EVENTS AND ROUNDTABLES > GC POWERLIST > UK SUMMER RECEPTION
GC Powerlist Summer Reception -
Home House truths
Ambition, Millennials, corporate guff – we gathered more than 60 GCs and FT columnist Lucy Kellaway to debate the pleasures and perils of climbing the greasy pole
Should you tweet? How do you relate to the mysterious breed of co-workers called Millennials? How should lawyers navigate the rampant office politics of a major plc when they make the move in-house?
Just some of the weighty matters that we addressed in front of an audience of more than 60 senior general counsel with straight-talking Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway and equally forthright Vodafone GC Rosemary Martin offering their wisdom. The light-hearted debate held in June at private members club Home House – chaired by myself and DLA Piper co-chief executive Simon Levine – was the centrepiece to our annual summer reception to mark our latest GC Powerlist report.
Readers of a sensitive or straight-laced disposition may want to the turn to another section. Everyone else, enjoy.
Simon Levine, DLA Piper: Lucy, what is your view on CEOs tweeting? Should we all just give it a miss?
Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times: You are very wise to steer clear, and in good company. Some CEOs, like Jamie Dimon, are far too big for Twitter. So is Lloyd Blankfein. INSEAD recently did a league table of the top 20 CEOs on Twitter and their tweets are so banal. Tim Cook is number one and he sends out tweets saying: 'Just had a great meeting with an amazing team in the Dubai office.' The extraordinary thing is it has something like 6,000 retweets. The suck-ups are going: 'It's my boss: retweet, retweet.' However, if you are not an important person, if you have gorgeous kids, just pimp your kids. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! recently tweeted Yahoo!'s results, which were nothing to write home about. In the first tweet, she had a picture of her and an announcer from television. In the second, she did the same sort of thing, but a picture of her with her children – gorgeous, beautiful baby twin girls. That one was retweeted a million times.
‘People spend too much time worrying about being precise. You can get away with a hell of a lot with broad brush sweeps.’
Rosemary Martin, Vodafone
Simon Levine: I should be going home tonight and announcing to the wife that I am going to pimp the kids.
Lucy Kellaway: If you are not prepared to say anything controversial or personal on Twitter, I would skip it.
Rosemary Martin, Vodafone: I joined Twitter early on, just to prove I could, and then realised I had nothing to say.
Lucy Kellaway: Or nothing that you wanted to share with the whole world?
Rosemary Martin: That is also true. I did six. It was a New Year's resolution; I was going to learn about this tweeting thing. I commute on the Tube every day, so I thought I would find interesting things happening on the Tube and tweet about them. The people would be thinking: 'Which Tube is she on today, because she is going to tweet something interesting.' Except, nothing interesting happens on the Tube. Six events. That was it.
Alex Novarese, Legal Business: What is the secret to getting on in the corporate world?
Lucy Kellaway: The key to survival is not giving a shit. We are all told that we have to be passionate about our jobs. It is ridiculous. Passion means a very strong sexual attraction, or the suffering of Jesus Christ. You are not passionate about your jobs. If it is going well, then you like your job.
Not giving a shit is also important, because in a big corporation there will be a lot of ghastly stuff. To survive that, you have to learn not to care about stuff you cannot control. That is rule number one.
Rosemary Martin: I was going to say being nice. So maybe giving a shit versus being a shit.
Lucy Kellaway: You can not give a shit and be a charming darling. It does not mean that you are bad at your job. You can be very, very good at your job, but very tactical in all of the bigger stuff. Most of us are bad at that.
Alex Novarese: Is it not difficult to be tactical, given that you are writing about being tactical?
Lucy Kellaway: It is quite tricky. I take examples from the Financial Times all the time. When we used to be owned by Pearson, I used to slag off the CEO of Pearson on a fairly regular basis. People are always looking to see if they recognise themselves and that can be tricky.
Alex Novarese: Rosemary, what is the most overrated quality in the workplace?
Rosemary Martin: Lucy and I were talking about my boss at Vodafone, who is a great strategic thinker, but he sweats the details. So all of us have to be on top of the details as well. That is quite overrated and I say that as a general counsel. People spend too much time worrying about being precise. You can get away with a hell of a lot with broad brush sweeps.
Simon Levine: What are the good and bad qualities in a CEO?
Lucy Kellaway: Tricky question. I had a run in with the former CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino. I was writing a satirical column about this awful man who works in offices. It used to be satire, but then I realised I could just copy normal life. Marjorie really emoted, was very articulate and used to be a journalist. And she's American. She wrote those lovely, motivational New Year memos, and she wrote one year saying that what really fired her up was 'knowing that each one of you comes to work every day ready to do something miraculous'. A miracle. Per day. Per person! I just cut and pasted that into my satirical column, and all of my colleagues loved me for it. Marjorie loved me that little bit less and she loved me that bigger bit less when it was picked up by Private Eye. However, I am still employed and she is not. So there you go. New Year motivation memos – forget it.
Alex Novarese: It must be hard to hit that tone. Rosemary, you have got 500 people below you in Vodafone. Do you have trumpets playing in the background when you do your memos?
Rosemary Martin: I do not do those memos. New Year comes and goes, and I think: 'Oh God, I have not done the memo.' Then it is February and I think: 'I cannot send it now.'
Simon Levine: We talked a lot about the people at the top and how they can be annoying, but what about the unsung heroes?
Lucy Kellaway: Colleagues, there are millions who are completely lovely. For most of us, what makes the difference between a job you really like and a job you do not like is much less the person up above, unless they are truly horrendous. It is the people who you work with immediately, the people you talk to. If they are funny and clever and charming, the day is quite pleasant. There are a gazillion unsung heroes.
Simon Levine: What about other qualities in working life? What are the other things that make it fun to work in an office and the things that drive you nuts?
Lucy Kellaway: If work is sometimes fun, that is fabulous, but I absolutely hate the expectation that work is going to be fun, because it is not bloody playschool. It is the office. If it is vaguely interesting, that is great.
Simon Levine: It could be fun.
Lucy Kellaway: You should not set out to make it fun. Fun by diktat is never going to work.
Alex Novarese: Rosemary, where do lawyers go wrong in trying to establish themselves in the corporate jungle?
Rosemary Martin: Lawyers like to play up the mystique of being lawyers. That is quite fun sometimes, but then you realise that your colleagues genuinely do not understand what you are talking about. That is less impactful. When you are in-house, everybody expects you to have an opinion about anything and argue it like the next guy. One good thing about being a lawyer is that you can normally argue quite well. It is about being willing to broaden your horizons and enter any conversation, without worrying too much about not knowing what you are talking about.
Alex Novarese: Was it a cultural shock when you went in-house?
Rosemary Martin: No. I went from being a partner doing M&A and I had just come off the back of a de-merger. I went in-house, thought I was going to do something different, and the first thing I did was a large de-merger. Then once I got the hang of being in-house, the great thing is you are part of a team, with different areas of expertise. You are not in a law firm, where it is partners at the top and then associates, and then riff-raff around the edges. That is how it felt to me; that is why I left, because I hated it, and I was a partner. However, when you are in-house, you are working with colleagues who are experts in marketing, experts in sales, experts in finance. You realise that you have expertise too, but it is no better or worse than theirs. I really love that.
Simon Levine: Lucy, a minor question: what about a world without lawyers? Knock it out of the park.
Lucy Kellaway: We do need some lawyers. Whether we need quite so many... I did something at Allen & Overy. First of all they said: 'Come and talk to our top-top partners', and they sent me half a room full of top-top partners. Then they said: 'Come and talk to our associates,' and it was practically a football stadium. There were so many, and they all seemed so miserable. They really did seem deeply, deeply, deeply miserable.
Simon Levine: Miserable about what?
Lucy Kellaway: All the things you would expect. Working unbelievably long hours, on things that seemed very dull and very pointless.
Simon Levine: General counsel love this; you could go on for ten minutes and they would be rapt.
Lucy Kellaway: It is true. If you look at all of the surveys about job satisfaction, corporate lawyers are absolutely at the bottom. Hairdressers are usually at the top. Just a little tip. Corporate lawyers are at the bottom because the work is meaningless, and it is very, very long hours, and it is competitive and everything that is ghastly. If you are a hairdresser, you are talking to your client. If you are any good, you make them feel happy, which you never do if you are a corporate lawyer.
Simon Levine: One of the big issues we still face is gender equality. DLA has its own issues; we need more senior women in our leadership. Do you believe in quotas?
Rosemary Martin: One is not supposed to say one believes in quotas, but I do. The reason is that ten years ago, I was sitting on a panel and next to me was a lady in her mid-60s, and she had been a director at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development. She said: 'We have been talking about equality for women since I started my career 40 years ago. There has been far, far too little progress and unless you have quotas or something to move it along a bit faster, we just will not get anywhere.' I know you do not want to be appointed because you are a woman, but a generation of men and women have to go through that pain, and get to the other side. That is my view.
Alex Novarese: Where do you stand on quotas?
Lucy Kellaway: It depends what they are quotas for. Women on boards I am completely bored by, even though I benefited because I was on the board of a car insurance company. I have just retired after nine years and if it had not been for the pressure to have women on, they never would have chosen me. It was brilliant for me, but at the same time, the whole emphasis on boards is really misplaced. Non-executives are kind of powerless.
Alex Novarese: So your issue is with focusing on that narrow area?
Lucy Kellaway: Yes. The whole quota debate has been on boards and that means non-executives. You turn up six to eight times a year, eat a few canapés and discuss the annual results. The danger is companies say: 'Now we have got up to 40% of women on our board,' but if you look what is happening below in the company, it is still rubbish. The board is very unimportant and what happens below is very important.
Alex Novarese: If you crunch the numbers at law firms, in ten years the numbers have not budged an inch, in terms of senior-level female representation.
Lucy Kellaway: In this room, female representation is really good. It is so much better than at this level of seniority within big law firms and miles better than in banking.
Simon Levine: Rosemary, why do you think that is? You have been on both sides of that fence.
Rosemary Martin: Women have the sense to leave law firms. Women have the sense to leave quite a lot of other aspects of business, or set up on their own. It is still very much a man's game.
Lucy Kellaway: Why is that? Is it hours? Culture?
Rosemary Martin: It is culture. Now it is better, but when I was younger I was often the only woman in a meeting. You sit there and think: 'Why are they being like this?' Then you realise they are being like that because they are men being together. It took me a long time to work that out.
Alex Novarese: Women in senior roles compared to men: better, worse or different?
Lucy Kellaway: Because there are relatively few, the odd one or two nasty ones have a disproportionate effect. There are different ways of dealing with being in a minority, though, and I used to think that it was awful to use any of them, but they are all effective. I read some psychological thing that sounded very plausible, that there are six different roles: the sex kitten, the witch from hell, the mummy... I have seen women I like and respect using them. Some of those things can be quite powerful, but they all come as a result of being in a minority.
Alex Novarese: You wrote an interesting column recently on Millennials. Could you outline your theory?
Lucy Kellaway: Oh my God, as soon as you mention the word 'Millennial' in the Financial Times the online traffic goes through the roof. I am mother to four of them and I do not see them as being that much different from what any of us were like then. There is one respect in which they are different at work and that is on practical jokes. When you were all young lawyers, I bet you went in for practical jokes. None of them do that. It is what IT has done. A lot of these things, they think it is like rape or stealing somebody's identity. It is just not cool.
Otherwise, the only other big difference is of our making. We have promised way too much. If you look at the big graduate employers and their careers sections, and the absolute twaddle about what it is going to be like to work there, they make these smart kids think they will have a great time. The law firms are particularly to blame. Then they are doing the photocopying. They have been told that they are going to be kings and queens, and they are the riff-raff. Surprise, surprise, they do not like it.
Simon Levine: When I started, you did that, but within a couple of years of qualification you were running your own trials. Now, the way that law has been sliced, diced and specialised, you are getting to seven or eight years before you get to do some of the things we were all doing at two years' qualified.
You did just mention the wonderful brochures. Give us some great examples of corporate bullshit.
Lucy Kellaway: Where do I even begin? I have started this thing called 'Guffipedia', where readers send in examples. I have always been obsessed by this word 'value'. It is so nebulous. Lawyers go on about value and everyone goes on about value. Value has been around for ages, but I have been watching its progression. So there has been 'adding value' and then it became a noun, so: 'That is a great value-add'. That was very ugly, but the new one from KPMG is 'value leakage'.
Simon Levine: That just sounds nasty. Something you need to go to a doctor about.
Lucy Kellaway: When people start banging on about innovation, what they say is ghastly. You think: 'It is innovative, it must be great,' and yet we know 99.9% of innovative things are not great at all. Coming up with ideas is easy – we can all have a million ideas. It is implementing them that is very difficult. This hysterical emphasis on innovation is really, really wrong. As for disruption, do not even get me started.
Rosemary Martin: I have a few Millennials at home and they are going through the job application thing. All university-educated and they are saying: 'I do not understand what you do when you are a lawyer, a civil servant, a banker.' They are looking at these websites and it is just bingo of meaningless words. So they are put off the whole business of work. It is quite interesting being a lawyer. However, we have somehow detached ourselves from being able to talk in normal words that mean something.
Lucy Kellaway: Almost all managerial jobs are impossible to explain. It is not just the bumpf in the brochure. It is very difficult to explain what the jobs are anyway.
Rosemary Martin: I can remember trying to explain to an Indian, sitting on top of a bus when I was on holiday years ago in Delhi. I said: 'I am a lawyer.' He asked: 'What does that mean?' This was back in the eighties. I said: 'I write letters.' He said: 'That is a job?!' I said yes and he said: 'And then what happens?' I said: 'People write back.' He said: 'You get paid for that?' He couldn't begin to make sense of it.
Lucy Kellaway: On language and lawyers, one example is dear to my heart. I am sure a lot of you have committed terrible, terrible crimes against language in the letters you receive and send, but Apple shows how it can be done really well. A few years ago it had a legal document which covered the apps it was and was not prepared to sell in the app store. It says: 'We will reject apps for any content that we believe over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said: "I will know it when I see it," and you will know it when you cross it.'
That is a very clear statement – a statement you want to read. It imparted a lot of knowledge and was fun, and if Apple can do it, so can everyone else.
Simon Levine: Rosemary, what advice would you give to somebody starting their career now?
Rosemary Martin: Keep saying 'yes' and see what happens.
Simon Levine: What do you think, Lucy?
Lucy Kellaway: I would say practise saying 'no'. No is so much harder than yes. All of the things I have agreed to and then wondered why on earth I agreed to them. But the best advice to give anyone starting off is that it is such a long game and for them it is going to be an interminable game. So to get it wrong lots of times before getting it right does not matter. They have got years there.