Developing business credibility

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This Practice Note provides practical guidance and tips for in-house lawyers on developing and improving the business credibility of the legal team within the business. It can be read in conjunction with Lexis®PSL Practice Notes: Building relationships with ‘business colleagues /clients’ and Developing your commercial awareness / business acumen.

The acid test of business credibility is business people wanting your input because they value it. In other words, they feel that something is missing if you have not given your view. There are a number of ways you can develop business credibility, including:

  • demonstrating support of business goals
  • positioning your contribution in a way which makes sense to those receiving it, even if they are not immediately convinced
  • ensuring that you will not have to backtrack from an overly conservative stance or an overly accommodating or relaxed stance
  • making no secret that you will need to enlist help from others
  • maintaining professional integrity
  • delivering within agreed deadlines, focusing on the goal not just the task in hand

It is also worth mentioning that development of business credibility is greatly aided by working on the competency ‘Impact and Influence’—for further information, see Lexis®PSL Practice Note: Developing talent using competency models.

Demonstrating support of business goals

There are a number of ways you can demonstrate support of business goals, eg:

  • by encouraging exploration of how those goals might be reached more effectively without sacrificing proper governance or accepting unrewarded risks, eg if you are having a discussion with others in the business around concluding regular contracts you might want to ask:
    • what are the areas of regular push-back from other contracting parties?
    • do the contracts contain commitments which are hard to justify?
    • are there better ways of addressing the risks which those commitments are intended to cover?
  • taking an active interest in future regulatory proposals and orchestrating lobbying efforts to minimise the compliance burden or adverse impact on the business
  • participating in the design of new products or services

Positioning your contribution in a way which makes sense to those receiving it, even if they are not immediately convinced

In order to do this, you will need to understand what the decision maker is confronted with in terms of:

  • the bigger risk and reward picture
  • stakeholder management and/or internal politics
  • budget and target imperatives

This does not mean that you are usurping the decision making. It does mean you are leaving the decision maker in no doubt about what you think needs to be done with a good appreciation of the context.

If you think you do not have the full picture, have a discussion with the decision maker about what they are up against. A reaction of “that’s not commercial” should be countered with “please explain why it isn’t, it’s important to me that I understand”.

To quote an in-house lawyer who became a managing director: The best advice is unambiguous, expressed simply with confidence and readily actionable.

Ensuring you won’t have to backtrack from an overly conservative or overly accommodating or relaxed stance

To ensure there is no need to backtrack from your advice or recommendation you should:

  • make sure you understand the context as fully as possible before providing advice
  • try and ensure your advice or recommendation is in line with any accredited view held by the team as a whole, eg a view that has been arrived at as a result of prior discussion at a legal team meeting. It helps to be able to say to the business “our view is...”
  • get endorsement for your advice or recommendation from your manager or another experienced member of the team if you have to make a tricky judgement call (get this before you deliver it)

Making no secret that you will need to enlist help from others

It is best to set expectations and be up-front with the business if you believe you will need to engage additional support or get help or advice from others for any issue or matter, eg if:

  • it is the first time you have dealt with an issue, tell your business colleague, reassuring them that you are being properly supported by a more experienced colleague and/or your boss
  • you will need advice from an external adviser, flag this at the earliest stage, so any consternation on the part of the business can be addressed early
  • you will need to involve a colleague who has more experience or expertise in a particular area, it may be a good idea to have an early three–way meeting to agree how this will work

Maintaining professional integrity

At all times you must ensure you maintain your professional integrity:

  • keep attuned to what is happening within the organisation without gossiping
  • do not mislead colleagues into thinking that friendliness means you will give the nod to anything they propose—however close to and supportive of the business you might be, you may need to remind them that you cannot condone nor turn a blind eye to behaviour which may be unlawful, fraudulent or unethical
  • being well-liked and respected is the best backdrop against which to pass unpalatable messages if you have a serious concern
  • make sure that all parts of the business are getting the appropriate level of support—this means resisting the temptation to do that bit extra only for the business colleagues you like and a more begrudging service for those you dislike. For the difficult or demanding business colleagues, you need to make sure that if you are pulling out all the stops to build credibility it is not going to require you to lavish disproportionate effort on them in the long run
  • do not fall into the trap of providing personal advice in the mistaken belief that this will generate goodwill

Delivering within agreed deadlines, focusing on the goal not just the task in hand

It is important to ensure you agree to realistic deadlines for delivery of any work you undertake. Missing a deadline without pre-warning does not tend to go down well—if you have a timing problem, let the business know without delay.

If realistic expectations are set at the start around what it is going to take to meet a particular goal, you keep the business up to date about progress and advise them at the earliest opportunity about any issues or challenges with delivery, most people will be reasonable about a slight delay and respect you for your honesty.

However, over-promising and under-delivering will quickly deplete any business credibility you have built up.