As I introduced in my last blog post, I have recently taken a secondment away from my General Counsel position to manage a team within our Go-to-Market function. One of the first challenges I found on leaving my comfortable old role and joining my new team was around leadership – precisely how do you lead a group of people who have vastly more experience than you in what they are doing? And by more, I mean any…
In this second post, I detail how this came about and the steps I have taken to make an impact.
Outside of sweeping generalisations on pedantry and a tendency towards being argumentative, one of the things that most lawyers have in common is the kudos inherent in the job. My wife might not agree: on the way to our first NCT class before our eldest son was born, she warned me not to tell anyone I was a lawyer. “Why?”, I asked. “Because no-one likes lawyers”, came the answer. What this says of her taste is concerning, though not something I have sought to clarify.
However, despite what my spouse might think, and notwithstanding the jokes (and/or truth) behind the sweeping generalisations – and without minimising the genuine challenges facing the profession – the law and those practicing it are still treated with a degree of respect that many other professions would cherish.
This has been demonstrated lately when I have been asked what I do. Before, I could say “I’m a lawyer” and that would be sufficient. People either understood what that meant or were at least comforted by the conformity of it. My new role, however, lacks a mot juste description – no-one knows what a Head of Customer Engagements does, much less is likely to be comforted by it. On top of that, I am yet to refine the elevator pitch on the importance of customer experience, objective decision making and supporting users through a change curve down to anything less than skyscraper levels.
The innate credibility of being a lawyer, especially after a few years of experience, goes ahead of you as you enter a room or join a meeting. While there is a still a long way to go before you earn people’s respect, you at least start from the point of appearing that you might know what you are talking about. Likewise, for the people that you manage (given the traditional hierarchical approach that the law tends to take), the chances are that you have been doing what they are doing for longer than them and so can at least leverage the grey hairs and dark circles under your eyes to your benefit.
Taking a secondment has meant I have lost all of these advantages. My team – and my colleagues in the Go-to-Market division – are vastly more experienced in the subject matter than I am, and the direct relevance of my years of practice is significantly diminished. The first team meeting I sat in after my secondment was announced might as well have been in Mandarin for all I understood. It was a bizarre, out-of-body experience – I could hear and, conceptually, understand all the words that were being said, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do with that information or how I would somehow take the lead.
Moving beyond subject matter expertise
Of course, leading teams in these situations is not unusual in the broader business world. If anything, the reverse is true. The majority of careers do not develop the niche subject matter expertise that is the domain of lawyers (and which gives rise to the credibility – and the challenges – referred to above). So how does one start to move beyond relying predominantly on your post-qualification experience?
Looking back – and there is still more for me to learn – the main point was a pivot away from what I did not have and towards what I did have. OK, so there would be no need for a detailed knowledge of Hadley v Baxendale, but pure law had only ever been one part of what I had thought I did well. I’ll save you the details as this blog is neither advertorial nor confessional, but I found that focusing on core strengths (such as EQ) was more beneficial than fixating on what I did not know.
Utilising a supportive network
Foremost among these was a network within the company. As most in-house counsel will tell you, the legal team is a great place to be if you want to get to know someone from every department as, inevitably, they will either come to you or you will go to them – for help in one direction or another – at some point in time! Leveraging these skills and assets for the benefit of those I was working with could be the start of a path through the jungle, and would perhaps buy me some of that much needed credibility.
I also spoke to contacts who didn’t know LexisNexis but did have management experience. This outside input meant that I would, I hope, find a truth about how to manage in these situations that was universal, not just fit for the LexisNexis world.
The common thread was that the role of a leader is not subject matter expertise but instead to set an overall vision for the team and guide them on a journey towards that vision. If you ignore the flowery corporate speak, the gist was that it wasn’t my job to know how to do everything my team do, but to do what I could to facilitate it and to ensure it fitted within an overall strategy. This I could do – it was a bit like getting external counsel support on a project, where I wouldn’t have the expertise to answer the questions I was asking (otherwise I may well not have gone external) but I did know how to pull that all together and execute on the advice.
An open approach
Finally, I thought about the leaders I had observed through my career – the good and the bad – and what I had enjoyed most about working with them. Inevitably, I gravitated to those that were open and honest with me, both about what I needed to do but also on their own frailties and failings. This style meant I could relate to them so much more easily, and was also more prone to forgive when they naturally misstepped.
So I set about being as honest as possible from the start. I didn’t pretend I knew what I didn’t. I asked many people for their time so that I could understand what they did and why, always asking how I (or we) could fit in to that better or more effectively. I explained that I would likely make some mistakes so appreciated equal honesty back. Surprisingly enough, everyone was keen to pitch in and share their knowledge and experience.
Fear of the fall
Now, the judgement on whether or not these steps have started to transform me into a leader that can survive in this foreign land is perhaps not one for me to make. What I can say is that I have found the transition far less intimidating than I thought. There’s a scale to this, of course – it is still by far the scariest thing I have done in my career, but not to the debilitating extent I feared. And, as the days go by, keeping a mental list of what has and hasn’t worked well has been useful both to keep me on the right path but also for the self-affirmation that we all sometimes need, to remind me that I have been able to add value to the process.
Of course, this is what worked for me and for others it will be different. Leadership is hugely personal to the individual. But one thing I would almost certainly guarantee is – the fear of the fall is far worse than the fall itself.