"Start small, but do something" - learning and development at Sky Legal

Brian Hanlon, head counsel at Sky Media, gives insight into a number of successful personal and professional development initiatives at Sky Legal, and offers some tips on implementing similar schemes in your own organisation.

Did you think the learning and development culture at Sky needed to change?

Brian HanlonAt Sky, we have always had a culture of continuous improvement – ‘believe in better’ is at the heart of everything we do. We are very conscious that past performance is a floor, not a ceiling. That culture goes beyond our focus on the content, innovation and service we bring to our customers. It’s also an internal focus on our people. At Sky Legal, creating an environment in which our people can be their best, be fully involved and be themselves is a core objective for us. The various development programmes we have created in recent years have all been designed to deliver on that objective.

Why do you think personal growth and development is so important for in-house lawyers?

Personal growth and development is essential for everyone in the workplace, not just in-house lawyers. Historically, I think that organisations have expected their employees to keep their professional and personal lives entirely separate. This approach, aside from being unrealistic, is actually bad for the organisation. Whilst a person can shift their focus from personal issues to professional issues when they come to work, they cannot shut down their emotions, and it’s inevitable that how they feel within themselves will affect their performance at work.   

We want our people to bring their whole self to work – their authentic self which we believe is the best version of themselves – and so for us, helping them to grow and develop as people and not just as lawyers is key to achieving that.

How much of the drive for personal development do you think should come from the lawyer, and how much from the business?

We believe that personal development needs to start with the individual – our leadership team at Sky Legal has invested a significant amount of time and resource into creating an environment in which there are a wide range of development opportunities for our people, but equally, our people need to lean into those opportunities.

If we can get the balance right, it’s a win-win: personal development brings lots of positives for the individual, and the organisation will benefit as a result.

How did you set up your mentoring programme?

We believe in the value of mentoring as a development tool, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our people to take advantage of this. However, we deliberately stopped short of pairing people up with mentors, as this felt too forced and not aligned with our approach of people owning their own development.

Instead, we created a pool of more than 30 mentors across Sky Legal, leveraging the enthusiasm of talented, experienced colleagues to facilitate the development of other lawyers in our team.

We published the mentor pool, together with biographies on each mentor, and encouraged our people to reach out to the mentor whom they believed to be the best fit for their own personal development needs (we also offered to facilitate introductions where necessary).

To influence the success of the programme, at department meetings, we spoke about the purposes and benefits of mentoring and we heard testimonials from people in our team with experience of being on both sides of a mentor relationship. Whilst the mentors in our pool were limited to members of Sky Legal, for anyone in our team seeking a mentor beyond Sky Legal, we offered to leverage our leadership and mentor pool network to facilitate introductions across the wider Sky organisation.

Can you explain Sky’s Positivity Programme and how it works?

We believe that positivity is a competitive advantage and that by raising our levels of positivity, we can raise our levels of performance. Research has shown that our brains are 30 per cent more productive when we are in a positive mood, compared to a negative, neutral or stressed mood.

The key to shifting our levels of positivity is understanding that it is not objective reality that determines positivity, but rather the lens through which our brain views the world that shapes our perception of reality and, consequently, our positivity. If we can change the lens, we can change our levels of positivity and therefore our individual and collective performance.

However, it’s not enough to simply decide to be more positive – it takes deliberate action. Through workshops with our leadership team and localised team meetings, our Positivity Programme gives people practical exercises to change the ‘lens’, including daily and weekly exercises embedding optimism, gratitude, random acts of kindness, embracing stress as a positive thing and a focus on a work-life balance.

We encouraged repetition of behaviours with the aim that the cumulative effect of these would shift individual and collective perceptions towards positivity. The feedback from our people has been very positive!

What resistance did you meet, if any, to your initiatives?

We know that our people are incredibly busy and it’s difficult to find the bandwidth to engage with something new. We also know that different people have different development objectives and needs. Creating a range of diverse development opportunities is key to success, together with making it as easy as possible for people to take advantage of those opportunities. Further, helping people to understand what’s in it for them is a gating requirement for positive engagement.

What practical tips do you have for setting up similar initiatives in smaller organisations?

It doesn’t take a large organisation or in-house team to implement a strategy for personal growth and the development of its people. It just takes a small group of dedicated people. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (and later President Bartlett in The West Wing ) once said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Start small, keep it simple and don’t be afraid to fail. But do something!

What non-technical skills do you think in-house lawyers will need in the coming years?

At Sky, we have recently launched a transformation programme to create the ‘Legal Department of the Future’, to ensure that, going forward, Sky Legal is as innovative and efficient as possible in meeting its core objective of sustainably adding real value, by providing the high-quality, business-focused advice which keeps Sky competitive.

Together with many other in-house legal teams in the UK, we are focused on ensuring we are fully empowered through new technology and are leveraging new tools which can speed up and scale our service. I believe that as we increasingly shift our focus to leveraging this new technology to succeed in the future, a key point of differentiation and value-add between our people and the new technology will be our soft skills. In the future, soft skills will become the new hard skills, and so I believe that personal growth and development is more important now than ever before.  

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