During the most recent EntreLeadership event I taught in Nashville, I had the great opportunity to spend some time with David Bearden. David is the Senior Vice President and General Counsel for POET, which means that he runs their in-house legal team.
David shared with me that most companies have a love-hate relationship with their in-house lawyers. The reason? They are considered nothing more than an expense. It would be great if the company would come to the legal team on the front side of projects. But they don’t because most legal teams are difficult to work with and overly detailed. David’s frustration was knowing that this gap between the company and legal team could be closed considerably, but how?
We then discussed what it would be like if the legal team wasn’t reactionary. What if the team spent a good portion of their time looking for ways to serve that add value to their company? What if they researched the initiatives on the table and found weakness and trouble zones? And all this without being viewed as negative and nit-picky. Instead, what if they could be seen as…entrepreneurs? What would that look like?
At a break, David pulled me aside and said, “You really messed me up with the whole thing about my team being entrepreneurs that serve the company.” Wow! How cool is that?! And in most of the legal world, quite oxymoronic. But that’s what makes David so successful. He’s not sitting on his thumbs waiting for the next issue.
Below is an email that I received from David a week after the event:
I was reviewing my EntreLeadership materials today and thought I would send you a quick note to touch base and thank you for the excellent job you did presenting the course materials. I really enjoyed your transparency and passion as you used examples from your own experiences to teach the lessons. I am also very appreciative of your willingness to visit with me during your breaks in order to brainstorm how these principles apply to an in-house support team like POET’s legal team.
Over the past several months (before my attendance at EntreLeadership), I have had our team focused on clarifying its mission, vision and differentiated value proposition for our “customers,” the POET business team. Our philosophy is to think like a “business within the business” that competes against the marketplace of external law firms, any one of whom our customers could easily call by picking up the yellow pages.
Attending the course helped me to confirm that we are on the right track, and the top three lessons that I am working to incorporate happen to be the first few: “EntreLeadership Defined,” “Dreams, Visions and Goal Setting,” and “Time Management & Organization,” though our primary focus is on vision and goal setting.
I’ll keep you posted as things develop, but at a high level, we’re putting some meat on the bones of becoming “the premier legal department among companies our size.” I must admit, though, that while that sounds inspiring, I’m not convinced that being “the best” is a viable strategy, and I’ll be raising the thought next week with our team that to truly win, we need to differentiate ourselves in such a way that we’re not “the best” – we’re “the only.”
In my judgment, most in-house law departments are more compliance-oriented than they are entrepreneurial, and all face the obstacle that you and I discussed—that financial reporting systems treat us as an expense, providing no foundation for demonstrating the value created by enhancing our capabilities. If our lawyers can become EntreLeaders, I believe we and our business team will start thinking and communicating in terms of value added rather than expense reduced. We’ll see where it goes.
I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m pretty sure that POET is going to have their world rocked by this team! Imagine how much more confident the “customer” will be working on new initiatives knowing their competent, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking legal team is chomping at the bit to get in there and help their company win!
Question: What areas can you make your team more valuable to the “customer?”