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GC Roundtable –
Business Leader/Business Partner/Lawyer?

In partnership with Carlyle Kingswood Global, GC Magazine brought together leading in-house counsel from across London to discuss the evolving role of the general counsel and the skillset required to lead the legal function of a modern business.

Carlyle Kingswood Global

Alex Speirs

Editor and features writer

Email Alex

PARTICIPANTS

  • Alex Speirs, GC Magazine (Chair)

  • James Wood, Legal Business 

  • Michael Coates, Shell

  • Vanessa Cowling, Venture Founders

  • Lawson Crawford, UCL Business

  • Maaike De Bie, Royal Mail

  • Phil Hagan, The Phoenix Group

  • Amol Prabhu, Barclays

  • Charles Sermon, Mereo BioPharma

  • John Ventress, Lambard Odier

Venue

Kuryakin Room at South Place Hotel, London

That the role of the general counsel is becoming an increasingly senior and integral part of today’s businesses will be nothing new for readers of GC Magazine. From GCs and partners through to CEOs and politicians, the importance of the role to modern business – from major corporates through to emerging companies – cannot be understated.

But for all the talk of the rise to prominence of the contemporary general counsel, what happens once you get there? When the onus turns to business and people management, suddenly the skillset which got you there becomes less relevant and a host of new challenges – many new and unfamiliar – are presented from the outset.

GC assembled some of London’s leading in-house counsel for an evening of discussion centered on making the transition to the top job and strategies for gaining traction with senior management once you get there.

I’m a lawyer, get me out of here!

When you reach the top-level or senior management equivalent in any career track – things are going to change. For Maaike De Bie, general counsel at Royal Mail, one of the most immediate differences evident when moving into the general counsel role was not so much the new responsibility which the position entailed, but the perception that comes with it.

‘No one looks to you, when you get to this position, as purely a lawyer anymore,’ says De Bie.

‘People might ask you for a view but they do not expect you to give just a legal view; they want you to give a more comprehensive perspective consider business issues. That might have a legal angle to it, but it should be taken into account where the business is at that time.’

Part of that change in perception can be attributed to who you become accountable to when moving from a member of the in-house legal team, to the person leading it. While much of the day-to-day work is still centered on maintaining the legal function, interaction with senior business figures becomes far more frequent, which can necessitate a change in tact.

‘You are a functional leader and you are hired to do that work. You are managing a team in the same way the rest of the leaders in the business are managing a team and you are meant to deliver it in a way that is within budget and that achieves a business objective. That is the main point: to achieve business objectives,’ says Michael Coates, head of legal for Shell UK.

That’s a significant change from the traditional mandate of an in-house counsel, the majority of whom cut their teeth in a law firm environment and enjoy the work they do as lawyers – often times from inside their silo – which can make for an at-times tough transition.

‘As lawyers, we tend to like breaking down a problem, working through and finding a solution, then articulating that. I love drafting. I like to negotiate documents. I am integrated within the business and I enjoy the business that I am in, but I like being a lawyer too,’ says John Ventress, head of legal at Lombard Odier.

The upshot for those in attendance, was striking a balance between legal work while attaining the requisite understanding and outsight needed to succeed in those new circumstances.

‘You need to have a basic generalist competence in law – you are, after all, providing legal advice on a broad range of topics. Part of your job is to put things in a very clear context to your colleagues on the executive committee or the board or whomever you are working with, but to also put it in a very practical way and in a way that makes them understand that you are taking accountability and responsibility for that advice and they do not need to worry about it,’ explains Coates.

But says Amol Prabhu, head of emerging markets legal EMEA at Barclays, it’s imperative not to get too focused on the business aspects and bigger picture to the point that the legal becomes secondary.

‘When you operate at a more senior level it is like being at 30,000 feet, considering issues strategically with the entire franchise in mind. However, when presented with a particular challenge or risk, it is often essential to zoom down to ground level and have the technical expertise to understand the issue fully, with the relevant people in your team providing the detail. You are then in a position to provide a considered view,’ says Prabhu.

photo of woman at roundtable event

‘Knowing when it is appropriate to do this and at what level of detail is a real skill, but it is a different type of technical expertise than when you review documentation or execute transactions.’

Adding to the Arsenal

While some of those in attendance found that the skillset required to succeed in what amounted to a senior managerial position was a transition that came naturally with time and experience, many were strong advocates for stand-alone management training – whether that came in the form of something as extended as an MBA or the targeted executive training more commonly afforded to sebuir colleagues outside of the legal track.

‘It is invaluable to sit alongside your business colleagues and have the same training or have the same experiences. If you learn side-by-side it gives you the ability, as you go through experiences together, to see how other people deal with things and to learn together. That is immensely helpful to breaking down barriers and perceptions between your function and your area and others,’ says Phil Hagan, group legal director at the Phoenix Group.

That sentiment was echoed by Michael Coates, who says that in his experience some of the real value imparted from management and executive training was bridging the gap between legal and other senior management, not purely from a skillset perspective, but also from outward perception.

‘It is highly useful because that is how your colleagues are judging you. You will have budgets to administer like everyone else has budgets to administer. You need to understand finance. Importantly, you need to understand the business concept – how your business makes money. A lot of it is about trying to display general leadership – people skills, bringing teams along with you and sometimes dealing with unpleasant topics or unpleasant messages,’ explains Coates.

For Vanessa Cowling, general counsel at Venture Founders, progressing as a business leader meant moving outside of the legal bubble and making a conscious effort to find instances of best practice from other parts of the business.

‘Looking beyond your pool of lawyers is really important and as a breed, it’s not something that we are necessarily particularly good at. When you build your network out and start looking to non-lawyers, whether they be other managers, senior executives, whoever, you start to see different ways of doing things and the outcomes they produce,’ says Ventress.

‘Also, in my experience, it is very valuable to obtain feedback outside of your immediate function. I often say to people there are two types of feedback. One is third party feedback which you should ask for in real-time when you have worked together on a transaction or initiative. It is far better to obtain it “in the moment” so you not only build rapport and trust, but you are also having an honest constructive conversation. The second is inward looking feedback which involves having an honest and constructive conversation with yourself to understand what your strengths and what your development areas are. This can be a more difficult conversation as there needs to be some self-awareness and internal honesty,’ adds Prabhu.

A View to the Future

While developing personally was seen as an imperative for all of those around the table, of equal importance was succession planning and making sure that the next generation of in-house counsel – those rising to prominence in an environment where so much more is expected of general counsel – are progressing.

‘At Royal Mail we have set up a training academy that in addition to having a focus on legal skills, holds the importance of leadership, business and coaching skills as equally desirable. As part of this, it means working with people one-to-one and understanding where they want or need development and then providing that. It is probably a whole mixture of things as everyone is different and thus there is no one-size-fits-all,’ explains De Bie.

‘At Shell, we also have a concept which is what we call leaders developing other leaders, so having a mentor and having someone to look up to and to learn from. It is having someone who is more experienced and more senior – not necessarily in the same business or function – that you can go to and ask the silly questions that you need to ask, who can then tell you that they were once in the same place that you are now, and everyone is being completely honest in their conversations,’ adds Coates.

photo of man at roundtable event

Prabhu was a strong advocate for being responsible for driving their own careers forward, but also spoke to the value of those in legal gaining experience in other areas of the business throughout their career.

‘It is all about communication – having conversations early on, regularly, and keeping an eye of how people develop during their career. It is also about encouraging people to take responsibility for their own career, not being afraid to put their hand up when opportunities arise, getting involved in initiatives that are outside of their comfort zone, so that they can build their skill set and experiences,’ says Prabhu.‘We have big initiatives around internal mobility and looking more of not having individuals fixated on title but more having them fixated on building their own skillset and looking at skillsets of different people.’

Christopher Hurst, director at recruitment consultancy Carlyle Kingswood Global, says that from his perspective those who have spent time and gained genuine experience operating not just in the legal function are not just more valuable to the business that they work for, but are more likely to be targeted and find success when looking to transition into new roles.

‘Secondments to the business are fabulous from a recruiter point of view. You see a lawyer that had had a secondment into the business – people fear it because they think that they step away from being a lawyer. But to push yourself out of your comfort zone is a sign of someone that could be a leader: that they are prepared to step out of their comfort zone into something that they are going to be pretty scared and pretty worried about, but find a way to succeed and derive value from. That, for me, shows a leadership quality,’ says Hurst.

But for those working in smaller companies in particular, the opportunity for internal mobility was sometimes more limited. But that didn’t have to be a barrier to gaining experience outside of the standard work day says Charles Sermon, founder and general counsel at Mereo BioPharma.

‘I’m very supportive of people taking on non-executive positions provided the time commitment is limited and manageable. I think these roles help to develop external experience from industry so our executives aren’t just getting experience from our company,’ says Sermon.

‘I was involved with the London Enterprise Panel for three years and found that really valuable as it was outside my normal area of work but still relevant to my sector. It helped me gain experience including learning about centres of innovation and networks within healthcare. Spending a limited amount of time, five or six days a year, talking to senior staff at London’s universities and with the management of multinational companies was valuable. That is another way of bringing in experience to your company.’

finding the way to get the best from their team and organisation as a whole was a recurring theme.

Sermon’s experience of stepping outside of his own business was not unique for those in attendance, with many contributing in legal or non-executive director roles to external companies and charities.

Lawson Crawford, head of legal at UCL Business says that from his own external placements, which ranged from sitting on the board of a Caribbean bank subsidiary through to a university business school, he developed both soft and hard skills – an experience he encourages his own team to emulate.

‘We reach out to the business and aim to be proactive in finding what needs to be achieved. In catch ups and appraisals I generally ask, “How can I/we help you achieve your goals?” For me, the basis of the question is not only about what they wish to achieve within the organisation’s walls, but to learn what they wish to achieve in their careers. Often they coincide. I find that people generally appreciate this generosity of spirit as it recognises their own worth as being of interest to me, and as being vital to the organisation. This also helps people to grow and give so much more to their work,’ says Crawford.

‘One needs to be resilient and you learn this rapidly. People are coming to you relying on your legal and business knowledge. You are regarded a lawyer in a positive light – not as a blocker but as giving advice which is helpful in a myriad of circumstances. You’re one of the team. Sometimes there is a bit of, “You’re the lawyer, tell me what to do”, and you are reasonably stretched beyond your comfort zone.’

Leading from the Front

The common thread that tied together the separate parts of the evening’s discussion was leadership. While those in attendance agreed that leadership was a key component to succeeding as a modern legal counsel, how they defined and enacted it during their own career varied – although finding the way to get the best from their team and organisation as a whole was a recurring theme.

‘Leadership is about motivating people and coordinating a lot of soft skills. It is also making sure that you are listening very carefully not only to what is said but what is not being said. It is about having a great deal of empathy to understand what people really want to achieve, in terms of what the business wants to achieve and the objective of the project. Then it is about bringing all that together with the people to make it happen,’ says Crawford.

‘At its core, leadership means getting the best out of people. Where I see great leadership is in people who are inspiring, motivating, encouraging, and sensitively dealing with problems and those who are not taking the credit all for themselves and who let members of their team shine. For me, it is about working through people rather than doing it to people or doing it all yourself,’ adds De Bie.

‘At its core, leadership means getting the best out of people. Where I see great leadership is in people who are inspiring, motivating, encouraging, and sensitively dealing with problems and those who are not taking the credit all for themselves and who let members of their team shine. For me, it is about working through people rather than doing it to people or doing it all yourself,’ adds De Bie.

‘The best people I know who are General Counsels make themselves redundant. That is a sign for me of exceptional leadership in terms of doing that. Yet, they have got natural successors and people who can step up. Leaders produce good leaders.’

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