It is more common in the U.S for a GC to transition into the CEO role.
It is less common in the U.K.
That needs changing.
Most lawyers transition from private practice to in-house roles because of a desire to be “closer to the business” and to incorporate commercial decision making into their work.
So, it is very likely that many will aspire to executive business roles, if not the top role of CEO.
On paper, in-house counsel, especially General Counsel, are well placed to take on the top job.
Their skills include: boardroom experience, an exceptional understanding of business risk, a sense of organisational justice and doing business with integrity, being a source of confidence, inspiring trust among stakeholders and are used to overseeing large complex projects.
On the other side, the main case against the board viewing the GC as an automatic contender for the CEO job, seems to be a preconception that they are road blockers, lack vision and or a financial or marketing background.
Many in-house lawyers and General Counsel see this as a gross misunderstanding.
General Counsels make many big decisions everyday after quickly assimilating reams of facts under tremendous pressure. This is arguably the main required skill of a good CEO.
Many General Counsel are visionaries but don’t have the opportunity to put that forward because that is not their role per se.
Most good General Counsel are proactive in trying to find a way to say yes as opposed to no.
Also the finance and marketing piece is something that can be learned well enough to still be a great CEO.
Alas, it is not easy for in-house counsel or General Counsel to shake off the preconceptions.
So what do you do?
Volunteer to take on a crisis or challenge
At some point, in your tenure at the company, volunteer to take on a crisis or challenge.
Preferably something that is high visibility, mission critical and crosses departments or disciplines.
Make sure it is sufficiently scary that the fact that you put your hand up will mean that you are perceived as someone with a broader skill set, appetite for risk, and prepared to work in the wider interest of the Company.
Let’s be clear, this is not an unusual ask.
Most front runners for leadership roles have at some point demonstrated that they are prepared to stick their neck out and can achieve things outside of their core skill set and comfort zone.
Look for opportunities to cross-pollinate
Proactively identify and drive legal projects that will allow you to work intimately with other departments and learn about finance, marketing, product, operations etc.
You only need to get to a point where you understand the strategic issues in these other areas rather than be a hands on producer.
Speak Up & Opine
Find occasions to get your opinion across on topics that are not strictly in your box i.e.finance, marketing, product, operations etc.
If your ideas are good they will be heard.
This will allow the board and executive management team to develop trust and confidence in their abilities outside of the law.