"Isn't she a part of the deal prevention society?" "Why don't we just give her the no button?" "Uh oh... the lawyer's in the room." Lauren Zajac, Chief Legal Officer (CLO) of Workhuman, has heard it all.
Zajac says that historically the role of a General Counsel (GC) was regarded as a necessary evil in that it served to protect the business from risk at all costs. In this day and age, she sees the role as more opportunist and less risk adverse and says a GC is uniquely placed to be an influence for good within an organization.
Business is no longer straightforward, and while profit is the goal, it's no longer the be-all and end-all. These days, companies need to consider ethics if they want to meet consumer and staff expectations. Are they operating equitably, treating their people and supply chain with respect? Are their products or services detrimental to people or the environment?
A GC can be a custodian for positive change within their business. As much as they mitigate risk, they can also analyze it and identify opportunities for action. Sometimes these opportunities will lie outside the typical legal remit, such as advancing company culture and working conditions or taking a corporate political position.
Zajac believes the authority of a GC, combined with their potential to develop deep lateral relationships within an organization, allows them to be influencers. "Part of the reason I've been successful is that I have always naturally gravitated toward building relationships with each of the functional leaders in the business," she says. By understanding what not only the ELT but the head of operations, data, and product really care about, she can be a much more effective GC.
Having a personal relationship with heads of product, data and operations are incredibly valuable to a GC as they can provide on-the-ground information on business operations.
As a legal leader, Zajac wants her people to feel supported to the point where they can express potential concerns long before they become legal issues. The same goes for cultural issues. Having relationships with graduates to managers allows a GC to have their finger on the organization's pulse to see where cracks lie and fissures are developing.
Zajac is impartial about whether personal ethics should mix with a GC's business practice. Her moral compass has always acted as her North Star in her business decisions, but it must be carefully considered alongside business values.
Relationship skills are an essential item in Zajac's influencer for good toolbox. She makes a conscious effort to connect with people and find a point of shared interest. "I'm not a huge sports fan, but I've learned a lot about Irish football because Workhuman is an Irish company," she says.
A GC can't influence change without trust or respect, and that comes from connection.
Zajac believes a GC must possess the trait of inherent authority in order to become an influencer. And while there's no clear path to gaining this, she believes a combination of making mistakes and facing them, trusting yourself, and the amount of time spent with a company are part of the formula.
When it comes to upending that "lawyer says 'no' narrative" and being an instigator for change, Zajac says it's about stepping out on a limb. "It's really easy to say 'no, we can't do that, but it's much more fun to try to figure out how to actually do things, even if they are a bit out of your comfort zone."
What allows people to step outside of their comfort zone is a willingness to trust themselves and accept that it isn't the end of the world if they make mistakes. "Your practice, your ability to support and represent your client, is going to be much better overall if you step out of that box and help the business along."