A Leadership Conversation with Jean Block

Jean Block is a lawyer who has been practicing law for 21 years. She currently serves as the Chief Legal Officer at Little Rock Water Reclamation Authority (LRWRA) – Arkansas’s largest wastewater utility. In her role, she is responsible for all legal and compliance matters. She is also a member of LRWRA’s senior management team and works closely and collaboratively with the CEO, COO and CFO on key issues that affect the utility. In this conversation, Jean explains how leadership can be a juggling act, the importance of being an authentic leader and what she believes are the most important things when developing the next generation of leaders.

What inspired you to go into a law career?  

I was in my third year of college as a Sociology major, and I was trying to figure out what was next.  A close family friend said to me casually one day, “You should think about law school – a law degree is very versatile.”  That one word “versatile” immediately resonated with me. I loved the idea of a career with options.  And, my 21-year law career has reflected that.  In that time, I’ve practiced Bankruptcy law, Consumer Protection law, served as a Public Defender for an Indian Tribe, and served as General Counsel first for the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery and now for LRWRA.  I don’t think a legal career can get much more versatile than that!

How have you gained trust/commitment from the teams you have led?

I aim to gain trust and commitment from the teams I work with through a range of ways: Regular communication and two-way communication with them; removing any obstacles they may encounter; encouraging open communication with me about tools or support they need to facilitate their work; and, letting them know through my words and actions that I have their back in every regard.

What is the hardest part of being a leader? 

To me, leadership is a juggling act of the following things, and except for professional jugglers, juggling can be challenging. It is charting a path forward for and achieving the current objectives of the organization while envisioning and then implementing long-term goals. It is bringing one’s genuine self to the job daily which sometimes means admitting a mistake or apologizing for being short in a moment of frustration. And, it means never forgetting that the team one leads is made up of humans who otherwise have families and busy lives. This requires a leader to lead with compassion to unforeseen circumstances that arise for team members and to think of the effect of policies and decisions on team members when considering options. 

What rules do you break as a leader?

I am my authentic self, and I bring that authenticity to my role as a leader every day. I am naturally a warm, relaxed, easy-going person. So, when our senior leadership team started filming individual inspirational and communication videos for employees during COVID, I didn’t hesitate to throw in a TikTok dance move or film from my favorite location in Little Rock – the downtown Sculpture Garden. I believe that leaders should be their authentic selves. And, I am most comfortable when I am – even if that sometimes disarms my colleagues. 

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about employees and people, generally, being their true selves and reaching their fullest potential. I am passionate about learning, growing and improving constantly – in all aspects of life. I am passionate about listening to, and augmenting, the voices of people who do not have a voice in certain spaces. And, I am passionate about using the role that I occupy in the greatest capacity, and for the greatest good, for the benefit of LRWRA and my colleagues.  

What is your mission statement in life?

I don’t have a mission statement as much as I have a philosophy for how I live my life: Keeping a small circle, but one that is full of strong relationships; staying in a healthy state – physically, mentally, and emotionally – this includes being mindful of when my batteries need to be recharged and recharging them; and constantly pushing myself to greater heights personally and professionally. I am never content with stasis. 

What do you believe is most important for developing the next generation of leaders? 

I believe it’s a range of things: Being intentional about their growth which means having a leadership development program; providing access to leadership in the organization; having current leaders be honest with them about their own experiences and challenges; validating different leadership styles; giving them stretch projects and providing candid feedback on their performance; and having honest conversations about their overall strengths and areas for improvement.  

What are your favorite questions to ask those you lead?

I ask many questions during meetings. I believe that the space for clarity on and improvement of an issue exists in the dialogue that comes from questions. I find that a good idea becomes better or a topic evolves with the revelations and solutions that come from questions. Also, I end nearly every meeting by asking “Is there anything  you need?” and “Is there anything I can do to help you?”  I believe it is my job to remove challenges and barriers the teams I lead encounter so they can soar.

What are you doing daily to ensure your growth and development continues as a leader? 

I believe good leaders embrace learning, growth, and development. This development occurs on a daily basis and is never-ending. It can and should come from a range of sources – from the people we lead, from our peers, and from external professional sources that we seek out and that are otherwise available in the public sphere. I’ve been fortunate in the past five years to have a close working relationship with three seasoned peers. Our leadership styles are vastly different, and mine has evolved and broadened considerably – for the good I would say – given my exposure to their leadership perspectives and approaches.  I am also a sponge for leadership guidance from everything from Harvard Business Review and Society of Human Resources Managers magazines to TED Talks.

How has your leadership style evolved over the years?

Over half of my work life was in state government where the culture is generally (with some exceptions) laden with tight scrutiny of time, micromanagement and little emphasis on developing employees, supervisors, or future leaders. I have spent the past five years actively trying to shake off the vestiges of those approaches. I believe I’ve been largely successful with that. Because of my close working relationship with three peers, I’ve been able to view leadership from a broader lens. I have also seen the healthier work environment that results from a less top-down restrictive approach. This leads to my current leadership style which combines collaboratively setting goals with the teams I lead and helping them achieve success while letting them know I value them and support them.