As the leader of the global labor and employment team at Cummins, a diesel and alternative fuel engines and generators company, John Gaidoo often advises his fellow attorneys as well as their broad group of stakeholders. And though it may seem simple, he says his most valuable piece of advice is one many people hear but don’t always internalize: be yourself.
“I try to remind myself as I take on different challenges that I don’t need to do it the way that the person before me did it,” he says. “Do it the way that you do it. Put your own perspective on it. It’s too stressful to try to be someone else. If you’re not yourself, you’re not going to bring your unique perspective to projects and initiatives.”
Gaidoo knows firsthand how hard it can be for emerging professionals in any field, much less the legal profession, to nurture the self-confidence that being oneself requires.
“If you had asked me when I was a kid what I would be when I grew up, I know I wouldn’t have said a lawyer,” he reflects. “I grew up as a Black kid in the deep South. My parents were educated professionals and I made good grades in school, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t have thought that I could do anything that I wanted to do.
“But I doubted myself,” Gaidoo continues. “Probably due to the racially charged environment I was in and what that does to a person subconsciously, I thought being a lawyer was something that ‘other people’ did. It took me a while to gain enough confidence through different life experiences to shoot for the stars and believe I could accomplish big things.”
“It’s too stressful to try to be someone else. If you’re not yourself, you’re not going to bring your unique perspective to projects and initiatives.”
His now wife, also an attorney, was the first person who really encouraged Gaidoo to pursue a law degree. Since entering the field, he has devoted a significant part of his practice to finding other burgeoning attorneys who may lack confidence or opportunity—or who just need to see that someone else in their profession looks like them.
“I try to look for diverse attorneys because I can relate to how it is to be one of the very few in your demographic as you’re trying to come up in corporate America,” he says. “I try to just be a friendly face and lend a helping hand however I can. I want to be one of those people whom others can look at and say, ‘Look, if he did it, I can do it. And in addition to that, I can ask him, and he’ll help me do it too.’”
At Cummins, Gaidoo helps the attorneys who report to him gain a diverse set of experiences so they too can see where they excel and find joy in their work. “Professional development comes through experience, so it doesn’t matter what your title or seniority is,” he explains. “The way that you truly develop rather than just trying to gain a higher and higher rank is to seek out experiences. I try to keep an eye out for different experiences that can help my team learn.”
He also extends professional development opportunities to outside counsel. “I believe that we need actual relationships, not just contractual relationships, with our external counsel to ensure that we’re partnering to provide the best legal services possible,” he says. “I’m not just throwing work over to them. I want to know them as people. I want to help them develop if I can, and I want them to know the company and have meaningful work that inspires them to put their best foot forward for us.”
“I want to be one of those people whom others can look at and say, ‘Look, if he did it, I can do it. And in addition to that, I can ask him, and he’ll help me do it too.’”
When Gaidoo entered the field of law, most diversity efforts emphasized hitting ratios over nurturing inclusion. Though necessary cultural change often moves at a glacial pace, he was encouraged when he joined Cummins that leadership promoted values that, if sincerely implemented, he believed would enable real inclusion among diverse attorneys.
“A really important value that I believe goes hand in hand with our diversity focus is caring,” he says. “We care about our employees, we care about our work environment, and we look at our employees not only as people who are doing a job for the company but as human beings first. And we want them to be able to bring their full selves to work. Being able to be authentic and who you are is a big part of inclusion and feeling welcome, which is necessary to enable people to be their best selves.”
As with being yourself, emphasizing caring sounds simple enough, but Gaidoo points out why it has to be a commitment from the top. “When the company actually takes those values seriously, it creates both said and unsaid expectations for leaders. When a company places great importance on values like caring and diversity and inclusion, it gives leaders like me the license to go out and do the work that needs to be done and to be seen as a better leader.”
As a leader and mentor, John Gaidoo often dispenses advice that’s as simple and straightforward as his values. Below are a few tips that can aid in anyone’s career journey.
Respect everyone. “We shouldn’t be taking liberties with our peers or with our direct reports that we wouldn’t take with our boss,” Gaidoo explains. “All of us are important, and we all have a role to play. Everyone, at a minimum, deserves respect. When you treat people with respect, they’ll give you their best, and they will want you to succeed. You can actually learn from each other. To me, respect is the foundation of it all.”
Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. “If it’s what you believe, then you owe it to your organization and you owe it to yourself to actually put that voice into the conversation, because you are there for your unique perspective,” he says. “Don’t let your fear and insecurity deprive you of an opportunity to help other people and help the organization. When you do that enough, people respect you because they know that you’re taking things seriously and you’re taking ownership. They see you’re in the fight. With that kind of courage comes credibility, and you need that to be a leader and to grow.”
Push yourself to set the standard. “Don’t just learn the way that things have always been done and try to replicate that,” he says. “Put your stamp on it and constantly try to think about different ways to do things. Look around you and learn from what others are doing, but don’t wait for others to set the gold standard. You should be trying to set the gold standard, and with some creativity and passion, you can do that. Imagination is what makes life interesting.”
Foley & Lardner LLP:
“John Gaidoo is a “go-to” professional in both legal and business functions. He has always excelled at significant and varied roles at the company, demonstrating the poise, grace, and respect to lead and the humility to listen. Simply put, John is the complete package.”
–Phillip M. Goldberg, Partner
“John’s know-how, experience, and calm are a perfect combination for a trusted advisor during a challenging time. His commitment to diversity and inclusion is a shining example for others to follow.”
–Paul Bateman, Shareholder