Way too many legal departments spend too much time on work they don’t find that meaningful, says Victoria Swedjemark.
It is a fundamental human need to feel a sense of meaning and to feel you contribute to something meaningful, Ms Swedjemark believes. Exploring the role of the legal function and having a clear understanding of why one does what he or she does, she says, may seem “a bit fluffy”, but is ultimately critical to one’s professional success, particularly in the age of coronavirus.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Ms Swedjemark – who is the founder of Stockholm-based corporate legal advisory firm Glowmind – said that many corporate counsel find it difficult to articulate the meaning they glean from their roles. Just to “service the business based on whatever need they may have” often does not offer enough meaning, she said.
“Way too many legal departments spend too much time on work they don’t find that meaningful. It can be because it does not add a lot of business value but it can also be that it does not challenge you enough or make you grow professionally and personally. But it does not have to be that way,” she advised.
Importance of finding meaning
When you feel you do meaningful work, Ms Swedjemark outlined, you get rewarded on a personal level.
“It has a positive impact on your wellbeing, your engagement and your overall job satisfaction. And I think especially when you feel you do meaningful work together with other people, because as humans we want to connect with others,” she posited.
“It can be colleagues in the legal team, in the business or in other business supporting functions. You’re in something together, making a difference.”
Such meaning is more important than ever, Ms Swedjemark continued, in the age of coronavirus when the impact of the global pandemic is such that it can and does take a toll on basic human needs.
“Our need of certainty – know what to expect, being able to plan our future. Our need of variety – different kinds of stimuli, like travelling or going out to restaurants or bars. Our need of connection with others – meeting people in person and getting socially acknowledged. I am not a psychologist but yes, I think there is a bigger need for meaning right now,” she explained.
“All our human needs form a complex system and you can probably compensate lack in one area with getting more needs satisfied in another part of the needs system. I tell my clients that now is actually a great time to dig into role and purpose – of the [legal] function and of your individual role. We have a unique opportunity now with the perspective we get working from home and many of us have more [headspace] right now to reflect.
“Find that meaning, and set a plan for how you can do more of what you find truly meaningful.”
Leaders must step up
When asked how best general counsel and chief legal officers can lead from the front in fostering meaning for the broader legal team, Ms Swedjemeark said, first and foremost, such senior legal counsel should help clarify the role and purpose of the legal function and build a team around that as a joint mission.
“What is it that [[legal] does that really move the needle? That [makes] you proud? Do more of that! Acknowledge the human need of your team to spend time on meaningful things,” she said.
“What we find meaningful is different from person to person but I think it is universal to want to be part of something bigger that makes a difference. Also, as a leader, try to identify the things that drain your team of energy and engagement and then find strategies to address that.”
Find a role for legal that “truly adds value to the business [and] places legal in a central position in the business”, she argued, and that at the same time is engaging for the legal team and enables them to do things that make them grow professionally and personally and expand their capabilities.
“I think it also helps to align legal’s work more with business to ensure better connection and a true sense of contribution to the corporate mission,” Ms Swedjemark said.
Taking individual responsibility
There remains, however, a place for self-leadership, she added.
“My philosophy is that we are individually in charge of our own personal and professional development and wellbeing. It starts with understanding yourself properly – what triggers your motivation and gives you energy and a sense of flow, when do you feel connected and what are you naturally good at?” Ms Swedjemark outlined.
“Then try to do more of those things. I think all of us can do much more digging where we stand than we think. For example, you can do a simple exercise by identifying a couple of things you want to do more of and a couple of things you want to stop doing or do less of.
“As a lawyer, it is so easy to get carried away in urgent, reactive work. Find time to zoom out and plan for things that [bring] more sense of meaning. I think to feel that you have control over your situation and where you channel your energy in itself brings a greater sense of meaning.”
GCs and CLOs can and should try to encourage such self-leadership, she noted, by way of awareness-raising on why it matters and making sure that individual legal counsel can learn and embrace strategies on how to succeed with self-leadership and implement techniques and tools to sustain self-leadership over time.
“You can have team workshops to have people understand themselves and each other better. You can be a role model as a leader and showcase that you have self-leadership abilities. In my teams, for example, we’ve had joint weekly planning sessions where we plan the coming week to make sure we prioritise the right things,” Ms Swedjemark reflected.
“It is a very hands-on exercise but can be geared to also focus on things like building better relationships with people, for example listen more and be open to other perspectives, or digging into root cause and work preventively instead of solving the same problem over and over in frustration. When you act with intent and have a plan it makes all the difference.”