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Key Takeaways from GC Careers and Leadership Lessons

On November 30, McCarthy Tétrault hosted an exclusive event for General Counsel as a platform to exchange ideas, learn from each other’s experience and share advice. An impressive lineup of experts engaged in discussions about market and industry dynamics, the evolution of the GC and other leadership roles, and what organizations value in their leaders.

The event featured a fireside chat with Shanin Lott who is Executive Director at Russell Reynolds Associates followed by a panel of experts who shared their career journeys and the lessons they learned. The panelists were Giselle (Gigi) Basanta, General Legal Counsel at George Brown College; Marni Dicker, Executive Vice-President, Infrastructure and Chief Legal Officer at the Canadian Premier League and Gord Currie, Executive Vice-President and Chief Legal Officer of George Weston Limited. After these engaging conversations, the attendees made meaningful connections during a cocktail reception. Here are ten (10) takeaways from the thought-provoking conversations that took place:  

1) Finding and Retaining Talent is Top of Mind for Industry Leaders

Finding and retaining talent has been a major challenge for organizations in addition to concerns about the economy, consumer behavior, emerging technologies and cybersecurity. This year, the industry reported that 56% of hires for GC roles were through internal promotion, which represents an increase from previous years and signals improvement in talent retention and succession planning strategies.

2) The GC is increasingly the Jack of all Trades

The GC role spans across a plethora of issues, both legal and business. Typically GCs find themselves juggling between four distinct archetypes within their organization. They can be the Boardroom GC who, for example, is involved in key decisions surrounding an Initial Public Offering. They can also be a Growth GC, where they execute Mergers & Acquisitions deals or an Operational GC who is contributes to achieving the organization’s Key Performance Indicators. Finally, they can be the Regulatory GC where they hold a compliance management and litigation-oriented role. Depending on the industry, GCs may lean toward one of these archetypes more than others.

3) There are Five Personality Traits that Characterize a Successful GC

A successful GC needs to have five seemingly contradictory traits: disruptive, pragmatic, vulnerable, galvanizing and risk-taker. They know when to dream beyond the horizon and come up with revolutionary ideas and when to be grounded, realistic and results-oriented. They are humble and turn the spotlight on others yet at the same time they are charismatic leaders who have the ability to create trust. By virtue of their role, successful GCs are risk-takers; however, they take those risks intelligently and manage them wisely. 

4) The GC role is Dynamic and Continuously Changing

The scope of the GC role is continually expanding to include additional responsibilities. GCs are now spending significantly more time at their organizations’ leadership table and are more closely aligned with the business and CEO’s Agenda. Their scope of responsibilities increasingly encompass areas such as Human Resources, Cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence. Their multi-faceted role situates them to be looked up to as role models for team leadership as they take part in promoting and building the organization’s culture. 

5) A Variety of Factors affect the Evolution of the GC Role

Today’s GC role is significantly reshaped from what it was even five years ago. The ability of GCs to guide organizations through uncertainty has been invaluable to CEOs as organizations are tested by recent economic headwinds and geopolitics. The evolution of the role is also been influenced by DEI policies;  this year has seen 40% gender diversity in the GC role, which represents a slow and steady progress. Finally, the breadth of the GC role has also expanded due to the advent of advanced technology, the increase of remote and hybrid work and the complexity of regulatory compliance.

6) The GC as a Strategic advisor

Given the GC’s increased presence and contributions at their organization’s leadership table, they are generally considered to be strategic advisors. They opine, advise and direct on critical issues that define the business. In turn, becoming a trusted advisor necessitates a deep understanding of the nature of the business as well as a critical assessment of the risk tolerance of the organization. 

7) Building a Network is Key to Sustained Success

A professional network is key to both the personal and professional growth of a GC in this world of increasing uncertainty. As much as it is helpful to sustain a wide network of professional acquaintances, it is equally imperative to maintain a tight-knit network of individuals with whom the GC fosters trust and from whom they leverage both professional and personal advice. Often times, the exigencies of the position renders the GC in need of strategic business guidance that extends beyond the four walls of their organization, and the tight-knit network can offer much needed objective support. 

8) A GC Should Guard their Brand Jealously and Zealously

A GC’s reputation is their brand, and it is what they are known for in the market. Networking is key to promote a GC’s explicit brand, but the reputation that shadows it reveals even more about the GC. As one of the event’s astute panelists stated “Your brand is the one thing you can control, you have it until you lose it and if you have lost it--you’ve lost it.” As such, it is critical that every GC guard their brand and reputation jealously.

9) Cultural competence, DEI and a People-Centric Approach are Pillars of Effective GC Leadership 

As a leader, a GC ought to prioritize cultural competence and remain aware of the means to support the different equity-seeking groups within their teams and broader organization. Maintaining a people-centric approach will yield an immediate positive impact on the GC’s leadership. They can do so by fostering mentorship relationships, prioritizing the personal and professional growth of their team, giving credit where credit is due and creating opportunities that set their team up for success.

10) Succession Planning is Necessary for Long Term Organizational Success

Although counter-intuitive and potentially challenging, especially for early career GCs, it is important for every GC to think about succession planning. That way, they can ensure continuity of the role, seamless transitions, and sustained organizational success. It also enables them to have more leverage to expand the impact of their team across the organization and free themselves up for more long term, strategic thinking. In their current roles, they can begin by prioritizing opportunities for their team members to grow. Sometimes this means letting the team take on the most interesting opportunities that the GC would love to handle themselves. Ideally, those opportunities would align with the business needs and the team members would find them to be developmental and career-enhancing.