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Brave New Law: Leadership during a time of transformation

23 June 2023

In times of transformation, leaders face challenges driven by economic uncertainties. Embracing curiosity and a strategic mindset, reframing constraints as opportunities, and prioritising people can lead to breakthroughs and unity amidst change.

A transformation can be the most exciting and challenging time to be a leader.  It can be driven by positive factors, but many companies and their legal departments are facing transformations that are driven by economic uncertainties and are focused on cuts rather than expansion.

In these challenging times it can be tempting to revert to type, focus on work and keep your head down. Conservatism and playing it safe can seem like the logical response. But should it be?

It is interesting to note that some of the world’s most innovative companies were formed during downturns. Staying connected to your curiosity and looking at a larger world view can be the best way to steer you and your legal team through challenging times.

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A strategic but curious view

During an economic recession, the knee jerk impulse can be to focus on core activities. But determining what is ‘core’ could have important ramifications for your team, your function, and your organisation. How you define yourself now might determine how you are viewed by your executive and the organisation for many years to come.  At this point one of the most valuable things, I have seen general counsel do is ensure they make the time to be strategic.

In my coaching practice one of the tasks, I set many clients is consistently trying to get out of reactive mind set into a more strategic one. The simplest way is to set aside some sacrosanct time each week where you can think and reflect. Many business executives swear by this – of course if a major crisis comes knocking at your door you ditch the thinking time but don’t use potential for crisis as an excuse to not commit to this!

It’s important to ensure that legal department strategy is aligned to organisational strategy and be prepared to demonstrate this via tangible examples. "As digitisation is a focus for the company as whole, we are evaluating all the core legal functions that can be safely digitised to mirror this".

Reframing constraint

In coaching, another tactic used to change mindsets is reframing a situation. For many legal departments working under constraints is the status quo even when times are good!  But when more constraints are imposed a reframing of the narrative may be needed to ensure that progress does not stop or moves backwards.

In their book A Beautiful Constraint Adam Morgan and Mark Barden analyse how constraint can be used to spark innovation and creativity in business. Whilst it’s natural to adopt what Morgan and Barden call a victim mindset when first faced with a constraint, the ideal trajectory is to move through this and get to what they term the Responsive Transformer Stage and the Proactive Transformer Stage.  In these transformative strategies the constraint is being used to prompt different solutions which might be breakthroughs. The difference between the two is that in the responsive stage you are reacting to an imposed constraint in this transformative way. In the proactive stage you will impose constraints on your efforts to stimulate better ideas. Communications and exercises around how you and your legal team work together to be responsive transformers can have a revolutionary effect on how your team will view changes and can help promote unity in challenging times.

People first

In challenging times it’s essential to have the right people with you – can you say that is the case? Planning for transformation should be the defining metric in your hiring strategy even when everything is settled. Many general counsel who have high performing teams use this as their north star in hiring.

But even the right people get disillusioned and tired. Development and DEI initiatives are often the first things to go but cutting these sends the wrong messages. Not investing in your talent in a time of transformation is a critical mistake. Accepted, you might not be able to use traditional ‘carrots’ such as promotions and pay raises but there are other ways you can make staff feel valued. Can you give talent more internal stretch opportunities which may also help as you work through transformative changes? Are there ways you can partner with external suppliers for resourcing on development?

Say it like it is

There is a lot of uncertainty rushing around when transformation is in the air.

It’s imperative that you can communicate as much as you can with warmth and empathy.  I have seen many general counsel, struggle with this: lawyer instincts kick in to say nothing! But it’s important to communicate everything you can as soon as you can. Even if you know nothing – say that.  It’s also critical to acknowledge the feelings of uncertainty your team will have and help them feel seen at a time when they may feel like pawns in a giant chess game.

Finally, transformation is by its very nature, changeable.  When thinking about transformation see it as a series of sprints or short marathons. Make sure this mindset is part of both your strategic planning, talent strategy, and communication to your team.

Author: Dr Catherine McGregor MCMO ChMC

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