While most companies acknowledge that a succession plan is crucial for business and leadership continuity, preparing and maintaining a succession plan is a time-consuming process. When the urgent needs of the business must be addressed, succession planning is often placed on the backburner and quickly forgotten. However, once one is able to take a step back and view succession planning as deliberate, routine leadership and professional development for one’s team members instead of preemptive preparation for retirement years or decades down the road, the process quickly becomes manageable, the benefits more apparent, and the rewards more readily reaped.
Five of BarkerGilmore’s esteemed Senior Advisors, all former General Counsel themselves, provided their invaluable insights on succession planning for this article: Maureen Brundage, Noah Hanft, Marla Persky, Helen Pudlin, and A.B. Cruz III. What follows is a step-by-step process for preparing and maintaining a meaningful succession plan for your law department.
Step 1: Understand the Business’ Needs
This step is crucial no matter how the GC obtained their role; however, it is arguably even more important for those who were externally recruited. Before an effective – or meaningful – succession plan can be developed, one must first understand the current and projected state and needs of the business. How is the company evolving? What are the company’s growth or new market expansion initiatives, now and five years to come? How stable is the industry, and how would that change if the economy were to take a downturn? Thinking futuristically becomes even more imperative as the sitting GC’s anticipated tenure lengthens.
In addition, before a GC can begin to develop their own succession plan, they must understand what the company-wide succession plan, if any, dictates. That way, the GC’s personal plan, or a plan implemented specifically for the legal department, will comply with and compliment the company’s succession protocols.
Step 2: Assess the Legal Team
Once you have gained a full understanding of the current and projected needs of the business, the next step is to understand the nature and quality of the legal talent already within the organization. Annual performance reviews offer one perspective of current talent. However, what the GC observes in their daily interactions with a lawyer on their team represents only a few pixels in the bigger picture of their performance and value-add to the company. As such, it is crucial that a GC determine how their direct reports are viewed by everyone who interacts with the company and/or its law department, including clients, other team members, and subordinates.
One solution is to conduct internal employee and external client surveys on a yearly basis. Not only will these surveys help the GC to identify succession candidates; they will also shed invaluable light on any gaps in the legal team’s leadership development.
When conducting routine performance evaluations and analyzing the results of internal and/or external performance surveys, identify each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. This includes technical skills, core competencies, adaptability, emotional intelligence, and leadership skills. Keep past evaluations in mind, but remember that employees can grow and develop, and their interests and career goals could just as easily change.
Lastly, remember to gauge the interest of succession candidates. Not everyone aspires to be a General Counsel, even if they possess the desired gravitas and business partner mindset. Incredible success derives from passion and inherent motivation to achieve. An individual who requires a bit of coaching or leadership development but wants to be a GC more than anything else will ultimately make a better succession candidate than an individual who has all the skills to take on the role today but lacks the drive and determination to make that career move.
Step 3: Develop Talent
Provide opportunities for succession candidates to develop the skills necessary to be an effective and efficient GC – whether they ultimately take on a GC role at their current company or another.
Stretch Assignments. Make a conscious effort to pull your team members outside of their comfort zones, whether it means having them take the lead on a transaction, assume responsibilities outside their area of expertise, or present to senior management. The fastest way to learn and grow is to be placed in a situation that requires adaptability and creativity.
Take the Lead. Have your direct reports participate in, and ultimately lead, discussions with regulators and stakeholders.
Department Heads. Appoint an attorney to act as head of a function or business unit. If time permits, consider rotating succession candidates through these positions to create well-rounded lawyers who are able to act as legal and strategic advisors to all business units, as required.
Deputy General Counsel. Considering promoting the top succession candidate, or two, to the role of Deputy GC. This will provide them with a broader portfolio and direct management experience.
Committee Involvement. In addition to increasing legal’s presence in company-wide programs and initiatives, get your team members involved in committees such as the M&A, enterprise risk, or business development committees. Whether they act as secretary or counsel to the committee, being in the room for these meetings will not only help to refine their skills in, and understanding of, a specific practice area, but also expose them to the inner mechanisms of the business.
Board Exposure. Where possible, increase the visibility of succession candidates to the Board and executive leadership team. The sooner they can form relationships and develop trust with board members and the C-suite, the better. Whether a succession candidate ends up being promoted to GC five or ten years down the line, or they ultimately take on a different role within the company, having board and C-suite exposure early on will develop business-conscious lawyers who are able to effectively and clearly communicate legal issues – and viable solutions to those issues – with the key decision makers of the business.
Step 4: Repeat
It is important to remember that a succession plan is not static. It is a “living” document and/or concept that must be routinely re-evaluated to accurately reflect the changing needs of the company and the changing availability and quality of internal talent.
New market expansion, a high-profile lawsuit, or the decision to go public are just a handful of events that may re-define the ideal GC for a company and render a previously prepared succession plan insufficient. One must also keep in mind routine staffing shifts. A top-choice succession candidate may have transitioned to a different department within the company or sought employment elsewhere. An employee who was not previously under consideration may have taken professional development courses or hired a coach and is now in a position where they would be more suitable for the GC role.
Succession planning in any part of the business – not just within the legal department – is not a linear process. It is cyclical. There is no point of completion, and that is where many companies falter. They evaluate internal talent, put a plan together, and check the “prepare succession plan” box as completed on their to-do list. Then, when it comes time for the GC to depart five or ten years down the line, they refer back to the plan only to find that many of the candidates thereupon are no longer the ideal fit – or no longer with the company.
The moral of the story is simple. Additional time invested now in the preparation and maintenance of a thorough succession plan will save time and money later when that plan must be implemented. Time consistently invested in the development of one’s team members reminds them of their value to the company, boosts morale (and consequently productivity and creativity), and increases the retention rate of strong internal successors and future business leaders.
One Final Note
When it comes time for you to make a career change, whether an internal promotion, an external lateral shift, or retirement, consider how you may provide support to your successor as they adjust to the GC role. If a transition period is deemed necessary, keep it short, sweet, and give it very distinct boundaries. Limit the transition to one or two months and be sure that clear-cut lines of communication between the C-suite, Board, and the new GC are established. Consider giving your contact information to the new GC, encouraging them to reach out with any questions. Giving them the option to consult their predecessor as needed and, more importantly, on their own terms, will give them the confidence to assume the GC role.
Our team of Senior Advisors are available to provide guidance in the preparation and maintenance of legal department succession plans and assist with the assessment and development of internal talent. In addition, we bring objectivity and the ability to remain impartial to the decision-making process. Please reach out if you or your organization may benefit from our recruiting, leadership development, or law and compliance department consulting.