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Are you client-obsessed, self-aware and media-friendly? 

Then you may just have the qualities to be a digitally-innovative general counsel, capable of building positive, trusting relationships and masterfully manipulating the media.

These were among the lessons learned in the four keynote presentations at the Australian Corporate Counsel’s (ACC) 25th In-House Legal National Conference. Covering customer obsession, leadership crises, corporate corruption, and unusual demographic acronyms, the presentations anchored nearly three days of learning and networking. 

Held in Adelaide, South Australia, 370 attendees from around Australia and New Zealand converged on Adelaide Oval along with Sheffield Shield cricketers, bringing together the cream of corporate law’s crop, including the finalists and winners of the ACC Australia Corporate Lawyer Awards 2019

1. It is Healthy to be Obsessed With Your Clients 

If you want to disrupt your – or another – business, having a healthy obsession with understanding your clients and gathering data on them is essential. 

This point was neatly made by former Facebook ANZ CEO Stephen Scheeler when he revealed an entertaining photo of people attempting to sleep in economy class on a long-haul flight. Showing travellers sprawled uncomfortably at unnatural angles, Scheeler was illustrating his work with Qantas leadership, in which he had been helping them to identify opportunities to improve their customers’ experiences by leveraging data. 

While Qantas had been quick to point out its business-class flat-beds and excellent customer service on long-haul flights, Scheeler was equally quick to point out that this is not what most travellers experience; Qantas took his advice to heart and is now incorporating sensors into its economy class seating to gather data for future service improvements.

Scheeler emphasised that if you are not solving your customers’ needs, someone else will. He said your data strategy should be based on these three questions:

  • What don’t know about your customers that you should know?
  • What don’t you know, that if you did, could be game-changing?
  • How do you get your hands on this data? 

2. Building Trusting Relationships Takes More Than Intellect

High profile corporate disasters and royal commissions have resulted in a confidence crisis in business leadership, which is why it is important for both current and future leaders to learn how to build credibility and trust. According to ABC Deputy Chair Dr Kirsten Ferguson, the qualities good leaders require to build trust are:

  • an ability to build positive relationships;
  • good judgment and expertise; and
  • consistent behaviour.

To build positive working relationships, Dr Ferguson recommends that leaders work on the following five key areas:

  1. Self-awareness. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and the impact you are having on other people.
  2. Self-regulation. An ability to stay calm and not lose self-control under stress. Leaders who can self regulate are regarded as having integrity, being more trustworthy and more comfortable with ambiguity and change.
  3. Motivation. Understand why you do what you do; most importantly, have an ability to maintain optimism in the face of failure.
  4. Empathy. Understand what drives others, consider other people’s feelings, and be sensitive to issues such as diversity.
  5. Social skills. An ability to navigate and manage complex interpersonal relationships and build rapport with a wide range of people to find common ground. 

Dr Ferguson said that even working on just one of these areas will improve your ability to build positive relationships.

3. A Good Media Advisor is Hard to Find

When it comes to corporate corruption, sometimes it is the simplest steps that companies miss that prove to be their undoing. For investigative journalist Nick McKenzie, who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, a quick Google search has often revealed the dubious background of people aligned with Australia’s most reputable organisations. By not undertaking the most obvious and easiest of due diligence on their contractors, these companies leave themselves open to bribery and corruption scandals – and potentially irreversible reputational damage.

In the digital age, journalists are increasingly relying on the analysis of data dumps provided by whistleblowers to uncover corruption. In one case, McKenzie used a software program to review over 300,000 emails, identifying and tracking financial transactions between corporate executives and corrupt officials in what proved to be a major scandal. 

While a company’s decision to go public on illegal activity should be decided on a case by case basis, McKenzie recommended taking control of the story and going public rather than risking the media revealing it in a manner designed to have maximum impact. In these cases, a strong media advisor is key, and ideally is one who:

  • is a senior executive that has the ear of the CEO and General Counsel;
  • has a strong understanding of the media and relationships with trusted journalists;
  • knows when to say ‘we have a mea culpa’, or when to fight back.

McKenzie acknowledged that it is rare to find a media advisor with this combination of skills.

4. Pillows are the New Status Symbol

You know you have made it when an acronym you wrote about in your column appears two days later in the New York Times New Word Dictionary. But such is demographer Bernard Salt’s (AM) reputation and influence. The demographic acronym, invented by his personal assistant, was NETTEL: power couples aged between 35 and 45 with Not Enough Time To Enjoy Life. 

Or you may identify with PUMCINS: Professional Urban Middle Class In Nice Suburbs. Salt said that PUMCINS men wear chinos, polo neck shirts and boat shoes and PUMCINS women “wear their activewear absolutely everywhere”. You can tell a PUMCINS household if there is goat-milk cheese in the fridge. 

Salt also provided insights into the changing Australian household. In the 1950s, guests would be entertained in the front lounge (the ‘good room’), where a mahogany side stand with a silver tea service showcased the family’s prosperity and social status. Today, guests are entertained in a kitchen family room at the back of the house, which they reach by walking past open, ‘glimpse perfect’ bedrooms; this has resulted, Salt said, in the ‘pillowfication of the bedroom’, with at least six pillows at the top and a throw rug at the end. 

“Both partners [in this household] work but have enough time to fluff up the pillows in the morning to ensure they are exactly right. This is as important to us today as the silver tea set a generation ago,” Salt said. 

Key Takeaways

  1. If you do not meet your client’s needs, someone else will. 
  2. Building positive relationships is essential to be perceived as a trustworthy leader.
  3. Use Google to do background checks on people or organisations with whom your business is aligned.
  4. Do not forget to fluff your pillows before having visitors traipse down your hall.
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