What prevents Global Corporate Counsel from becoming great leaders?

In my work over many years as a leadership consultant supporting global corporate counsel, I come across again and again three behaviours which explain the difficulties they face in leading global legal functions.

Can you guess what they are, from the following typical Q&A?

A typical Q&A with a global corporate counsel

CF: What do global corporate counsel fear most?
GC: Grave error on their watch.
CF: What causes that?
GC: Human error, usually.
CF: And what causes that?
GC: Anything ranging from lack of experience or resources to poor working practices or a failure of courage.
CF: But what is the current primary focus for corporate counsel?
GC: Managing risk. Definitely.
CF: What if they switched their primary focus from managing risk to managing the behaviours around risk?
GC: We have plenty of programmes on behaviour but soft skills are not seen as important as legal skills.
CF: Do you feel that lawyers are good at “getting behavioural stuff”?
GC: Probably not. We’re trained to think.
CF: An accepted definition of a good leader is one who creates an environment in which people thrive, who develops their organisation strategically and with purpose and keeps the people who pay the bills happy. Do you feel this applies to most general counsel?
GC: Seems a bit esoteric to me. We’re constantly being asked to do more with less.
CF: A good CEO ensures that they have structure and resources in place to execute their plans. Why can’t GCs to that?
GC: They don’t always fully control their budgets, people and, to some extent, tasks.
CF: But you are the experts, how does the business know how to set the budget and the tasks?
GC: I suspect few General Counsel fully control their budgets and people in the way the CEO of a business does.
CF: Why not? I bet the CFO, CMO, COO, Sales Director and CTO on most boards control their own budgets and run their departments as a business unit that has to break even. What if the General Counsel went to the CEO with a business plan containing the usual seven or so headings: 1. What needs are we meeting?; 2. What strategic assets i.e. people, systems, relationships, knowledge etc. will we use to meet those needs? 3. What processes will we use to employ those assets – leadership, management, advisory, legal counsel & process internal & external, IT as an enabler etc.;4. Who will perform the usual functions of CEO (GC or CLO); CFO, COOs (the lawyer/leader heads of regions/countries/LOBs etc.); CMO (internal marketing); CIO (IT and knowledge management)?; 5. How much will this all cost? 6. What are the risks within Legal of Legal failing? 7. How can we mitigate those risks?
GC: GCs certainly submit plans but not, as far as I know, as if Legal is a business that breaks even and with its own board. It just doesn’t happen.
CF: But what if they did so, just like the other functions, and drew a line in the sand on what Legal will do and won’t do for the budget on offer? By this I mean Legal learns to say “No”, at the business plan stage. What do you think?
GC: That is not how most Legal functions operate. But I agree that the role is changing and we need to change with it. GCs need to do what you suggest but in the context of a much broader role within the corporation and they need to consider the fact that the client is not just the CEO, but the company as a whole. This is a delicate balance.
CF: I agree. Legal is a comparatively young function and shows signs of diffidence. The CFO does not call himself or herself an in-house accountant; why does the GC call himself or herself an in-house counsel? I suspect that this will change when corporate counsel feel confident enough to cut the unspoken tie to their private practice roots and run Legal as a business. Then the chances of there being a grave error on their watch will be minimised and the opportunity to make a significant impact on the business will be maximised.

End of Q&A

So, the three behavioural problems I come across again and again are:

  1. Soft and emotional intelligence issues are not valued. The sooner corporate counsel acknowledge the extent to which their training as lawyers has hindered their progress as leaders, the sooner they can do something about it.
  2. Legal is not run as a business; this is not considered part of the “day-job”. My advice is to start now, by creating a structure so that you can truly lead. This can’t happen if you are buried in hands-on legal counsel and process.
  3. Many fail to contract clearly on budget and deliverables with “the business”; this is often not considered to be in the gift of Legal. This can be changed by ensuring that you own your own budget – internal and external – and you are clear on what value you add and you report this regularly and proactively.

Do you recognise these behaviours in your organisation? If so, I can help. I want to create an opportunity for you and others to explore the possibilities for change.

Please comment confidentially by email to cfenton@ciaranfenton.com or openly below.

Best wishes