By Kgadi Kekana
Mistrust and misperception are often the first challenges that internal legal advisors come up against. It takes some strategic marketing and communication skills to break down such barriers.
Barriers can be created as a result of three common misperceptions:
Management and senior executives are often out of touch with new requirements, such as in corporate governance and compliance, and may not understand what needs to be done. They may even resent the corrections that need to be introduced.
In house counsel is only called upon when trouble arises.
The business does not see any visible or direct impact to the bottom line; on the contrary, your interventions are seen as a stumbling block to making money.
These misperceptions place the newly appointed legal advisor in a vulnerable position. If not handled correctly, you are in danger of rapidly becoming isolated. So how do you change the skewed mindsets and convince the company of the value that you have to offer?
Ask important questions about company operations and about the big picture to gain a feel for what the company is looking for and start the process of educating them about what can be achieved. You want to leave the interview with an understanding of the CEO/Board’s buy in with regards to the legal input and if that corresponds with your vision and values.
Start by going on an internal roadshow. Set up a series of short meet & greets with the various departments and managers to introduce yourself and find out what they do and what their legal concerns are. Use the meetings to identify key stakeholders and ask “whom do I talk to”. Ask about critical projects. Talk about how you are there to help and about the value that you can bring to the company.
Send an e-mail in which you say something like, “Thank you for meeting with me. It was good to get to know you and find out more about how your department fits into the operations of the company.” Then offer some value. Make some observations, offer some guidelines and say how you can help.
Continue the communication via internal e-mails that informally let your colleagues know what impact you are making. Follow up on prior suggestions or offer new observations. For example, “How is the development of your green project going? I noticed in the media that some companies are encountering challenges in XYZ. I have a couple of suggestions for how we could avoid this. Let’s chat about it as soon as you have a chance.”
Add value by showing that you can protect the company from risk and help it to fulfil its strategy more efficiently and successfully. This means early investigation into procedures and processes followed by advice on how to do it better – such as in contract procedures, mergers and acquisitions, due diligence requirements, and so on. Also educate your colleagues about critical matters such as of the high cost of competition commission penalties.
The tone of your communication has to be sensitive, diplomatic and supportive. Never judge or give offence. Where an intervention is called for, you could say something like, “I can see you have worked very hard to put this together and invested a lot. It would be a pity if this does not proceed so let’s see how we can turn this around.” Your input should always be constructive with the focus on moving forward, not looking back.
Find out what people think and be sensitive to the nuances of power and politics within the organisation. Cooperate with your colleagues, be a team player and work together to support the direction of the company. In building good relationships, you need to show genuine interest, invest time and exercise good judgement.
How people perceive you depends on how you allow them to see you. You can manage those perceptions by working on your self awareness, understanding how your colleagues see you, and taking responsibility for how you engage with them. Solicit honest feedback from your peers and accept it with humility and maturity. You may want to consult a professional to learn how to engage more effectively.
Once entrenched, subtle innovations will be seen as invaluable in terms of streamlining systems and maximising efficiencies. For instance, you could establish a knowledge resource that is easy to access, or implement an effective compliance programme to meet key legislation requirements, or even just maintain an effective and efficient filing system.
Always give more than is expected. When you are instrumental in significant gains for the company, your colleagues will gain faith in you, you will earn trust and you will be perceived as an asset to the company.
Kgadi Kekana has had extensive experience as an internal legal advisor and has found that winning a position of trust in a company can be much more difficult than applying the legal knowledge you have acquired during years of study. Here she offers some advice on how to tackle this challenge.