Senior Advisor Bill Solomon shares his views on how to inform and even persuade your management and board to involve you at the corporate strategic level, above and beyond the tactical and transactional. He specifically explains why this is an essential role, defines what it means to be a strategic GC and why GCs may be qualified as strategic leaders, and gives practical tips about how to become a strategic leader.
Now in the words of Bill Solomon:
If others perceive you as a true legal expert, technician, and problem solver, you have taken an essential first step toward the expanded role of a strategic leader outside of the legal realm. However, it will be your challenge to climb up and out of that pigeonhole into another non-legal role or an expanded legal role.
Defining a strategic leader — Strategy is the establishment of a long-term plan of action, designed to achieve a particular goal or set of objectives, so a strategic leader needs to set goals and objectives for the organization.
Assessing their typical traits — Strategic leaders such as the CEO, CFO, COO, and CIO exhibit curiosity, see the big picture, understand the consequences of certain behaviors and activities, and weigh the implications of long- and short-term actions. They consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just the shareholders or investors, but customers, regulators, owners, the media, employees, the public, suppliers, and vendors. Strategic leaders are agile and move easily from strategy to tactics and implementation. Aware of their strengths and weaknesses, they are creative, open-minded, courageous, proactive, collaborative risk-takers, knowledgeable about business and finance, and analytical about issues and alternatives.
This is the core requirement for your position. The objectives of the legal operations of the company must be effectively and consistently identified and managed. Strategizing and planning the legal environment and legal operations of your company involves resolving many issues at the:
Serving as a strategic General Counsel allows management to see that you can step into a more expansive corporate role and is a prerequisite for expanding and enhancing your status as a non-legal strategic business advisor.
In addition to the typical traits of a strategic leader, a General Counsel usually possesses other highly valuable, perhaps even unique, attributes of a strategic leader, since they are:
There are plenty of other reasons why the GC is positioned for the strategic advisor role, such as their ready access to the CEO and Board, as well as the pervasive impact of the law and regulations on all aspects of the company, establishing immediate credibility. As a strategic leader you may enhance your career, gain financially, participate in the success of the company, and improve the morale of your law department. Alternatively, you will need to make a distinction between giving advice as a business leader and giving advice as a legal leader, experience a significant increase in work, and may risk potential failure and the resentment of colleagues.
There are actually two approaches to this process: incremental and direct. The right way to educate and persuade the CEO to get a seat at the table is to follow a stealth, indirect, and incremental process. These are the action steps that you can take to get there:
If you learn in advance about topics for strategic discussion, communicate with the meeting sponsor before the meeting to provide useful perspective so they do not feel ambushed or embarrassed and are able to preempt your perspective or invite you to raise it. This will give you credibility with the decision makers and win the allegiance of the sponsor by helping them look smart and thoughtful, leading to your greater involvement in future initiatives.
In time, move beyond the role of a “stealth” corporate strategic leader, and begin subtly asserting yourself with helpful and insightful comments, questions, and observations that are fundamentally positive and constructive, though possibly provocative. With a consistent pattern of your useful and insightful input over time, your involvement will be seen as integral to future strategic discussions, and before long you will be invited in or co-opted to become a strategic business partner.
If you choose to take a direct approach, resistance to your expanded role as a strategic corporate leader can occur for a variety of reasons, but you will not know unless you ask. So, ASK. Begin the request with your immediate supervisor, ordinarily the CEO, and enlist the support of the CEO to ensure your involvement in strategic matters with the Board and its committees. Reluctance and outright refusal require educating leadership about the special attributes you have as General Counsel. Ultimately, you may need to change their mind. Here’s how:
And a final thought from Bill:
Bill Solomon and our team of professionals are happy to help accelerate the initiatives that you're already pursuing or to supplement your current strategic thinking to help you realize your vision. Please reach out if you or your organization may benefit from our recruiting, coaching, or advising services.