It was twenty years ago today, on 12 September 2000, that a thirty-eight-year-old lawyer and recently former General Counsel of two different financial institutions bubble-wrapped his career and left it behind in a sort of Big Yellow jobs storage facility. It was time to hitch a trailer of his half-formed thoughts and to wobble unsteadily into the future steering away from the well-worn career path.
LBC Wise Counsel is twenty years old.
I am sometimes asked why I gave up being a General Counsel as if I must have been very brave or very mad. The truth about the decision in 2000 however was that I didn’t think I was giving up being a General Counsel; I was just not doing it for a while. If the intrepid wanderer with his half-formed thoughts ran out of puff, my expectation was that I would simply go back, obviously. The moment of realisation that this would never happen was some years later when I reflected quietly that I might have wandered far too deep into the unconventional forest to find my way back out again.
Anyway, I do not want to make this a self-indulgent piece about me, and I am not going to reminisce about all the bars, burgers and airports. Twenty years however is a long time and I would like to share a few reflections. In doing so I should also say that I am not claiming special insights or truths that you must accept and carry forward; we should always carry the experiences of others as lightly as we can, so there is room for our own. For what it is worth, in twenty years of supporting, working alongside and mentoring lawyers, here are a few thoughts I believe to be true…
Your clever idea may be innovative, ground-breaking and brilliant, but it matters very little unless you also know how to make change happen. Change does not happen because you have announced it. Change happens because you can persuade people to come with you. You can only persuade people to come with you if they trust you. People will only trust you if you have cared enough to listen and respect what you have heard.
The industrialisation and commoditisation of leadership has meant that we have outsourced our humanity to data. We need to reclaim it. Good data helps leadership, but should not define it. Leaders have to shine in three human ways – to ask for help with humility and good grace; to know their people and to care for their well-being and success; and to be consistent, clear and credible in their relationships, communication and ambitions.
Small acts of thoughtful care matter hugely. On the other hand, most transformational change projects are rank, risible bollocks. They are the vain-glorious distractions of short-term, ego driven, fantasy management. Their fundamental flaw is how they neglect small acts of thoughtful care. Culture is created on such small acts which are always seen and felt, but are never written down. Culture is not an initiative or a manual and it is definitely not about empty rhetoric. People are indeed your greatest asset, but it is a meaningless slogan if you do not know someone’s name and their story.
Leaders should be accountable but not lonely. We should all listen more, talk a little less, be generous with our time, say how we feel and never sacrifice our health for work. There are also wonderful cultural differences that we can observe, learn from and respect in our dealings around the world. However, I have never worked with anyone who did not appreciate and respond to humility, kindness and promises kept.
I now firmly believe that career paths do not really matter, but what does matter is finding a place to work where you are listened to, can grow and make a difference. Your best role is one where you can thrive. Search for places where you can thrive, not for places that pay you more or flatter your sense of what you deserve.
In this regard please value time above wealth or status. Time is a gift, but it is also the ultimate use-once only product with guaranteed built-in obsolescence. A role that gives you time to think, time to grow, time to help others, and time for your family and friends is a role you can love and hold dear. But when it is not like this be careful. When time is stolen from you, the erosion of our confidence and well-being that results burns deeply on our souls. Long grinding hours, coercive low-level bullying, injustice, discrimination, unkindness, fear and anxiety stay with us forever. Be careful. Be kind to yourself.
Finally, the role of lawyers has never been more important, never been more needed, never been more vulnerable. From the criminal justice system, to the rule of law, to the climate crisis, to our moral compass in business and in our communities. It is not our time to be a spectator. I urge you please to have a view, and to know your own “red lines”. Courage is not always a David and Goliath act of epic heroism, but it is still courageous to stand firm about doing the right thing in what to others might seem a non-descript meeting where no-one else cares. We need to be courageous every day, but please relish your role because there has never been a more important time for us to be at our best.
LBC Wise Counsel’s twentieth anniversary should have been a time we could share our appreciation with you in person with and to thank so many people. The kindness, generosity and love we have received has been our inspiration and our motivation. We are truly blessed and truly grateful. The thirty-eight-year-old former GC would not have believed how lucky he could possibly be, even if he still has the look of someone wandering lost in a forest.
Thank you and please take care.