Beyond having general industry awareness and knowing what it is that your company does, what does this mean and how do you do it?
In my previous article, I made the statement that “[w]hen in-house, you are a part of the business, and everything you do must align to and support the objectives and risk appetite of the organization.” This sounds reasonable. Beyond having general industry awareness and knowing what it is that your company does, what does this mean and how do you do it?
Know your industry
You need to know your industry because that is the environment in which your organization will succeed or fail. Having history in the industry certainly helps. But this can be acquired. Know the players, the products or services offered into the market, its place in the economy and, more than likely today, how it is being disrupted by technology. You need to know the state of the industry and where your organization sits in the industry. Is it a mature industry where the products or services have been through many evolutions and the customer relationship deeply understood? Or is it a relatively new industry, where neither is true? There will be elements of both. Is it being disrupted (almost certainly)? If so, by who? What are the advantages and disadvantages for your organization and for the disruptors?
Know your organization
Knowing your organization is not just about its products or services, although, you need to know them well. It is about the players behind them. Who is driving the organization? Your CEO and C-suite are key players. So, too, are the heads of your business units, including not just your heads of product or revenue and marketing but also those running your “back office” — finance, IT, HR and, of course, legal. It includes knowing these key players beneath the C-suite, as often they are the real decision-makers. Certainly, they are the ones executing. Then there are the broader stakeholders of the board, shareholders and, if heavily regulated or publicly supported, government. The point is your organization has a driving mind and, although there is a clear driver in the CEO, there are many others influencing their decisions. You need to understand the motivations of all of these players to know how best to have an impact and add organizational value with your advice.
Know your organization’s risk tolerance
Your organization will have a personality. Like people, it can be a bold risk taker or thoughtful and careful person, often exhibiting characteristics of each. Its personality will reflect that of its key drivers and stakeholders and will influence its appetite for risk. If you don’t really know them, you will not be able to factor your organization’s appetite for risk into your advice. The old adage that lawyers have no appetite for risk is dated. In-house, you will need to be comfortable with risk and ambiguity. Business is not law. There is no final judgment or qualified opinion, simply an educated guess.
If your organization is in a mature industry, your niche may be well established and all the key players in your organization may have a thorough understanding of the business and its place in the industry. Risk and speed of change are lower. Today, the vast majority of us are in organizations that are in industries experiencing some form of disruption from technology. Old rules are being overturned, new players are plowing in, new products and services are being offered and customers are having an increasing influence. All of this is leading to rapid change to keep pace. As a result, businesses must change and evolve — often, fundamentally. The way we deliver legal services must also change. Ultimately, we have to match the pivots and speed of change of the business. To do this, we have to be aware of the changes in our business units. At this speed, you can’t wait and advise in a reactive manner. You need to be running alongside the business units as they pivot and evolve their offerings and business models.
Build relationships with key decision-makers
Awareness can come from being in meetings with your business leaders and their teams, as they react to and plan for the changes being thrust upon them. But this is not enough. You need to know them. There is no replacement for a good relationship. Get to know how they work and what motivates them. Also, get to know them as people. You will be amazed at the work-related insights that come from knowing who someone is. Most importantly, this will open up dialogue and create trust.
In an ideal world, you are sitting in on every product meeting and each strategy session of every team in your organization. This would give you clear insight into their challenges and plans and allow you to provide timely and salient advice. Sadly, none of us works in an ideal world. Our time is stretched, worklists grow, inboxes fill up and knocks on our door continue. We are tapped. The key is to set your priorities. They will be based on the priorities of your organization. This is alignment.
Not enough to be a smart lawyer
If only it were so easy. It is not. Keep the dialogue going with your business leaders, read the industry news, read about technology, read blogs. Set up as many coffees and lunches with anyone you can think of with insight. Do anything you can to gain insight. You cannot add real value to your organization by simply being a smart lawyer. Let all of this constantly percolate and jump in. Be prepared to put your thoughts on the table and have them tested by others. When there is a decision made, move on. There is another one coming imminently. Know your organization’s tolerance for risk and don’t look for perfect. Be prepared to let low-risk, low-value matters go, and prioritize and tackle the multitude of higher-risk and higher-value matters. There will be ambiguity, but this is where you will live. Embrace the challenge and opportunity of being a modern in-house lawyer.