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2024 calls for adaptability powered by continuous learning

Reflecting on this past year, Seshani Bala, General Counsel of KPMG New Zealand, shares how adaptability powered by continuous learning has been one of her biggest focus areas - the key driver being generative AI and the rapid rate legal is evolving as a profession and business function. And neither Bala nor her team have plans to pump the brakes coming into the new year. 

Adaptability: status critical 

Historically as a profession we’ve had the luxury of time to carefully assess, pause to deliberate,  and slowly adjust to change. Today we’re having to do it at a faster rate than ever before. “Legal isn’t immune from it [change] and we’ve been immune for a long time. That’s why it’s so hard, particularly for our profession, to not have a choice because we’re now at a crossroads - adapt quickly, or risk becoming irrelevant,” says Bala. 

While regulation and guidance is brewing, the use of AI is still in its infancy. “So, while there's thought leadership we can turn to, and the small amount of evolving guidance, it’s really down to exercising our critical thinking and judgment to navigate the change and adapt,” says Bala. And regardless of whether you're a leader or aspiring to be one, if you can’t bring critical thinking and judgment to your advice and decision making, you’re not going to be delivering much value to your business or stakeholders.

“It’s adapt quickly, or risk becoming irrelevant”

Generative AI is playing an incredibly important role, but there’s still a lack of clear guidelines and regulations. So, how can we prepare ourselves for this fast-paced environment and boost our critical thinking skills at a time when it feels like we are expected to fly the plane while building it? 

Method: continuous learning 

The answer is in continuous learning. 

As Anthony J D'Angelo once said, “Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” Continuous learning provides us with the ability to explore and gain new perspectives. By continually challenging ourselves with new material and ideas, we are able to expand our scope of critical thinking, and knowledge. “Expanding your exposure to diverse perspectives, a wide spectrum of ethical dilemmas and a diverse array of data, scenarios, risks and opportunities can significantly enhance your ability to develop robust judgment and cultivate your critical thinking skills,” explains Bala. 

It’s on us as leaders

When we asked Seshani how she leads a team to embrace learning, and what drives her as a leader to continually learn, she shared a few insights. 

From a leadership perspective, Bala points out that it’s on us to model the behavior we want to see in our people - if they see you prioritizing your learning, being curious and intentional with what and how you choose to learn and putting your hand up to say I don’t know much about that, but I’m going to find out more and get across it, they will too. “Reward people for the behavior you want to encourage in them. Reward them for continuous learning, reward them for being innovative and experimenting, reward them for challenging the status quo and doing things differently,” she says. In other words, nurturing a learning culture and experimentation culture is paramount. “Remembering that learning doesn’t have to be a chore - it can be fun and it keeps things interesting. As leaders, we have a real opportunity to make learning less boring!” says Bala.

For Bala, facilitating this involves having routine discussions collectively with her team and peers - whether they’re in other functions of the business or in her network to share and discuss new learnings and insights. Asking others what they are experimenting with and continuously sharing resources such as thought leadership material she subscribes to or podcasts she’s listened to (and seeking the same from her peers) is also her common practice.

And while the concept seems simple, Bala points out that the starting point is to identify how you learn best as an individual - this is something she encourages each of her team to understand and articulate. This means they’re better equipped to access and digest materials and information that will stick. For example, if you’re a visual or auditory learner, infographics, online courses, webinars and podcasts might be perfect for you, or if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, then you learn and retain information best through doing and being actively engaged, so seek interactive learning options that include experiments and practical application. 

From there, there’s really nothing more to it than to do it! But there's a catch - “You have to be smart with your time,” Bala advises. “Time to learn will never magically appear in your schedule, so part of managing your workload is to consistently prioritize and dedicate the time - at whatever point in your day works. What matters most is that you just do it, as small and consistent efforts can make a big impact.”

“Time to learn will never magically appear in your schedule, so part of managing your workload is to consistently prioritize and dedicate the time.”

How to level up your learning 

Parallel to this is the practical element of learning, the doing

Fortunately, learning isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays, you can access webinars, podcasts and video materials all on the go. “Just like our time, we’ve got to be smart about our learning. For example, I listen to podcasts while I’m on the move, it’s my way of keeping up while I'm commuting,” says Bala. Second to this is micro-learning. In other words, scheduling bite-sized chunks of learning into your day. “Gone are the days of needing to spend a few hours to qualify  your time as learning. You can do it in as little as fifteen minutes (which is why Ted Talks are all 14 minutes!),” she explains. 

Resources Bala often turns to include: 

  • Podcasts – Practical AI (Changelog Media), The Legal Ops Podcast (Alex Rosenrauch and Elliot Leibu), The a16z Podcast (Andreessen Horowitz), Pearls On, Gloves Off (Mary O’Carroll)
  • Sterling Miller’s Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel blog and his books:
  • Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel
  • Ten (More Things) You Need to Know as In-House Counsel
  • Showing the Value of the Legal Department

Most importantly, Bala says, “No one can put knowledge in your head. You have to be curious and you have to be intentional about it.” The key is in prioritizing with intention how your time is best spent in gearing yourself, and your team, up to embrace and adapt to rapid change through your learning. “What’s the worst that could happen? The worst is that you stay stagnant and become obsolete. And that's probably the one thing you don’t want to happen.” 

When asked about the year ahead, Bala stays firm on the importance of adaptability, improvising and continuous learning, and her reasons speak to the continuous challenges she sees us facing with Generative AI: “It's going to be humans plus machines, and not one or the other. We need to take our people on that journey and reshift their skills - that’s the challenging part of organizations, it’s a behavioral and change management challenge, not just a technological one.” Safe to say, the topic of Generative AI is high on Bala’s just-released notify-me list! 

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