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Stellar Women: Bishu Solomon Girma on Steadiness Amidst Steady Change

Blair Cohen

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Editor’s Note: It’s a new era for Stellar Women as Mary Rechtoris and Mila Taylor have moved on to new opportunities outside of Relativity. However, they’ve left some episodes of our beloved podcast in the vault for us. The energetic and delightful Blair Cohen—who you may recognize from Relativity programming like Relativity Fest—will share these in the coming weeks and months as she begins to take the helm as our new host.

What does it mean to be a good leader? It isn’t just authoritativeness, or being adaptive, or getting creative—it’s all of that and more. In this episode of Stellar Women, Mary Rechtoris and Mila Taylor discuss flexible leadership styles, making space for diversity and inclusion, and setting realistic goals with Bishu Solomon Girma—head of customer success at Access Legal.

Listen in for some truly insightful tips on how to support your team, grow your career, and protect your wellbeing in seasons of ambitious growth.

Julia Hasenzahl

Bishu Solomon Girma

Divisional Head of Customer Success

Access Legal
 

Transcript

Mila Taylor: Thank you so much for joining us today. We have so much that we want to chat with you about, so I'm going to dive right into questions. You moved from Canada to England for a career opportunity. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Bishu Solomon Girma: I spent about 10 months in London for a summer internship, followed by a semester abroad as part of an exchange program. While I was in law school, I fell in love with the city. I made it known to anyone who asked or even didn't ask that I would love to live and work in London one day. I told that to my managers at different companies that I worked with. I was fortunate enough that in one of my organizations, my manager knew that an opportunity had come up inside the company in London. He asked if I would be interested in putting myself forward, so I immediately did. I put my hand up. I was part of a process that was involved in terms of interviewing for the position, and I got the job. After I got the job, it took me about six weeks to pack up my life, get a visa in order, and make the move to London. It was pretty fast because I knew I wanted to do it. I was really excited that I got the opportunity in my career to make a move from Toronto to London. And in that organization, I got the chance to travel all across Europe. I had to really engage with different business cultures, both from a leadership perspective and then getting to know customers. Because this is legal tech at the end of the day, I had to learn the different legal jurisdictions, as well. It really broadened my horizons and my skill sets. And now in my current role, I'm more focused on the UK market in particular. But I have customers all over the UK, so I'm getting to expand my experience in a whole new way.

MT: Cool. You're still up there in London, right?

BSG: I'm still based in London. It’s been four years—that was actually four years a week ago.

MT: That’s awesome. Yeah, I am similar-ish. I studied abroad while earning my bachelor's degree from Australia in Texas. Then, I was like, “oh, I want to work in America one day.” Then, it was a similar type of thing. When I graduated, I moved on over to Chicago.

BSG: It's funny how you put that out there into the world, and sometimes if people just happen to listen at the right time, and you just keep repeating the message, that opportunity comes along.

MT: What's been some of your favorite or most unexpected favorite places that you've traveled to while you've been in Europe?

BSG: In terms of memories and recall, what jumps out at me is the scenery, the hills, and the rolling landscape that I got to experience on a visit to Isle of Skye in Scotland. It was surprising because obviously there's many places you can go to in Europe. It had food, culture, and history. But what was most impactful was just the green, serene landscape. It was very cold. It was 15 degrees Celsius in August. I don't know what that converts to in Fahrenheit because Canadians and Brits do use Celsius, but it's cold enough and I still really loved it. It was just the cleanest air I think I've ever experienced. It is really refreshing. Obviously, the people were friendly, and I got to try good whiskey along the way as Skye is known for that. It was just lovely hikes and scenery.

Mary Rechtoris: I did a quick Google conversion, and 15 degrees Celsius is 59 degrees Fahrenheit in August. That’s like summer weather.

BSG: What do you mean? That's cold.

MT: That's cold.

BSG: It's cold.

MT: Mary is of Chicago, and she has this warped understanding of what is cold and what is not.

MR: You can wear shorts and a short-sleeved top.

BSG: Summer is 70s. It’s got to be like low 20s at least.

MT: Yes, it’s got to be 25 and over.

MR: All right. Well, it's a big debate here … So, Bishu, you're at Access Legal now and you are running customer success. As a leader, how would you describe your leadership style? What constitutes what makes you, you?

BSG: You be adaptable to the situation at hand. You must really understand what the team and customers need to decide what leadership style to tap into in that moment, and make sure that I'm providing the kind of support I need to provide. If I had to boil it down to one word, I don't even think this is an official leadership style, but it's “adaptive.” I'll go with that. But I do have a few examples of certain styles that I draw upon and when I tend to use them. Sometimes, I do tend to adopt a bit more of a direct and authoritative style. I use that when I need to set direction around process and transformation, especially when there's some lack of definition. I want to come together and bring structure to the team. But this style, it's not about just telling people exactly what they need to do. I know authoritative sounds like that, but that's actually very autocratic. This authoritative style really does involve setting a vision and clear expectations. But you have to allow your team to have the flexibility in coming up with a method which they use to achieve the goals that you're setting out. It's about creating that direction and that vision, and then giving people some room to actually execute on it. Other times, I do tend to have a bit more of a democratic style and more participative style. That's a lot of brainstorming, coming up with ideas together, and getting agreement and alignment on what we want to do in terms of creating a path forward. This can be really helpful when you want to build engagement and collaboration among the team. But it really has to be used carefully; you can't make every single decision by vote, because that could take a long time, right? You have to have some room to breathe, some flexibility, and know when to adopt that. It can be really meaningful in getting people really energized and bought in if they have a say in the direction that you're going and they're able put their vote and ideas forward. And I'd also say that there are some times when I use a bit more creativity and I use that as a coaching method as well. I tend to ask a lot of questions of people when I want them to come up with their own ideas and problem solve independently. I'm going to ask a lot of questions that sometimes are leading questions, but they're mostly open ended. They're aimed at getting to the why. Do you think that that's a recommendation that needs to be followed? Why do you think the customer wanted us to proceed in this particular way in getting to the root of what needs actually happen? Sometimes, when you just go with finding a solution for people, they're not going to learn. In terms of leadership, I want people to learn and find things out for themselves, but it's my job to coach and guide them towards getting there. I also have a couple other notes on leadership that I do want to share. And there's some lessons that I've learned, and I want to note that I'm still learning myself. I don't think any leader can tell you that they have it all figured out. I would love to find someone who has. In a way, I never want to be the person that says I’ve got it all figured out. I want to continuously learn and evolve. What I've learned is that you constantly do need to assess the situation and adjust your approach. You don't want to cause confusion because constant change can really lead to uncertainty, and that can cause some destabilization in the team. So, while you're innovating and working towards continuous improvement, in a way that's constant change, but it has to be with a consistent focus and that clear vision in mind. You have to set clear goals and you want to come up with a purpose for your team. Purpose is actually an exercise that I'm going through with my division and organization at the moment. It’s about brainstorming—what are we trying to accomplish? And not just the what, but the why are we trying to accomplish that? It’s about setting that underlying reason that we come to work every day. When you have that foundation, people really come together because you don't often have to tell people exactly what to do when there's a problem. They know how to go about fixing it because they know they know the why. It really is about continuing to learn from others. I ask my team for feedback. Seeking feedback is really important. I want to reiterate that admitting that I don't know everything isn't about being modest, insecure, or this feeling of having imposter syndrome. I think sometimes it gets confused for that. It's about being really honest with yourself and knowing that you're going to continuously evolve. If you expect that out of others, you need to expect that within yourself and your own personal development.

MR: If you have it all figured out, life would be pretty boring. I really like that. In a previous conversation, we talked about the burden that underrepresented groups often face when it comes to leadership. We're in an industry—legal and tech—where representation is needed on a lot of fronts. You're a Black woman in legal and tech. Have you ever faced that double burden? What's that been like? Tell us a little bit about your story.

BSG: The answer is yes. Well, you know, I have to start at the beginning. Growing up, I was used to being the only Black girl in the class when I was a student, or I was one of less than a handful of Black students. I was born in Ethiopia, but I immigrated to Singapore at a very young age. In that population, I was definitely one of the only Black students in my school. But I soon moved to Canada about four years later. And even there, where there is a bit more diversity and representation, I was just among a handful of [Black] folks. I found myself early in life being part of an underrepresented population. Then, when I moved into the professional space, I continued to be that individual in the group where I felt underrepresented and was very conscious of where my differences could be potentially visible in, among others. I had some experience around potential biases that I saw from other people coming to light. It was always an education opportunity to understand where people were coming from and what I could do around relationship building to find those commonalities and really build connections with individuals. But as I moved more senior in my career, I realized that I wanted to get more involved and have a very proactive approach to it, rather than reacting to situations. I found myself early on [in my career] managing teams of people that were really diverse, but this was in a population of document reviewers where it’s a lot of contingent work. There, I could see a lot of diversity and representation. But then when I looked at the leadership teams, that diversity wasn't necessarily reflected. I wanted to be part of the solution of making sure that there were opportunities, a pathway to leadership, and more secure employment for individuals who wanted it. By putting myself out there, I wanted to represent what the art of the possible was, not just necessarily for Black women, but also for Black men and for other underrepresented groups that may need to see someone who looks like them or who has a similar experience. That may be my immigrant experience that some people can relate to. I just wanted to be mindful of where I could represent a group of people that were feeling underrepresented. Being part of a group of underrepresented people comes with a lot of pressure. There is external pressure. Some of that external pressure is this expectation to perform at a really high level to overcome any potential unconscious or conscious biases that we have experienced throughout our careers. Then, there's an internal pressure as well to ensure that you continue to perform at that high level and you're setting a positive example. There's this very deep understanding that because you're representing other people, how you succeed could create the pathway for other people’s success. Then if you don't succeed, [you worry about the] impact and reflection that may have. That’s a lot to put on yourself. That's a big burden. For some, it's something that we strongly internalize and have to consciously work on because of course, we're not representing an entire population. We're representing ourselves. But there is a potential, especially if you're used to being a high performer, to put that burden on yourself. I'm really mindful of how I do that and how I coach other people who want to play a role in giving opportunity to others as well to not necessarily put that weight on their shoulders alone.

MT: I especially love the art of possibility. I haven't heard somebody say that before, so that's a really nice thought. Oftentimes, with that burden, that comes with feelings of burnout. Do you have any tips for listeners who might be starting to feel that or even ways to avoid feeling that burnout?

BSG: As I mentioned more recently, in my career, I've started to play a role in being part of the proactive response to creating more diversity and inclusion within the organizations that I have worked in, rather than reacting to one-by-one scenarios. I took a look and made a conscious decision to play a proactive role. I don't look at it as a burden. I actually do look at it as a responsibility and, in a way, a privilege because I have a leadership position where I have a voice that's perhaps influential enough to make a difference in that respect. I take on that work knowing that I consciously want to do it. But I am also very aware that for some others, it's work that's expected of them. I'm really mindful that when people participate in DEI initiatives, they're making a choice to do so. I always ask people to volunteer completely independently. Take a look at what work they have on their plate and make sure that they have enough time to do it. They're able to invest and commit because once you start this work and when you do it, you tend to be really passionate about it. The people who put their hand up to get involved tend to have a lot of passion, and that passion is a very, very quick candlewick to burnout. You need to give yourself time and know that you're not doing it all alone and independently. You also have to be part of an organization that gives you the right support, structure, and sponsorship across all levels and diverse backgrounds as well, so you're not always putting the onus, burden, and responsibility on the underrepresented groups. [You need that support] to really help in creating the solutions to the challenges that individuals may face. I think we need to be part of the conversation and use our lived experience to influence, inspire, or enlighten people on where there may be opportunities to close some gaps. These may be gaps that people don't even recognize exist. That’s why I want to lend my voice because I know that ultimately the responsibility has to be shared, among other people and frankly, by people who aren't part of that underrepresented population. That change has to come from the outside as well. In terms of giving people advice, it boils down to make sure that you have enough time and capacity. Look at all the work that you're doing. If you're a leader, this is a perfect opportunity to delegate. Give other people an opportunity to take initiatives on so that you can take this one on for yourself if you want to move into DEI. I'd also say, make sure that you’re very conscious of how you're spending your time. I spent a lot of time early on reading anything and everything that I could find because I thought I was going to make myself an expert in this space, as if it was a part time job. It is not a part time job. There are already experts. If you're lucky enough to be able to have funding and hire external consultants, whether it's for quick engagements or long-term strategic initiatives, make sure you're looking for the right experts to help and support. Don’t feel like you have to be an expert yourself just because you feel passionate about a topic. You can have an impact and of course you will. But with your role, you got to be really conscious about how big of an impact you're trying to make it.

MR: I really love that. For a lot of organizations, people are so passionate about this. It isn't their nine-to-five or eight-to-five or whatever. Time is of the essence. If you're moving at a million miles a minute, suddenly you're going to have to take a breath and that could lead to feeling like, “oh, what have I accomplished? What am I doing?” I really like that being cognizant of time and that you don't have to know everything. Obviously, learn what you like, but lean on the experts to really drive that change as it's applicable to your organization.

BSG: And realize that change doesn't happen overnight. It's incremental. It's iterative. I think I'm the kind of person that sets out a list of goals that I want to accomplish, and I typically do have timeframes around them. But I can also recognize that sometimes I'm overly ambitious about the timeframes. I need people around me that are very much [the realist]. When I say, “what can we accomplish in this amount of time?” They can be a bit realistic about it. When you've seen lack of progress for so long, you know that there is a possibility for quick wins. If it hasn't been done in 20- or 30-plus years, you're not going to do it in the next three months. It's about setting a reasonable time frame and deciding what are those incremental moves that you can make that are going to get you that step forward. Yes, you want to do that as quickly as possible. You have to bring people on that journey with you. There’s a change journey for other people as you start to roll out DEI programs. I think it's easy to take for granted the amount of new information that can be coming people's way and how they have to process it. You need to build that into your expectations of how quickly you want to move. A really quick example is throwing out unconscious bias training really quickly to people who don't have the framework to understand what that is. That's probably actually going to slow you down. That's not moving quickly and meeting your objectives. You have to actually set the foundation. Take that step back as well and look at the big picture.

MR: Looking back at yourself when you were in law school, what advice would you give? You know, is there anything you wish you would have told your younger self about your career or about what not to do? Feel free to take this question in whatever direction you want.

BSG: I thought a lot about this even before you prepped me with this question. If I could go back and give myself advice, I would say expect the unexpected as cliché as that sounds. I was the law school graduate that had a five-, 10-, and 20-year plan. I knew what I wanted to do and the area I wanted to practice in. I knew I wanted to go into business because I have a business background as well my law degree. Then, nothing transpired according to that five-, 10-, and 20-year plan, but I'm obviously very happy about what I'm doing now. The reason why I got here is because I took those kinds of twists along my career journey. I said yes to opportunities that I didn't even know existed before someone came to me and said, “hey, you seem to be really good at X. Do you want to take this opportunity on?” Or they put me in touch with someone and I just had a networking coffee with them. That led to the more permanent opportunity. I would just tell myself that those twists are going to happen. Don’t be surprised by them and don’t focus on trying to get back to the original plan. There was a short period of time where I did that and then I ended up unhappy. I then came back to the opportunity that had come to me unexpectedly. That really launched my career to where it is today—being really open and flexible, and building relationships with people. That’s ultimately what matters, the connections that you make. Yes, you can do a really great job and feel proud of yourself for that sense of accomplishment, but it's the people who you build relationships with and who see that potential in you that are going to help you down the line. You want to make sure that you're maintaining those. I would just say to be really grateful and thankful for those relationships. Maintain them and perhaps be a little bit better at maintaining them. I've got some work to do on that. Then, at the end of the day, I would say, don't be so hard on yourself when things don't go as planned. I tended to put a lot of pressure on myself as a young law student graduate, and I'm sure a lot of others do as well. But I know that if I went back to tell my 25-year-old self not to put so much pressure on herself, she wouldn't listen. Things do really work out. Not to end on a similar cliché to the one that I started with, but it's about focusing on what you can control and what's in your realm of control at the end of the day. All those other factors that are outside of it, they're not worth stressing and worrying about. Focus on what you know you can do really well and be the person who you want to be who lives by values that you truly believe in.

MR: Wow, this is what I needed to hear. I was just talking to my fiancé, and he said, “stop putting so much pressure on yourself.” I'm like, “I don't know how.” He's like, “relax, like everything will figure itself out.” I said, “I don't know how to relax.” Bishu, well, this is such a lovely conversation. Thanks for joining Mila and me today.

BGS: Thank you so much for having me.

MT: Thank you so much for joining us.

MR: And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.

MT: I’m Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.  

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Blair Cohen is a writer on Relativity's brand team, where she focuses on telling compelling stories, capturing insights from our community, and representing the company with energy and enthusiasm.

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