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  Reaching Legal's Full Potential

Author: Richard Stock - Lexpert, Vol 11, No 9, September 2010

Without strong leadership, even the most fundamentally sound companies can languish. That is as true today as it was yesterday, and it will be equally true tomorrow. It is no surprise, then, that corporations are investing heavily in programs to help them develop their top talent and identify leaders.

While there is little disagreement about the importance of managing talent, the programs, policies and resources for doing so are as varied as the corporations themselves. I recently completed a formal survey with the law departments of several US-based multinationals. The range of questions was comprehensive – touching on aspects related to corporate objectives, technology and external relationships – but a series of responses on “people and performance” offer some interesting insights into how legal departments develop talent for leadership and management positions in legal services.

Identifying the Talent

Chief legal officers were asked to describe the programs and resources used to find individuals in the legal department who have the greatest potential for advancement and for leadership. Most companies collaborate with their HR departments to identify the best candidates. There are structured processes, checklists and training to aid legal management with this annual review. In one case, the process consists of “stack-ranking” their employees and submitting the highest-ranked ones for consideration. The legal leadership team debates and culls this list and then “bubbles it up” to the next layer of management in the law department.

In another legal department, the performance and potential of every one of the 150 lawyers from around the world is scrutinized by a small central committee. The committee’s findings are then applied to formal succession planning, and an assessment is made regarding the best candidates’ potential for key positions in the department. This information, which is not initially shared with the lawyer, resides within the HR department and is used in part to determine individual development objectives, special projects, training and promotions.

What Defines a Leader?

Thought leaders in the HR community recommend that corporations focus on “core competencies” when identifying leadership candidates. These characteristics are distilled from observable behaviours that encompass the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motives and temperament (often referred to as the KSAs) that distinguish excellent performers in a particular work environment. They can be industry-specific or customized for the company by HR consultants.

There are also core competencies that are specific to the job — lawyers, for instance. Some of these competencies, like legal drafting, risk mitigation and legal research, are broad-based. Others, like e-discovery, regulatory law or mediation, are tied to specific positions and industries.

One global insurance company, for instance, relies on a handful of core competencies that its managers and employees, including each of its lawyers, must demonstrate in order to be successful leaders. The company believes that these competencies form the basis of the people-management processes (such as recruitment, training and performance management) that are so important to effective leadership.

The competencies are as follows: to create shared vision and strategy; to drive for results with integrity and compliant behaviour focused on the customer; to build, engage and empower high-performance teams; and to enhance and drive for change. Each of these competencies has two further sub-competencies, and all of the company’s employees are required to display these competencies regardless of the jobs they hold.

The next step, once leadership competencies have been determined, is to assess the candidate’s level of proficiency for each one. Typically, companies will provide detailed guidance about the proficiency required for each job type (using descriptive terms such as “role model,” “capable and effective” or “needs development”). From there, one then begins to see how individual lawyers and those who manage talent in the legal department can apply the competency matrix to people-management processes.

Who Is Responsible For Managing Talent?

No doubt management and in this case the Chief Legal Officer – with years of experience and the company’s resources at its disposal – bear ultimate responsibility for developing the company’s pool of legal talent. The complexities involved, however, often make this a difficult task.

I have read engagement surveys from three companies over the past four months, and too often I find legal professionals drifting. Responses to questions about career opportunities, learning, and development reveal a common concern among lawyers that they have not had sufficient guidance and resources to contribute or to advance. Perhaps companies are not being explicit enough in telling employees that they are primarily responsible for acquiring specific competencies in order to advance.

Gauging Leadership Effectiveness

Even with effective talent-management systems in place, the CLO needs to monitor the effectiveness of their leadership on an ongoing basis. Microsoft’s Deputy General Counsel, John Frank, for instance, describes four indices that the company uses to measure and improve the performance of its law department: the Workgroup Health Index, which measures attributes like teamwork and collaboration; the Pulse Index, which measures organizational dynamics like engagement; the Culture Index, which measures cultural attributes; and a Leadership Excellence Index, which assesses the effectiveness of Microsoft’s leaders. The investment in this type of assessment and the subsequent follow-up is substantial and clearly designed to keep the company competitive globally.

All departments set individual objectives for their lawyers. Most of these are measurable, but few departments rank or weight them for importance. The more prudent and pragmatic approach seems to be to discard less important objectives and priorities as the year progresses.

One of the companies I surveyed, however, started with the declaration of an overarching goal (a focus on “operational excellence”) and went on to adopt five specific ways to realize its goal: innovative strategies, speedy execution, seamless support, nimble collaboration and efficiency everywhere. It’s exactly this kind of clear direction that develops and showcases a great leader.

   
 
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