General counsel turned leadership coach Mark Prebble talks to Grania Langdon-Down about the challenges of leadership in-house and gives practical advice on improving your leadership skills

The seven qualities of leadership, according to management guru John Adair, are enthusiasm, integrity, toughness, fairness, warmth, humility and confidence – the skill, says former general counsel turned leadership coach Mark Prebble, is how you then weave them into a successful personal leadership style.

mark prebble

Prebble was an in-house lawyer for 20 years before setting up his consultancy Lawyers in Business in 1998 providing coaching, mentoring and personal development to a wide range of legal departments in different sectors and jurisdictions.

Challenges as head of legal

Many of the challenges are pretty universal, he says, but the solutions will be influenced by the culture of the organisation. The immediate strategic challenge for a head of legal, he says, is to ‘refine the focus of your team so you can push back on activities others are keen to pass on to you as something of an abdication of responsibility on their part, without appearing unresponsive or difficult’.

The next leadership challenge is to make sure you develop your team to the right level of competency so you can build individual and team credibility, and measure it by asking questions and comparing notes.

Balancing act

‘It is essential to make sure everyone understands the organisation and demonstrates clear support for its goals, while maintaining professional integrity,’ he stresses. ‘Putting yourself in the shoes of the decision-maker without treading on their toes is a pretty key skill that becomes more important the more senior you are.’

There is a lot of debate about just how ‘friendly’ in-house lawyers should be. ‘You want to be personable but not so people mistake that to mean you will always give them the nod,’ Prebble advises. ‘Your aim is to be a genial professional who can dispense unpalatable advice when necessary.

‘It is also important to get the balance right between being a good corporate citizen while not appearing to have been brainwashed. You can’t be an agent provocateur but your own personal credibility may be in jeopardy if you just cascade down corporate propaganda.’

Building credibility

The credibility you build also has a huge bearing on what opportunities will be put your way, he says. ‘In house lawyers are often not picked to be leaders outside their discipline because we are seen as merchants of delay and complication, so you need to dispel those myths. What is heartening, though, is the growing tendency for organisations to look at former heads of legal or GCs as valid executive managers.’

Taking responsibility for your own development

Some leadership training is very poor so take responsibility for your own development, he advises. ‘Organisations sometimes say “what happens if we spend money training staff and they leave?” The answer – “what happens if we don’t and they stay” - says it all.’

How to improve your leadership skills

Mark Prebble draws on his experience as general counsel and from coaching and training in-house lawyers to offer his top tips to improve leadership skills.

1. Develop your credibility within the organisation by demonstrating support of its goals, positioning your contribution to show you understand the context, being reliable and behaving with integrity.  

2. Tap into free / low cost guidance on leadership skills such as:

3. As a minimum, pick up communication and project management skills and financial awareness.

4. As you career develops, take advantage of opportunities to play a leadership role – chair team meetings, lead cross organisation initiatives or projects within the legal team and outside bodies.

5. Broaden your horizons – network with others inside and outside your sector, find a mentor.