The In-House Experience: Interview with Bjarne P. Tellman, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Pearson PLC.
In this first in a series of interviews with leading General Counsel, we speak with Bjarne P. Tellman, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Pearson PLC., a FTSE 100 company with 40,000 employees in over 70 countries. Pearson provides a range of education products and services to institutions, governments and individual learners. At Pearson, Mr. Tellmann leads a global legal team of approximately 170 people across six continents.
Bjarne previously served in various capacities at The Coca-Cola Company, including Associate General Counsel, General Counsel Asia-Pacific, and General Counsel Japan. Prior to that, he was Deputy General Counsel of Coca-Cola HBC AG, one of the world’s largest independent bottling groups. He has held legal positions at Kimberly-Clark and at the law firms of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP and White & Case LLP in various locations in Europe and the United States.
Bjarne was recently recognized as a “2016 Legend in Law” winner of The Burton Awards, which are held in association with the Library of Congress and co-sponsored by the American Bar Association. He featured in the 2016 UK GC PowerList and The Lawyer magazine’s “Hot 100” lawyers in 2015. The Pearson legal team was recently shortlisted for the second year running by The Lawyer Awards as “Technology/Media/Telecoms Team of the Year”.
What one change would you make within your in-house legal team that you feel would revolutionise the way you or your team operates?
I truly think that there are no silver bullets out there: it’s about testing the waters, asking the right questions, and picking the right battles every day. It may sound boring but it yields fruit – and it comes naturally to us as lawyers. I recently attended a seminar with Jim Collins, the author of ‘Good to Great’, and one thing really resonated with me. In his examination of the ten greatest CEOs of all time, he said that three of them were lawyers. Jim noted that all of these great CEOs possessed a unique trait: they realised and accepted that true transformational success lies not in making huge, risky bets, but rather in progressing incrementally and carefully, after validating and testing the intended approach. The ability to ask the right questions, validate assumptions and proceed incrementally comes naturally to lawyers. We tend to downplay this trait as something that holds us back from being “commercial” but in fact commercial success comes precisely from proceeding through validation.
However, if I were given a magic wand and forced to choose one thing that I could change – or upgrade – in my own organisation and within the legal market generally, it would be to “silo-bust” the profession. As lawyers we often run the risk of becoming holed up and disconnected from the reality and the day-to-day experiences of the business partners we serve. That problem has only grown as the profession has become more specialized. If I could have just one wish, in an ideal world I would make sure that everyone on my legal team had spent a few years abroad working as part of a business team – not just a legal team – to give them that breadth of commercial experience and true understanding of what it means to be part of a business. I would also rotate people between legal teams. I think what would revolutionise the inner workings of a team would be the ability to look at things and approach things from a different perspective, not just from within your usual silo.
What is your biggest challenge? What do you think is the biggest challenge for the legal profession in general?
There are certainly some unique challenges in being a GC, and in fact for the legal profession as a whole. In my view the biggest challenge for all in-house lawyers in general is being able to successfully navigate the tension between being both a business partner and a guardian of the company’s assets and reputation. Ben Heineman, who spent 18 years as General Electrics’ chief legal officer, writes about this in his recent book ‘The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner-Guardian Tension’. He explains that, as GCs, we have an exceptional “partner-guardian”role to play that is inevitably filled with tension and that finding a way of successfully navigating that tension on a daily basis is the biggest challenge for GCs.
I think another huge challenge is to successfully lead people where you need them to go. It’s one thing to draw up a plan on a piece of paper, but how do you make it come alive in practice, how do you really get your team to come along on the journey? The burden of leadership is undoubtedly one of our biggest challenges as GCs – and this is the one thing that law schools and law firms don’t teach. We need to perfect it without ever having been taught how to do it.
A final broad challenge involves managing complexity. Recently I attended a Harvard GC leadership course where I was told that role-mapping experts have concluded that the GC position is an almost impossible one to successfully carry out because of the breadth and complexity of tasks and competing priorities that need to be done. It encompasses everything from leading people, to advising the board, to providing quality legal advice, to interfacing with government officials, to skilful communications, to mastering legal procurement – all done under immense pressure. The conclusion of the role-mappers was that to do all of these things at once, and to do them all successfully, is nigh on impossible. And yet the irony is that you simply cannot separate these tasks from one another; a good GC in today’s world needs to be able to do all of these things – and more – at once. The complexity of the role is insane, and it takes a specific kind of crazy person to try and fulfil all of these obligations and not let the complexity, multi-faceted nature and the density of the role get to them.
What does “adding value” mean to you? What really makes a difference?
Adding value, in my view, boils down to proactively enabling the business and protecting its assets and reputation. The tricky thing is that it is so difficult to demonstrate that value: the value that has been brought to the table usually only becomes visible when there is a problem, but in reality 80% of success is in preventing problems from arising in the first place. True value lies in removing landmines before they detonate – whether this is through putting in place preventative measures, offering sound advice, or even simply enabling a company to do what it does best. All of this is intangible and often undetected so therefore impossible to put a value on, or to measure, or to point to a change that has come about. Part of the reason it’s hard to do this is that business leaders often don’t understand the depth and complexity of what goes on behind the results and the advice. In many ways, we are like the intelligence services: you rarely get praise for doing your job well because most people will never know that you averted a problem – but you always get called out for mistakes, since they manifestly result in problems.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding legal project management. What does LPM mean to you?
As I understand it, LPM is really the idea of borrowing the principles of project management in the legal space – and this typically comes to the fore most often in relation to extremely complex projects such as mergers or cross-border deals.
There has been enormous progress in this space in last few years. From technology you can throw at a complex project where transparency over costs is paramount, to the likes of document search: technology is transforming the way we practice and gives lawyers a lot of tools that didn’t previously exist. And yet despite its immense value and the transformational change it brings, I am sceptical of the more aggressive forecasts that predict that technology will replace lawyers in the not too distant future. There will continue to be a legal profession, but it will grow and transform as a result of technology.
Legal project management is also about lawyers needing to acquire skills that are outside of their silos and comfort zones, and needing to understand the skills and principles used by project managers in other sectors. I don’t think it’s just in LPM that we are seeing the need for lawyers to develop skills outside of their silos. I’m a big fan of alternative legal providers: they provide cost effective solutions which are often far better suited to a company’s needs than the ‘one size fits all’ law firm model. The key is to fill each part of your supply chain with the best-positioned partner and elevate relationships with your suppliers: it’s not just about a mercenary quest for the lowest possible cost; it’s about sourcing so that you hit the sweet spot between value and real partnership. That spot will vary depending on the work you are looking to undertake.
How do you think the role of the GC is going to change over the next decade?
I think it’s safe to say that the complexity of the role of the GC is only going to get more so in the coming decade. GCs will increasingly be asked to take on a bigger role in providing input into commercial factors such as risk and become a connector between different parts of the business. More and more is being expected of GCs as the environments companies operate in get more complex.
Another interesting challenge for the legal sector will be how to integrate millennials and modernise the workplace. This new generation has a different approach to career management, and the traditional, linear law firm route that my generation knew is becoming less appealing. Demand for alternative paths, temping, working remotely, and developing “gig economy” structures will increase on both the supply and demand sides, and the legal profession will need to respond to this.
What is your vision for your legal team?
My vision for my team, and my mission, lies in constantly focusing on doing what can’t be done by outside counsel because that is our unique selling proposition. We should ask ourselves why we exist and then focus on delivering that need as perfectly as we possibly can. There are fundamentally two aspects to this. First, we must be proactive – prevent things from becoming a problem rather than merely react once a problem arises. This is something that outside counsel can never do as well as in-house counsel because we are insiders and can thus spot and help solve potential issues before they become issues. Second, we need to be pragmatic in our advice. This too is something we can do better than external counsel because we know the business. We can and must be commercially savvy and solutions-oriented in our advice by applying what we know about the business to what we know about the law.
Where do you go to for learning and inspiration, or who inspires you?
My biggest inspiration is Martin Luther King Jr.. I hold him in the highest esteem: all you have to do is watch his ‘I have a dream speech’ to see the incredible legacy he has left. He knew what he wanted to achieve and he achieved it, he had courage in spades, and he never lost faith in going up against a powerful and entrenched opposition. He was also an amazing communicator, able to rally and inspire large groups of people and then turn that inspiration into concrete and enduring results. He made the world a better place in a very measurable way through non-violent means. Very few people will achieve this in life.
In terms of learning, I’m a big networker and believe in attending conferences. I’m a fan of the events run by the GC 50 and the Association of Corporate Counsel. I get a lot of great insight and valuable contacts from attending these events.
What key skills do you look for in your team members?
Commerciality, the ability to think outside the ‘legal silo’, skilful communication, proactivity, and pragmatism, all underlined by courage and unquestionable integrity.
What innovation could you not do without on a daily basis?
My iPhone! I read that the iPhone is now over a million times more powerful than the computers that drove Apollo 11. That is just so cool – it’s an amazing innovation.
What innovation would you most like to see that would make your day better?
One project we are working on is a really good dashboard that will hopefully provide us with a powerful way to track core metrics at multiple levels and in real time. This will take a while to come to full fruition as you need a track record before you can harvest useful dashboard metrics, but the goal will be to get greater transparency and provide value not only for the whole legal function but also for our business partners. If everyone is ultimately able to see the right metrics on their screens and get more detail as and when they need it, it will be a brilliant way for everyone to be on the same page and track what we care most about and what is most measurable. They say, “if you don’t measure it you don’t care about it” – I believe there is a powerful truth in that.
Follow Bjarne on Twitter on @BjarneTellman
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