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GC Leadership Forum: Chair’s Takeaways

We had a great couple of days last week at the GC Leadership Forum, which I chaired for Practical Law. I’d like to say a huge thank you to the excellent speakers and to everyone at the Forum who contributed to some fascinating discussions and debates.

One of the highlights for me was the keynote speech by Will Hutton, chair of the Big Innovation Centre and Principal of Hertford College Oxford, on what he described as the new age of turbulence.

In seeking common ground in the varied world of the in-house community, it can be tempting to fall into introspection: Will’s session took us right to the heart of a wider socio-economic debate.

Will’s proposition is that many companies have – for a variety of reasons – become ownerless, purposeless vehicles driven by short term shareholder requirements that are at odds with a wider concept of the utility of commercial action. We have lost the narrative of capitalism as a tool, not for growth for its own sake or to enrich the few, but for directly improving our lives by making useful things and providing useful services.

The Big Innovation Centre will be putting forward for discussion a number of policy suggestions around the de-purposed company in May. It was a privilege to hear some of the early thinking, and I’m looking forward to watching this area develop.

Against this backdrop, we took a critical look at our profession in a series of plenary and break-out sessions. We covered a wide range of topics, across four main themes: the role of the GC, managing risk, globalisation and managing your career. Here were my top takeaways across the sessions.

The role of the GC: infinite variety

There was passionate, good-humored debate about the proper role of the GC, and how this should fit within the management structure of a business. Important questions were asked about whether the GC should always be a member of the board, what language we should use to describe our relationship with the business and whether annexing areas of responsibility, such as compliance, was an opportunity for personal growth or a distraction from adding value.

When we came to discuss the global perspective, I particularly liked the idea expressed by one of our panelists of the GC as “a strategic adviser with commercial insight, wrapped around a core of legal expertise.”

However, what emerged most clearly for me was how varied and fluid the role of GC can be, and what an exciting moment it is to be working in a part of a profession that offers such variety.

Managing risk: knowledge isn’t everything

The consensus that emerged from the floor is that businesses are better placed than ever before to know what their risks are and to quantify them, but it can sometimes be too easy for formal risk management exercises to become an empty stock-take of information.

It is much harder in practice to focus on what the “business-busting” risks are and actively manage them to add value. Alongside a number of tactics for getting to grips with this, including scenario identification and testing, one delegate shared their experience of carrying out an innovative risk survey of senior management to test different perceptions of risk across the business.

Several of our panelists had used risk to proactively define the legal function. In a start-up context, Lisa Tomlins of Made.com described how she used the company’s appetite for risk to focus on giving the business the input that really mattered. At the other end of the spectrum, Bjarne Tellmann told us how he had reorganised Pearson’s global legal team around the key risks identified in the business.

The need to look beyond the strict legal analysis to get to the crux of the business need also emerged strongly from our session on crisis management.

Much of the good practice we heard about involved understanding the psychology of a crisis and working out how to “do the right thing” in a difficult situation, as one panelist put it.

Globalisation: lead from the heart

A number of our sessions focused on the rewards and challenges of working in a global environment. These are recurring themes, but what struck me particularly about the debate this year was how much we focused on the personal skills and cultural sensitivities needed if we are to be effective across borders. Managing teams effectively across the world takes time, dedication and personal commitment.

According to Bjarne Tellmann: “If you’re going to unify a team, you need to lead from the heart as well as the head.”

Managing your career: don’t be afraid to be a great GC

Several sessions drew on the opportunities for the GC to define and develop their role and to support the aspirations of their teams. One panelist urged us to make sure that we had a clear and critical understanding of the aspirations of our junior lawyers and another encouraged us to give them the courage and inspiration to make a sideways move if they want to pursue their ambitions more widely.

There was a lot of inspiration for those looking to transition to a wider business role, with an acknowledgement that opportunities have to be sought out and fought for. One of the panelists urged those who wanted to make the move into a wider business role to grasp opportunities wholeheartedly and avoid the temptation to be just a “safe pair of hands”. If nothing else, he reasoned:

“You will always be a better lawyer for having spent time in the business.”

As I said at the outset of the conference, it’s essential to take time out from the day job, to stand back and look at the big themes, and to sound them out with peers. The Forum certainly gave me plenty of food for thought. My biggest thanks go to the delegates, who made a tremendous contribution to our plenary sessions and workshops. It was a pleasure to be able to meet so many of you and continue our discussions in great surroundings. I hope to see you again next year.

RSA Neville Howe

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