What are the key priorities and challenges in the first 100 days of being a GC? This was the main discussion point of a recent panel debate before an audience of more than 50 senior in-house lawyers gathered at the South Place Hotel in London.
Introducing the results, DAC Beachcroft partner Rachel Cropper Mawer pointed out that 24% of respondents said that the key piece of advice they were given was around understanding the responsibility of being a business leader – more than just a lawyer – taking responsibility for the business and getting the board’s buy-in to your role.
But the key findings focused on building relationships. While 25% responded that getting to know the business sector was absolutely important, the majority of other results related to engaging with the people in the business, both in the legal team, on the board as well as other function directors. ‘One of the most important things, was getting to know the team and putting people first,’ said Cropper Mawer.
She concluded: ‘The key advice that people would give to those taking up such a role is: stretch yourself; assert yourself; and do not feel bound by your predecessor. Make the role your own. Twenty-two percent said that the best advice they received was to trust your gut instinct.’
Turning to the panel, Nilema Bhakta-Jones, chief executive of Alacrity Law and the former group legal director of Ascential, said when she started her role as GC one of the best sources of information about her business came proactively from external counsel. ‘From my perspective, the partner had thought about how to get me up to speed and presented an orientation plan that contained: “A risk map. This is who we are connected to and from whom we receive instructions. In the last two years, these were the big clangers and litigation that we have dealt with.” It was a great way of understanding risk right at the beginning.’
Alice Hou, GC at Citymapper, had a different experience joining a start-up with no lawyers. ‘I was a head of legal at a multinational before I joined Citymapper and I had to learn very quickly that the culture was completely different. If I could give some advice, it would be to take a step back and understand how people communicate with each other in the business. Sending out calendar invitations to meet people and build relationships can fall flat in a place where people just grab each other to meet as and when.’
GC at The Financial Times for more than five years, Dan Guildford said that in the early days, attending board meetings – despite not being on the board – was important to getting a real insight into the business and to see the interaction of all the different directors. Bhakta-Jones agreed and went a step further, seeing building relationships outside the boardroom as essential, particularly with non-executive directors (NEDs).
From the floor Jeremy Mavor, GC and company secretary at Arquiva, said the key to building those relationships is ‘do not be a lawyer’: ‘You have to have at least certain instincts, so that you are not talking about legal support, but are talking about the margin pressure in their particular product or the risk profile in that jurisdiction. When they, the NED, asks you, “What are your three priorities for this company?” if you were to answer, “GDPR, Brexit and big litigation” they will blank over and never talk to you again. Throw your lawyer hat away, frankly. That is the only way in which you will have meaningful engagement with those two or three dozen stakeholders who you need to talk to.’
Hou said her way of getting accepted by the founders and decision-makers at a start-up was to be willing to muck in. ‘We needed someone to manage the front desk/office team, so I stepped in to do that. While that’s not the sort of thing your parents brag about to their friends, it added value to the business. The more people see you are capable, that you are willing to get your hands dirty, the quicker trust grows and you can have an impact on critical decisions.’
‘There seems to be a lot of doors in business,’ said Victoria Tarr, who moved from private practice at Ashurst this year to become senior legal counsel at Canada Life. ‘Some of them are very easy to walk through and people welcome you through them and say: “Come in. You have the right skillset to help us with this.” Then there are all these other doors that you want to get through, but you do not know how to. However, if you have got through one of the doors and you have proved yourself in getting into that room, sometimes the invitation into the other room follows on from that.’
Over a third of respondents had received no training before taking up the GC role
Back to the point about trusting yourself and your instincts, Bhakta-Jones pointed out the key to acceptance by the board is having clear opinions. ‘The boards that I served hated it if anyone came in and just sat on the fence. They value people willing to express a clear opinion, a willingness to debate and having courage in your convictions.’
That extra mile
For Guildford, who was promoted to GC internally, one issue to be aware of is how your relationship with your team changes once you step up. Although his team understood the dynamic would change once he was leading, he said that he had to make small adjustments too, particularly on a social level. ‘I decided to start doing certain things, like maybe going for a beer after work and getting the drinks in and then going home before everyone else does. When I was junior I really enjoyed working for all of my bosses; but you are no longer one of the team and they do want a bit of time by themselves.’ As Bhakta-Jones put it: ‘You cannot be their mates, but you can root for them’.
The other key issue to address early on is analyse the team and look at how people could be deployed more effectively, and where extra resources are needed. ‘When you first take over as GC, it is a great time to be asking for resource and so on,’ said Guildford. ‘Because I had worked alongside the team I could see how people worked and it was more tweaks than major restructuring. It was more, “That person should be working on that area because that interest works,” or, “They get on well with that area of the business.”
Bhakta-Jones said that with most of the heads of legal she has mentored historically, their problems have not been the business; their problems have been people management. ‘Because you are good as a GC, no-one looks at your people skills and people management is critical because motivating your team and getting them to be productive and go that extra mile, and building relationships across functions are all things that matter the most to how successful you are in your role.’
Another finding was that 34% had received no training before taking up the GC role and a number of respondents felt they would have benefited from doing an MBA or having specific training in areas such as project management. Guildford said for him that some accountancy or financial reporting training would have been useful, as while he knew his way around a balance sheet, there is a level of nuance at board level that you need to learn quickly. Bhakta-Jones said she was helped enormously by the backing of the chief executive to go to Henley Business School and then Harvard.
‘These things helped me to better understand the business, to have infinitely better understanding around financial metrics and to adopt the business language that helped put legal on the map. It helps the leadership skills, but it is tough to be trained as a GC.’
A point Tarr agreed with: ‘I wonder whether you could go on a course and come out the next day able to be a GC. I do not believe that is going to happen. You learn a lot of it on the journey. Lawyers are uniquely placed because they have a very flexible skillset. You learn a bit of project management. You will have learned some mentoring and coaching because you will have had junior people working for you. You will have learned some leadership skills. You will have learned how to network and how to sell an idea.’
Asking a question from the floor, Jonathan Keen at Dialight Group is due to take up his first GC position in early 2019 and asked the panel about where the bar for legal risk should be set in the early days. ‘Do I take a slightly more flexible approach, acknowledging where the company is in its lifecycle, than you would in a more established company? Do you draw your line in the sand now as soon as you go in or do you take a more flexible approach?’
The panellists urged caution initially. Bhakta-Jones said the only line she would draw in the first 100 days would be around ethics. ‘To draw lines from day one, you might end up closing off opportunities to talk to people, build relationships, build alliances, contextualising the business and understanding the risk appetite. You do not know that from day one, and that is a tough thing. Your ability to live with the ambiguity for that first 100 days and be comfortable with that ambiguity while you are learning is what you really want.’
Hou agreed on this point. ‘Knowing that your business’ priority is growth and survival colours everything. Going in and saying, “We shouldn’t agree to uncapped indemnities” is not how to build the relationship and trust that you are going to need to really have an impact in that context. In the first 100 days I would not touch those kinds of things.’
This led the panellists to give their final thoughts on what they would have done differently in their first 100 days and what is the one piece of advice they would give to any aspiring GC.
Bhakta-Jones’ advice centred on having faith in your own ability and knowing the value you offer to the business. She said she would have resisted returning early from maternity leave on two occasions if she had greater belief in her abilities. She would also have negotiated harder around her remuneration package, observing that a common fault with herself and in her female mentees is that they underestimate their value significantly.
She advises any nascent GC to know their core values and stick to them. ‘Fundamentally, you are going to be chucked into the deep end. To understand what you stand for and what your core values are, and how you show up in meetings is an important part of who you are as a leader and how authentic you are in that.’
Tarr added that a new GC must be very clear on where their moral compass is. ‘In your first 100 days, your answer to most questions should be “Yes”, unless it is something that absolutely conflicts with your core values.’
Guildford said he would have spent more time on preparation – setting aside time to decide what the strategy was for his team. And his advice? Network like crazy. ‘I generally find that other GCs are so giving and willing to share their experiences and there is so much to be learned from talking to people in your network. I had underestimated how invaluable that is working in-house.’
Hou concurs: ‘I cannot emphasise enough how valuable it is to have a network, and to make it as broad and as wide as possible. Because you never know what expertise you are going to need. Citymapper started out as purely a data-led business and then within my first few months, we decided to become a bus/shared ride business. Suddenly I had to find experts on bus/minicab law.’