whatever my personal circumstances are,” she continues. “While I’m by no means an expert at it, I do think it has helped me frame the way I think about my job—how I approach other people and how I can be a leader whom people respect.”

Gail Balcerzak, Deputy General Counsel, Americas, Hexcel Corporation

Balcerzak started at Hexcel in 2008 as assistant general counsel. From the firm’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, she supported all aspects of legal work, including corporate financing and public company reporting, tax reorganization, and customer and supplier contracts. She also led Hexcel’s compliance program for three years.

A reorganization led to the creation of her current position as well as a move to the company’s offices in Dublin, California, where she is responsible for legal support for Hexcel Corporation’s Americas aerospace and global fibers business units.

“I have evolved as a leader since taking this position,” Balcerzak shares. “I didn’t have an opportunity to manage people directly before I came here, so that has definitely changed the way that I look at things.” Taking on a managerial role has clarified her perspective on past events and management decisions she didn’t understand at the time. Now, she says, she gets the balance of priorities that leadership requires.

One of her key missions at Hexcel is determining how the legal department can add value to the business. That largely involves risk management, which entails negotiating effective contract terms and getting the most protection possible.

Another important aspect of Balcerzak’s work is considering developments that could affect Hexcel in the future. Achieving better outcomes can require improving upon plans or processes. It can also involve asking people to change how they think.

“It’s really about trying to figure out where you can smooth the road, where you can help things become efficient and effective,” she explains.

“We all have bad days. We’re human. But I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing, what I’m going through on any given day, is not impacting the people around me.”

Balcerzak first considered a law career in high school. An active member of her school’s mock trial team, she shone in competitions. People told her she should become a lawyer.

“I tucked that in the back of my brain and went to college,” she states. “When I started looking at things I excelled at, I was good at thinking on my feet, I was good at public speaking, and I was good at writing and analysis. I just kind of naturally gravitated to the law as something that fit those skill sets.”

After graduating from the New York University School of Law in 1995, she worked with firms in New York as a corporate and securities lawyer. Then one of her clients asked if she was interested in joining them-full time.

“That’s how I got my first in-house job: the client asked me to come on board,” Balcerzak says. “And that was the first time that I built my own job, because they didn’t have a general counsel when I joined the company.”

Since then, Balcerzak has enjoyed a string of career successes. Now, she is determined to support future women leaders. After attending a program held by Advancing Women Executives, an organization that helps women position themselves for the next steps of their careers, she brought what she learned to Hexcel’s mentoring program. Over the course of a year, she shared these lessons with her mentee, an engineer from the product management group.

“I’d like to see, particularly, more of our women leaders get more skills to help them in what is still a very male-dominated field,” Balcerzak says.

Coaching someone else reaped benefits for Balcerzak too. As she listened to her mentee recount experiences and ask questions—and thought through her responses—she realized something. “I was giving her advice and then thinking, ‘That’s good advice. You ought to try that yourself.’”