March 26, 2013

What if candor had the power to move one’s career from already-pretty-great to truly extraordinary?

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has achieved what most would say is unbelievable. Statistically speaking, the chance of becoming one of the very few who are selected and confirmed to the SCOTUS is highly unlikely. And yet, Sotomayor is the Court’s 111th justice, its third female and first Hispanic. It might make one wonder… What specific, unique factors contributed to her success?

In her recently published autobiography, My Beloved World, Sotomayor tells the story of her childhood through the early years of her career.

She describes a particular moment which demonstrates her drive for truth and improvement. While serving in the District Attorney’s office in the County of New York, Sotomayor lost two trials in succession. She went to bureau chief Warren Murray and asked him to help her discover what went wrong. As she relates in My Beloved World:

Okay. Tell me what you did,” Warren said.

 I walked him through my presentation of both cases.

He identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality, and in effect letting the jury off the hook. Since it is painful to most jurors to vote “guilty” and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity.

“They have to believe they have a moral responsibility to convict,” Warren said.

Sotomayor says this insightful response dramatically changed how she argued cases and calls this the “single most powerful lesson” she would ever learn. She never lost another case. And this breakthrough (as she calls it) came from her willingness to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to admit she was struggling… and to be receptive to her boss’s direct feedback.

The practice of candor is probably, alone, not going to turn you into a Supreme Court Justice. However, focusing on candor, asking for honest feedback from those you respect and embracing their insight has worked for one of our newest justices.  How has candor – or the absence of it – impacted your path or the paths of those connected to you? Are there conversations that might make a difference for your career?