Three GCs on the key to talent management

Ahead of their panel session on ‘Bringing your team along for the journey’ at The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner 2017 in association with EY, Jonathan Lipman, Vicky Sandry and Katherine Thomas are sharing their thoughts on helping your team identify and pursue their career goals and making them feel valued.

Many argue that millennial’s objectives are different to those of older generations. Do you agree? How can you get a high performing legal team when individual needs can be so different?

Jonathan Lipman
Jonathan Lipman

Mercedes-Benz UK group general counsel Jonathan Lipman: Yes, I do agree. In my experience – however ambitious – many millennials would like a better work-life balance, and better conditions when at work. I consider the latter can work with modern technology, good management, and an element of trust. We have implemented such a scheme, and it has definitely contributed significantly to team motivation.

Sky UK UK & ROI general counsel Vicky Sandry: It doesn’t matter too much whether you are

Vicky Sandry, Sky
Vicky Sandry

dealing with a millennial or someone from an older demographic. Common to all individuals is the desire to feel that they are coming to work and making a difference – that what they do matters. To do that you need to give people the greatest possible context for their work, so that they can see how it contributes to the company’s objectives.

One of the ways we do this in Sky Legal is to have monthly department meetings at which I report back on trading and business performance and update on matters arising at the UK management meetings, always connecting the work that we do in legal with the company’s key business priorities. At the department meetings I also regularly interview senior Sky leaders on their business priorities and on their career paths and how they’ve got to their current position.

Their stories are always motivating, because their career paths often had twists and turns along the way, and this helps the team realise that career progression isn’t the linear path that they might have imagined, but more like the “jungle gym” that Cheryl Sandberg talks about in “Lean In”.

How can general counsel keep their legal function motivated?

Katherine-Thomas
Katherine Thomas

Travelodge Hotels general counsel Katherine Thomas: I feel that it is important to take the time to understand what motivates and incentivises the individual members of your team (for example variety of work, exposure to senior members of the business, a management role within the team or the ability to work flexibly to fit around childcare) and focus on helping them to achieve this.

What works for one person doesn’t work for another in terms of motivation and I think that you’ll benefit from having a more engaged and better performing team if you consider what each member needs personally and centre your approach on that basis.

Lipman: Evidently, financial rewards motivate – but every business has its limits in this regard, and that’s where creativity is required. We have approached things in two ways. Firstly – an initiative of the legal team itself – we try to encourage specialisation. As an example, one relatively junior lawyer in the team has built up a strong knowledge of data protection law, and we have made her the official contact in this regard for our UK business.

Secondly, we are fortunate that our wider group is always coming up with personal development initiatives – and we have taken advantage of this to, for example, include members of the legal team in international working groups. This gives them experience of head office, and allows them to build up their network of contacts – as well as helping the business.

Sandry: We do a number of things, but underpinning them is that we acknowledge and celebrate that we are more than just people who come to work, but we are all human beings with many things going on outside of work. Getting the balance right between work and home lives is really important to both well-being and motivation. We operate flexible working principles aimed at “empowering you to be your best” and many people in the team work flexibly (in all its forms, including almost 20 per cent working formally part time).

We have a monthly newsletter which takes a light-hearted look at what people have been up to – from charity events, to gaining qualifications in their spare time, to contributing to the community. One of our objectives is to create the conditions that will enable everyone in the Department to grow and reach their full potential and we have a strong focus on “development through diversification” – encouraging people to get experience working in other teams or other areas of law.

Should you keep things real when it comes to the career ambitions of your team, even if you run the risk of demotivating people?

Sandry: Yes, you should keep things real. The team appreciates honesty –- sugar-coating difficult messages is (a) obvious and (b) doesn’t go down well. Career progression in-house is not always easy and therefore our message is that even if a promotion opportunity isn’t available at the time you would like, we will support you in developing your career so that you’re ready when an opportunity does arise.

I always say to people that the one thing I can guarantee is that change will happen, and the question is will you be ready to take advantage of that change? A practical example of something we have done is run a “CV workshop” to help people present themselves in the best possible way when they are applying for a promotion or a different role within Sky.

Thomas: I don’t think that being honest with people about career ambition has to result in demotivation. Having an open conversation can allow you to get the best out of your team – for example, if they want to be a senior lawyer or GC you can discuss how you can provide them with the development and tools they will need to achieve this in the future. In my experience having this dialogue and offering the support and experience they’re looking for means that you will benefit from a higher performing lawyer – even if that lawyer may one day leave the organisation to fulfil their career ambitions elsewhere.

As a manager, I also feel a responsibility to my team as human beings to help them achieve their career ambitions even if this isn’t ultimately within my team. However, an ongoing conversation also makes good business sense – it means you reduce the risk of being blindsided by a member of your team suddenly leaving when they realise you’ve not been upfront.

Lipman: My experience is that if the right career development initiatives are followed, people should be satisfied, and there shouldn’t be too much need for difficult conversations. Staff will naturally move on when career ambition dictates. If a conversation is required, options should be explored to further motivate – and of course things should be kept real.

Given the flat structures and typically smaller size of many legal teams, what options do GCs have for enabling their team to gain management experience?

Thomas: There are lots of ways to help your team gain this kind of experience, even if there aren’t enough juniors in the team for them to manage. I involve my team in training other departments to understand and negotiate contracts and then look to them to supervise those people.

For smaller legal teams this upskilling also has the benefit of extending your resources. However, management of internal business stakeholders can be as important as managing juniors and a positive of being in a small team is that all members can have significant exposure to this. I enable my team to get in front of non-legal senior members of the business where appropriate (e.g. presenting on a significant contract or tender) which also provides them with an understanding of how the senior management team works and their priorities and concerns.

I find that dealing with external law firms can also be a great way to develop team members’ management skills, particularly if they need to have tricky conversations or provide feedback (both positive and negative).

Lipman: This can be difficult when, for example, the CEO naturally wishes to speak to his general counsel. One answer can be the aforementioned building up of specialist skills: that way, senior management must interact with the specialist, whether or not accompanied by the legal head.

Another method is to make lawyers in the team key business contacts; they would then naturally attend that business’ senior management meetings. Finally, there are useful management training courses out there, from which lawyers can benefit.

What mentoring and coaching schemes do you have in place for your team?

Thomas: As a small team, we don’t have a formal legal department scheme but my team take part in the organisation-wide mentoring programs. I encourage them to attend external in-house training and round-table sessions and to build informal relationships with their peers.

Sandry: As well as providing coaching skills training and the opportunity to practice coaching in a safe environment, in Sky Legal we have a pool of mentors available to facilitate the development of our lawyers. Many of our lawyers are also mentored by people outside Legal, gaining different perspectives and learning from the skills and experience of business colleagues. Sky also runs a sponsorship scheme where senior leaders in the company sponsor a woman under Sky’s “Women in Leadership” programme, which is aimed at getting more women into leadership roles.

If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what do you think you might have done instead?

Thomas: Before going to law school, I was a brand manager for Jack Daniels. Whilst I’m glad I chose law, I can see the appeal of being a whiskey connoisseur!

The In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference is being held at the Hilton London Tower Bridge Hotel on the 6-7 November. For more information about the 2-day event, a copy of the agenda, or to enquire about tickets to attend, please contact Kenan Balli on +44(0) 20 7970 4017 or kenan.balli@centaurmedia.com.