Zabeen Hirji | Executive Advisor to Deloitte and Former CHRO RBC

Zabeen Hirji | Executive Advisor to Deloitte and Former CHRO RBC

Hitting the wall is not a pleasant experience. Our recent Table Talk guest, Zabeen Hirji, explored the topic of Executive burnout, resilience and the implications for General Counsel and their leadership in the ‘New World of Work’. There was plenty to unpack from a wonderful hour-long discussion. We recommend that you have a listen, but here are the highlights.

From a joint Deloitte and Lifeworks survey of 1,158 senior leaders from 11 large public and private organizations last April, 82% reported exhaustion and 96% indicated that their mental health declined. The top stressor was identified as increased work volume, a common theme heard from General Counsel and their teams since the pandemic started.

As a respected Human Resources leader, having spent 40 years at RBC, Zabeen’s insights are both helpful and important for General Counsel to consider, with implications not only for themselves, but for others as well.

As a member of the Executive team there is no doubt that General Counsel form part of that 82%, but with an added caveat. Lawyers are expected to be tough and show no weakness and thus not admit when things are not going so well. This ‘ups the ante’ when it comes to hitting the wall and requires greater awareness and sensitivity to the challenges facing General Counsel.

This finding will also have implications for how General Counsel lead their teams. For instance, how well General Counsel are feeling, will have implications for how they lead their teams. Being honest, encouraging selfcare, setting the example for work life balance and leading with empathy and compassion were some of the leadership qualities Zabeen and I explored. A General Counsel who themselves is not well, will have trouble developing these leadership skills.

In our earlier episodes of Table Talk, we have explored the need for General Counsel to build relationships: with the Board, Executive (peers), teams, regulators, and other stakeholders. These relationships take time to build and are founded on trust, and yet a General Counsel under stress or facing burnout can easily damage or destroy these important relationships. Not having the soft skills, the self-awareness and ability to care for themselves and others, will have both immediate and long-term implications.

A recent report detailed in the MIT Sloan Management Review connects toxic workplace culture to the ‘Great Resignation’. This should not be a surprise, but the intersection of virtual work, over-work, loss of team culture and caring for the team, other pressures, and a stressed General Counsel, creates the potential for a toxic law department and thus resignations. The loss of talent results in greater challenges for the leader. There exists the potential for a downward spiral, and the key to preventing this is a strong, healthy General Counsel with the required leadership skills.

We are now into our third year of virtual work. Are General Counsel surviving, adapting or thriving with virtual work environments for their teams? What further things do they need to do now and in the future if they are going to be great leaders? In the busy world with constant and unpredictable change, General Counsel will need to both reflect on what they have learned and what they need to change to build and maintain those high-performance teams.

As Zabeen put it, we were already trending towards the New World of Work and the pandemic has amplified that trend. We explored a few of the leadership skills which will be needed by General Counsel.

She suggested that General Counsel will not only need to be strategic visionaries but will also need to have human leadership skills such as empathy, compassion, and inclusion.  Ah, there is that word again, Inclusion, and if you listened in on our Table Talk you would have heard Zabeen emphasize it over and over again. It is a critical leadership skill for General Counsel to have in the New World of Work.

Zabeen also explored the need of General Counsel to move from transactional, to longer term thinking with a wider lens which includes the impact decisions have on other stakeholders and the implications for ESG. General Counsel are playing a greater role in ESG and as been said, ESG starts with Governance and of course that is in the General Counsel’s sweet spot.

General Counsel are thinking deeply about how they lead and how their leadership skills might need to change in the New World of Work. Zabeen gave us a lot to think about. Her final answer to my question of what impactful advice she would give to General Counsel, is a good note to end on: there are things you don’t have to be perfect on:  good enough is good enough. I will add my own thought here. Be gentle and kind to yourself but understand that being a great leader is a journey without a destination of perfection. We can always do better!

Our next Table Talk guest is Thomas Kim, CLO and Company Secretary, Thomson Reuters. We will explore Thomas’ unique 20+ year leadership journey at Thomson Reuters, and hear his observations on General Counsel leadership in a company whose stated purpose is “to serve our customers, pursuing justice, truth, and transparency”.


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