Talking to GC’s in the US, London and Singapore has thrown up some interesting parallels amongst the most innovative.

I’m not a GC, but I am qualified to comment because my firm is one of the leading advisors to innovative businesses. We work with GCs from fast growth companies and billion dollar corporations alike and we know innovation when we see it. Whilst many talk the talk, I’ve only met a handful of GCs who are actually doing something meaningful. So what do they have in common?

1. They are more passionate about innovation than budgets. It is true that budgetary pressure drove much of the early interest in innovation, but the most creative GCs today recognise efficiency and alternative billing models only get you so far. Instead they are excited about the possibilities to do things smarter and get new and better outcomes for their businesses. Many are asking, what is the role of my department, what is my role within it and how do I align our priorities with the strategic priorities of the business? This is a world away from asking how we do the same old stuff for less money. Procurement is giving way to collaborative value creation.

2. An early lesson they will tell you they’ve learned, is that you won’t find all the right resources in one place – internal or external. The market is disparate and immature, the problems are ill-defined and the solutions require skills that vested interests don’t normally have. In other words a big four consultancy, a law firm, a legaltech or your own team are unlikely to deliver you innovation. A combination of all of these stakeholders might just do it, but they will need to be driven and coordinated by an evangelist, wherever you find them. Don’t give innovation to a committee.

3. Influential GCs know that reading a book on design theory will add more value than attending GC conferences on ‘the future’ or, frankly, reading the plethora of articles like this, that speculate on the innovation landscape. GCs who are passionate about helping build value in their organisations will spend time talking to their internal clients (and their clients), defining and redefining problems, challenging assumptions, prototyping solutions and failing. An innovative GC is a resilient GC, who knows they will find the best solutions in the reasons why their initial ideas failed. Innovation is a long-term play.

4. Many share a hunch that winning organisations and the winning GCs behind them will be those that value data. Whilst so much of the legaltech we see is about doing what we’ve always done but more efficiently, there is an emerging focus on putting valuable data in the hands of legal departments. Data about which perceived risks are real; data about where risk actually sits in organisations; data about trends in demand and spend; benchmark data and workflow data. Armed with this data the creative GC can see through the anecdotal and focus on the empirical. This is how they can build value in their businesses rather than just drive cost down.

I had one really fascinating conversation with a GC in Asia this year. It centred around the question of what his role really was. He started by saying it was to protect the business (mainly from itself), then this morphed in to protecting the share price (compliance was more of a risk than contracts on that front) and finished in a blaze of enthusiasm around him creating value and improving the share price through the work of his team. Rarely do I see such a transformation from furrowed brow to empowered smile in one conversation, but this is the opportunity we all confront each day.

So the most innovative GCs share a passion, a willingness to prototype and fail, and a collaborative gene. Above all, they recognise the future will be data driven and are prepared to advocate a ‘drains-up’ review of their business to find the truths that need to be tackled. Those who get it right share the satisfaction of helping the businesses they serve become more resilient and valuable.