General Counsel as Cultural Engineers

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Is good leadership just about creating the conditions for people to flourish?

And is good legal leadership, not just managing the legal department but being a leader that finds ways to empower the corporate culture to become naturally compliant? More and more general counsel now see their role in this way: how to create a culture which is ethical and compliant not just legal and compliance in the traditional sense of generating and maintaining adherence to a set of rules and regulations. That’s obviously still a key part, but there’s also increasingly a need to look at proactive strategies to create corporate cultures where laws and regulations will not be contravened. And that becomes about empowering everyone in the organisation rather than the general counsel and her team needing to police them. What’s created this is partly the fast pace of business and the fact that in many instances with newer industries, with start-up and high growth companies and with implementation of innovations, sometimes the law is just not able to keep up. Therefore, proactive risk management, rather than merely adhering to the letter of the law, is what sets apart the modern general counsel from the way the role has traditionally been conceptualised.

Can this even be done? Patty McCord former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix writing in her book Powerful agrees that the move from aspiration to reality be challenging. The inspiration for McCord’s book was Netflix ‘s culture deck: an unadorned PowerPoint which quickly achieved mythic status on the Internet .

Outlined in the deck were the key principles of Netflix’s culture and talent management approach. What defined it could be summarized as ‘don’t add but subtract’. That approach was the result of not privileging leadership that was top down, command and control, everything leaders do is right but also shrouded in secrecy. McCord argues that this lack of transparency and communication is often masked by rules and schemes, which purport to foster employee engagement but can end up doing anything but.

The Netflix culture deck recognizes this inherent tension in navigating aspiration and reality, this same informs much of the creativity and challenge in the general counsel and legal department’s roles in engineering culture. One slide in the Netflix Culture Deck states:

“It’s easy to write admirable values; it’s harder to live them. In describing courage, we say, “You question actions inconsistent with our values.” We want everyone to help each other live the values and hold each other responsible for being role models. It is a continuous aspirational stretch.”


Could there be a better description of the evolving role of the general counsel and the legal department? Having the ethical courage to question actions inconsistent with values – both those of the company and the wider ethical mores of society?

Dr.Catherine McGregor MCMI ChMC
Consulting, Thought Leadership, Training
+44 (0) 7753 196264

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