Why “COVID-19 CEOs” should act on Paul Gilbert’s blog of yesterday, today

Yesterday, Paul Gilbert, CEO LBCWisecounsel, UK’s doyen of commentary and advice to and on in-house lawyers wrote an important blog which, I suspect will have been read by many lawyers but not so many “COVID-19 CEOs” – that is CEOs waking up this morning faced with the task of leading their organisations through an unprecedented global pandemic. 

Paul’s blog concerned a conversation he had last Friday “with a lawyer who told him such a gruelling story that I have not thought of anything else since.”

The lawyer spoke of “his loneliness when first fighting for what was right, but then resigning from a company in which he had discovered systemic fraud.”

So, another day another story of a in-house lawyer brutally forced out by “the business”. So what? Everyone knows this occurrence is commonplace, nay, “business as usual”. 

The “so what” for CEOs is Paul Gilbert’s analysis of the story:

“I will be writing to him this weekend to offer all the support I can. He is a lawyer of exceptional courage. A hero. He played his part flawlessly, made his contribution and he was not found wanting, but he has lost his job and feels alone. The company that employed him may write a different story and probably will. It will be a kind of history too, but not the truth. It is also possible that the lawyer’s story may never be written. His story may not inform a wider world. His story may be lost in time, but it is the truth and it will live with me forever.”

This reflection and the reaction to it on social media yesterday is noteworthy on three levels:

  • first that the pain this lawyer – and his family – has suffered will have been awake-at-night and off the scale and is commonplace
  • second the grim acknowledgement and acceptance that “his story may be lost in time”
  • and third the reaction on social media: hugely sympathetic to the lawyer but resigned to the reality of their plight. They’re probably right about that.

So, CEOs, this story may well be unfolding in your organisation this week. Indeed you may well be a CEO about to “shaft” a hapless lawyer. 

If you are, then don’t do it, if only from a perspective of self-preservation. 

It’s as mad as cutting the brake cable in your own car. And to remove a lawyer of honour during a pandemic is the organisational equivalent of taking off your mask on the Underground and snogging the nearest random passenger. 

You need your “hang-on-a-minute” lawyers, now more than ever. 

But if, as I suspect, you are amongst the majority of CEOs who haven’t a clue what all the fuss is about and are blissfully unaware that lawyers in-house and out, businesses and regulators have slept-walked for the last 30 years, and particularly since the 2008 Global Financial Crash, through a small but growing clamour for regulatory change in the context in which in-house lawyers operate, then listen up: you are sitting on a time bomb. Why?

The day will come when you will be lying awake at night trembling in fear, like this lawyer was, as you deal with a catastrophic “risk event” in your business, on your watch most likely accelerated by the pressures of pandemic and filled with deep regret that you didn’t create an independent environment in which your in-house lawyers could thrive and do their jobs. It will be too late.

Paul Gilbert gives you clear guidance on this:

“The frame we are given as lawyers by our ethical code is an extraordinary gift that empowers influence. It requires that I must act in a way that upholds the constitutional principle of the rule of law, and the proper administration of justice. I must act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession and in the legal services I provide. That I will act with independence, with honesty, with integrity, in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion, and always in the best interests of each client.”

You can read his blog here: https://www.lbcwisecounsel.com/resources/articles/article/who-tells-your-story/#.XxVM3xNKhhE

But don’t just read it. Act on it, today.

Tick, tock.

Ciarán Fenton

What can CEOs learn from Sir Keir Starmer’s first 100 days, and vice versa?

Sir Keir Starmer recently completed his first hundred days as Leader of the Opposition in the UK’s Parliament. Commentators have assessed these according to their political bias.

But none disagree on his chief achievement: his “forensic” approach to “calling out” the government on its behaviour.

CEOs can learn much from his approach. Keir Starmer is a barrister and, as Nigel Pascoe QC explained in BarriserBlog (2013), there are four rules in cross-examining a witness:

“Firstly, put your…case as shortly, clearly and concisely as possible and then leave it…you should try to keep control of the witness whom you are cross-examining. By that, I mean that as the questioner, you should be in the driving seat and by the precision of your questions, keep the witness confined to your chosen territory…the second golden rule, expressed in the truism that the art of cross-examination is not the art of examining crossly…The third rule, perhaps underpinning all the others, is that you must prepare your cross-examination meticulously. You need to think, so far as you can anticipate it, of the worst answer that the witness might give and how you are going to follow up their answer…The fourth rule is probably the best known. Never ask a question, it is said, to which you do not know the answer already. Now I would qualify that rule…Never ask a question unless you have a very good idea of what the answer is likely to be. In other words, there are times when you may feel that you can take a calculated risk…Beyond those four rules, there is one indefinable matter which is very difficult to explain and which you will only appreciate after you have been cross-examining for a while – something in the air that you detect and can use. Sometimes you will sense a line of cross-examination that you had not planned at all. And pursuing it carefully, suddenly the atmosphere changes in court…”


CEOs will achieve more productive outcomes if they follow these rules, at least directionally, when in “cross-examining mode” at board meetings, 1-1s and at the end of internal or external presentations and pitches.

Some barristers take delight in “shredding” witnesses as some CEOs do their direct reports, suppliers and staff. This approach may lead to winning in court but rarely leads to a long term win in organisations. 

While Sir Keir Starmer has deployed these rules to productive effect over his first 100 days he could learn some tricks from those CEOs who are effective and emotionally intelligent. 

In the unlikely event of him asking me for my advice for his next 100 days, I would suggest three things:

  • Make your top people look good. 
    • The job of a leader is to create an environment in which the people they lead can thrive. The Leader of the Opposition leads their MPs, and especially their front bench, no one else. While everyone is obsessed with how Sir Keir might “lead the country” if he became Prime Minister, they must know that even prime ministers don’t lead the country. They too are paid to lead their MPs and especially their Cabinet. The mistake prime ministers and leaders of the opposition make is that they don’t spend enough time promoting their top team and listening to their backbenchers. Mrs Thatcher lost power because of that error. Most PMs do. The best CEOs avoid that trap.
  • Help us understand “Starmerism”
    • As yet it’s not clear what Sir Keir cares deeply about i.e. his purpose. He must fix this soon, or he risks becoming a “one-trick-pony”. People will soon tire of the word “forensic” and realise that he should not be praised for just doing his job: calling out the PM. They need more. What’s “the more?” Sir Keir? Tell us. CEOs have an “-ism” like politicians evidenced by the change in culture in organisations when CEOs with “strong” personalities are replaced by others with different personalities. Clever CEOs figure out their purpose and live it.
  • Please all of your stakeholders, not some
    • Sir Keir’s stakeholders are society, his MPs and voters. CEOs stakeholders are society, their people and shareholders. Each must balance these. Neither task is easy. But failure to do so leads to failure. 

Finally, CEOs currently share one other factor with Sir Keir: every CEO has recently completed their first 100 days as a “cum-COVID-19 CEO”. None could avoid it.

The pandemic is creating new challenges for leaders, not least a significant shift in stakeholder expectations. A reframed shared purpose, an appropriate strategy to achieve it and nothing short of a leadership relaunch are likely to work.

The problem for CEOs and Sir Keir is that these steps are painful. The good news is that the pain is worth it, for all.

Ciarán Fenton

Learn from Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email

During lockdown, I started reading – or more accurately listening on Scribd on my run – to David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln.

In Chapter 16, he describes Lincoln’s fury at General Meade’s failure to prevent General Lee’s escape into Virginia.

Frustration fuelled the President’s anger.

Modern CEOs and leaders will recognise these deeper feelings if they take time to pause, stay in the present moment mindfully, and to acknowledge that anger is a much shallower feeling than the deeper unheard inner screams of frustration.

Lincoln had much to scream about: after so many lost battles, the Union’s surprising triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 led him to believe that they could end the war if only General Meade were to “complete his work”. That’s the modern equivalent of JFDI.

However, General Meade didn’t “deliver”. Lee’s army escaped across the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland into Virginia. There was a Cabinet meeting that day. And were that a crisis board meeting in today’s terms it would be said that the atmosphere was tense, to put it mildly.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of that meeting in Team of Rivals – one of several excellent books on the President – Lincoln’s face clearly revealed that he was “disturbed [and] disconcerted”. That’s 1860’s code for: he was massively pissed off.

“If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself”, he said. How many times do we hear CEOs exclaim: “Do I have to do it myself?”

Moreover, Lincoln was a President who understood the importance of clarity of purpose and how it drives strategy. He lamented, therefore that since the Union’s purpose was to defeat Lee it followed that chasing him across the river was not the right strategy.

After that Cabinet meeting, he wrote the equivalent of a stinking email to General Meade, described by Goodwin:

“While expressing his profound gratitude for “the magnificent success” at Gettysburg, he acknowledged that he was “distressed immeasurably” by “the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with other late successes, have ended the war.”

But he never sent the letter because, as Goodwin writes, “Lincoln held back, as he often did, when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle”.

That was a good decision for he later realised that since Genreral Meade had been in command for only four days before The Battle of Gettysburg and had experienced enormous losses there, he was exhausted and in a state of great “mental anxiety”.

Lincoln came to appreciate with the benefit of hindsight that he had asked too much of Meade. Had he sent the letter, the hero of Gettysburg would have been unfairly traduced.

So, emulate Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email.

Ciarán Fenton