General counsel can be better at their jobs by incorporating the ‘management by walking around’ approach into their working style, writes Nitin Mittal

The term “management by walking around” was coined in 1982 by management guru Tom Peters in his book In Search of Excellence. However, the approach had already been put into practice at Hewlett-Packard some years before. In 1985, in his second book, A Passion for Excellence, Peters wrote that “management by walking around”, or MBWA, is the basis of excellence and leadership.

According to him, when leaders practice MBWA, they start to listen to what others are saying, get an opportunity to personally communicate the values of the company and then are in a position to give immediate solutions and assistance. Listening is a key part of this approach, leading to better and more effective responsiveness, both to issues that are raised and to new ideas.

As leaders, general counsel (GCs) are required to have regular interaction with various internal functions, external lawyers, customers and regulators. A typical day might be marked by a complex contract negotiation with tough deadlines, advising on various regulatory regimes, meeting external counsel on varied complex legal issues such as competition law matters, strategizing with the team on an optimal legal strategy for a recovery proceeding, and responding to a demand notice under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016.

GCs face numerous situations where the law is unclear: Judicial precedents are constantly changing, business demands are dynamic, and regulatory action is on the rise. A GC must give advice or make decisions that balance all of these aspects and take into consideration not only what is legal but also what is ethical.

Traditionally, in-house counsel worked in a more inward looking way, and responding only when internal departments such as management, finance, tax, marketing or sales have approached them about a legal or regulatory issue.

The GC’s office worked in the background, setting up risk management processes, governance structures and legal tools in order to give advice and assess opportunities on various legal and regulatory challenges when regular interaction between legal counsel and external customers and suppliers was rare. Generally, the mindset was to approach the GC only when legal advice was needed for an issue.

GCs can make use of MBWA to increase the effectiveness of their role. Through this approach, GCs are expected to actively partner with colleagues from other departments, meeting them in the office and outside. MBWA is about proactively engaging with stakeholders to understand issues and come up with solutions. To give advice, GCs need to have expert knowledge of the intricacies of the business and a holistic view of the various functions of its people and external stakeholders.

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Nitin Mittal is the head of legal/compliance and company secretary at Philips Lighting India. The views expressed are personal.