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‘The painful truth is that there’s a lot of apathy and incompetence in the workplace’

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Leading general counsel Tom Kilroy has, over time, learned to combine open-mindedness with a hard-headed appreciation of the realities of organisational behaviour. It’s a delicate balance, he explains…

No doubt Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, said and did many things he’d poorly thought through. However, his famous comment about “known unknowns” didn’t deserve the ridicule it attracted worldwide. What exactly did he say? “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

As I’ve got older and worked with people from different fields, the number of things that I recognise as “known unknowns” in my professional life grows and grows. There is an enormous amount to learn. The category of “unknown unknowns” could be just about limitless. Which is my first point…

1. It’s important to be respectful of people who’ve mastered things which you don’t yet know about. Don’t be arrogant about other fields of endeavour. Learn from others.

Having said that, in every organisation, there are arguably three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what’s happening. Some people are perfectly happy to be in the second and third categories. The painful truth is that there’s an enormous amount of apathy and incompetence in the workplace.

What about those who want to be in the first category? In various fields, such as mathematics or sport, people routinely make their whole contribution by the time they reach the age of 35. The practice of law is a little different, because experience is so much more important. But, even if you lack experience, you shouldn’t be shy of getting straight into the heart of the action. Which is my second point…

2. If you’re interested to be someone who makes things happen, you can do that from the first day on the job.

I’ve heard some people argue that “selling” is an anathema for lawyers. I don’t agree. Selling and advocacy aren’t so far apart. Lawyers happily succeed in various fields that require the selling of ideas. For example, they positively excel at politics. President Obama is a lawyer. Tony Blair is a lawyer. Nicolas Sarkozy is a lawyer. Bill and Hillary Clinton, both lawyers. Mrs Thatcher was a lawyer. Whatever anyone tells you in law school, my third point is…

3. Much of what lawyers do is really about selling complex ideas. If you disagree with something, remember what McKinsey calls the “obligation to dissent” and sell your point of view.

In economics, it’s widely acknowledged that confidence and sentiment are enormously influential in determining outcomes. So it is in the workplace. Nobody wants to work with people who suck energy out of their colleagues rather than contribute to the sense of enthusiasm or at least the belief in being able to get things done. The impact you make on people around you is what you are remembered for. If you want to lead organisations, you’ll need to be able not just to energise yourself, but many other people too. The point is this…

4. Every interaction you have is a form of interview, an appraisal. Don’t ever forget that. You have to try to make a positive impact in every single situation, no matter how difficult. If you do, rewards will come.

So, no pressure then. If you’re just starting out on your professional career, you’re beginning an extraordinary journey with an uncertain outcome. You might as well enjoy it. Which is my final point…

5. Own your career. Either like your job or move/leave. The real meaning of a work life balance is to ensure you enjoy work most of the time.

During my career, I’ve moved from running large teams to small ones, moved to be in a different sector, even taken pay cuts, all to find interesting work with engaging people. It’s not always possible to work with people who you like. It’s also important to be prepared to stick at things even if they are difficult. But, at least twice a year, you ought to take time to step back from the day-to-day pressure and ask how things are really going and whether you need to make any changes. It’s not selfish to do that. It’s entirely appropriate.

Tom Kilroy is group general counsel and company secretary of Genus plc.


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