An interview with Bjarne Tellmann

This interview was taken from the fourth issue of Modern Legal Practice, published by Globe Law and Business.

Bjarne P. Tellmann

Tell us about yourself

I am the son of a Norwegian diplomat and an American mother. I was born in Paris while my parents were stationed there and grew up in Cairo, New York and Oslo. After secondary school in Norway, I decided I wanted to be an actor and entered the conservatory school for the arts in Boston. However, several years later and after having acted in several films and television shows in Scandinavia, I realised that I was intensely curious about lots of other things in addition to acting, so I ended up switching and going to university. I earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science at Boston University and then a Masters degree at The London School of Economics and a Juris Doctor at The University of Chicago.

After my studies, I went to work as a corporate lawyer at White & Case in New York, Stockholm and Helsinki, and then joined Sullivan & Cromwell in Frankfurt. After several years there, I went in-house at Kimberly-Clark and then at Coca-Cola, first in London, and then in Vienna, Athens, Tokyo and Atlanta, so I suppose I have continued the nomadic life of my childhood.

I joined Pearson as General Counsel in 2014 and now live in New York with my wife, Alessandra, our two daughters, Mia and Liv, and Blue Belle, our Australian Cattle Dog. I divide my time between New York and London for work reasons. I serve on Pearson’s Executive and lead its global legal team of about 160 professionals, who are spread across six continents. In addition, I oversee the company’s compliance, security and company secretary functions.

I think my background in theatre has been invaluable in my subsequent career because it gave me solid training in communication, persuasion, human nature, creativity and imagination.

In my spare time I have always been an avid martial artist. While in school I practised karate competitively and was a national champion in Norway in 1984. These days I try to practise kravmaga, an Israeli self-defence system, whenever I can – provided my hips and joints permit me to do so on any given day. I also love cooking, particularly Thai and Italian food. There is something about the combination of creative assembly and instructions which I love.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

People, learning and problem solving. I love developing, promoting, inspiring and leading people and building relationships and networks. I also love learning, both in order to get better at what I do and for its own sake. I am curious about many things and fortunate to be alive at a time when so much material is available on many topics and the world is better connected than ever before.

I also love solving problems that have no obvious solution. Nearly by definition, every problem that comes across my desk is of that kind and I relish the challenge of figuring out what the best course of action is.

What is the key to successfully leading a large global legal team?

I’m not sure there is one single recipe. Every great leader I have ever known seems to approach the challenge of managing large teams with a different style. That said, there are three essential elements to any approach.

First, you need to be able to articulate a clear vision and direction. People need clear guidance on where you are taking them.

Second, you need to be able to get people to buy in to your vision and follow you. That requires you to understand that the true source of your power does not lie in your position or your expertise, but rather in your personal influence – your ability to connect with others, call them forth, inspire them, ask the right questions, listen to what they are telling you, create a safe environment for them and persuade them to share your passion for where you want to go.

Third, you need to surround yourself with the right people. You have to be able to gather a diverse array of talent around you and make them all aim for the same target despite their differences. It also requires you to be brave and remove those who should not be there and to have those difficult development conversations with those who need it. You must have a constant passion for developing your people.

And what are the greatest challenges?

There are certainly some unique challenges in being a GC, and in fact for the legal profession as a whole. In my view the biggest challenge for all in-house lawyers in general is being able to navigate successfully the tension between being both a business partner and a guardian of the company’s assets and reputation. Ben Heineman, who spent 18 years as chief legal officer at General Electrics, writes about this in his recent book The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner-Guardian Tension. He explains that, as GCs, we have an exceptional ‘partner-guardian’ role to play that is inevitably filled with tension and that finding a way of successfully navigating that tension on a daily basis is the biggest challenge for GCs.

I think another huge challenge involves managing complexity. I recently attended a Harvard GC leadership course where I was told that role-mapping experts have concluded that the GC position is an almost impossible one to successfully carry out because of the breadth and complexity of tasks and competing priorities that need to be done. It encompasses everything from leading people, to advising the board, to providing quality legal advice, to interfacing with government officials, to skilful communications, to mastering legal procurement – all done under immense pressure. The conclusion of the role-mappers was that to do all of these things at once, and to do them all successfully, is almost impossible. And yet the irony is that you cannot separate these tasks from one another; a good GC in today’s world needs to be able to do all of these things – and more – at the same time. The complexity of the role is insane, and it takes a specific kind of crazy person to try and fulfil all of these obligations and not let the complexity, multi-faceted nature and the density of the role get to them.

Building and shaping the right culture has to be a third major challenge because there is no clear, simple formula. It is more of an art than a science and yet it is essential for any well-functioning organisation. Like a fast growing garden, your team’s culture requires constant tending and mending. It requires you to give room for the organic and yet put your stamp on the overall impression. You need to be constantly weeding and pruning, always giving strength and nourishment to the elements that need it and never losing sight of what you are trying to create. And, to top it off, you need to ensure that your team culture is compatible with the overall culture of the broader organisation. It is messy and complex and yet magical if you get it right because it liberates those around you to do their best work. A good culture sets off a self-perpetuating cycle of high performance.

How do you see the role of general counsel evolving?

The role is becoming ever more complex, intense and challenging. As companies have gone global, so too have GCs, who must lead, unify and inspire diverse groups of people in different parts of the world with subtlety, diplomacy and a fine nose for when to ‘go local’ and when not to. In a globalised and technologically savvy world, there are many moving parts – decisions made in one place can have profound effects in others. Complex new regulations are proliferating, enforcers are increasingly connected and cooperating with each other and, in an era of social media and instant communication, the legal, reputational and business dimensions of risk have converged. The stakes have never been higher and the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe.

GCs have had to learn to react quickly and decisively to meet these and other challenges with ever-fewer resources. In some industries, legal departments are under-appreciated and viewed as‘cost’ centres, with their budgets under pressure like never before. In other, more heavily regulated sectors, legal is considered an essential player and given more sufficient budgets, but lawyers are often ‘siloed’ as a police function or experts and thus less able to influence the company’s responses and strategic approaches to these risks than they should be.

GCs today must lead, communicate, inspire, build cultures, manage talent, formulate and execute strategies, ensure efficacy, anticipate and manage risk and manage quality control. They have to, in effect,become mini-CEOs who are able to lead complex global organisations of highly autonomous professionals.

There are more ways today than ever before to help them manage these challenges. Technology and globalisation have given GCs the means to unbundle the legal value chain and parcel out work to the most efficient provider. There are also great legal industry consultants and service providers who can help the GC make better decisions and the quality of law firm partners is better than it has ever been.

Finally, I think GCs have a better opportunity than ever before to act as ‘connectors’. We live in an era of innovation, which is ultimately created when good ideas from different parts of a company bump up against each other and create new ideas. This process is driven in part by ‘T-shaped’ people, i.e. professionals with deep functional expertise but broad points of connection across the organisation. GCs are natural‘T-shaped’ people, with insights from across the company that can be shared and connected to help abolish silos and improve innovation. That can help to elevate the GC to being something more than just the company lawyer. That is obviously the core of the role, but the value add can be acting as ‘chief silo-buster’.

What do you look for in the firms you work with?

Technical excellence is essential but there are many firms that offer that.

I also look for firms that value creativity, commercial sophistication and diversity. The legal profession is undergoing rapid change and disruption. The firms that are most successful are the ones that seek creative ways to solve problems more cost effectively and pragmatically. That includes embracing technology and business skills. They also actively prioritise and source a diverse workforce, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because they recognise that it is the smart thing to do. Diverse teams outperform consistently and we need that in our partners. So we look for teams that are ethnically, socially, generationally diverse; a good mix of genders; professionals with disabilities; people from all classes and backgrounds.

"The firms that are most successful are the ones that seek creative ways to solve problems more cost effectively and pragmatically. That includes embracing technology and business skills."

Firms also need to be curious about our culture and our business. They need to understand how we make money and what makes us tick. Our outside partners are an extension of our internal department, so the cultures and priorities need to line up seamlessly.

What advice would you give any private practice lawyer considering a move in-house?

It is a very different role in many ways. You need to be passionate about the business aspects of practising law and you must be innately curious about the business you serve. Thinking as a business person with a legal background rather than as a pure lawyer is key. You also need courage because you are the last line of defence. You have to be able to stand up for what is right in a world that may be telling you otherwise. Moreover, you must be a very strong communicator because you have no one to modify or reconfigure your advice and you have to be able to explain something rather technical and obtuse in a very practical way that can be used by non-experts.

I think spending at least three years in a firm is good, even essential, basic training for an in-house career. But don’t wait too long to make the switch. The skill sets required to succeed in a company take time to learn and it is much more difficult to adjust if you have been in private practice for decades.

Who or what inspires you?

I find people who have changed the world for the better and who are not afraid to make their mark to be immensely inspirational.

Martin Luther King Jr is one such example. He knew what he wanted to achieve and he achieved it, he had immense courage and he never lost faith in going up against a powerful and entrenched opposition. He was also an amazing communicator, able to rally and inspire large groups of people and then turn that inspiration into concrete and enduring results. Watch his ‘I have a dream speech’ to see the incredible energy and passion he was able to transfer to the 250,000 people on Washington Mall in the heat of that day in August 1963. I get goose bumps every time I hear it. He made the world a better place in a very measurable way through non-violent means.

Steve Jobs is another example of someone who dared to change the world and make his mark. He never doubted himself or gave precedent too much credit. One of the most inspirational quotes I know comes from him:

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world … Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.And you can change it, you can influence it … Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

I draw strength from that quote all the time. You need a bit of courage and creativity to build something enduring. Perhaps you also need a bit of madness. As Nietzsche said, “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”.

What is the last book you enjoyed reading?

I love books and draw so much inspiration from reading. At any given time, I’m reading about a half a dozen books – in paper, e-book and audio formats; so this is a hard question to answer!

I very much enjoyed The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, which I’ve just finished. It is the story of London’s cholera epidemic in the mid-1800s and how that crisis changed science, urban life and, ultimately, the modern world. One of the heroes is Dr John Snow, who persuaded the world to accept that cholera was spreading through water despite fierce opposition to the idea. In so doing, he developed the foundations for modern epidemiology, among other things. We owe Dr Snow an enormous debt.

I’ve also just finished The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, which explores our cognitive bias for thinking that we know far more about the world than we actually do. Our success as a species is really the product of group intelligence, even though we tend to think it is all down to the individual.

Finally, I am in the middle of Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of Leonardo da Vinci. It is brilliant, beautifully written and inspirational. Da Vinci had this amazing ability to combine art and science to create beauty and knowledge. In many ways that ability to blend art and science was also the source of Steve Jobs’ and Benjamin Franklin’s brilliance (both subjects of other great books by Isaacson). Get the hardcover version and not the e-book. The pictures, quality and layout are a real treat.

This interview was taken from the fourth issue of the Modern Legal Practice, published by Globe Law and Business.
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