Lacking gravitas can be a key reason why a GC gets replaced. To be indespensible, the GC must develop gravitas to be proactive, influence their board, hire well, and develop their team effectively. Today we speak with Rene Paula, experienced General Counsel and current COO of Bionic, a venture firm focused on disruptive technologies, to get his perspective on how legal leaders can develop gravitas and become the indespsensable GC.
Gravitas is purely a subjective measure but it’s ultimately about gaining the trust of all the relevant stakeholders that you will be able to captain the ship through difficult moments. As quarterbacking the company shifts back and forth between the CEO and the general counsel during regulatory, public relations and transactional situations, the board wants to know that the GC will not only be able to get things done but also speak eloquently to the NY Times, an acquiring public company’s board or a congressional committee. That means that even in informal environments, the GC needs to show confidence, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence and vision. It is important to have communication skills that flex from the informal to the necessary formal protocol. And remember that trust is based on character and competence, so you still need to be authentic, results-oriented and capable. If all else fails, it doesn’t hurt to walk slower, sit up straighter and take awkward silence pauses when you speak.
My first question for people I coach is always what are the last 3 things they did to prepare for the upcoming winter. Every company has a set of predictable challenges in the medium- to long-term - whether selling or going public, suffering from a hack because the company is a target, or a particular growth or expansion plan. We are usually so focused on putting out current fires that it is difficult to be proactive instead of reactive. I suggest GCs take 30 minutes on a regular basis to think about the medium to long-term and take active steps to move the ball forward. It’s also important to avoid getting blindsided so I like to set regular meetings with other functions and executives to really understand their latest projects, goals and challenges. There is never enough time to do everything we should vs need to do but failing to keep a pulse on the issues brewing within functional teams will end up making things more difficult later. You need wear your industrial psychologist, ombudsman and strategist hats during the day while you can meet and communicate with others in the company and turn to the purely legal work in the off-hours if necessary.
Each presentation to the board and the executive team is an opportunity for the GC to show the gravitas, preparation and vision that builds trust. If the group is discussing next year’s budget, how do you make comments and insert line items to show your grasp of the roadmap and lifecycle of the company? If there are major objectives being suggested, how can you offer support and create value by volunteering Legal to pick up shared KPIs? If the company is late stage and will need to provide some liquidity for employees, prepare for an IPO or pursue a significant fundraise, how can you proactively present alternatives to the board rather than waiting to be asked for various options? Can you educate the board on something they might not have thought about? The more you can show a handle on the current situation, what’s next and how to get there, the more that the board and individual members will rely on you for advice and guidance. The day a VC board member calls you “to run something quickly by you” on another one of their deals is when you know you have solidified their trust.
This is a topic that could use an entire discussion but I would say my biggest tip is to maximize everyone’s time by having an initial one-way conference call. That is, once you have gone through whatever filtering criteria, line up a conference call for 3-5 candidates in listen-only mode. You then share details about the company, it’s culture, the role, yourself, your leadership style and the pros and cons of joining your team. That way you make sure candidates have their eyes wide open and self-select out of the process if necessary. The additional benefit is that when you have each individual 1:1 interview, you are saving yourself from having to repeat the same things 7 times if you’re interviewing 7 candidates. I have gotten good feedback about the process from candidates as it makes the subsequent 1:1 conversations more meaningful with so much background having already been shared. Highly recommended.
There are different schools of thought on this but in a fast-growing organization I like to meet with direct reports every 2 weeks and indirect reports every 6-8 weeks. Monthly team meetings are helpful but you need to find a way to have 1 on 1 time to build relationships, identify opportunities for cross-training and collaboration (I believe in a cross-trained team rather than growing the legal function by adding specialists, so folks will have to move every year or so to cover different aspects of the business) and coaching and developing the team.
On my Friday questions, it’s all about making sure you have open and transparent communication with the team so that everyone is informed and effective, no project sits idle because you haven’t helped break through a barrier and recognition is given to those who have moved the ball forward.