The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma | Part II: Developing Leadership Capability

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In part two of The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma series, Lander & Rogers' Practice Group Leader - Consulting, Anthony Kearns focuses on developing leadership capability.

I know, I know, you were expecting me to move onto engaging external firms next. It's not that I don’t think this is important but in my experience there is important work to do so you can really engage with your law firms to truly solve your shared challenges. In my experience, focusing too much attention on reducing external spend can also be what Ron Heifetz describes as applying a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. More on Ron below.

If you've ever tried to get your legal team to experiment with technology or stop reviewing non-disclosure agreements you quickly realise that working out what to do is nowhere near as difficult as getting it done. To be honest, if you look around you the “what” is already there to see in other business services functions. Just ask IT to show you how they manage workflow using gateways and triage or HR to show you how they have structured their function and used outsourcing and technology to deliver value and efficiency. Lawyers often divide the world into “lawyers” and “non-lawyers”. In dividing the world in this way, we are part of a very small and elite club: religious ministers, university academics, the British Royal Family and us. Unfortunately, this often gets in the way of us learning from experts or people who have done a better job of adapting to the "more for less" dilemma.

More for less challenge 2: Developing leadership capability

Solving the challenges discussed in these posts requires significant changes in behaviour and mindset on the part of your lawyers. They also tend to behave in predictably irrational ways in the face of change. They are human after all. Most GCs also appreciate that while the law firms from which they recruit their talent are very good at developing legal capability, the same cannot be said of their ability to develop leadership capability. To make matters worse, when you get in-house you realise that senior members of business services functions often get limited access to formal leadership development and even when you get to go to formal leadership programs they are rarely tailored to the particular challenges in leading teams of lawyers. As a result, most senior in-house lawyers are left to “muddle their way through” in the face of significant complexity. In my experience it is very difficult for a GC and their senior leadership team to get any traction on change initiatives without first investing in developing leadership capability. In my experience, the most pressing developmental needs (in no particular order) are: leading change in complexity, adaptive leadership, building and sustaining high performance cultures, emotional agility, innovation/design thinking and inclusive leadership.

Best practice

Best practice in meeting this challenge doesn’t start with intensive training programs, but rather with engaging experts in organisational development to work with stakeholders and your team to agree the behaviours and capabilities that result in the delivery of value to the business (both now and into the future) and the behaviours and capabilities of leaders who consistently deliver this value from the teams they lead. Again, we have worked on a number of capability frameworks for in-house teams and it is fascinating to see the capabilities that emerge as positive differentiators (e.g. facilitation of relationships and horizon scanning) and those that are considered essential but "pay to play" (e.g. technical legal expertise and commerciality). With this capability framework in hand, the next stage is to review your current formal leaders and leadership succession plan to ensure that you have the right people in formal leadership roles and the pipeline of talent to sustain long-term adaptive change. I don't know if you have ever noticed this, but the lawyers who are the best at solving technical legal problems don't always make the best leaders. Only then do you invest in leadership development interventions that employ experiential learning, action learning and coaching to enable learning through active supported reflection in the process of solving real challenges. Just in case you were wondering: leadership capability cannot be developed in an hour over lunch.

Request a stakeholder experience analysis here or contact me directly.

In developing lawyer leaders we have found the work of Professor Ronald Heifetz on adaptive leadership incredibly useful and more suited to the complexity of modern organisations and the lawyer mindset than many traditional business school approaches. Get a hold of Leadership on the Line (or get the audiobook as I know nobody has time to read books anymore). You should also check out Kegan and Lahey's Immunity to Change (audiobook) as it will help you explain why your lawyers don't stop reviewing NDAs. I will leave you with my favourite leadership quote:

"If you are heading in a particular direction and you turn around and nobody is following you, you are not leading, you are going for a walk."

View other insights in The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma series here:

  • The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma | Part I
  • The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma | Part III
  • The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma | Part IV
  • The modern GC and the "more for less" dilemma | Part V

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

Key contacts

Anthony Kearns

Practice Group Leader, Consulting