Do you believe you would make a better contribution to your organisation's decision-making if you were consulted earlier? Here are five tips to get your voice heard in the boardroom

“They call us the Business Prevention Unit”

“They just see us as a box to be ticked”

Is this you? Do you want to be seen as a strategic contributor to the business, but end up being called in at the last minute to rubber stamp a bad decision that has already been made?

There has been an epidemic of poor decision-making in organisations in recent years, in both private and public sectors. Short-term thinking leads to unintended consequences that cause widespread damage. Never has it been more important for organisations to make wise decisions and to listen to their in-house lawyers (who are not called “counsel” for nothing), yet the voice of the legal function is often downgraded in favour of other functions such as finance or sales.

But perhaps lawyers only have themselves to blame? Maybe you are your own worst enemy when it comes to getting your voice heard.

Here are five tips to increase your influence and make sure you are listened to.

1. Know the value of your contribution – ethics not just compliance

Lawyers bring perspective, objectivity and judgment. You will be able to anticipate some of the unintended consequences of a course of action that others may not be able to see, saving the organisation from potential difficulties down the line. You are also a vital link to the ethics and values of the organisation. Rather than allowing your function to be labelled as “compliance” – grudgingly keeping the organisation out of trouble from pesky regulation – you can make sure the core values of the organisation are built into its processes and reflected in its culture and behaviour.

2. Build relationships

Take the time to get to know your stakeholders, both inside and outside the organisation. Go out and talk to them rather than waiting for them to come to you, and find out what their concerns and priorities are and how you can make their life easier. Make yourself approachable and remove any barriers to access. Investing time in raising your profile in the organisation will pay dividends. Build goodwill, so that when you need to call in a favour or make an unpopular decision you’ve got something “in the bank”.

If people trust you, they will share their plans with you early and ask your advice while there is still scope to influence a course of action.

3. Don’t just talk about the law, talk about the business

If you want to be seen as a strategic contributor, demonstrate that you understand the wider business concerns; that you “get it”. Show that you understand what your internal clients are trying to achieve and that, where possible, you are finding innovative ways to use the law to enable this. Look for opportunities e.g. to make or save money, as well as risks. Position yourself as a partner rather than simply an enforcer.

4. Understand your audience and speak to them in the language they understand

Let’s face it, lawyers can be a bit dry and boring in their communications. You have been trained to be precise, detailed and nuanced, which can make it hard work for your audience to extract the core message from what you are saying.

Learn how to make one clear recommendation with supporting reasons, rather than overwhelming your audience with a myriad of options. Express it succinctly on one page and find a way to illustrate it visually. Less is more: think billboard rather than essay.

Consider what matters to your audience. For example, if you are talking to the board, learn how to put your point across with numbers because that’s the language they understand. If you are talking to marketing, show how your message will affect the organisation’s brand. If talking to HR, think about staff engagement or how it will affect recruitment. Frame your message from your audience’s point of view.

5. Cultivate your leadership presence

You probably spent at least six years qualifying as a lawyer, and many more years’ practice to get to the level of expertise you have now. I’ll bet you haven’t spent more than six minutes thinking about your “presence” and how to enhance it. We can’t all be Bill Clinton, yet too many lawyers suffer from “charisma bypass”, believing that their technical expertise is sufficient to get themselves listened to.

The good news is that there are techniques you can learn which will massively increase your impact on others in a positive way. A powerful technique is leadership embodiment, developed by Wendy Palmer, author of Leadership Embodiment: How the way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak.

For example, next time you have an important verbal communication to make, take a few seconds to “centre” yourself beforehand by lengthening your spine, softening your shoulders and taking a couple of deliberate breaths from the belly. This simple exercise will decrease your stress levels and enhance your testosterone levels, giving you more confidence and positively influencing how others see you.

As lawyers we have been trained to be in our heads and to give very little attention to our bodies. A small investment in bodily awareness will massively increase your influence.

So, if you want more of a say in the key decisions of your organisation, it pays to learn how to communicate with more impact.

In a further article I will tell you more about how you can develop your leadership presence.

I’d like to thank Merlie Calvert of Mayer Brown (formerly Head of Legal, Northern Hemisphere, at De Beers), Helen Goldberg of Legal Edge, Ruth Steinholtz of Aretework and Joanne Theodoulou of Women in Banking and Finance for their help in preparing this article.

The Author
Liz Rivers is a leadership coach, mediator and facilitator. Formerly a litigator in the London office of global law firm Eversheds, she now works with professionals who want to make a difference in the world. She helps them communicate more powerfully at work, so they can increase their influence, resolve differences satisfactorily and have more productive teams. Alongside over 25 years of business experience she is a practitioner of mindfulness and is a trained psychotherapist. She is passionate about the importance of bringing emotional and bodily self-awareness to the art of leadership. She works with Core, the business mediation provider, on its flagship mediation skills courses.
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