I am excited to feature Sonya Olds Som in the Women Who Wow series.
Sonya is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office focusing on executive search and consulting services. She focuses on general counsel/chief legal officer and other senior roles within corporate legal departments and law firms across industries and geographies, as well as on executing board searches and providing diversity advisory services.
Sonya provides diversity and inclusion consulting to Heidrick & Struggles internally and to its corporate clients, helping to strengthen the organizations’ culture of diversity and inclusion by positioning it as an integral component of the business.
Before joining Heidrick & Struggles, Sonya was a partner at another global executive search firm. For nearly a decade, she was integrally involved with various areas of recruiting within the legal field including advising organizations on their legal recruiting needs with emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
Previously, Sonya served for a decade as a labor & employment and immigration attorney at the associate and partner levels at various national, regional and super regional law firms.
I met Sonya recently when we were both asked to be on a virtual panel for Seyfarth’s The Belonging Project’s initiative on building a strong professional brand by our mutual friend Paula Edgar.
During the planning call for the webinar, I found myself taking copious notes and learning from her each time she answered a question. The day of the actual virtual panel discussion was no different – Sonya’s advice to the audience on building a professional brand resonated with me on every level.
I reached out to her afterward and asked if we could keep in touch. And here we are. I hope you enjoy getting to know and learning from Sonya as much as I did.
Why did you choose your profession?
I have been so fortunate as to have had two professions so far: First, I was a labor & employment and immigration lawyer for 10+ years, ultimately becoming a law firm partner. Next, I have been an executive search consultant (“recruiter,” “headhunter”) for 10+ years, ultimately becoming a search firm partner. Rather than really “choosing,” I kind of fell into both professions: With regard to my first profession as a lawyer, I am the first person in my family to finish college. I did not know any lawyers growing up. But I did know pop culture, and in the 80’s when I was growing up, Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” represented everything that I aspired to be in life: a warm, witty, wise, confident, successful, Black woman who was a wife and mother with her own professional career as a lawyer.
With regard to my second profession as an executive search consultant, when I was laid off by my last law firm in 2009 (along with many other lawyers in connection with the economic downturn of 2008), as I had recently become a new mother, I saw it as an opportunity to seek out a new professional path to compliment my new personal path, and the advice that I sought out during that time led me into my current career in executive search.
What do you love most about what you do?
I see three, interconnected, primary aspects to my role as an executive search consultant: search execution, candidate advising/mentoring, and business development/marketing. The thing that I love most about all three is the same (and is the same as the thing I loved most about being a practicing lawyer): the sense of excitement, happiness and gratification I experience whenever I feel like I have really helped an individual or organization in a significant way in a pivotal moment on their path.
While I started my executive search career in 2010 focused on legal search, especially placing general counsel and other senior lawyers in legal departments (which I still do), I have expanded my work since joining Heidrick & Struggles in 2019 into also conducting board searches and other non-legal executive searches, plus providing diversity & inclusion and other leadership consulting services.
As I have always had a particular passion for assisting people (especially other women and people of color) on their career paths, the fact that I can now also do so in ways such as helping them move into other (legal and non-legal) executive roles and join boards (and help them as hiring managers fill executive roles and board seats in their own organizations) is very satisfying.
Tell us about a woman you look up to and why.
I look up to my mother more than any other person. In addition to always being my number one fan, cheerleader, and most trusted advisor, my mom has always been the greatest example to me of warmth, intelligence, poise, kindness, resilience, good humor and grace under fire. More than once in my life I have watched my mother put her head in her hands and cry. But then I always saw her take a deep breath, say a prayer, lift her head up high, smile and get back into the game!
Her favorite quotation, shared with me almost daily throughout my life to this day, is “I am hurt, but I am not slain; I’ll lay me down and bleed a-while, And then I’ll rise and fight again” (Thomas Moore). That’s what my mother always taught me to do, what I try to teach now that I am a mother myself, and what I try to help others do in their professional lives.
Do you have a mentor?
As much as I try to act as a mentor and advisor to others, I am fortunate myself to have had several wonderful mentors. For example, Patricia Brown Holmes, Managing Partner at Riley, Safer, Holmes & Cancila law firm, to me has been, since I moved to Chicago as a young lawyer in 1999, the real life “Clair Huxtable” mentor, inspiration and example that I always wanted and needed in my personal and professional life.
What do you think is the key for success in a role like yours?
I think the key to success for an executive search consultant is very much the same as the key to success as an attorney or anyone in a professional services organization: First, you must learn your craft and build a solid foundation as someone who knows and can advise others about your industry/subject matter (and commit to continuous learning). Then, upon that foundation of substantive knowledge and experience, you consistently work at building your personal brand/reputation and network/relationships within your organization and externally over time.
Overall, though, for everyone, regardless of your role, I recommend doing what you love, what you’re passionate about, with people and organizations that you like and respect, being true to your values/goals and being your authentic self.
You are not for everyone/every organization/every job, and everyone/every organization/every job is not for you – and that is ok! “Success” should be defined by each individual, and if you are happily following your own, true, path (embracing the fact that what that path is can change over time, sometimes in some unexpected but delightful ways, as mine surely has), regardless of what anyone else might think or what anyone else might be doing, how could you help but feel like you are a success?