Patience – the skill in house labor attorneys need that isn’t on the job description

The bell has rung, the champagne’s finished off, the IPO/merger/MBO (insert big change event) has gone through. It’s time for a week off to regroup so you can get started on transforming, fixing, consolidating, getting ready for scale….? Not so fast.

In my role as an International labor Partner in law, I have had the pleasure of working with some tremendous in-house labor attorneys (and GCs), working internationally in organisations experiencing transformational change. Being in this unique position, I have had some observations.

You took the role because it is different than what you’ve experienced before. With this, you can make your mark. The business has made promises to investors or stakeholders about “growing up” and making the organisation fit to scale with the goal of becoming a global dominant player in the market – these are exciting times. It may be a newly created role post change event as the GC is given headcount and mandate to build out his or her team.  The role truly provides scope for both adding real business value and career development.

However, the reality is that some in the existing business may not be ready to grow up, may be resistant to change or, through no fault, could be unable to meet the requirements of the business in the post-event world.  After all, the business has been very successful to this point, why do things need to change? Some may think that the challenges this creates for an in-house labour attorney are no different than any other role. I would argue that in many ways the impact is more significant because, by its nature, it is a people role. We have seen different challenges:  stakeholders not being given a strategic voice in the past and not having the skills or confidence to be a strategic partner to legal in the new world;  inappropriate stakeholder(s) owning legal locally (since no one else could/would) and being reluctant to give this up now that the appropriate person is in post and can own it; those in need being unaccustomed to using in-house legal as a partner (not having had this resource before) or being concerned that legal will criticise prior actions. The list goes on.

What I have observed is that those who have the most success have sought to add value by acting as a true partner to HR, leadership and the business – and this takes time. They have not gone out of their way to stamp their authority, or at least have not at the start. They have focussed on creating trust and adding value strategically. Rather having sought to empower and upskill stakeholders, where needed, and have wanted to show, by doing, the value and efficiency of legal partnership and the different business perspective that it brings. They have moved slowly, picking their battles and only breaking eggs where and when necessary. Crucially they have built relationships and established buy in, not only from their GC but also from business and HR leadership.

Those I speak to tell me that the greatest challenge is not what policies, procedures and risk management structures to implement (despite these being new and business specific) but discovering how to do this in a business that is culturally not ready for it. They tell me (in hindsight) that the first year or two were challenging and not what they expected, that they had to upturn a lot of stones and that they had to become experts at diplomacy and stakeholder management. They have also learnt more in this job than in any other.

With all of this in mind, what is the most important behaviour throughout? Patience.

If you wish to discuss anything further please do not hesitate to contact Jo Edgley, or ask about what extra value we can provide you through our international ONE model.

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