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Profile: Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD

Business school professor Herminia Ibarra has become a trail-blazing thinker on leadership. We ask how her work can be applied to general counsel

Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD

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Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD Catherine McGregor: Lawyers get very focused on their professional qualifications, but as they rise through the ranks – particularly to the general counsel position – their role becomes increasingly focused on management. A common concern we hear is that they feel ill-equipped to deal with this shift. There can also be a desire not to let go of being a lawyer. What practical measures would you suggest to help balance these conflicting desires?

Herminia Ibarra: A good place to start is the fact that the requirements for people aspiring to join the c-suite have changed a lot over the last ten years, with professional management and business qualifications becoming a smaller and smaller portion of it. What matters now is having broader business acumen as well as possessing the requisite soft skills – essentially being able to speak about what is happening between your discipline and others. Recent research by Boris Groysberg with the headhunter Heidrick & Struggles, shows the requirement for different c-suite roles is much more similar than you might think. Today’s general counsel may have more in common with the CMO, CFO or even the CEO than with the legal track. This becomes increasingly salient as organisations become more collaborative with regards to putting together strategies and plans from different perspectives. The need for this has become increasingly clear.

In my research, what I tend to focus on is how to make that transition, drawing less from your technical skills and more from management skills when you are still not so confident with those. How do you practically find ways to develop those leadership skills to move more in that direction?

A key tactic is to start redefining your day job and to think about it more broadly, then get involved in things outside of your immediate area. It really is about becoming comfortable getting outside of your competency; a lot of people are clinging to this core competency as an identity, but frankly, what gets you here won’t get you there. But for many, the alternative is not satisfying because they don’t feel good at it; it can be amorphous when you have been trained in a very distinct profession and subsequently need to move away from that.

CM: In your book, you speak a lot about getting out of your comfort zone and finding your authentic self – this struck as me as having parallels with challenges some in-house counsel face regarding just being seen as the lawyer, particularly in regards to trying to be more strategically involved as part of the c-suite. What steps can in-house counsel take to move beyond just being seen as the lawyer when interacting with the board and senior executives?

HI: You may think it’s just about external perception, but those perceptions can manifest internally and influence how you see yourself and impact on your confidence, so it is chicken and egg. Part of the issue with external perception is that reacting to it can initially feel like more style than substance; it’s more about how you are expressing ideas and your point of view – but that can lead to feeling you are faking it – the classic authenticity trap. If you are used to playing the role of the lawyer, you are naturally inclined to be cautious – it’s how you’re trained – you won’t go out on a limb unless you know exactly what you are talking about. As a trusted adviser moving into a business role, you have to go out on a limb more – ‘my gut tells me this’ – being increasingly reliant on your point of view rather than falling back onto content expertise. To get comfortable with a more point-of-view orientated approach, look at how other people do this and how they frame it. This is where building a network of connections outside of your normal network can be invaluable.

Today’s general counsel may have more in common with the CMO, CFO or even the CEO than with the legal track.

For in-house lawyers, a key is spending more time with non-lawyers, talking to people who are not lawyers. Conversely, people who are not lawyers will be happy to get your point of view – you become more useful, you start to understand how they see things, what they find useful and how you can help them.

CM: You speak about the move to leadership as a continuous process, not a conversion. What advice would you offer for those who might struggle to maintain this mindset?

HI: Being in contact with people who are different from you is key. Presumably, your organisation has a feedback process to allow lawyers to see if they are being effective. Ask: in the last year, what has changed? How have I grown? If there isn’t such a feedback system in place, it might be time to start one. I am not a huge advocate for lots of reflection time, but you do need this at some points in the process to facilitate development as a leader. This is where your network, particularly those outside of your usual people, becomes important.

CM: We hear a lot about how the workplace may change over the next 20 years with the increase of technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) – how might this impact the way managers need to lead in order to remain effective?

HI: It will change the way people think about what they are there to do. Any area where you have codified content, AI will soon take care of that. But most in-house lawyers aren’t there to do that. Collaboration, particularly across departments, is fundamental; Heidi Gardner’s recent research at Harvard Law School on law firms has shown that the more lawyers collaborate and get involved in projects that cut across legal areas, the more they are able to bill, which in practice means that both they and the firm can reap the financial benefits.

The same will be true of in-house lawyers – the more significant it is, the more bespoke a matter, the more it needs thinking and interaction. That won’t change with the rise of AI; the things that AI can do easily – that’s not what you want to be known for and what your team want to be known for. Apply your skills to a context that’s a moving target, no-one has substituted people for doing that kind of thing. With the rise of new ways of working you need to be careful that you co-operate; operating in silos, whether legal or otherwise, can be a huge issue in organisations.

CM: In your research, writing and teaching, you are constantly thinking about the role of the individual in the organisation – from your perspective, what are the most interesting potential developments we may be looking at in the near future?

HI: This whole issue about how do we get people to collaborate more effectively is really on the radar. The value of it is very clear, but because many companies still default to being in silos and we still value the individual so much in terms of things like compensation, it’s a challenge to move to a more collaborative mindset. Some of the new ways of working like Holacracy [a system of self-governance with decision-making across teams rather than a central hierarchy] are too complex to really implement and not so effective in practice. But people are starting to find ways to shift out of the command and control mindset and empower people. You have to find home-grown ways for each company and its culture – the bottom line is that there is no off-the-shelf system that can do that for you.

This article first appeared in GC, the sister title of The In-House Lawyer.