Leadership in law in crises requires a human touch

General counsel and other senior in-house lawyers should not be afraid to show their human side when leading their teams through crises and seeking to deliver on business objectives, prominent figures in the legal market have agreed.
There was consensus on the issue among panellists participating in an online event jointly hosted by Legal Business and Pinsent Masons as part of the GC Powerlist UK 2020, as they reflected on the challenges they and their in-house teams have faced during the coronavirus crisis.

The panellists provided an insight into their approach to leadership and highlighted the importance of good communication in not only directing the work of their legal teams but in supporting them through Covid-19 challenges.

Amanda Hamilton-Stanley, GC and compliance officer at Pernod Ricard, said she has been open with her team members about the challenges she has faced in juggling work and home life during the pandemic. ‘I felt it was incumbent on me to talk about the challenges I was facing … so that you allow people to feel like “I am OK to say this”, “I am OK to speak up” and maybe say “I’m struggling to keep all the balls in the air”,’ she said.

She explained how regular informal meetings with her team have helped her maintain a human element to working relationships despite everyone working remotely.

‘For me personally, having the weekly Friday afternoon coffee chats enabled my team to hear from me, as one of the business leaders, how the business was going, what our response to it was, and get the genuine story rather than just having to constantly read it through a portal,’ Hamilton-Stanley said. ‘They could ask me questions about it. It just gave it that much more personal and human touch to it.’

Dan Guildford, general counsel at the Financial Times, agreed that, with team members working in different locations, communication has been particularly important, not just to ensure the in-house legal team is ‘functioning well’ and getting through their work, but also from a ‘more empathetic’ perspective.

Guildford said: ‘What has really hit home is that we are social animals. Perhaps that is taken for granted a little bit when you are in the office every day, but you have to work a lot harder at it when you are working remotely. You have to lead by example. You cannot assume the team are talking to each other, collaborating with other, without you getting involved and showing some leadership. You can’t just assume those water cooler moments are just happening.

‘You have got to be authentic about these things when you check in on individuals and ask them how they are. You have to listen, you have to mean it. It cannot just be a box-ticking exercise. We are all really vulnerable at the moment. It is been a privilege, I think, seeing people’s home lives – you get that exposure to kids running around in the background, dogs barking, Amazon parcels being delivered – and you have to really take advantage of that by building on the personal relationships in that kind of way because you haven’t got your moments in the office,’ he said.

Bjarne Tellmann, senior vice president of GSK Consumer Healthcare, said leaders of in-house legal functions need to recognise how the pandemic may be affecting team members’ mental health. He said leaders should be ‘long-term optimists’ and also advocate that team members engage in physical exercise and time away from the desk. He said they should also encourage their team members to engage with projects that ‘transcend markets or locations’ as way of ‘getting people out of their silos, getting people out of their day-to-day reality and connecting them with people across the world’.

Concentrating the efforts of in-house teams around a core purpose can help give direction to their work during times of crises or uncertainty, Tellmann said. ‘Leadership is really, in my view, built around three pillars. The first is around purpose: making sure that you have the right mission, the right strategic priorities and that they are underpinned by solid values that reflect the company’s values and that evolve as the department evolves. Then you put a team that aligns around that purpose. That would be the second part of it, which is about getting the best people you can get and positioning them around the core areas of risk, the key priorities for the business, and then delegate and really create a safe culture for that team.

‘Then it’s about accountability. It’s about that third pillar around making sure people make themselves accountable and you hold yourself accountable as leader. If you adopt that approach it doesn’t really change that much in the current context [of the pandemic],’ he said.

Operations and procurement

In a separate online event on the topic of legal operations and procurement, also jointly hosted by Legal Business and Pinsent Masons and part of the GC Powerlist UK 2020, Helen Lowe, head of legal operations at easyJet, explained how the in-house legal team at the airline had co-created its own purpose to inform how it operates and how this sense of purpose had helped the team during the pandemic.

‘What the purpose has really given us is a real focus, and an opportunity to understand how we are part of the wider organisation as a legal team, what impact we have, and what value we should really be focusing on delivering into the business,’ Lowe said. ‘That is really the importance of that purpose is that it creates that sense of unity, that sense of community within the group and it has made a huge difference to the team.’

Lowe is incorporating principles from the O-Shaped lawyer programme initiated by Dan Kayne of Network Rail into her team’s development. Law firms such as Pinsent Masons are doing likewise.

Mo Ajaz, head of legal operational excellence at National Grid, said that it is important the objectives of the legal functions align with those set by the board of directors. ‘It is important to link what you are doing at a day-to-day level within the legal department to what is going at the strategic level within your organisation,’ Ajaz said.

‘The legal function is there for the purpose of helping the business deliver its services, so making sure we understand that we are not an island, that we are not doing things to the business, and that we are there supporting the business in delivering for their customers and clients, it is important that the legal department then sets its objectives and that there are deliverables that can be measured against that overarching principle,’ he said.

This article originally appeared on Out-Law, the online information service provided by Pinsent Masons