Article

Great Expectations: What CEOs Want in a GC

12 Dec 2018

Here’s the good news: Your CEO needs your business acumen, judgment, and analytical skills more than ever. The bad news: Your CEO’s expectations of you have likely never been higher.

CEOs around the world and across industries are under pressure. Investors are growing more impatient. Technology is disrupting business models. Regulators are becoming more aggressive. The global political landscape is increasingly dynamic. To help them navigate these challenges, CEOs need a GC who can help them see around the corner and give clear and actionable advice; in doing so, GCs act as true commercial enablers, which can be very tricky if you operate in a disruptive company where the laws are blurred or potentially not even written.

More than red flags

It’s no longer enough to raise a red flag and say no to potentially risky moves. CEOs need business partners who can spot risks and identify solutions. Better still, they need someone who can establish a risk framework and use it to the company’s advantage.

“Gone are the days when if you were a fantastic lawyer with the requisite experience in fields like M&A, commercial, managing P&L, you would become a GC,” says Christopher Hurst, Director of Legal In-House at executive search firm Carlyle Kingswood Global. “CEOs today want more bang for their buck. Given the regulatory landscape we live in now, they want you to have that risk and compliance experience and be able to apply this commercially.”

Purposeful intent

The CEO-GC relationship, of course, has long been a complex one. While GCs may report to CEOs or CFOs, the GC’s ultimate client is always the company. Both GC and CEO must therefore recognize that there may be times when the short-term interests of CEOs are not aligned with the long-term interests of the company.

That’s why Paul Gilbert, CEO of LBC Wise Counsel, a specialist management consultancy for law firms and in-house legal teams, says that the most aligned relationship for a GC should ideally be with non executive directors.

“If the cheerleading GC and CEO are inseparable, it is impossible to exercise the dispassion, authority, and governance necessary,” he notes. “That’s a slightly unpopular view. I see a lot of people talking about trusted advisor, consigliere, etc., but I think that smacks of being self-regarding, not truly valuable, not strategic, and not purposeful.”

Gilbert adds: “I want there to be a very clear purposeful element to the governance and oversight role. When that is established, a GC can still contribute brilliantly to the strategy goals, but can also more straightforwardly be the voice of reason, someone who can articulate thoughts that may be unpopular and who can do so without being undermined. When the purpose is clear, the tone is set for all the in-house lawyers in the team, and the relationship between GC and CEO will also deliver a value which is best for them and best for the company.”

Non legal skills

Delivering sound legal advice to the CEO remains a core function of any GC. But increasingly, CEOs need more than strictly legal skills from their GC, as reflected in Altman Weil’s 2018 Chief Legal Officer Survey. Beyond effectively solving legal problems, respondents were asked to rank what their CEO and/or board of directors valued most in the law department. The most popular answer was advising company leaders, which was followed by supporting business objectives.

Delivering on those values requires sharpening a leadership skill that never goes out of style: communication. A GC today must often marshal input from his or her internal business partners on a wide range of topics — from cybersecurity to mergers to workplace misconduct — and distill the essence to the CEO.

“You can have the best technical legal arguments in the world, but if you can’t actually convey that in a way in which your audience understands, you’re going to lose them,” says Ben Woolf, General Counsel EMEAA at Tate & Lyle PLC.

Is your role being redefined?

Your CEO needs you more than ever. That means more pressure and more responsibility, but it also makes the job more interesting. Do you have the growth mindset and skills to meet the challenge?

This post is part of a thought leadership series, “The GC {Re}Defined,” which explores how technology is reshaping the role of the GC.

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