“Bob,” the general counsel of a privately held company, faced what he perceived to be excessive turnover on his staff. This was costly, time consuming and disruptive.
When I met with Bob as his new coach, I searched for what might be wrong. He seemed thoughtful and kind. Bob is the type of person who wants people to be happy and stay. He thought those who left had good reason.
It turns out that, like in many small legal departments—he had three lawyers, a paralegal and an assistant—there was no way for people below him to move up unless he left. I’ve heard about this issue in larger companies as well. So, what should a GC do?
Transparency: Acknowledge the problem
Every exit interview Bob conducted revealed that people wanted more responsibility and growth potential. Bob decided to address the issue directly with his staff. He acknowledged that there was no upward mobility for him or them. Titles and pay were not likely to be substantially upgraded either. His staff indicated that they enjoyed being with the company, but acknowledged that they felt their professional careers had stagnated and that this would affect their long-term careers.
Develop a personal growth path
Rather than say “get used to it,” Bob began to think of alternative strategies to increase his team's desire to stay. He then worked with each person to develop a personal growth plan. Some of the ideas he suggested:
Take on more of a business role within the company. If the staff member had interest in a particular area of the business, he or she could spend some extra time learning that area and perhaps expand responsibilities.
Learn more about areas of law where they would like to grow, take courses, get more involved in those areas in the company and do that work. That way, the legal work would not have to go outside, and the lawyer would gain broader experience.
Pick up areas where the legal department was not yet servicing a need. The company had a lot of IP, contracts and some litigation. By expanding to other areas where legal was not yet involved, especially those areas where business risk may have increased, both the lawyer and the company could benefit.
Mentor businesspeople on legal issues by becoming more involved with business issues and offer to work with people to help them learn so they can be more knowledgeable of legal matters.
Prepare training seminars on legal issues for the company's non-lawyers.
Bob also offered to help the staff work on and build strong resumes so when they were ready to leave, they would be better prepared.
Moving into action
Bob's genuine interest in helping his staff members prepare for their next career move made a difference to them because they wanted to learn and grow. One lawyer learned to do licensing. Before this initiative, the company rarely licensed its brand. The lawyer took a licensing course and learned how to negotiate, draft and review licensing agreements. When the company was ready to do more licensing, so was the lawyer, and there was no need to bring in outside counsel.
Another person got deeply involved with a business group in the company. The group appreciated the effort and eventually offered him a position in their department, giving him further growth potential.
It seemed counterintuitive, but by acknowledging that career growth was limited in the legal department and offering to prepare his staff for their next positions, this GC reduced turnover and had a happier staff. His effort turned the group into a team, with members who wanted to stay until moving on became the best choice. He also let the company know what he was doing, so when turnover happened, the reasons would be clearer.