How to Create Centrality Among a Global Team

A company’s vision is its lifeblood—it brings meaning to all aspects of the business, and only through the leadership team can that vision filter down properly to every employee. As general counsel for Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global business-consulting firm, Jeremy Barton knows that his legal team, throughout its many offices around the world, must share that vision to be successful. Barton discusses his strategies for bringing his team together under a unified message, despite being a company with no central headquarters and employees on three continents.

Modern Counsel: You speak quite a bit about having a vision for your department, why is that so important to you and to BCG?

Jeremy Barton: You can’t achieve success on your own. If you were to build a team that was just made up of individuals that didn’t share the vision or the direction, then you wouldn’t achieve success and also have an unhappy team, and I think the business can see that. You have to make sure that your vision is shared by the whole team and to make sure your team is feeling supported.

MC: When you joined BCG, you chose to expand the legal department by bringing a number of people in-house, increasing your team. What was your rationale for that move?

JB: You can end up spending too much on outside counsel if you don’t have the right size in-house team. It’s a feature of the growth of the business that if your volume of work is increasing, you need to staff up for that, and if the organization becomes more aware of legal risks, they become more aware of the need to contact legal, and that creates workload as well. For us, it wasn’t really a case of increasing the size of the team for the sake of increasing the size of the team—it was to make sure that we’re able to deliver the service that the business expects and at the right cost.

MC: Has bringing all this work in-house affected your relationships with outside counsel at all?

JB: I have good relationships with outside counsel, and they generally understand that if I bring work in-house, it’s for the overall benefit. Hopefully it means that their relationship with us becomes more strategic than just doing routine work. Knowledge of the business enables you to give better legal advice, which is clearly a feature of an in-house team.

MC: In a business where the importance of technology is constantly evolving, how do you ensure that you have the right people in your department?

JB: Because of the way that business is changing and growing, you find that you continually need to have the right expertise on the team. You have a core team, and then you have concentric circles of the team because you’re drawing in external vendors to help leverage new activity or repeat activity. You have to have an open-architecture view of your team and make sure you have those connections and that shared vision with the whole system.

MC: BCG has a virtual leadership, where you meet in person about once a month, but otherwise everything is done with conference calls and teleconferencing.

JB: The virtual leadership model was there before I joined in 2008. In fact, the CEO, who recruited me, was German and had a perspective of the organization being truly global despite the name Boston Consulting, which sounds pretty American. There was certainly a desire to make it a global organization, and probably appointing me, as a Brit, to be general counsel of a US corporation was unusual. It was a good step because it showed that you don’t have to be bound to the US for running legal affairs.

MC: What is the greatest advantage of having the mostly virtual structure?

JB: It means that people don’t have to move to a headquarters location for the period in which they’re holding their leadership position. It doesn’t feel so innovative; it’s kind of natural. In our organization, members of leadership continue their client-facing relationships. It would be bad news on the client-relations side if our people had to move to New York, Geneva, London, wherever the headquarters was, and lose contact with their clients. If you’re based in Amsterdam and a global leader, you’re still able to serve your Dutch clients.

The disadvantage is that you don’t have the corridor conversations on a daily basis that you have in a corporate headquarters. You have to rely on picking up the phone or winging an email to people because you’re only seeing them when you’re together for meetings.

MC: When employees—in any department—are located in the same city, you’ve been working on mixing members of your team with other departments by putting them directly next to each other. What was the rationale for that initiative?

JB: The business’s expectations are that the internal functions are coordinated. The business has every right to be frustrated if they find that legal isn’t talking to finance or finance isn’t talking to risk or risk isn’t talking to marketing. Although our functions are virtual, if you’re given the opportunity to be in the same location, then you take advantage of that. You can’t sit next to everybody—by definition—so it’s more a question of being opportunistic.

MC: You’ve also been structuring your department to become flat with only three tiers of employees, which means that even the newest person is only two stops away from reaching you. Has this style increased communication and collaboration with your team?

JB: You should probably ask them (laughs). But I hope that the benefit is that people feel more in touch. Because every other lawyer is reporting to an associate general counsel, they in turn, are hearing more directly about the direction of the company. If they have any issues, they are able to speak with a member of the department’s leadership team and therefore feel more motivated, supported, and also aligned with the direction of the team. That’s the objective.

MC: And that functions in all of your offices around the world?

JB: We have offices in 45 countries; I don’t have a legal team in every one of those offices, but yes, it’s a global team. The other key feature is that we’ve also avoided having regionalized teams.

MC: What is the significance of not having regional teams?

JB: Well it avoids the risk that you have separate groups within the [larger] team. If the team feels as one, then any team member is able to reach out to any other team member. It means that we have a sense of supporting each other globally across the whole team. Developmentally, people can feel that they’re taking on a truly international responsibility if they’re heading up an initiative, which has a global application.

MC: What is the greatest challenge of integrating this diverse, global team?

JB: I’m not sure it’s a challenge, but rather a key to success is that every member of the team can rise above their preconceptions as to how something should be done. If you’re a US attorney, you may have some preconceptions about how something is done; if you’re a German attorney, you have some preconceptions; if you’re an Indian attorney, you have some preconceptions, which is all driven by your experience. A BCG expression is “thinking in new boxes,” which means more than just thinking out of the box but adopting new mind-sets. It’s a concept of being—and thinking as—a global team.