The ultimate expression of that aim is for the GC not just to influence management but to determine the direction, values and culture of the business alongside, or as part of, management. If the company is a ship and the CEO is its captain, deciding its destination, then the GC should aspire to be the navigator, familiar with the shoals and tides, and the capabilities of the ship and its crew, and able to plot a course that reflects the risks and rewards ahead.
Some GCs find this easier to achieve than others, not least because different corporate models tend to be conducive to different degrees of influence. At the simplest and most obvious level, GCs who work in an empowering corporate structure or culture have an advantage over those who do not.
Whatever the corporate structure, though, this ambition requires the CEO and the rest of the company’s senior management to accept the GC in that role and to allow them – whether formally or otherwise, consciously or not – that degree of influence. GCs need to be aware of boardroom and executive politics and of where power is concentrated.
It would be wrong to assume that one corporate model is necessarily better than another in this respect. There will always be variance between individual companies. Establishing best practice in different, complex corporate structures – with different business models in different sectors – is not straightforward.
But in any model, a virtuous circle exists. If a GC who has built strong relationship foundations with senior management is able to use their influence to deal effectively with significant challenges, or to realise opportunities, then their influence grows. And as their influence grows it is increasingly easy to perform that proactive role. It’s a virtuous circle of proactivity and influence.
There is also, of course, the risk that a GC may find themselves in a non-virtuous circle of decline. If a GC establishes a degree of influence that is not backed up by their ability to deliver successfully (perhaps because of a lack of other skills), then that degree of influence will tend to be diminished over time. And the more it is diminished, the harder it will be for them to deliver successful outcomes.
In one sense these charts tell a positive story, with just over half of GCs enjoying more influence than they did when they took on their current role (or five years ago, for those who have been in post for longer).
Furthermore, most of the GCs in our survey believe they have strong influence at senior levels of their business. Looked at in a different way, though, the numbers suggest some weaknesses. More than one in eight of the GCs we surveyed believe their influence has actually decreased. And over one-third of GCs have retained their level of influence but have not been able to increase it. In a few cases (7%) that was because it was already at the highest level – but that still leaves over 40% of GCs who feel their influence at senior levels has either failed to increase or has diminished.
Perhaps the single most revealing chart in this report is the one showing that a massive 85% of Latin American GCs believe they could do their job better if they developed their influencing skills. So even most of the GCs who have been successful in increasing their influence feel that they still have scope for improvement.
And since an even greater percentage of them (92%) believe that the ability to influence can be taught, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that booking some influencing training or mentoring should be near the top of most GCs’ to-do lists.
Some of these GCs might also consider arranging something similar for their in-house teams. Despite general acceptance that influencing skills can be taught, one-third of GCs don’t provide such teaching for the in-house legal department, even though it would almost certainly improve the department’s effectiveness.
It is interesting that the survey of UK GCs that we ran a few years ago for our Influential GC report had very similar findings, with 82% of GCs believing that they would be more effective in their jobs with better influencing skills. (Even more – 88% – felt that having better influencing skills would make them more effective in their long term careers.) As we wrote then, the key thing for GCs is to engage with the issue, even though it may sometimes be uncomfortable and is often difficult for busy GCs to make time for. “No-one ever got more influential by doing nothing.”
Our Influential GC report, which takes a much deeper dive into the whole question of influence, is still available here.