General counsel as crisis leaders: protecting corporate reputations and leading strategies while in the public eye

With GCs increasingly expected to take a leading role in crisis management, Nadiya Bilous and Philip Smith offer some strategies that count when the going gets tough 

The general counsel role has evolved to include crisis leadership, with GCs expected to protect their company’s reputation and minimise disruption, possibly while in the public eye. 

It is often now GCs and their legal teams that are the ones developing business continuity plans and playing the role of risk managers, as well as partners to colleagues in other areas of the business. The issue was even discussed at this year’s ACC Europe Annual Conference in Madrid.  

Leadership in a crisis can be well thought through and planned in advance, but only within a few (unrealistic) parameters:  

  • The organisation is structured like an army – each individual knows their place, both for ordinary tasks and crisis situations, is fully aware of their set of actions and prepared to take responsibility for not fulfilling such actions.  
  • The crisis has a very clear set of triggers, which happen not simultaneously, but one after another.  
  • The leadership is mentally prepared to take on any crisis, no matter the severity.  

These scenarios are only the case in desk-top simulations conducted as part of the business’ continuity process and not in real life. Of course there is no such thing as a perfect crisis, but there are steps GCs can take to help them act as leaders in crisis management and risk minimisation that also help their colleagues in the rest of the business work well with them in those roles.  

Today’s heightened unpredictability and instability, exacerbated by growing economic pressure on all industries and challenging regulatory controls and monitoring practices, are putting unprecedented pressures on companies. To weather the storm and help companies thrive, general counsel are under extraordinary pressure to play the company stoic, leading their company through any hardship with a calm and calculated approach. 

That’s impossible to achieve without help. Here are a few strategies that count should a general counsel face a crisis with their organisation:  

Know your company’s products and services  

Long before a crisis materialises, GCs should learn about their company’s products and services. Even the opportunity to become a customer of the company brings valuable learning experiences. General counsel are viewed as the expert in their field, but becoming knowledgeable about the company’s products and services pays dividends when it’s vital to make fast and difficult decisions in times of crisis. Expanding the view beyond their field of expertise makes GCs more generally supportive business partners, rather than counsel alone.  

Cultivate relationships  

Having a seat at the top table allows for swift communication and decision-making, particularly in times of crisis, and general counsel should do their best to cultivate close relationships with all of their company’s senior management.  

Honesty is vital  

It is not only about building relationships, it is also about the ability to deliver advice, and sometimes bad news, openly and clearly. Being transparent builds trust with those with whom general counsel have direct relationships and also helps to build a culture of honesty throughout the wider company. Honesty is not a burden; it can be a tool that helps to create a strong bond and trust, which can lead to faster and more effective solutions in a crisis.  

Put people first  

Decisions should be about people first. General counsel should understand the impact that their decisions will make on their employees, their customers and any other stakeholders. Remembering the humanity of crisis leadership can simplify complex situations by aligning opinions and making decision making easier.  

Leverage past experience  

Crisis situations are often defined by their scale and not their complexity. General counsel and possibly their external legal advisors may have been in a similar situation before but on a smaller scale. Relating a crisis scenario back to an earlier issue can give general counsel the confidence to make decisions. Ultimately, the company and its customers want business continuity and the option of relating a crisis back to a scenario that’s already been dealt with can bring continuity to the business and customer experience.  

Cast the partnership net wide  

General counsel shouldn’t try to do it all alone. Casting a wide net of partners – business leaders and the human resources and communications teams – will help with measured decision making and to reduce blind spots.  

Is it possible to be fully prepared for every crisis? Not completely. Understanding and accepting this is key to the ability of GCs to lead in a crisis. It won’t always go as hoped and general counsel won’t always get it right. But keeping an open mind while balancing work demands with looking after themselves physically and mentally as much as possible will help GCs to lead in times of crisis. 

Nadiya Bilous is a senior legal and public affairs executive. She previously spent almost 20 years at British American Tobacco, where she rose to become a board member and head of legal for the company's Ukraine business.

Philip Smith is the head of financial crime and human rights risk management at


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