Triangular chairs with a gleam of sun rays shining through.

Shining a light on the journey from baseline to brilliance

01 October 2015

In my blog last week I talked about the "thirds rule of good conferences" as preached by seasoned GC Bruce Macmillan:

  1. One third learning
  2. One third reminding
  3. One third reminding

If maths would allow it I'd add a fourth third: one third enjoying yourself and making connections with a bunch of like-minded people. Or we could just have a "quarters rule".


All that, in a neatly packaged nutshell, summed up the Corporate Counsel Forum for me.

A lot of the learning and reminding throughout the conference centred on how to become more influential with the board – how do you get from the baseline of being a good, functional lawyer to the brilliance of being an indispensable member of the senior leadership team?

We heard – from an in-house lawyer, I should add – that, in his/her experience, a lot of GCs suffer from a lack of ambition; a lack of ambition towards making it to the top of the tree in the business, not just the top of the tree in the legal team.  In the US, lawyer CEOs are commonplace; much less so in the UK.  Why is that?  Perhaps because, in-house in the US, the law is seen as a tool used to achieve a business goal, as opposed to an end in itself.  But the signs are that the sands are shifting over here.

So, assuming you do have that ambition, what next? How do you start positioning yourself on the ladder towards that board position?

Well, as one delegate succinctly put it, it's about a change of mindset that says "we're business people who happen to be lawyers", not the other way around.  And it's about flipping the typical lawyer approach on its head where we start with words and finish with numbers – the numbers, the balance sheet, and the P&L must come first.

Of course, you still must understand the law, but you need to be much more than that.  Don’t just tell people what the law says – you need to present the legal perspective through the lens of the business.  The baseline is about making the complex simple to understand, and quickly; brilliance comes from delivering advice with both eyes firmly focused on the strategy of your organisation.

And that's as true for the people you hire into your team as it is for yourself – after all, as GC the way your team performs reflects on you as the leader of that team, and impacts the performance of the business.  "We recruit talent who want to be in business," said one GC.  "We flush out at interview stage how interested people are in the actual business.  Have they been to the shop floor?  Have they visited the showroom?"

If you've got an ambition for brilliance, a genuine interest in the business must form part of your baseline.

Inherent in all the most senior people is an aptitude to lead.  GCs are no different.  We heard time and again at the conference that GCs need to display leadership qualities if they want to make it to the board.  Being a leader is not necessarily about being the most vocal or the most driven. More important is the ability to have a vision and to find your own way of taking people on a journey towards meeting that vision. And for that, authenticity is key.

Also important is an ability to understand and navigate the socio-political complexities inherent in your organisation. This is as important in simply delivering on your day job as it is in achieving your own longer term career goals – after all, if you don't have clear and open lines of communication with the key influencers then simply delivering a baseline will be tough.

As Managing Partner of a law firm I came to the conference with what I expected to be a different perspective.  But I learned that many of the issues and challenges faced by in-house lawyers are the same as we have in private practice; I was reminded of the pressures ambitious GCs face in their roles as business leaders; and I was reassured that there is a role for private practice firms to play in helping to ease those pressures, beyond straight legal advice.

And the fourth third?  I had a hugely enjoyable time meeting new people, catching up with existing contacts, and hearing about what life is like on the front line for a GC.

I'm looking forward to 2016 already.