As part of Linklaters & Crafty Counsel’s ‘Building Back Better’ series, Hannah Cao, General Counsel at Silk Road Fund Co., Ltd. chatted virtually with Linklaters partner Fay Zhou, sharing their perspectives on the past year and how General Counsel can create a better future in the legal industry following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Leadership and motivation in times of crisis

Acknowledging the difficult times we’ve been going through, Fay first asked Hannah about how she has kept her team motivated and resilient during such unpredictable times.

Hannah said the past year provided an opportunity to stress test and confirm the investment fund’s resilience. She told Fay that she holds a strong view that every situation is a good opportunity to learn and has been telling her team members that moments of crisis and setbacks, such as the ones suffered during the pandemic, can be turned into positive experiences.

“Then, what tips do you have for those in leadership positions, and how they can be better and more effective leaders?” Fay followed up.

For leaders of an organisation or a team, Hannah added that it is very important to talk to those they work with and go through what the colleagues worry about during a time of crisis. Expanding on that point, she said the most effective way to lead is by example and through good communication, as well as bringing out the best in those around the leaders.

“Warren Buffet once expressed that idea, and I cannot agree more. I think a good leader sees strength in every team member and knows how to give the right task to the right people. And when to push people out of their comfort zones to explore, more fully, their potential,” she said.

Hannah also said that it can also be helpful during tough times to reflect on the original purposes of the organisation or a specific project and set up new goals to work towards.

“By achieving those goals incrementally, the team will be able to gain this very healthy sense of accomplishment, which is critical to surviving the difficult time,” she added.

Influencing your organisation as a General Counsel and innovating

Finding the best in others not only extends to those who work under General Counsel, but also those on an equal seniority level to them, Hannah noted, when Fay then asked her about how GC can help their organisations do the right thing.

She mentioned that senior lawyers can play an important role in shaping the overall culture of the organisation by endorsing certain principles and values, such as pushing for ESG-related initiatives or increasing diversity measures.

In terms of diversity, for example, Hannah sees one of her self-imposed responsibilities is to empower Silk Road Fund’s female employees: helping them to grow and take on more responsibilities, while also aiding them in coping with the challenging issue of work-life balance, knowing full well how hard that can be as a working mother herself.

“I find it rewarding to sit down with my female colleagues, and discuss with them their aspirations, their frustrations, and about how to make a secret sauce to cope with challenges,” she said.

She has also encouraged her legal team to take a proactive role in implementing Silk Road Fund’s investment strategies: skilled at dealing with complex issues arising in cross-border investment involving multiple jurisdictions, they can often be best placed to bridge gaps in different views and find common grounds through effective negotiations, she thinks.

“Our in-house team is deeply involved in the whole process of investment, from structuring to negotiating, to executing, and to portfolio management. Over the course of holding a mid-to-long term portfolio, a lot of things can go wrong. I think when handling thorny situations, being agile is very necessary,” she says, adding that her team’s often holistic views to issues can help formulate innovative solutions to those situations.

What key issues do you think GC and legal teams will need to deal with in five years from now? Fay asked in her last question.

Part of the innovation that is very much already on every lawyers’ doorstep is artificial intelligence (AI), which in Hannah’s opinion, can be used to free lawyers from work that is mainly labour-intensive and rules-based.

Nevertheless, when it comes to making judgments that involve value consideration, she added that the issue of whether or not to use AI is not as straightforward.

“Therefore, we need to think about this deep question: how much do we want to give up in terms of human value, in exchange for an efficiency increase? I think our profession needs to start to think about those types of questions now. And hopefully, in five years, we will become much more prepared,” Hannah said.

Hannah’s key takeaways for GCs

  • Learning to find the best in others, so that they can become instrumental parts in key-decision making, is crucial in fostering innovation.
  • One of the ways General Counsel can make a difference in their organisations is by leading by example and trying to foster values and principles in corporate culture.
  • New technologies such as AI can aid and improve day-to-day legal work, but the industry still needs to consider its uses, particularly when it comes to value-related judgements.