The Leadership Imperative


20 Sep 2018

Peruse the curriculum at just about any law school, and you won’t find any courses on leadership. That’s a shame because, as many GCs know, the further you advance in your career, the more important it becomes to bring additional skills to the table. And, increasingly, “soft skills” like leadership are in demand and distinguish the great from the good GC.

Functional Competency Is Not Enough

Executive search firm Egon Zehnder published an analysis in 2012 of management appraisals for more than 300 senior legal executives that it conducted over several years. One of the most striking findings at the time was that functional competency (command of relevant laws and regulation), which once distinguished great GCs from their peers, had become commonplace. The lowest ranked GCs were seen as just as competent as the highest ranked GCs. Instead, leadership skills were how great GCs distinguished themselves from their peers. This is the new normal.

The good news is that, in an uncertain, fast-moving business environment, leadership opportunities are in abundance for GCs. Meena Heath, founder of the Global Leaders in Law forum, says she sees the chance for GCs to lead by forecasting and preparing for potential regulations, investigations, and other shifts in the business environment that could impact their companies.

“They have to start thinking about how to get ahead of the game,” says Heath.

GCs Can Outpace Other Non-CEO C-Level Execs

Many GCs possess the qualities to be leaders. A 2017 study by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles assessed how GCs around the world stack up against other executives in eight leadership signatures:

  • Harmonizer
  • Forecaster
  • Pilot
  • Collaborator
  • Energizer
  • Provider
  • Producer
  • Composer

GCs outpaced all other non-CEO C-level executives in the harmonizer (reliable, creates positive and stable environments) and forecaster (learning-oriented, deeply knowledgeable) signatures. But the study also cautioned that, in the pilot style, which includes the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, GCs scored more than 15 percent lower on average than CEOs and other C-level executives.

Where do your strengths lie in these competencies? And, how can you build your leadership skills? While one way, of course, is to enroll in a formal training program, there are other options out there where you can be more in control of your own development.

One option is simply observation. Katherine Bellau, Deputy General Counsel for Moneysupermarket Group, says “it can be useful to study the leadership style in others and see what most resonates with you. Leadership comes in a variety of shades, so it’s important to choose the best for you and most importantly, to be yourself.”

As a leader, you need to contribute to the overall corporate strategy. And so Bellau goes on to add that “Another important step, is to make sure that you understand your purpose in the organization and that your purpose aligns with the larger commercial strategy of the company. It may even make sense to write that purpose down. If you’re clear on your purpose, everything else falls into place,” she says.

Is Your Role as GC Being Redefined?

Leadership is so important to the future success of GCs that we’ll be returning to the topic in future posts. But here’s the main question for now: it’s commonly known that your ability to be an effective business leader and shape the growth of your company will not be determined by your legal skills alone, so what are you doing to invest in yourself, determine where your strengths lie, and make a difference?

This post is part of a thought leadership series, “The GC {RE}DEFINED,” which explores how technology is reshaping the role of the GC. Stay tuned for our next post, “Artificial Intelligence vs. Emotional Intelligence,” exploring what AI’s advancement means for the delivery of legal services.

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