Does your legal department need a ‘why’; a purpose; a sense of inspiration? "We’re lawyers, we don’t do that sort of stuff" you might exclaim. But thinking in this way has impressive precedents; purpose is now determined to be a significant factor in business success. It’s also not likely to go away as millennials are much more motivated by the purpose and vision of an organization than prior generations. In the legal profession, with the rise of legal operations and the focus on HOW legal departments work not just WHAT they do, doesn’t a focus on WHY also make sense? Increasingly we see that lawyers cannot be immune to the pressure of business imperatives, so need to also consider business thinking, the same of course goes for law firms. But what does this mean in practice?

‘Start with why’ as a business theory achieved cultural currency first as a TED talk, then a book and now a consulting business developed by marketing executive, Simon Sinek. Sinek started out working for ad agencies but formed his own business in the early 2000s. His 2009 TED talk at a TEDX event in Puget Sound went viral. In this the key ideas of ‘start with why’ were outlined.

Sinek’s theory aims to look at why certain individuals or businesses are more successful than others. For Sinek it’s not just about market share but about influence. Sinek often returns to Apple as a key example. Whilst Apple’s overall market share is not as great as many of its competitors its influence is much greater in shaping the use and cultural significance of electronic devices.

Finding your why

"I want to put a ding in the universe", Steve Jobs.

But how do you actually do it? Purpose, vision or WHY is not handed down from a mountain writ large on tablets of stone. For leaders with a sense of purpose, this is often honed over many years to its final state of clarity, "Just as Apple’s WHY developed during the rebellious 1960s and ‘70s, the WHY for every other individual and organization comes from the past. It is born out of the upbringing and life experiences of a small group. Every single person has a WHY and every single organization has one too. An organization, don’t forget, is one of the WHATs, one of the tangible things a founder or group of founders have done in their lives to prove their WHY."

Nilema Bhakta Jones has been a general counsel for many years and now has moved to a CEO role at legal tech start up, Alacrity Law. She’s always been interested in broader business thinking and applying that practically in her roles. For Nilema Start With Why has been fundamental: "I think you can apply his approach to pretty much anything." In her new role, having a blank slate and being able to set the vision has allowed for a very concerted application of the theory. "We used this notion from the start and, interestingly, many of the start-ups who moved into our shared working space at the same time used it too. What problem are we trying to solve?" For Nilema this is a fundamental question that can be used for projects both big and small to test the validity and set the parameters. "This should be the question everyone asks themselves, whether it is to build a new brand, new product, new website or buy/ invest in a new system, tech or revisit a process or devise a new one. Why are we doing it? How are we going to do it? For whom and for what benefit?"

A key aspect Sinek defines is that while the WHY sets in motion everything else, you cannot lose sight of the other constituent aspects. For the HOW it’s articulating values and principles as verbs that are easier to follow. Innovation is an amorphous noun but ‘thinking differently" ; "looking at the problem from a different angle," sounds much more manageable. They also get to the heart of the matter that innovation is often small and incremental, not always earth shattering.

For the WHAT, the overarching value is consistency. For Sinek, the WHAT defines the authenticity of the WHY and the HOW. "We think differently." OK then everyone you hire has to embody that in some shape or form. As Sinek states: "We live in a tangible world. The only way people will know what you believe is by the things you say and do, and if you’re not consistent in the things you say and do, no one will know what you believe."

"Reason not the need"

So King Lear declared before decamping onto the heath, his point being that rationalization can only take us so far and the heart wants what the heart wants. For Sinek it’s this recognition of the importance of the heart and the gut instinct which is at play in the impetus to start with why. Businesses that ignore that in favor of pure data and rational analytics do so at their peril!

Data can only tell us so much, according to Sinek. More data doesn’t always help, especially if a flawed assumption sets the whole process in motion in the first place. Indeed, Sinek considers that the most effective business thinking and marketing has its effect not in our rational brain but our limbic brain. Absent a WHY, which generally appeals to the emotions, a decision is actually harder to make. For Sinek the significant point is that it’s about winning hearts first then minds. For him "the art of leading is following your heart." "This is the genius of great leadership. Great leaders and great organizations are good at seeing what most of us can’t see.They are good at giving us things we would never think of asking for."

Intersection of leadership, purpose and trust

There’s a lot of focus on operational thinking and its greater adoption in the legal profession but doesn’t operational thinking need a purpose or a ‘why’ and leadership around that to really succeed? In restructuring what legal departments do to be more strategic, ratify what’s done and what’s prioritized - decisions have to be made. Sinek’s hypothesis of the importance of WHY is also a study in how we make decisions. In decision making , it’s gut decisions versus rational decisions that actually have the edge. Limbic brain decisions, which come from the part of our brain which is more emotional, tend to be faster higher quality decisions. Decisions made by the rational mind can often be overthought. This is what is meant by winning hearts and minds. For all leaders, it’s communication and storytelling, which is increasingly key.

Bjarne Tellmann, Chief Legal Officer at Pearson has written extensively about the challenges facing the modern general counsel and how there needs to be much more of a focus on the legal department as a business, with the same type of focus around purpose and operations. For Bjarne, what’s key for any general counsel implementing improvements and change is having a defined sense of why but also weaving in storytelling: "So where to begin? Start by discussing why. Make it dramatic and urgent. Use imagery….Start with a story because stories appeal to the heart, not just the head. Whatever your story is, illustrate the consequences of not changing. There are many examples of firms or entire industries that did not adapt to change well: Wang word processing, Kodak film, Nikon cameras, manufacturers of typewriters, carbon paper and bottle openers."

For Bjarne implementation of new ideas can only be fruitful if this initial groundwork has been done: "The why can help you focus on the how. Only at that point can you begin openly discussing thought processes, trade-offs and alternatives considered. Always come back to the why until you are certain people have begun to accept it."

For Sinek, the definition of a great leader is not necessarily around great ideas but being able to create the space for others to have great ideas. It’s creating a culture where innovation can happen. It’s creating a culture where failure can happen. Sinek’s book introduced me to what’s now become one of my favourite quotes: when Edison was asked about how he made the lightbulb he said: "I didn’t find a way to make a lightbulb; I found a thousand ways how not to make one." This shows the recognition of the importance of failure but also the recognition of a culture where failure was OK as part of the process. Much of the current debate around legal operations, data analytics and machine learning does not often examine the failures, which are an integral part of the process. What’s interesting to me is the aspects of success and failure which are not purely technical glitches but have a definitive human and emotional factor. It’s significant I think, vis a vis, Sinek’s theory of WHY that the mantra of legal operations is people, process, technology. The people have to be won over first and this where the emotional pull of the WHY can help drive success.

For Sinek, and many other thinkers who consider organizations, a significant factor in successful change is that employees are bought into the sense of WHY and have purpose, passion and trust.

Time to face the change

In defining a sense of purpose for your legal team it’s also about bringing your people along in a journey of change. If we think about what’s currently happening in the legal profession, there’s a lot of talk about change and innovation; a lot of focus on introducing new processes and ways of doing things. These are changes, which, in many cases, strike fundamentally at the heart of what a legal department or a law firm has traditionally does.

A significant factor in why many legal teams or law firms experience failures, or at least only limited success, in introducing change is due to the fact they don’t manage the change particularly well, if at all. They don’t often try and win the hearts before the minds. That leaves their people to default to what they know and feel emotionally and psychologically comfortable with, say, using their word contract template rather than the online contract management system or asking a lawyer rather than using the self-serve portal. According to Sinek’s theory what’s gone wrong here is not starting with WHY and not appealing to the heart rather than the mind.

But the challenge that lawyers, especially those working in legal departments may face, is overcoming a completely service orientated approach to adopt a more purpose driven and operational mindset.

For Tim Murphy at Mastercard, who spent ten years in a leading business role at the company before coming back to being a general counsel, it’s this sense of purpose which is fundamental to becoming a business orientated legal department. "This is where it's not just about the output, but that you spend as much time thinking about the way you're working, how you're using technology, how you get more efficient and, most importantly, why you are doing that. What business leaders do is set strategy via purpose. I think this is the core mindset of a business oriented law department."

Rob Booth, general counsel at The Crown Estates has a legal team of five, himself included, to look after an incredibly diversified set of assets valued at £13.5 billion. The assets range from deep sea rights to ancient castles and air rights. When Rob entered the role, his mission was to produce a world class legal team for his CEO. But fundamental to this was a sense of purpose or starting with why: "I think the paramount thing is having a sense of purpose and that’s definitely been a significant factor in getting this done and having the team completely behind it. It’s a shared sense of purpose and I hold myself, and my team, to the same value equation that we use for our external suppliers."

For Rob starting with WHY also made undertaking the task with limited resources much more manageable. The shared vision and passion counted for a lot: "You don’t need that many people or that much time, if you have purpose – it’s been proven time and again that purpose-led teams, outperform those without purpose; and if you get your purpose right, it’s amazing how quickly and elegantly you can build from there."