Smashing the System
RUPA PATEL IS A FEMALE GENERAL COUNSEL who has developed a successful career through several exciting general counsel roles, often as the first law...
According to a survey, board chairs, directors, and CEOs say that general counsel today are more likely than they were a decade ago to be viewed as key members of the executive team. As a result of these shifting C-suite dynamics, general counsel have the opportunity – and the challenge – to foster strong relationships with the CEO and their C-suite peers.
The modern GC who establishes and nurtures a healthy relationship with the CEO and other C-suite peers will secure a strong position as a respected leader and key member of the company’s executive team.
How can general counsel build exceptional relationships with the CEO and C-suite? Here are four key ways:
Demonstrate an Interest in Key Corporate Issues: The most successful GCs that I have observed over the years are those who saturate themselves in the company with which they are working. They know the company’s products and services very well; they are a genuine fan or consumer of the company’s products or services; and they make a point to deeply understand what is going on with the company at various levels. General counsel seeking to build great relationships with their CEOs and C-suite peers will need to give up their legal myopia. In fact, a 2014 survey entitled, “GCs in the Boardroom and Beyond,” found that, “In addition to a legal advisory role, three quarters of directors believe the GC’s capacity for business judgment adds value to the board. And nearly as many (71 percent) say GCs add value to the management team by actively contributing to business strategy discussions.” GCs who continue to focus solely on their silo without immersing themselves in the corporate culture and general corporate issues are taking an approach that simply does not spell success in today’s management structure. As a first step towards building great relationships with senior-level peers, general counsel should assess the general landscape of issues facing their CEO and other senior executives, beyond those within the legal scope. What issues are the C-suite executives dealing with? What are their current goals? What are some key challenges facing the company at this time? What may the impact of these goals and challenges be on the horizon? Today’s general counsel can no longer afford to be islands unto themselves.
Make Friends: Everything you learned in Kindergarten still applies. Take the time to get to know your C-suite peers personally and consider commonalities and interests you might share. Spending time in-person will pay off in spades as there is no true substitute for face-to-face meetings with your executives or members of the board. Are you an alumnus of the same school as any of the other senior executives? Do any of your C-suite peers have children the same age as yours? Great relationships are built on trust. These kinds of personal connections can be the building blocks upon which you build trust and foster great relationships with your executive team. One important caveat, though. While making friends within the senior-executive team is important, the general counsel can never allow those relationships to turn him or her into a “yes person.” As Deborah A. DeMott, law professor at Duke, writes, “Solidarity between a general counsel and other members of senior management can compromise counsel’s service as a legal advisor…” Building a strong business relationship does not mean you have to get too personal. Keep it professional and remember your GC hat must be “on” at all times. Sometimes a GC has to take unpopular positions or be the bearer of unwelcome news that key executives might not want to hear. Build positive personal relationships, but remain ready, willing, and able to give the CEO and other executives feedback that is honest and constructive.
Remain Neutral at all Times: Groups are inherently political – including groups of senior-level executives and board members. It’s key for general counsel to recognize that these internal politics exist. Conduct your own assessment of the political dynamics, cliques, and other alliances that exist within your C-suite. Acknowledging, assessing, and taking into consideration the C-suite’s internal politics is a key step towards building great relationships with the executive team and the board. Ultimately, however, the GC must remain neutral at all times in the face of any disagreements among any members of the executive team or the board. It may be hard to do if approached by individuals seeking support, but remaining agnostic will always prove the best path.
Be Appropriately Transparent: Communication is the basis for any great relationship. When it comes to C-suite relations, general counsel must maintain an appropriate level of communication as well as transparency. It’s important to figure out the right degree of touch in terms of communication with the executive team and the board. GCs tend to want to keep the “noise level” down for their executive team and that should be a goal. Yet, it’s a balance, and a tricky one that depends on many factors. Company culture, personalities involved and subject of the communication will all dictate the frequency and best method for communication. Too little communication can breed issues, while being too comfortable divulging information can cloud judgment. Also, not all executives are alike, and some CEOs prefer minimal communication, while others want details. Some respond to numbers while others want to see conceptual strategy backed up by data. Also, consider modality. Does your CEO prefer communication to take place in-person or via phone, text, or walking meetings? Ensure executives are receptive to the style of communication you are delivering. Today, in addition to their general counsel duties, some GCs may hold added titles such as corporate secretary, head of executive compensation, V.P. of human resources or chief privacy officer. These varying hats can produce inherent conflicts relative to legal matters that fall on the GC’s plate. Being transparent with the executive team and, if applicable, the board, about which hat you are wearing when advising on a matter will avoid confusion or unmet expectations.
According to the survey, "GCs in the Boardroom and Beyond,”: “As a part of that executive management team, the General Counsel is largely valued for his/her contribution as a sounding board, ability to serve as a trusted adviser to the CEO, and for the ability to provide sound judgment.” As the C-suite has evolved to increasingly include and rely upon the GC, it’s more important than ever that today’s general counsel develop the skills necessary to build great relationships with their C-suite peers and the company’s board.
Reprinted from Inside Counsel at http://www.insidecounsel.com/2015/07/14/how-todays-gcs-can-become-key-members-of-the-execu