Yesterday marked day one of sessions at ACC’s Corporate Counsel Institute Canada. During the open plenary session, five GCs from top Canadian companies offered new-to-in-house attendees advice on adapting to the corporate environment. The panelists’ experiences, personalities and leadership approaches were wide-ranging, but they offered some common wisdom. As Royal Bank of Canada’s EVP & GC David Allgood put it, “It’s critical to realize that in-house, your audience and role has changed; advice to business partners must be concise and consumable.”
Although getting to know the company and your new colleagues is an ongoing process, panelists said it should be counsel’s main focus in the early days. Simon Fish, EVP & GC of Bank of Montreal, recommended dedicating 30 days to this objective, during which counsel should actively ask colleagues about their business plans and work. Cheryl Foy, GC of ViXS Systems, echoed Fish, urging the audience to communicate with everyone “from the employee in the shipping room, who knows more about importing and exporting packages than you ever will, to the CEO.”
The next step for new in-house counsel should be figuring out how they can add value. One opportunity to do this in any industry is through management of outside counsel. Kathryn Chisholm, Senior VP, Legal, Regulatory and Government Affairs of Capital Power Corporation, said there is a difference between managing and monitoring firms. Chisholm said she challenges the firms she works with regularly, sending back opinions with comments like: “This is so heavily caveated, it’s not useful.
While Chisholm is very straightforward with outside counsel, she joined the panelists in expressing the importance of changing your communication style based on content and audience. Foy shared an anecdote from her first in-house job, when her pitch to implement a compliance program didn’t sell. She said she made a “crucial mistake” by continuing to push the program, and eventually gained the reputation of “having an agenda.” “I became ineffective,” she said. Eventually, Foy revised her proposal and got buy-in by implementing the program incrementally, over five years. The experience taught her to be sensitive to the business consequences of her legal suggestions: “Telling a client — ‘There is no way you can do that’ — for that person, might mean she can’t achieve a huge objective for the year,” said Foy. “Instead, you can say: ‘Let me think about how you can achieve that.’”
Session moderator Dorothy Quann offered perspective as the VP and GC of a large international company’s subsidiary, Xerox Canada Ltd. She vets which messages to deliver to her general counsel in the United States, and which to keep to herself: “I let my GC in the US sleep at night,” she said.
Leadership style will affect your communication, so knowing your strengths and weaknesses early on is key, said Fish. “I have no empathy — it’s just awful — but I know it and constantly seek input from others.” He recommends biannual performance discussions with line managers to aid self-awareness, and help counsel find gaps between what they want to achieve and the skill sets they have. “Then, talk about how to gain these skills. No one likes naked ambition, but aspiration is good,” he said.
Having ambition and confidence in your strengths is necessary, but Foy said it is folly to go in-house as a lawyer who knows everything. “You have to earn your credibility — if you insist that you know everything and cause people to stop engaging, you lose a great deal.”