Charlene Wilson, assistant general counsel at H&R Block, believes that leadership and education go hand in hand: good leadership comes from training and education. She spoke with Modern Counsel about the importance of an open door, radical candor, and how her background in employment law has shaped the current culture at the company.
What did your path to law look like?
When I was considering going to law school, a relative suggested that I talk with the judge she worked for at the time, the late Honorable David Dalton. His advice to me was to work in a law firm and make sure I wanted to practice law before going to law school. I worked in a wide variety of law firms as a receptionist, legal secretary, and paralegal. By the time I applied to law school, I knew that I wanted to practice in the area of employment law, and after school, I practiced in a group at a large firm in San Diego, California. I worked with and was mentored by amazing lawyers who understood the value in educating younger lawyers.
How has your interest in people influenced your trajectory?
I loved practicing employment law because it affected real people in everyday situations. I spent my early years doing a mix of both litigation and advice and counsel. I learned that what I enjoyed the most was the advice and counsel part of the practice: helping companies not only with staying legally compliant but solving complex issues with their employees to make it a better workforce for both the employees and the company. In my current role supporting our franchise operations, I enjoy getting to know our franchisees, hearing their perspectives as small business owners, and working with our leadership team on how we can best support the success of our franchisees and, in turn, the company.
Describe your ethos surrounding leadership and how that affects your team and workplace.
It is often said that people do not leave jobs; they leave people. Leadership is critically important. Giving management responsibility is often seen as a way to reward high-performing employees, but there is often little time and resources dedicated to training and educating managers on how to lead. Leadership is first and foremost showing individuals that you care about them, and demonstrating that by providing straightforward feedback for their professional growth and development.
I have an open-door policy, including an open “virtual door.” Any team member can come talk to me at any time, whether to vent or because they want my help. They know I care and that I will help them work through the situation. As others did with me, I focus on professional growth and development and make sure that together, we look for opportunities for them to achieve their goals. I also believe in 360-degree feedback, and that it should not just come from your manager but also from your direct reports and others with whom you work.
With franchise leadership and any other client groups that I support, I want them to view me and my team as part of the business team and not simply as “legal.” My goal in partnering with the business client group is always to understand the business objectives, discuss proposed solutions, identify any risks or obstacles, and identify solutions that will achieve those business objectives while minimizing risk. I recently completed a “mini MBA” program specifically for in-house lawyers; this has helped me to build credibility with my business partners by demonstrating that I understand and care about the objectives as well as finding solutions to help achieve them.
How has your mindset impacted and shaped the culture and day-to-day at H&R Block?
At H&R Block, we have defined behaviors to guide how we work as a team to achieve the company’s strategic objectives. Two of the specific behaviors that guide me in how I interact with my team and others are “straightforward” and “better together.” Straightforward means we share and seek actionable feedback and we communicate respectfully and directly. I try to adopt the straightforward mindset and use radical candor to ensure that we continuously work on improving the culture of the organization and allow individuals to grow and develop.
I also strongly believe in creating a culture of “better together,” for company success as well as individual professional growth and development. Adopting the better together mindset means seeking input from others, respecting diverse thoughts, and working together as a team to achieve results. I have routine meetings with my team and with the client groups that we support to discuss not only projects that we are involved in but other projects throughout the organization. This helps to ensure that everyone understands how the work they are doing may impact or be impacted by others. It creates a more collaborative culture where individuals feel they are able to provide input, learn from differing opinions and solutions, and feel a part of the overall strategic direction of the company. This culture is promoted throughout the legal department—not only in how we interact among the legal team but also in our interactions with the business groups that we support.