As part of the Linklaters & Crafty Counsel ‘Building Back Better’ series, Linklaters partner Pam Shores sat down with Emily Reichwald, General Counsel and Company Secretary at Dr. Martens plc, for a virtual chat to share their perspectives on the past year and how General Counsel can create a better future in the legal industry following the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Effective, empathetic leadership and being a positive influence

Pam started the discussion by asking Emily how she kept her team motivated and resilient during unpredictable times such as the past year.

Emily found that good communication and relationship building remained fundamental during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the environment for connection changed from the office to the screen. She also found herself a champion of positivity and hope in her team, as well as being supportive on mental health and wellbeing.

She said these are not taboo subjects at Dr. Martens: there are mental health first aiders and champions across the business, as well as a wealth of resources and channels for employees to share their circumstances during the pandemic.

Emily added that culture will be a differentiator after the pandemic: companies that have been able to embrace the changes and keep colleagues engaged throughout recent difficult periods will come out stronger from them.

Next, Pam asked Emily about tips for those in leadership positions, and how they can be more effective leaders.

The ability to empathise with people’s experiences has become a key aspect of Emily’s leadership style. She said she was drawn to the Strengths-Based leadership model which focuses on building trust, having compassion, creating stability, and engendering a sense of hope.

The days of hierarchical leadership being effective are likely behind us, Emily explained, saying that leaders need to be people that others want to follow, rather than being forced to follow.

Being the conscience of the company

How can General Counsel lead their companies into doing more of the right thing, then, Pam asked?

Emily frequently hears General Counsel and legal teams being regarded as “the conscience of the company”, and she agrees with this term. She does not, however, see her team’s function as being the police force in the business, but rather a positive influence in helping to move the business forward with integrity.

She explained that it is crucial for them to be able to translate certain legal concepts, such as competition law for example, to the wider business in a way that is palatable and understandable as opposed to having their colleagues be guided in their decisions by a simplistic rule-following playbook.

Turning abstract concepts into relevant business examples helps people understand the impact of what their actions might bring Emily said.

“For example, at Dr. Martens, generally employees are here because they love the brand. And you don’t hurt what you love, do you?.” she said. Once you start framing it in terms of harming the brand people understand they must play their part in protecting our reputation by behaving with integrity, she explained.

Being an innovative part of the business.

Finally, Pam asked about innovation and what will be the key issues that legal teams will have to face in the next five years, and what role Emily’s team plays in helping her organisation innovate and be more agile.

Emily answered by saying that her team’s role in innovation is as much about doing – for example, providing innovative insights and solutions to an issue – as not doing. For the latter, she noted it’s important to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, meaning that General Counsel will sometimes have to accept the trade-off between innovation and speed, and perfection.

In terms of technological innovation into the future, Emily said she is very aware of the fact that the next pandemic could come in a cyber format. Businesses that operate global supply chains on an online basis are particularly vulnerable, so she sees this as something that will warrant more attention in the future.

The current climate emergency is also something she pointed out as being of crucial importance. “We’re talking about it now a lot and we’re setting targets, but the rubber will really hit the road in five years’ time. We’ll be on the way to net-zero. We’re going to be having to take actions and that’s going to mean change,” Emily said, adding that fundamental changes in some business models may be on the way, but that this must be done for the sake of the next generation.

Emily’s key takeaways for GCs

  • Successful leaders are ones who build strong teams and empower them. Leaders who engender trust, have empathy and are continuously inspiring others to follow them, rather than those who impose forceful hierarchical systems, will have higher performing teams.
  • It is crucial for legal teams to be able to bring legal issues to a realistic, easily understandable format when explaining them to non-legal colleagues; they will then have a sense of responsibility towards doing the right thing.
  • Cybersecurity and sustainability are key issues legal teams and General Counsel will have to face in the next five years.