Now more so than ever, it is critical that general counsel act as wise advisers to businesses and be “true, honest and empathetic” leaders to their teams.
In its latest Roundtable Briefing, focused on the general counsel’s relationship with the CEO and board, legal recruitment firm Mahlab outlined that CEOs and boards now expect “even more rigour” around content and behaviours from their legal and governance functions.
Reflecting specifically on the impacts of the global coronavirus, GCs and company secretaries involved in the roundtable discussions noted that their experiences and consequences for their individual businesses varied significantly.
“Generally, these differences depended upon the industry sector in which they work. Those working in essential services businesses (e.g. public health) commented that, especially in the very early stages of COVID-19 lockdown, the role of the GC was to listen and provide wise counsel to the CEO. It was not to be ‘all in, boots and all’,” Mahlab explained.
Most roundtable participants reported a higher level of engagement with their CEO and the board due to COVID-19, the firm continued.
“Most GCs feel that their role has not altered much and they very much remain the trusted [adviser], particularly those in industries such as food supply, that are considered essential. These businesses have not stood staff down. Some strategic projects have been benched but the day-to-day operation of the legal team has not changed markedly. These teams are busy and servicing the business as they normally would,” Mahlab said.
“The role of the GC became critical in advising the organisation on its response to the state of emergency. By contrast, another GC from a charitable organisation noted that their role has changed significantly as they are not only dealing with the usual responses to the crisis around employment, health and safety, but also responding to community needs.”
When it comes to leadership challenges during the pandemic, a primary hurdle identified was the GC’s ability to manage a fully functioning team remotely.
“Many organisations were well set up to have their employees working from home and they have quickly adapted to new ways to stay connected, e.g. regular online Zoom, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams team meetings and social catch-ups. It was unanimously felt by GCs that the need to make a concerted effort to keep in daily contact with your team is crucial, not only in terms of their productivity but also in order to be transparent about job security and other related fears, managing any dissatisfaction with reduced hours and leave requirements, and of great importance, how they are managing in isolation,” Mahlab outlined.
“One GC felt that their role has become more of an advocate for staff to ensure they are looked after during this process. This is where the role of the GC has changed as the increased need to employ soft skills, be aware and empathetic have come to the foreground.”
As the country begins to climb out of isolation and return to a “new normal” in the workplace, Mahlab posited, many GCs and management teams will turn their attention to what this will look like for their organisation.
“COVID-19 has shone the light on any gaps that exist in organisations’ legal technology solutions with organisations fast-tracking rollouts of products and procedures in record time,” the firm concluded.