Kamau Coar Adds Legal Players to the Business Team

Kamau Coar of Heidrick & Struggles turned members of his legal staff into global decision-makers

Kamau Coar, Chief Legal Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer, Heidrick & Struggles Courtesy of Heidrick & Struggles International

Not many children argue in front of a judge for their allowance, but that’s how Kamau Coar was raised. Coar’s father was a bankruptcy judge who later sat on the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois.

“The way that he ran his courtroom was a lot like how he raised his kids,” says Coar, now the chief legal officer and chief inclusion officer of Heidrick & Struggles, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm. As a judge, his father gave attorneys a generous amount of time for the discovery phase of a trial, but they weren’t allowed to ask for an extension. Similarly, the young Coar negotiated a monthly allowance with his father that was more generous than his weekly request, but he was then prohibited from asking for more for unanticipated expenses, such as a new pair of basketball shoes.

“I would sit in the back of the courtroom and see my life playing out, just on a different plane,” Coar remembers about visiting his father at work. “It was the exact same arguments, just dealing with different assets.”

Coar inherited his father’s philosophy, which emphasized listening and establishing clear expectations. This approach informs his professional practice to this day. When he joined Heidrick & Struggles as associate general counsel in 2012, he sought to make the legal team better partners to the business side. By all accounts, he has successfully accomplished that goal, in part by decentralizing the legal practice in Chicago.

“A good legal department answers questions they are asked,” Coar says. “A great legal department listens more intently and builds proactive solutions.”

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Kamau Coar considers time with his children, ten-year-old Jackson and seven-year-old Harper, a “refresher” to his day. His own professional career shares parallels with his kids’ lives, such as how doing homework requires the same attention as giving a board room presentation. “The key is to focus on the similarities and not the differences.”

This proactive style is beneficial when handling diverse issues all over the world. Heidrick & Struggles maintains fifty offices in more than twenty-five countries, and Coar understands the importance of respecting a client’s culture. “I sit in on as many of our office calls and meetings as possible,” he explains. “I try to have an open dialogue, an open understanding, and an open mind with our consultants, because they tell me the things they face.”

Sometimes that information gathering happens firsthand, such as when he and his family moved from Chicago to Singapore for two years in 2016. At the time, the entire legal team was based in Chicago. Coar volunteered to be a “guinea pig” and moved operations to Asia to see if a legal presence outside the United States would help the business.

His experiment resulted in the placement of four lawyers in cities where leaders in the Asia–Pacific and European regions are based: Hong Kong and London.

“What it’s really done is take Heidrick & Struggles at its best and spread it across the organization instead of being inaccessible in certain parts of the world,” Coar says.

The temporary move also put him in the trenches of the consulting and executive placement firm. “The closer you are to the business and listening to the totality of the issues they face, the more it drives you to build meaningful solutions to those issues instead of just providing legal answers,” he says.

For Coar, a point of leadership pride is bringing the legal team into the decision-making process from the start instead of solely at the end, to grant final approvals. Making that happen takes an investment of time and lots of give-and-take between the legal team, Hedrick & Struggles’ executives, and more than four hundred consultants worldwide.

“I probably spend as much time working on legal issues for the firm as I do talking to our CEO and board practice, or our legal, risk, compliance, and government affairs practice, as well as a host of others—about what they’re seeing or what I’m seeing so we can have that information exchange.”

Coar sees tremendous value in getting to know stakeholders because the core of his legal practice is establishing transparency, trust, and firm-wide integrity. Since a global company must establish these aspirations in a culturally sensitive manner, he relies on the firm’s consultants to share what clients are saying and how they’re experiencing Heidrick & Struggles’ legal processes.

“We have a lot of terms that we could insist on from a technical standpoint but don’t advance us in terms of getting to a partnership with our clients,” Coar says. “My team spends a lot of time trying to strike the right balance between trying to find what is a must-have on a global scale, to protect the business, and what’s a nice-to-have” for a specific country or situation.

After all, Coar says his father always told him, “Nobody cares about the reasons as to why you didn’t get things done. They care about whether you got it done or not.”