Good communications might be the most important skill you can bring to the role of legal operations chief, Sean Houston of The Heineken Company says in an Inside Voices podcast.
Houston started as legal operations manager at the Amsterdam-based global company last year as its first person in that role even though he’s never done the job before.
Prior to joining the company, he was a customer success manager at software companies and before that a broadcast journalist who covered minor league baseball games.
“Legal ops is relatively new in most organizations, so there aren’t thousands of people globally who’ve been doing this for decades,” he said. “I’ve met other people who’ve similarly come into this role from less standard backgrounds.”
All the jobs he’s done have one thing in common, he said. To succeed, you have to be good at telling a story.
“I didn’t think about [storytelling] that way previously but I’ve come to realize that making sure everyone is crystal clear not only on what we’re doing but why we’re doing it” is the most important thing, he said.
In his first months on the job he listened more than anything else. His goal was to identify systems and processes within the company that could be adopted to make the legal ops function more efficient.
Just by maximizing what the Microsoft Office suite offers is a good start, Houston said. Excel and Teams, for example, have functionality that can solve a lot of problems, but you need someone who understands the tools to maximize their use.
“If you’re an Excel wizard or have people at your disposal who are, some of the things you can do within Excel are mind-boggling,” he said. “It’s not just a spreadsheet with a few columns; you can use that for some really powerful automation capabilities.”
In addition to seeing what existing systems can be leveraged, he brought together leaders and others from throughout the organization to get feedback on what new tools to bring in. He asked them to rank solutions based on two criteria: what would be most impactful and what would be most complex to implement.
“So, the sweet spot is highly impactful and easy to implement,” he said. “Unfortunately, none of the tools met that, but we also don’t want to do what’s the most complex and low impact.”
To develop a roadmap, Houston combined the views he gathered with the views of the general counsel.
“His input on what the function needs to be focusing on is obviously the most important,” he said.
The first tool he’s bringing in is a contract lifecycle management system.
“CLM is a big journey we’re on at the moment,” he said. “Next year we’ll focus on … a legal front door project – matter intake – and automating all of those sorts of things that can be automated.”
Many people have a knee-jerk reaction that their job is at risk whenever automation comes up, but the legal space is different from other spaces where automation is starting to replace workers, like in some self-serve restaurants.
In legal, no one has time to do everything they need to be doing, so automation is about freeing up time from manual tasks so people can focus on the high-value work they’re being paid for.
“People don’t go to law school because they want to do these super repetitive, manual tasks,” Houston said.
Addressing concerns of this type is where communication skills come in, not just on the part of the legal ops chief but on the part of the GC as well.
“That message must come from the top down,” he said. “It needs to be made clear the goal is not to automate you out of a job but make better use of your talents. There’s a lot more you can do to help the company. I haven’t met anyone who says, ‘If you automate away one small piece of my job, I won’t have enough to keep me busy.’”
Good communication also includes modeling for them best practices for using a tool, he said.
“I found the other day a way to do something within Microsoft Teams I had no clue about,” Houston said. “So, I did a 90-second video showing it and shared that with coworkers. They were thankful to learn about it.”
When you give people something of value like that, you make it easier to get buy-in when the time comes to ask them to learn something new.
“When I come to them and say, ‘We’re rolling out a new process and we really need this to work. Will you be willing to be an early adopter for me?’ They’re more willing to do that,” he said. “You’ve shown them some value and they’ve seen how you might be able to help them.”