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How to Prepare Yourself as the Head of a Legal Department for the Rapidly Changing World

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Changes: Politics and Economy

Our world is changing in front of our eyes. The political situation seems to those of us living in developed countries as experiencing the most rapid changes since the fall of communism.

Who could have imagined five years ago that a billionaire and a media star would become the 45th President of the United States of America, the people of the United Kingdom would have opted for Brexit, and a populist leader of the Front National in France would be one of the front-runners for the French Presidency? The world economy is still recovering from the 2007 crisis – it took Dow Jones almost six years to surpass its October 11, 2007 peak when it traded at an intra-day level high of 14,198.10. Economic growth in most European countries is still weak compared to pre-2007 times and lags far behind China, India, Korea, and Singapore. This, in turn, has a significant impact on our social environment. For the last several generations, starting from the post Second World War era, we have become accustomed to the idea that the next generation would have a better and easier life. This dream was shattered by the 2007 crisis and made only worse by the instability following the swift development of ISIS, the Russian annexation of Crimea and instability in Eastern Ukraine, the immigrant crisis of 2015, and the growth of terrorist organizations eroding the core feeling of safety in Western European societies, which was one of the cornerstones of the European development to which the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe aspired after 1989.

Ok. You can ask: Why on Earth is this guy dwelling on the obvious things we can see on everyday news bulletins? My intention is to show you the wider context of our work as general counsel, heads of legal, or legal directors in modern European companies. Regardless whether you sit on the management team in the head office or you work as in-house lawyer in a remote location you are affected by the rapidly changing world.

Change: Security 

On the subject of the changing nature of security, let me start with a very down-to-earth example: travelling in Europe in these traumatic ISIS-affected times. A couple of years ago you could easily jump on a plane, train, or car and travel from Warsaw to Paris or Rome not thinking about anything but a driving licence – but today you can be stopped and search at almost any intra-European border. 

Another example involves airport or train station safety. If you lived within the Schengen area two or three years ago you could travel without even being asked for a ID or a passport. You could arrive late without risking a long queue at the security/passport/ID control. But now you need to take into account the longer time expected for security clearance, so you need to be at the airport earlier – requiring you to exit your meetings earlier. The same will happen with train stations – following the tragic bombing at the Madrid train station in 2004 special security measures were introduced Spanish train stations, meaning your luggage now is required to go through security scrutiny similar to that at the Barajas Airport. Once again you need more time and patience.

Another issue related with security at public places: Would you be worried about being at airports, shopping centers, promenades, or stadiums a couple of years ago? Probably not. But after the terrorist blasts at the Brussels Zaventem airport in 2016, Nice’s promenade truck rampage in July 2016, and the Christmas 2016 assault on the holiday-shoppers in Berlin, one wonders whether public places are safe anymore. What about our offices, production facilities, or nuclear plants: Are they still safe? 

Europe – especially in the Western part of the continent – has been in a “safe” bubble since the end of the IRA/Red Army Faction/ETA bombings. But now you remain under a permanent security threat in any major city of Europe.

Change: Technology

Let’s consider another aspect impacting our lives: technological development.

In terms of social media, twenty years ago Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn did not exist. Indeed, most of the world did not even have access to the Internet, and instead gained information mainly from TV/radio news and paper newspapers. Dissemination of news and ideas was very slow even in late 90s. Today, a piece of news goes around the world in a blink of an eye. And our private lives were different as well: In the past you would have to be a VIP/celebrity and be followed by paparazzi to have your life under permanent surveillance, while today you can be photographed at any place at any time and your picture can circle the world in a few moments. 

So how can we face those challenges and confront them successfully? 

First, as a team leader you need to change your frame of mind. You can no longer be “happy and fat,” content with your environment and hoping that it will not change in your lifetime. I remember my parents working for the same employer and almost in the same place for almost 40 years. That stability is no longer available to us. If you work for a state-owned company, there may be a young pretender seeking your position; if you work for a foreign investor your job may be gone due to the re-polonistion of certain branches of industries or simply because your position is obsolete and the position is to be transferred east. 

I learned a nice abbreviation recently: VUCA. VUCA stands for the “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity” of general conditions and situations. Exactly like our modern world. You need to face the VUCA and come out of that conflict successfully. You need your internal strength in order to face challenges and to support your team.

Second, stand up to the world and lead your team in difficult and uncertain times. Explain to them the VUCA world and lead by example – enhance and stimulate personal development, promote rotation, and if needed protect them against internal and external evils. Adjust your treatment of your employees to their different needs. Young and unexperienced employees need more guidance – you need to be more like a father to them – do not let them lose their way and get demotivated by daily failures and a lack of visible success. For those more experienced, be a guide: Show them the direction and coach them to be successful.

Third, do not forget about the well-being of your team. This includes both a proper work-life balance but also a healthy working environment, including a well-designed space, well-balanced nutritious food in your canteen, and accessible sport/work-out options. You could say that this was the case in the past when the employer took care of many needs of the employees, but in my humble opinion it is necessary now as well two main reasons: Primarily to allow your team to have a healthy springboard from what can be a monotonous workload and second to keep them motivated and loyal to your company. If you keep employees happy and motivated – especially younger employees, who are representatives of Generations Y&Z (and who according to surveys are not so much linked to the jobs but rather to exciting professional challenges) – they will stay with you. If you fail to do so then you will need to look for new trainees and employees. 

You could say “but it does not concern me – I’m the GC or Head of Legal – why should I behave like an ordinary manager?” The truth is you are no different, no better or worse, from other managers and leaders in your organization. I would even say that you should do better than any other manager due to the tradition of our profession and its high ethical standards. 

Finally, what if you fail and your team starts to disintegrate or your employees develop apathy and a culture of low-performance develops? If you have tried and failed, my recommendation is that you go and seek support in your organization. Do not be afraid to show weakness and accept failure. I am convinced that you will find a helping hand – you can always use the common lawyer’s excuse: “I was not trained in HR and soft skills” – and I’m sure you can do better. I will have no sympathy for you if you did not try and fix your team – then you should not be a GC or the head of the legal department – and you do not deserve any compassion and should seriously consider another job. 

In summing up I would like to use wise words I recently found on Twitter: “Sometimes there are things in life that aren’t meant to stay. Sometimes change may not be what we want. Sometimes change is what we need.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.4 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.