Developing a confident and engaged legal team—an interview with Monica Risam

Developing a confident and engaged legal team—an interview with Monica Risam

Monica RisamShortlisted for In-house Lawyer of the Year at The Lawyer's 2016 awards, Monica Risam, GC & Company Secretary at Aviva UK Life, embodies the impact that strong leadership, drive and commitment to your team has on a business.  Sophie Gould talks to Monica about the importance of training and support in building a confident team, encouraging leadership and raising the profile of lawyers.

Tell us a bit about your background and career to date

I was in private practice for four and a half years before moving in-house. I spent seven years at GE Capital in various roles and then joined Aviva in 2011 as general counsel for Europe. Within a year of joining, the company was restructured and I became general counsel for Aviva Group.

In 2015, I became General Counsel and Company Secretary for Aviva UK Life which comprises 65% of the Aviva Group. It was a significant move for me and demanded a new skill set. I had just led the integration work stream for the legal function following a major acquisition. Suddenly I had a whole new team, including a lot of lawyers who had joined from the company we acquired.

When I started at Aviva there had never been a general counsel for Europe so my mission was to bring the function together and make sure we delivered for the business. When I took over, we weren't always getting the best value for the business. Panel review was a perfect example, with people only using law firms that they knew and not doing so in a joined up way. We consolidated the panel and this has generated several million pounds of savings by leveraging a smaller panel and making the most of those relationships.

I've got a great team that understands insurance and I've learned a lot. There are 60 or so people in my team. We have cells that are aligned to the business; for example, a retirement cell that matches up to the retirement business and supports that MD. It's a big team and we try to keep as flat a structure as possible.

How has your training and experience contributed to where you are now?

Leadership and how you win hearts and minds were core values when I was at GE. The CEO of my first business at GE identified me as someone who had a bit more about her and he gave me my first chance to be a GC. It was my first time managing people—they don't teach you that in private practice. I was provided with a lot of support to develop my skills, including coaching and mentoring and how to bring people with you.

Because we're subject matter experts and very technical, it's easy for lawyers to focus on that as what makes them really good. But I believe that performance is really only 10% of it—image and exposure are the other 90%. If you've got a really good legal team then performance should be given. It is important to think about your image, for example how you present at a meeting, and demonstrate your can-do attitude and energy.

People don't know about the great things you've done if you don't tell them. If someone has done something great then I encourage my team to let me know. They get a note from me and I copy in the group general counsel. It's a way of getting their profile up so that when we talk about talent and performance, there's a general awareness of who these people are. It helps us see our talent coming through. It's about making sure everybody feels valued and gets the exposure they deserve.

Culturally, Aviva is very different to GE. I think I was considered to be a bit of a bull in a china shop when I got here as I have quite a different style to any other senior lawyer they'd had before. My journey with Aviva has been a really interesting one for me in terms of my personal growth as a leader. I've had to adapt my style without losing the execution focus and the energy and passion that makes me who I am.

How does your leadership development programme work?

he programme was set up in 2013 using a provider called Olivier Mythodrama who uses drama and stories from Shakespeare to teach leadership. I wanted people to be more aware of their leadership style, whether or not they managed a team. There's a very big difference between a manager and a leader. In in-house there aren't always lots of opportunities to manage a team but you can still be a leader in relation to how you work with your own team or with the business partners and stakeholders.

Aviva has a talent process where we look at performance and potential and identify people who are in the high investment zone. We try to get these people through the leadership programme. Every year, we run the programme with 30 people across the function of legal and company secretarial, public policy, corporate responsibility and compliance teams. You don't have to be a lawyer. It's a recognition that no matter what your role is you can be a leader in what you do. The programme enables people to identify which personality type is their core strength and then what they can do to work the 'lesser used muscles'.

We also did a soft skills pilot a couple of years ago which was geared at more junior people and focused on presentation and impact. A lot of people are uncomfortable with public speaking. We got those people who'd been on that course to help at our annual legal event to lead some sessions so they could practice the skills.

Overall, there are many facets to what we do. You get to do a bit of the leadership through the legal leadership programme, or you might get sent on a soft skills course that we run ourselves or through a law firm. Plus, there's coaching and mentoring, and 360 reviews.

How important is feedback when developing people?

We ask for feedback regularly. When I ask for feedback on my team, I always ask specific questions, for example: What are the person's strengths? What are their development needs? Not everyone responds but most people are good corporate citizens and do want to help.

Within Aviva we have a programme called Leading at Aviva. I'm one of the facilitators, and it's about how to be a more courageous, authentic, vulnerable and present leader. It covers how to keep feedback on a constant loop when you're managing a team, including praise and advice on how you would approach things differently. If managers are having those conversations regularly with their teams, the teams get the chance to self-correct and therefore there shouldn't be any surprises when you reach year-end performance ratings.

How are junior lawyers developed within the business?

Although Aviva does hire senior lawyers out of private practice who can hit the ground running, we also hire more junior lawyers. When it comes to helping junior lawyers to grow, we're very lucky. We have a training centre staffed out of Norwich who do a daily update that tracks current developments in the law and supports our training programmes. The training centre can help if you've got a question and we also have helplines with law firms where you can run a query past them for free if you just want to check something.

In terms of helping junior lawyers to build their confidence, understanding who you are, knowing your development needs and being honest about them is important. When you're giving feedback you need to leverage strengths. Story telling is also a very powerful tool. For example, when I share stories about myself and the difficult times I've had. I can also talk about what I've learned from my experiences—people can connect to that.

We've got a lot of resource, including for soft skills. You're really lucky if you can have your in-house career at a place where there's a huge emphasis on training. I'm really proud of what we've achieved. It's really helped us create a team that is engaged and that shows year on year when we look at our employee survey results.

Do you have any other advice for lawyers developing their career in-house?

I'm a very ambitious person and I want to grow in my career, but I want to make the most out of my time doing this job. People worry about what their next role is going to be. My view has always been that you should do really, really well at what you're doing and things will find you. It doesn't mean you shouldn't be proactive about your career: it's very precious, own it yourself.

You need to make sure you're taking the time to see the wider view, so not just your legal role but what's happening in the business. For example, I went to all the managing directors and said we needed a senior lawyer at their meetings. A couple of them didn't see what value a lawyer could bring. I told my teams to go to the meetings and that they had to participate and be involved in the commercial discussions. They've really enjoyed it because now they have a seat at the table and the visibility it brings.

We have set up virtual secondments within Aviva where, for a couple of days a week, one of our lawyers supports on EU competition law alongside their day job. It's another way of stretching people and encouraging them to try different skills and learn new things. I'm really proud of that because we have a lot of talented people who've maybe never thought about doing anything other than what they've been doing for years. When people have a lightbulb moment, it's quite lovely to see. It's great that Aviva is able to support that and help people own their careers.

As a manager, you have to be generous. If you've got talent coming through that's a great thing but you also have to be able to let people go. Sometimes people do struggle with that—you don't want to lose your rock stars but you can't hold people back.

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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.