Assuming leadership of a business or organisation through times of change comes with a daunting list of challenges (and dare we say, opportunities), both on a macro- and micro-level.
The challenges are no less vital to the running of a business or organisation when drilling down into the issues faced by departmental leaders, but perhaps more so than any other in terms of what needs to be accomplished, are the challenges faced by the legal department.
The daily challenges are there for all to see – from keeping up with regulatory requirements (and what fun we’ve all had with GDPR…), to dealing with intra-company issues and the external factors badgering away at the door, but if you pile on top of the day-to-day business of a busy corporate legal department a period of change, one fundamental question always raises its head.
How does a mild-mannered in-house lawyer successfully navigate a period of change or uncertainty and still keep morale high?
As soon as a change to the status quo is announced (or even earlier thanks to the office grapevine) the legal department goes into overdrive. They need to be ready and prepared to answer uncomfortable questions, they need to stay in control of the situation and stop it escalating and they need to mitigate attrition, all the while remaining focused on their jobs.
As always, and you’ll have seen this as a common thread in all of the posts we’ve done on leadership, the key is communication. Strategic, consistent communication.
Amongst many others, the role of the in-house lawyer (or general counsel) is to minimise uncertainty and perhaps more importantly, to maintain trust and transparency. Employees know when they’re being lied to, or given bogus information, or being fed half-truths. They also know when someone is being truthful and honest with them.
Naturally there will be occasions where any number of pertinent facts can’t be shared and that is understood but as soon as information is sharable, share it.
A good lawyer will work alongside the senior management team to create a communication plan that sits alongside a larger organisational plan because by doing it this way, it creates a line of communication that is consistent and realistic.
This is no more better explained than by Lars Sjobring, Group VP, Legal Affairs, Global General Counsel and Company Secretary of the world’s largest automotive safety supplier;
‘I think we all agree that it is often best to keep the number of people that initially know about a significant confidential change extremely small until a larger internal announcement is released. But while people often can accept that a very small group of individuals were ‘in the know’ before them, it is often demoralising if you are not in the next but the third group to know. Balancing the need for continued confidentiality against the need to make those you will need to rely on in later stages feel part of the ‘in the know’ team is the difficult trick.’
However, having a solid communication plan in place and relaying the information to the infantry at the appropriate times is only part of the process. You must also ensure that what you are telling them is being listened to accurately and appropriately. In situations like this, people have a tendency to only hear what they want to hear.
So there’s another job you need to do. Play detective. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Understand body language and tone. Many of them will come to you with genuine concerns so as a team, you need to give them that platform, whether it’s departmentally, as a group forum or on a one-to-one basis. Depending on the nature of the organisational change they will want to know how it will affect them personally. While you may not be able to give that sort of reassurance, you have the power to communicate with them with as much clarity as the circumstances allow because you’re ‘in the know.’
Change – in a corporate or organisational sense – is a word fraught with uncertainty and it always makes things different to what went before. Good, effective leaders prepare teams positively for change, whether it’s new roles and responsibilities, new reporting structures or new leaders.
There’s more to leadership than being a boss. Much more. It’s easy to be a good leader when everything’s rosy in the garden but the measure of a true leader is how they cope handling difficult, confidential or sensitive situations. A strong, capable leader will understand what it’s like in the shoes of the staff and will show compassions, interest and concern.
Staying quiet and hoping it all goes away doesn’t help in the slightest and it’s the textbook sign of weak leadership. It’s entirely counterproductive and will harbour resentment, affect loyalty and threaten the team dynamic.
Being a team is exactly that. It’s not ‘them and us’. It’s ‘we’re all in this together and we’re all going to reap the benefits of future success.’
The best leaders have the genuine interests of their teams at heart and have the amazing ability to create a solid platform for the future.
For more information on how to develop today’s new breed of great leader, please contact us today.