Shana Simmons is the general counsel of Everlaw, a collaborative, cloud-based ediscovery and investigation platform. Prior to Everlaw, she worked at Google as a corporate counsel and head of its Cloud Go-To Market Legal.
As I overheard the other day, “I only wish we were living in precedented times.”
For better or worse, we general counsel (GCs) are living in a time defined by unprecedented change in regulatory landscapes, privacy laws, security concerns, antitrust rulings and all manner of personal freedoms.
For GCs striving for excellence, indispensability isn’t necessarily about being the best lawyer, it’s about being the best partner to your chief executive officer.
Here are three ways that GCs can be invaluable to helping CEOs navigate a torrent of change:
- Practice collaborative leadership.
Free up mindspace.
Stay light on your feet.
Don’t go it alone – collaborate
Your entire executive team has been thrust into a post-pandemic universe of challenges requiring a new approach to leadership. For GCs, forging a path forward calls for 360-degree collaboration to support your CEO and lead a combined legal team of in-house and outside counsel.
Think about it – in the past two years GCs have had to shepherd their companies through COVID lockdowns and return to office; changes in the U.S. federal and state privacy landscape; and the impact of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on individuals and corporate policy, to name a few.
Our counsel on these issues permeates the entire business. Additionally, mental health is now a key concern that impacts every decision and policy related to employee well-being, performance management and separation.
While your own command of the law and experience in interpreting it should remain your north star, GCs ultimately can best support their CEOs by building a matrix of expertise to draw upon.
Make it a priority to meet regularly with leaders in human resources, IT, finance and operations, to hear their perspectives on key corporate concerns and consider their expertise when formulating legal strategies. In this way, you’ll cultivate a 360-degree perspective that can inform your decision-making and improve the way you work with your CEO.
Build operational efficiencies and a strong bench
Collaborative leadership happens in the moment and demands the ability to summon clear mindspace. Based on extensive experience, I believe GCs can attain this only by cultivating operational efficiency.
If you and your team are bogged down in day-to-day minutia, you will not be able to turn your mental capacity to focus on critical issues that arise quickly. As GC you must be able to mentally pivot to think clearly about how your company is going to respond internally and externally to those issues.
To achieve operational efficiencies, it's most important to scale the mundane. I am a firm believer in scaling what has been done over and over again, such as contracts. By dedicating resources and collaborating with departments across the company, you can make buying and selling goods and services as frictionless as possible.
For example, my current in-house team has developed a portfolio of contract templates and language, empowering sales and procurement teams to negotiate more independently while maintaining the company’s risk profile. Human resources has been given a range of tools, as well, freeing up cycles for the legal team.
Outside counsel plays a significant role. I work with several firms, each of which has expertise in specific domains such as intellectual property, employment law and government regulations.
I empower my staff to engage outside counsel directly, with the caveat that they’ll need to prove to me afterward that they’d investigated an issue thoroughly before doing so. This approach removes me as a bottleneck, giving the entire legal team the flexibility to tap a strong bench of specialized players when we need to collaborate quickly.
Be prepared to pivot
The legal profession is sometimes stereotyped as being rigid and authoritarian. These are not qualities that will serve GCs looking to be the best CEO partner possible.
You’ve got to be able to pivot to think clearly, summon your creativity and direct it toward whatever issue may arise, whether inside the four walls of headquarters or across a global organization.
That means you’ll need to stay light on your feet, mentally speaking, and not allow yourself to be irretrievably consumed by the issue du jour.
This can be a challenge for goal-oriented legal minds trained to seek and defend a definitive answer. Again, collaboration is key, utilizing your in-house team and outside counsel strategically to keep sufficient mindspace open.
Can you say “howdy?”
Working through the pandemic and a changing political climate has surfaced employee issues that our generation of GCs hasn’t yet had to deal with. Uncertainty and tension can cause us to focus inwardly instead of on supporting our team and CEO.
I believe that stellar organizational skills are fundamental in enabling GCs to invest the necessary up-front time to automate repetitive, mundane tasks. The enormous payoff is greater agility to lead collaboratively, anticipate rising issues and be a trusted advisor.
In this way, you’ll be able to greet your CEO, who’s coming to you for indispensable help with the latest opportunity or issue, with full attention and an open, creative mind.