People management, retention and motivation for the general counsel

This article discusses skilful people management for GCs from two aspects – managing your own team and also how to manage people in other parts of the business. It also covers how in-house teams can retain and engage the best talent.

Lisa Mayhew, BLP: Today we’re thinking about skilful people management from two aspects – managing your own team and also how to manage people in other parts of the business. HR and recruitment are one of in-house lawyers’ biggest concerns, so why is that? 

Mark Gilder, Mitie: Certainly, there are difficulties to manage and retain good lawyers – this far I’ve been lucky, my team’s quite small. There’s growth potential – going outside the division to other parts of the business, so we’re exploring development in commercial and compliance roles and trying to give them breadth of experience. We understand people are ambitious, they’re good and talented and they may stay with us, but more than likely they won’t.

If I can get three to five years out of team members that’s a good result for me. So I’m trying to play the right card by them – that means getting ready for their next move – it’s a bitter pill for me to swallow but it’s going to happen, and actually it should happen – it’s a good thing.

Tim Russell, Ignis: It depends on the size of the organisation. If you’re a small outfit, if you have a head of legal, an associate or number two, trainee, what career progression is there? Unless you’re planning on exiting or there’s going to be a reorganisation, its unlikely you can sell a great career path. It’s about making it as attractive as possible for people in the short term. In small organisations, it’s going to be difficult to say – if you join us, in five years time you’ll be head of legal. You have to look closely at the motives of someone joining your firm – what they want to get out of it as well as what you want to get out of it. There’s no point in recruiting someone for a number two role when they want to be number one.

Nigel Paterson, Dixons Carphone: It’s a lot easier to give people opportunities when the business is expanding because you need more lawyers, and it’s easier to have a sense of continuous development.

Bjarne Tellmann, Pearson:There are challenges of creating the right culture where there are generational differences. Millennials have a different view of what the ideal career path is, so it’s finding ways to articulate a culture that is attractive to different generations.

Lisa Mayhew, BLP: Do you have open and honest discussions from the early days as to what people’s expectations are? 

Nigel Paterson, Dixons Carphone: It’s a lot easier to give people opportunities because you need more lawyers when the business is expanding so it’s easier to have a sense of continuous development. It’s really important to have those conversations with people because not everyone wants to stay to be a lawyer. One of the advantages of the in-house world that you can sell to people is the opportunity to develop in lots of other areas within the business and increasingly that’s something that people find attractive.

In the in-house world the differences between companies are quite stark so you have to spend time creating the environment where people feel nurtured and respected and can grow. It’s easy to assume that people want the same things as you out of their career.

Misha Patel, KPMG: When I first came to KPMG I wanted to get to grips with the business so I rotated among several different business teams and also shadowed audit to find out what we provided.

Lisa Mayhew, BLP: As a community do you talk to one another? If you know you’ve got a great person but you don’t have the opportunity for that person internally do you have a network you can tap into? 

Nilema Bhakta-Jones, Top Right Group: We’re all facing some issues around developing teams and retaining talent. The reality is that for a small team I want people who are ambitious.

In the initial stages of recruiting my team I told them that I have a three to five year trajectory and that I can guarantee they will get some fantastic work, real variety and as much exposure on skills, including soft skills.

We have a [leadership] programme which my team is on and they’re with other leaders across the other businesses. It’s about embedding yourself in the business, understanding what matters to your colleagues, speaking with a voice that can empathise with the business and curating a multi-talented team and multi-functional team.

Lisa Mayhew, BLP: My impression is that in-house you are much better at creating more inclusive and diverse teams.

Annabel Bannerman, Ladbrokes:Betting and gaming is full of men and they’ve got very ingrained problems there, but we now have two female non execs on board.

Amanda Brock, Global Switch: I’ve worked in male-dominated sectors like software and construction. Every time I’ve changed job I’ve changed sectors and usually I was the only woman in the room.

Nigel Paterson, Dixons Carphone:As clients of law firms we should be more demanding. Our customers expect to see us reflect the diversity of the world around us.

Paolo Berard, Centrica: It’s written in our legal procurement policy…

Joanne Theodoulou, NetOTC: I was speaking to one guy who’d won a diversity award [in our industry] and he told me he had won it because he had one woman on a team of about 20 derivatives specialists – that he’d won the award says it all!

Catrin Griffiths, The Lawyer: From what you say, you as clients are forcing diversity – how do you police that? Speaking to private practice lawyers going through pitches, particularly for financial institutions, they’re asked to provide reams of statistics, which produces some cynicism – ‘they’re asking us all the stats, we plonk it on the desk and they never
do anything with it’ – it becomes a chore rather than a conversation.

Paolo Berard, Centrica: On our recent panel review we asked firms to bring the [client] team to the pitch and in one firm not a single woman was represented. We raised it with them and they agreed they’d come back with a new team. In the photograph of another team with all their titles and expertise, it was all white males. We said no, that isn’t going to work, so they sharpened their pencils and came back with a revised team.

Bjarne Tellmann, Pearson: We’ve established a diversity committee within the legal team and it’s hugely energising. There are so many different ways of looking at it – sex, racial, cultural, also in terms of extroverts and introverts, age – it’s not just the right thing to do it, it’s the only thing to do because you get better decision-making. When I worked at Coca-Cola we had a diversity award and it was quite a tough competition – the questions were incredibly thorough and it became quite a prestigious thing for the winning firm. Starting with a committee internally is a great way of people getting fired up.

Lisa Mayhew, BLP: We’ve talked a lot here ofthe importance of knowing your business, and you’re saying you want high-achieving people. But how do they know the business if they’re not going to be there for the long haul? Is there any tension in that?

Nigel Paterson, Dixons Carphone:You need a blend of people – some tasks are by their very nature not necessarily the most interesting role but can be done very well and that can be a totally legitimate career path, so it’s getting the right people in the right roles who don’t necessarily want to go up the greasy pole.

Reg Ozcan, Betfair: We recruited a junior lawyer last year and had a choice of candidates. One expected to do that role for a long time and the other was very hungry and aggressive. Part of me thought the second candidate might outgrow the role in a couple of years but he will have bought into the business and be engaged, and in the meantime the role would have evolved. If I’d have gone with the first person I wouldn’t have had to hire again, but the second candidate, the super-ambitious one, is going to give me two really good years at least.

Bjarne Tellmann, Pearson: We’ve been experimenting with the Silicon Valley model. Four years ago digital content and services were 11-14 per cent of revenue. Today it’s 65 per cent, so we’ve gone from a conventional publishing business to a digital content business. That changes the kind of lawyer you need – change attracts a type of person, so I started to look at Silicon Valley and how they do it. They tend to hire for a tour of duty, so the model is more like a sports team. David Beckham doesn’t play for a football team for life, but two to three years. I‘m thinking about how to make that model work in reality – what are the incentives I can offer? It’s about articulating what you can get out of your career, whether it’s international or experience or digital.

Tim Russell, Ignis: I think that’s a much more realistic view. In industry there’s no expectation that people stay for more than a few years – you go in, do a tour of duty and it’s a stepping stone. And that’s fine – everyone knows what the score is.

Annabel Bannerman, Ladbrokes: But I’m measured by succession planning. I’ve got three five-year qualified lawyers, and they’re all ambitious and able, all want different things in life. However you’re being measured by how long [people] stay and if you have too much of a churn it becomes a reflection on us and I might have to forewarn the CEO and make clear that it’s not because of bad management or because of the business, they’re at a different time of their life.

Bjarne Tellmann, Pearson: It’s not unique to the legal world – it’s happening to other parts of the business and this is a broader trend.

Thamala Perera, IGas Energy: I’m in a very technical area of oil and gas business and have had a challenging time of late. I’m one of five and about to lose two. The way to keep the others is through quality work, they’ve left private practice and come in-house for a reason to get high-quality work despite the downturn. If they’re hungry to learn about the business they will learn.

We’ve just done a deal with Ineos and the other side had Slaughter and May. We did the deal on our own with just specialist tax advice externally – my team feel great that they did that internally. That empowers them as well, that we’ve done this deal, and it’s been widely reported.

Misha Patel, KPMG: People in our teams don’t want to be just a lawyer, they want to be a business player.

Joanne Theodoulou, NetOTC: It depends on the culture of the organisation. I come from a huge bank with a hierarchical structure – partly because of the size, partly because of the industry. In those cultures it’s about the next promotion and people get fixated on titles.

In a small organisation what you give them instead becomes so much more important and the work becomes meaningful. The organisation I’m now in is small and very dynamic and people are taking a risk to join it. We’re launching our product this year and I’m now trying to recruit into the team. It’s interesting looking at the profiles of the people coming forward. Because lawyers are by nature quite conservative, trying to get a good senior associate out of private practice to join what is effectively a start-up is extremely difficult. I tell recruiters that I want someone who might have chucked in her job to drive around Europe in a camper van for six months – I want people who are a bit different.

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The Lawyer and BLP run regular GC2B roundtable events discussing the current issues affecting in-house lawyers. To join the debate, attend an event or for more information, contact emma.bower@centaurmedia.com

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