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Tips From The Top: One On One With Bridget Mary McCormack, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court

I spoke to Bridget Mary McCormack, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, about her journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Bridget: This might surprise people: although I have a very large family I am the only lawyer in it. None before me and none (yet) in the generations after me. And I don’t expect any of my kids to change this trend. Also, I never set out to be a judge; I loved being an advocate and felt like I was good at it and was making an important contribution as a lawyer and a law professor.

Adam: What is something that would surprise people about the life of a state Supreme Court justice?

Bridget: I expect people would be surprised to learn how broad and how important the administrative work of the court is. People hear about some of our decisions in cases and I suspect they assume we read and write a lot. Which we do. But the Michigan Supreme Court is also constitutionally responsible for the administration of all of the courts of the state. This means we have a great responsibility to shape how those courts serve the public. And by making our trial courts more accessible and more responsible to their communities we have a tremendous opportunity to improve those communities and make a difference in people’s lives.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Bridget: My path to the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was atypical. I was never a judge before being elected to the Supreme Court.

I spent a good part of my career as an advocate for people who couldn’t afford to access the legal system, as well as teaching about that subject in law schools. I love innovative models for solving complicated legal problems and especially valued working on those problems with smart law students. My decision to run for the Michigan Supreme Court when there was an open seat in 2012 was, frankly, somewhat old-fashioned. I thought I could be effective on the court, and add a perspective that isn’t often reflected in the judiciary given my practice background. And so without ever having run for any elected office, I set out to run for statewide office and I won.

My experiences representing people who have a difficult time being heard in our justice system have had a tremendous influence on my approach to leading that very system. We can make sure that justice is available to everyone, and we can treat people with dignity and respect. It’s the people’s justice system after all.

I believe I have grown as a leader every time I have encountered a setback. Learning from having something go wrong is critical to succeeding. Being a teacher, a lawyer, an administrator, and parent have all contributed to how I approach what I do now.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills?

Bridget: Failure is the key to success. It gives us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and our processes in ways we could not otherwise. I view setbacks and challenges as opportunities, and they come along pretty regularly.

For one example, while the Supreme Court is ultimately responsible for administering the courts of the state, we rely on the judges in our trial courts to do the important work every day to deliver justice. Having never been a trial court judge it should not have surprised me to learn that my input and ideas about the critical work done by these judges would be viewed skeptically. And the cooperation of those judges is crucial the success of any reform, so I had to make sure to earn their confidence instead of assuming they’d view my ideas as good ones because I thought so. It caught me off guard, and gave me an important challenge to confront. I welcome it.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Bridget: An effective leader is able to motivate each member of her team to perform at his or her very best, which means putting them in the lanes they are strongest in, supporting them, and giving them credit.

I work on my leadership skills the same way I work on other skills I seek to constantly improve, like writing, public speaking, relationships and biking, with practice and asking for help from friends and family and colleagues. I talk through the thorniest challenges with colleagues and friends, and I practice the basics of conscious leadership daily. I approach each day’s leadership challenges with curiosity, candor, and a willingness to take responsibility.

Adam: What are the defining qualities of an effective Supreme Court justice? What are the defining qualities of an effective Chief Justice?

Bridget: An effective Supreme Court justice is an excellent listener, a careful reader, and a committed non-partisan. The most effective justices are first and foremost good colleagues – willing to change their minds when the law requires it and willing to lose friends and elections as a result of doing the job we took an oath to do.

An effective Chief Justice has to master all of those skills, as well as a set of administrative skills to be able to lead the administrative work of the court to improve service to the public. That means the ability to motivate a team to work at their very best, supporting and encouraging every member of the team and taking responsibility for the team’s setbacks.

Adam: What do you believe the general public should better understand about the court system?

Bridget: The public should understand that the court system belongs to them. It is here to serve them, and they should demand of it accessibility, engagement, independence and efficiency. If their local court is not a place where they are treated with dignity and respect and where they can get their business done in the least disruptive way they should complain about that. Courts can be intimidating places but they shouldn’t be. We are here to serve the public, often in difficult times. The public should demand from us excellent service.

Adam: You have a sister and a brother who have both made in Hollywood. What have you learned from their experiences that has helped you in your career?

Bridget: My brother and sister are both master storytellers, and each is wickedly funny. They are also extremely well-liked by their peers and colleagues and those personal relationships have played an ongoing role in their professional successes as well as their professional satisfaction. Those are universal lessons. Good humor and collegiality will take you awfully far in any industry.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Bridget: The three tips I have for leaders in all of these areas are: 1) Approach everything with curiosity; there is always something to learn from any situation. 2) Candor can be really hard but is always worth it; the workplace where candor is the norm is going to be a successful one. 3) Gratitude is an incredible fuel; it benefits the person expressing it as much as the person it is directed to. Whenever I feel it (which is a lot) I try to remember to express it.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Bridget: Life speeds up, and there is a mathematical reason for that – every year is a smaller percentage of your whole life up to that point. (This is why summer when you were 8 lasted about 4 years.) Don’t pass up opportunities today or meaningful experiences with people you love and on behalf of people and issues you care about. It sounds trite but every year I feel it is more acutely true – meaningful relationships and work provide peace and focus.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Bridget: I’m not sure I can say what people SHOULD be doing, but I believe there is great value in unexpected acts of kindness, big and small. An act of kindness by a stranger can stop you in your tracks, it can quite literally reorient you in the moment. Being the source of that kind of reorientation is powerful for the source too.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Bridget: I spend a lot of time in my car and am a big fan of podcasts and audiobooks. I confess that I end up listening to material that is pretty closely aligned with my day job, but I am choosing it so it feels like a hobby. I just finished Serial Season 3 about the criminal justice system in Cleveland, for example, and it does something it is impossible to do in legal opinions or in articles or books – it puts the voices of the real people affected by our system front and center. I found it extremely compelling and motivating.

I do have some other hobbies – I love to bike and swim, and even occasionally do sprint triathlons. I did my first century ride with my husband last fall and I loved it. We were on our bikes from 8 in the morning until 5 at night and traveled 100 miles throughout Michigan and Indiana. I was full of gratitude for the uninterrupted time with him, the perspective on the area and the tired feeling of accomplishment at the end. And anytime I accomplish something physically that I wasn’t confident I could accomplish, it feels great.

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