The GC’s role as businesses pursue profitability
Pursuing and maintaining profitability has been significantly elevated as a priority for businesses across the country, while maintaining appropriate corporate culture is seen as less important. Against this backdrop, and that of other stated priorities, general counsel have a key role to play.
Global law firm King & Wood Mallesons has released its 13th consecutive Directions Report, detailing what is top of mind for Australian directors and senior business leaders and exploring attitudes to the adoption of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and the collection of data, the management of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in the current environment, as well as other key areas for reform.
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According to the findings, pursuing and maintaining profitability (against the backdrop of market volatility and inflationary pressures) is the priority that is most “top of mind” for directors and senior business leaders in the short-term (i.e., the next six months), with two in three (68 per cent) pointing to this as being on the agenda.
This marks a notable uptick in prioritisation of profitability from last year, at which point 47 per cent of respondents identified it as a necessity.
The pursuit of profitability was followed by managing cyber risks and data breaches (53 per cent) and attracting and retaining skilled labour (49 per cent).
In the medium term (i.e., the next three to five years), 43 per cent of directors and senior business leaders see developing new business models to deliver products/services to customers and/or deliver business outcomes as the highest priority, up from 35 per cent last year.
Just behind it is managing medium-term cyber risks (42 per cent, up from 28 per cent last year) and maintaining an appropriate corporate culture (33 per cent).
Interestingly, maintaining such a culture is seen as less important this year, with 39 per cent having identified it as being “top of mind” in 2022.
Ironically, however, protecting the business’s brand and reputation is a more urgent priority for directors and senior business leaders this year, up to 29 per cent compared to 21 per cent last year.
According to KWM partner Meredith Paynter, Australian businesses are “currently at an inflection point”.
“Organisations are either driving into opportunities for profitable growth and investing in new business models, or striving to manage cost pressures and risk, deferring investment, and capital allocation decisions and generally ‘hunkering down’,” she said.
Fellow partner Rhys Casey added: “This year, opportunity is in the eye of the beholder – many directors and senior business leaders are asking themselves whether now is the time to invest or hold out in the hope that conditions improve.
“It therefore comes as no surprise that some businesses are swimming ahead of the pack, while others are just trying to keep their head above water.”
In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Mr Casey reflected on the role of general counsel and their law departments in better supporting businesses with their stated priorities.
The report’s findings, he posited, “underscore the importance” of the GC’s role.
“With the top medium-term priority for businesses being to develop new business models and over a third of respondents characterising their organisation as risk taking, clearly, the GC has an important role to play in actively managing risk. In this environment, the general counsel should have a seat at the table,” he submitted.
This is a sentiment shared by Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) chair Joe Longo, Mr Casey pointed out, who has in recent times challenged lawyers to take a more active role in business decisions and to act as a gatekeeper of legal risk and compliance.
“This helps to drive a compliance culture which sets appropriate guardrails within which the entrepreneurial risk taking required to drive into new markets or opportunities can occur,” he said.
GCs also have a role to play in facing omnipresent risks such as cyber risk, Mr Casey continued.
“GCs can bring a lot to the table in both the ‘war-gaming’ and response phases of a cyber incident, particularly around the incident response framework, governance structures, regulatory interactions, and disclosure/communications,” he listed.
“GCs have an important quarterbacking role in coordinating the IT, regulatory and PR teams and in interfacing with the board.”