The notion of purpose has been turbo boosted by COVID-19 and the renewed focus on social injustices, highlighting the need for introspection and asking about your purpose as a business.  As a follow up to a webinar discussion on “Re-evaluating and justifying your purpose as a business” that took place on the 11 May, Aston University general counsel Victoria Mee talks to The Lawyer about the importance of purpose to businesses, how that differs from just a focus on revenue,  being a guardian vs being a business partner and helping the business be “risk informed”.

The primary purpose of any business is to make money by providing a product or service, while the purpose of the GC and the legal function is to make sure the business does so lawfully. Surely any other purposes are secondary to these main ones?

Yes, a business seeks to make money, and of course making sure this is done lawfully is one of the main purposes of the General Counsel. But on its own, that’s an extraordinarily simplistic view that lacks any nuance.

Victoria Mee, Aston University

A better way to simplify the legal function’s purpose is to make sure it’s embedded in the agreed purpose of the whole organisation, directly informed by its strategy. The big ‘why are we here’ moment, along with the agreed ‘how we will attain’ that purpose.

There will always be prioritisation, but in large organisations that also includes clearly understood reasons for flexibility through the understanding of multiple scenarios.

This was my pivotal role as General Counsel in early 2020: to re-evaluate Aston University’s policy infrastructure and to consider if changes were required to align it more closely to delivering its strategy.

I developed the project with a multi-disciplinary team, resulting in a new organisational document articulating what’s referred to as “Our Principles”, and how they connect to our policy infrastructure and delivery of our Strategy, Mission and Vision. This document has sharpened the entire organisation’s focus via four pillars:

  • Academic: the “product” policies, so learning and teaching.
  • Integrity: containing all our compliance policies.
  • Respect: including all policies relating to fairness, health and safety, and respect in our community.
  • Stewardship: all the policies relating to safeguarding our environment and assets, and community engagement.

Back to your question: of course, the university offers products and services that bring in revenues, and, of course, the General Counsel ensures this is all done legally.

But to achieve this, all the university’s policies and procedures must be both grounded in the agreed principles and then streamlined to be accessible to all the communities we serve.

That detail – which the legal function now has in-depth knowledge of – then ensures we deliver all our educational and commercial purposes legally, but with the flexibility needed.

To what extent is the notion of purpose going to be different in an established business compared to an entrepreneurial one? Could self-doubts about purpose creep in more older organisations?

My view is that there should not be any differences between the ways an established or entrepreneurial business set, reviews and fulfils its purpose.

Aston University has always worked closely with new businesses, or course, and indeed helps the launch of so many start-ups every year, activity that led to us being named at the Outstanding Entrepreneurial University (THE awards 2020).

This sees the university’s senior management team all playing active roles with start-ups and what we call “spin-out” companies that are formed from students and researchers’ programmes here at Aston.

I’ve personally sat on the boards of several start-ups at Aston during their investment rounds, and even stayed on as company secretary of Grid Edge Ltd as they developed their operations looking at energy efficiency in buildings.

The spirit of start-ups is to continually refresh, reframe and challenge their purpose as they grow and mature, and so it seems natural to be doing exactly the same here at Aston University, even though we are an established business.

The question asks if “self-doubts about purpose” can occur in older organisations. Here at Aston University, the answer is “no”. As a proven entrepreneurial university, we are constantly creating courses and programmes for the modern world, resulting in multiple start ups and new jobs for the economy every year.

To succeed at this, there is no sitting on our laurels or relying on purpose documents that might be gathering dust. Although we work for such a historic organisation, we know the value of constantly challenging its purpose and values, redefining where necessary its ‘why’ for today’s world.

Only by remaining fresh and relevant can we differentiate ourselves as a respected partner with the modern business world to advance our community – our students, our region, and our global community.

In short, our clear and refreshed purpose means we remain well-established as one of the UK’s most entrepreneurial universities.

Before GCs can be guardians, they need to be partners first. Do you agree with this?

This is an excellent point and reflects how we operate at Aston University. And I say ‘we’ with meaning, because each member of the university’s senior management team plays a role in being a guardian of the organisation’s integrity and reputation.

As General Counsel, it’s therefore crucial for me to be partners with each senior management team member so that we are all guardians together.

To see someone as a partner, you must first understand what that person is trying to achieve by working closely with them as a colleague. They have their subject matter expertise, and you have the legal expertise, and by acting together you can fulfil the organisation’s purpose.

What’s different about the in-house lawyer is our unique perspective, because we adhere to our own ethical code of conduct, enshrined in our profession’s regulations and standards.

This means the General Counsel always has to act with independence, honesty and integrity, leading to the encouragement of equality, diversity and inclusion in a way that upholds the rule of law and public trust in the profession. Some people may call this old-fashioned. I don’t agree with that.

We make sure our legal perspective is always overlaid onto the senior management position we hold, in partnership with other senior management members. By working together, you are then better together, becoming effective guardians of the organisation.

Is the role of the legal function to help the business make educated decisions?

Absolutely. At times, people refer to a business’s “risky” or “risk adverse” decision-making. Here at Aston University, we talk about making sure the business is always “risk informed”.

Let me draw you a quick picture on how that happens. My lawyers’ risk-assess new opportunities in the context of gross and mitigated risk scores supported by relevant legal advice that identify potential mitigating actions for each risk aligned to the business context.

In short, the business is quickly and clearly risk-informed, which means that whatever happens next the senior management knows where they need to go and what they need to do.

But my point here is that this is the day-to-day operational job of the legal function. That legal work is a basic and making sure the business is risk-informed is just entry level.

The real value of the General Counsel and their team is to add value, to provide additional perspective and to lend context from a deep knowledge of outside contracts. This involves looking at the legal details of governance, policy and wider areas across the compliance landscape and sector, always ensuring that our risk-informed views align to the business.

How can a legal function properly inform on the risks of various activities and the potential mitigations required if it does not understand the organisation’s detailed purpose, how it works and where it sits in the sector?

This was exactly why I led the re-evaluation of Aston University’s policy infrastructure, to make sure the legal function’s input was grounded in knowledge. This means we can produce educated legal risks, enabling the organisation to make truly informed decisions.