Who better to learn from than those who have gone before you? That was the core of the idea behind our survey with The In-House Lawyer; to ask current GCs and heads of legal to share their experiences and provide advice to those new in post or hoping to become departmental leader. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and even more useful as foresight.
Thank you to all of those who completed the survey and for the rich and open material you have generously provided. Rachel Cropper-Mawer, a partner in DAC Beachcroft’s global team provides a summary of the answers.
As an overview, the analysis highlights these main themes:
- quickly developing your knowledge of the business and or/sector;
- getting to know the legal team and their capability;
- understanding the risks;
- building up an internal and external network;
- appreciating your role as a business leader.
The challenge and responsibility behind this last theme is not to be underestimated, particularly for those first time GCs. These comments from two respondents, are echoed by others:
‘It’s not just about the law anymore,’ said one respondent. ‘It’s about ensuring that you are able to assist the business to navigate any relevant hurdles to ensure growth and continuous success.’
‘If you are going to be general counsel, make sure your knowledge is general,’ added another. ‘It’s not called specific counsel.’
Source of information
The majority of respondents were already in-house lawyers, although only 14% had been in-house from the start of their careers.
1. Nature of the greatest challenge – the top five
These broadly correlate to responses to another question, when respondents were asked about the most important things they did in their first 100 days to create a strong operating base. The three most effective were: getting to know the sector/business (25%); getting to know other functional directors (25%); and getting to know the team (23%).
Getting to know the sector or business
Being new to the role, in whatever form, presents the best opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about the business.
This comment sums up the importance of acquiring knowledge: ‘It is vital for a new GC to understand the company’s history, business, culture, risk profile and key challenges.’
Others had moved sectors and found that presented a significant challenge, especially without any induction process. Even with in-house knowledge there were new questions to ask, for example: ‘I knew the team but I wanted to speak to the various board members to get to know their thoughts on how the team could improve the way it supports the business.’
Getting to know the legal team
‘People first’ was a frequent reference both as a means to building trust and an understanding of the team’s capabilities. In an earlier article in IHL, which introduced the survey, we raised the value of respecting the team’s knowledge. One respondent went so far as to say: ‘I would have spent more time listening to my team and less to the board, if I knew then what I know now.’
A quote from one in-house counsel illustrates the importance of regular informal exchange: ‘You can never drink too much tea with your team’.
For those promoted internally there is a particular challenge – that of moving from being a peer and friend, to becoming the boss.
Team change was another area close to the hearts of many, in terms of personnel, alignment to strategy and attitude.
For some, when asked about the best piece of advice they had received, it was in relation to team management. For example: ‘Build the best team around you, particularly in areas that are not your speciality.’ Others expressed regrets about not doing this sooner and their advice to new GCs is concentrated around an early start in this area.
‘Make people and role changes sooner’; ‘push for more resource sooner’; ‘Get buy-in for hiring before you join and then move fast’ – the old adage of only being as good as the people you surround yourself with remains pertinent.
Meeting the board and undertaking a risk assessment/review
The relationship with the board is critical, in influencing the organisation’s approach to risk and advising the business about the risks it faces is core to the role. The GC is the organisation’s conscience and you need these high-level relationships to stand up to the challenge. One respondent advised ‘never to compromise your ethical position’.
Another pointed out that it had been more than a 100-day challenge, but many respondents spoke about the need to understand the culture and psychology of the senior management team and establishing the levels of governance and trust – either high or low. Also the need to get the ‘full support and buy-in of all the NEDs to required actions’, to manage change and challenge.
Getting to know the other department heads
Respondents talked about the importance of making allies at senior departmental level as an important part of building a network and understanding the risk appetite. One respondent, probably not alone, talked about how a silo mentality made people suspicious when asked what they did.
Thirty two percent of respondents, a significant proportion, found the finance department the easiest to engage with. Worryingly, 34% found sales and marketing the hardest to engage with. While a great relationship with the FD cannot be underestimated, the danger of an undeveloped connection with the heads of sales and/or marketing cannot be overestimated, as often this is where some key business risks play out. Supply chain failure, bribery, reputational damage and failure to comply with GDPR are just some of the risks that lurk at this functional door. Every effort should be made to keep it open.
Quite simply, there is not enough and respondents wanted more. Thirty four percent had had no training before taking up the role and only 30% had had any form of external training. As one respondent said, with the benefit of hindsight: ‘I would have pushed for more formal management training to give myself more of a base and comparison to balance my own instincts and experience.’
Respondents were asked to highlight what they would have done differently if they knew then what they know now. The advice they would give the next generation of GCs aligns with the advice they had been given about the role in their early days.
The strong recurring themes, already explored, demonstrate the key focus for all new GCs. Forty three percent would have taken more time to understand the business and build relationships with the executive; 21% would have focused more on team structure and getting the right resource.
Other gems of advice emphasise leadership, confidence and reflection.
Stretch yourself, be more than a lawyer
‘Think beyond the confines of your role’, is quite a challenging request, especially in the early days. However, thinking like this does support the approach of giving advice that is ‘more commerco-lego, rather than lego-commerco. It involves stretching long-held perceptions of the value of the legal department.’
Some key comments: ‘Don’t feel bound by how your predecessor performed the role’; ‘Make it your own’; ‘Need to adopt a leadership approach, not a delivery approach.’
Trust yourself, your instincts
‘Establish the courage of your own convictions’ was one of the clear instructions emerging.
Creating some quiet time for thinking, listening and not rushing were frequently raised, as both advice received and passed on, and was a view expressed by 17% of respondents. ‘I would have taken 15-30 minutes each day in quiet reflection, thinking about long-term goals and short-term reflection,’ was the consideration of one respondent.
As a concluding thought, it is the quality of the GC’s relationship with the board and the consequent nature of the board’s regard for the legal team that is probably most fundamental. In thinking about one piece of advice they would pass on, many respondents picked up on the theme of spending more time on their relationship with the board – including the non-execs – and also being more pro-active in finding ways to ‘pique interest’.
One last thing though, a timely reminder from one respondent: ‘Enjoy it. It’s a fantastic role and a fantastic opportunity.’ n
Practical tips Suggestions from the survey
- Learn project management skills
- Attend a presentation course
- Network with other GCs
- Have a 90-day plan and a three-year plan
- Get a business coach to support you
- Meet external counsel to help you understand how things work at the organisation
- Work on stakeholder mapping