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Those who can – lead

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being a panellist at Herbert Smith Freehill’s Future Leaders Programme at which I shared my perspectives on what makes a great leader.

I was flattered to be asked not least because I was sharing the floor with some highly experienced GCs. Indeed, I would also consider many of the delegates as my contemporaries.

I was reminded of attending a similar event 2 years ago, having been nominated by Sky’s General Counsel. I remember being proud to have been recognised in that way. The ability to make time to recognise the quality of others is in itself an attribute of great leadership.

At that event, I remembered a GC who professed a serendipitous route to getting to his role at a global energy company. When the business was faced with difficult challenges or new business directions, he took up the opportunity to broaden his development and to get involved in those tricky issues that others may have shied away from. As a result, the CEO saw him as a ‘go-to’ person to take on broader responsibility when the opportunities arose and other personnel left the business. So, unlike other GCs, he also covered areas including HR and operations – a CEO in the making (something he was happy to admit).

The advice that stuck with me that evening was to put yourself forward for the difficult things that no one else wanted to do. If you could be the person that your CEO or GC could turn to to help out with a difficult problem then it would not be long before you were being asked to take greater ownership and lead others.

Of course, the self-serving benefit this offered up was an opportunity to be intellectually challenged and to develop horizontal skills and experience. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is what you would expect, uncomfortable! But in doing so you learn, grow and build credibility that gives you permission to lead others. If you have challenged yourself on something you have not done before, then it should be easier to coach those in your team to do the same. Your broader horizons will also enable you to understand wider stakeholder perspectives and so be more effective in your own role.

I always take one thing away to action from courses I have attended or books I have read. With this advice in mind, I took a more open-minded approach to accepting and volunteering for challenges at work. Whilst difficult, the experience showed me that I could, with a thirst to learn and the right support, overcome anything. This concept of a “growth mindset” is well documented (Mueller and Dweck 1998) and is an approach that advocates that success is a long journey of hard-work, dedication and persistence with any set-backs providing further opportunity to learn.

So what does this mean for those considering themselves ‘future’ leaders? Well, the first thing is you have to want to lead. This may sound trite but that fire does not burn within all of us. It takes courage, conviction and dedication. Not least because it will not always go right. At times you will fail and you will need perseverance and humility to keep bouncing back. But, the rewards are truly gratifying. You will feel the immense satisfaction that comes from developing the potential in others and producing a positive outcome that improves the world around you.

Coming back to the panel at HSF this year, we were asked how we felt the world of technology has impacted the role of GCs. Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to GCs, CEOs, CFOs, Chief Risk Officers, Innovation leads and law firm partners about their operations and how they can improve efficiencies and get better insight as the legal and regulatory environment puts more pressure on businesses.

What is abundantly clear is that the transformational effects of technology is no longer limited to one department or role. Just as with the advent of the world wide web in the 1990s, today is a watershed moment for businesses to undergo a more fundamental kind of transformation. This creates immense opportunities for leaders who can understand, explore and collaborate between functions across an organisation.

I genuinely believe that if you possess the behavioural attributes and a truly growth mindset that nurtures those attributes, then there is really very little getting in the way of you leading the way. In the current world of work, this is the case now more than it has ever been.

So, look within yourself and ask: “Do I have what it takes to lead?” If the answer is yes, then take the first step into the crucible and grow. The opportunity for you to enrich your life and the lives of others around you is yours to take.