A. Gail Prudenti, Chief Administrative Judge, New York State Unified Court System

Interviews

A. Gail Prudenti, Chief Administrative Judge, New York State Unified Court System

A. Gail Prudenti, Chief Administrative Judge, New York State Unified Court System

New York State Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti talks about leadership transition, the value of mentors, and her greatest challenges as a leader.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Over the last 20 years, when assuming leadership roles within the judiciary and court administration, I have found that there are a couple of key elements that work best for me. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a leader of two or three judges or over 1,000 personnel; the primary rule is to treat everyone with kindness, dignity, and respect. If I am known for nothing else, I’ll be very happy. I try to remember that every person and community I work with wants to be treated the same way you and your family want to be treated. This helps create a positive work environment, but also can be helpful when you meet those individuals in your career down the road. For example, I used to work as an entry level clerk with the deputy chief clerk at the Surrogate’s Court, who then became the chief clerk there. Some 15 years later, I became the Surrogate. All of a sudden, fast forward a decade or so and our roles brought us back together. Our relationship of trust and respect transcended our positions. That tone served both of us well, but more importantly, really served the institution well.

Working in the criminal justice field, have you felt pressure to adhere to a stern or aggressive demeanor?
Many people feel that you have to be very stern or aggressive as a leader. But I have found that once people realize that your kindness is not a weakness and that you can still be firm, that you are a person who will listen and understands that humans are frail and imperfect, you gain their respect. It’s not always easy to be nice to people who are being mean or nasty or disgruntled. I think each leader finds a leadership style that works best for them. I know that my leadership style is very different from a lot of other effective leaders. For me, you can be assertive without being aggressive. You might disagree with colleagues, but I try very hard to foster an environment where it’s safe to disagree—without being disagreeable and becoming entrenched in your position. We can learn from each other. 

Do you have a default response when setbacks arise?
I use a 48-hour rule. If there’s something that has really upset me or troubles me, I take 48 hours before I take any action. Time is a great teacher. It allows you to think things through and do your due diligence. Then, when you do address the situation, you are coming from a more knowledgeable position and are able to communicate in a calm and rational state rather than an aggravated one. It’s also important to keep perspective when you feel you have been wronged by someone. Nobody is as good or as bad as you may think they are. 

Have you developed a strategy in responding to media inquiries, particularly when the story may not be a favorable one?
The worst feeling in the world for a leader is to feel you’re on the defensive. I try to avoid that tendency to be defensive and simply recognize that journalists are doing their job. They want the truth to come out, and they’re entitled to the answers to their questions. That approach did not come naturally to me, but it’s something I’ve worked on over the years.

Do you think leadership ability is innate or learned?
Certain people are natural leaders, but not because they wake up one morning and are able to lead the Western world. It’s because they practice and hone their skills. To develop as a leader, you must focus on your strengths. Find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Mentors play an important role in that learning process. I’ve had many mentors in my career who have helped me become a better leader, including New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. Mentors should be those who you hold in the highest regard and who you trust to keep a confidence. Leaders need other leaders to talk to.

How can leaders promote positive change within an agency or system?
Change is not easy. It takes time, just as it takes time to change the course of a ship. To be successful, you have to be realistic about your expectations and know that it won’t happen overnight. This has actually been an important lesson to me as a leader. I’m a very energetic person and can be overzealous at times—trying to do too much too quickly. I’ve had to try very hard to practice patience. 

What role does innovation play in your work?
I’m a believer that we can always make things better. For example, running a busy court is all about managing volume. I developed a calendar to track the caseloads of individual judges. It provided some accountability for judges who were getting backlogged, while also providing me the information I needed to provide extra assistance and fix the problem. It goes back to knowing co-workers’ strengths and weaknesses. Not every judge is great at case management. He or she might be a brilliant jurist and produce excellent determinations, but may need some help in other areas. That example doesn’t mean that every new idea I’ve had has worked. Some have worked and some haven’t; others I’ve had to tweak. You may have to deal with some naysayers whose default response is ‘no, that can’t be done’ or ‘no, that’s not the way we do things,’ but those voices can usually be acknowledged without killing a good idea. I try to hear their complaint, but then consider whether there is a true opportunity to make things even better. 

What has been your greatest challenge as a leader so far?
I’ve found that the most difficult task of a leader is to gain trust and respect. That takes a lot of time. Above all else, I think you do that by keeping your word, even when it’s most difficult to do so. For example, if you told someone, ‘the next promotion that comes up is yours,’ that’s a promise you’ll need to try to keep. Times change, and you may wish you hadn’t said that, but by keeping your word—even when it’s against your own interest—I think you gain people’s trust and respect. I also think that trust and respect comes when you are able to demonstrate expertise in something, whether it’s a certain area of the law or effective court operations. That, too, takes a lot of work.

What kind of work culture do you aim to create?
In many organizations, there’s a management versus non-management mentality. But I’ve found that a co-worker mentality—where all staff feel that they are equally respected and valued—can be more effective and productive. To achieve this, it’s important to be generous with your time. Keep the door open. Say ‘hello’ and work to learn everyone’s names. Show your staff—from an entry level clerk up to the top levels of management—that you value them and want them to succeed. And I’ve found that when they feel that support, they will work as hard as they possibly can. You can further enhance this environment by ensuring that you put the right people in the right places. Make sure everyone is in a position where they can succeed. Looking back over the years, I think this environment has cultivated great loyalty. I have staff that have been with me from Suffolk County to Brooklyn and now to Manhattan. I have been incredibly blessed with my staff. 

What are some qualities you look for when hiring new staff?
I try to surround myself with a very talented team. I look for talent. One of my staff I recognized had an incredible ability to understand budgets and see where we could achieve some savings. Those are the kinds of issues that can really bog you down, but not if you have the right staff in the right places. I don’t think they take away from me at all—they help me do a good job. I’m always looking for good, hard-working, talented people. 

When you are new to a leadership position, how do you work to assemble the right team?
I have had to do this many times. I go in with the assumption that—particularly at the very high levels—staff who pursue this line of work are usually incredibly talented people. I make it clear that I’m not looking to make unnecessary changes, which I think gives everyone some comfort that they aren’t competing for each other’s jobs. But repositioning some staff is sometimes unavoidable. I have a six-month rule that I follow, which I learned from Judge Joseph Traficanti, who was the deputy chief administrative judge of New York when I was an administrative judge. He had lots of administrative experience, and I remember him telling me, ‘When you go into a new leadership role, you should give the existing staff six months. See how they work with you, how you work with them, and what their talents and abilities are. Determine whether they will help you be successful in your new role.’ Usually what you find after that six-month period is that, for the staff who aren’t the right fit, they might have come to the same conclusion and want to move on. 

How do you ease the process when staff need to be let go?
I’ve had to be the bearer of a lot of bad news in my position, particularly when it comes to staff layoffs. I spend a lot of time making those very difficult decisions, and often, the staff who are let go end up feeling less upset than I do because they respect the way the decision was made. Furthermore, I make it clear that if there’s a time I can help in the future, I will. 

What role do you think court systems play in reforming the justice system?
People come to the court system for a variety of reasons and with a range of problems, whether they’re indigent or have family issues. It’s a very vulnerable time for them. We have to be sensitive to that and acknowledge that every single case is vitally important to those litigants and their families. If we lose sight over how they deserve to be treated, then we lose sight of our mission to resolve disputes and to protect the citizens of our community. I’ve had personal experience with this. When my parents were very ill, I struggled to navigate the court system in resolving their affairs—and I was a lawyer familiar with the court system. If I can’t find the help and resources I need, what is the rest of the community doing when something tragic happens in their lives? 

How have you defined success for yourself in your recent leadership roles?
The Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department in New York State is one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation. So in a concrete way, I define success as doing quality work in a timely fashion and making sure my co-workers feel appreciated. In a broader sense, though, I try very hard to have a vision that’s greater than myself. I believe that one person can make a difference, even in a system with 14,000 employees and a multi-billion dollar budget. Now, in my new role as Chief Administrative Judge, I’m very sensitive to the fact that the vision I’m pursuing is really Chief Judge Lippman’s vision. I work at his pleasure. Therefore, my role is to accomplish what he wants to accomplish in his tenure. If I can help him do that, I will feel that I’ve been successful.

What one piece of advice would you give a rising attorney who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
Work hard and keep your options open. I had always wanted to be a Surrogate of Suffolk County. I remember when I went from the Supreme Court to the Surrogate Court, many of my judicial colleagues told me, ‘Why would you do that? You can’t then go to the Appellate Division. No one will consider you for administrative judge.’ But I knew that’s where I could best serve. Having done it, I can tell you, it was the right decision for me. Many amazing opportunities have followed since then.

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