Dawn Ehlers, deputy general counsel at Cengage Group, keeps an important Post-It note on the wall behind her computer. Every day, it reminds her of how she wants to lead her team.
“Lead from the back, not from the front,” it reads, a notion that reminds her to constantly consider ways she can set her team up for success by making sure they’re given opportunities to shine, even if she needs to stay in the background.
She does this by trying to make sure she isn’t the only one from her team who speaks up on conference calls and taking steps that better position her team members as leaders, such as intentionally choosing not to join certain meetings, so her team members are seen as the legal point person. She also tries to provide continuous feedback on how they can grow in their role and in their careers.
It’s a leadership style that the DGC admits isn’t for the faint of heart, especially for in-house counsel who are often nervous about proving to their senior leadership that they are adding value. But she’s seen the impact her approach can have on a person. She’s even witnessed it in her own career, owing many of her successes to leaders and mentors who gave her opportunities.
“When I reflect back on people I’ve been managed by, I appreciated when they gave me a chance to do the work, even if it was a little bit of a stretch for me, but then also take the lead when it came time to present to the client,” Ehlers says.
The attorney got opportunities like that early on in her law career. After receiving her law degree from St. John’s University, she accepted an associate position at Epstein Becker & Green in New York, working mainly on M&A-related matters. There, her mentors and colleagues helped her develop her skills and provided chances for her to showcase them.
About seven years into her tenure at the firm, a partner introduced her to the general counsel for the Thomson Corporation in Connecticut, at the time, an information provider in legal and regulatory, finance, health sciences, and higher education (now Thomson Reuters). He hired her to handle M&A work, but also to help him with employment matters. But there was one problem: she didn’t know much about employment law.
“He believed, because I think my partner told him, that I could not only do M&A work, which is what I had been doing, but that I could also help with employment work,” she says. “So, joining Thomson was the first big challenge in my career because I had to teach myself an area of law that I had been exposed to but never really worked on and rely on my former colleagues to help me in those first few months and years.”
This area of the law turned out to be a better fit for Ehlers because she has always been a people person. She really learned to love employment law and eventually did quite well. Another opportunity presented itself when in 2007 the Thomson Corporation sold off then Thomson Learning, its higher education business, and she moved into a senior employment counsel role with the spin off, now Cengage Group.
As the product of a mom who was a dental hygienist in the public school system and a dad who was a high school physical education teacher and football coach, Ehlers’ decision to follow the higher education business was largely due to her family’s strong ties to education.
In her senior employment counsel role at the Cengage Group, she provided legal counsel and strategic support to HR, senior leadership, and the executive team on employment-related matters in all fifty states. More importantly, she was given a chance to be more than a lawyer. Even though she didn’t have any direct reports, she had leadership responsibilities and played a vital role in helping manage the legal team and guiding senior leaders with important decisions.
Those responsibilities grew as the business expanded and saw a change in management in 2012. At Cengage Group, an education technology company that supports millions of learners globally from middle school through graduate school and skills education, she continued to take advantage of opportunities thrown her way. As the business grew, Ehlers was able to hire an employment lawyer that would report to her directly.
“I soon realized how much I enjoyed working with this person, not just because she was a much stronger employment lawyer than I had ever been, but because of how much I enjoyed trying my best to mentor her and to make sure she was successful,” she reflects.
The experience lit a fire inside Ehlers that continued when she got promoted to deputy general counsel. “I had a number of the attorneys and paralegals reporting to me and that solidified how important my role as a leader was for me,” she says. “I still love the law, but helping employees be successful in their roles has been even more rewarding.”
Ehlers advises attorneys to keep an open mind as they look toward their future in law. “Younger people today seem to be forced to map out their lives with a little more particularity than people of my generation,” she says. “It’s okay to see where things go and hope opportunities present themselves so you can take advantage of them, rather than setting some career path in stone.”
“You don’t often come across someone like Dawn . . . a consummate lawyer and manager of course, but Dawn brings a personal and caring dimension to the demanding work we’re doing for Cengage—it is her empathetic quality that sets her apart.”
–Mike Gibson, Partner