Bjarne Tellman knows how to build a great compliance / legal team.  He’s in charge of 170 professionals across six continents at Pearson, the world’s largest education company.  He’s also the author of the new book, “Building an Outstanding Legal Organization: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel.”  Bjarne and I met when my company Spark Compliance Consulting was working with Pearson on an anti-bribery project.  I was fascinated by his whole book, but specifically on the elements of culture creation and change.  Bjarne was kind enough to sit down with me to share some fascinating insights, including:

[Kristy]: In your book, you say, “Values and belief create outcomes.”  Can you explain what you mean by that?

Culture is basically the values and beliefs that are shared within an organization or group. These heavily influence the way people behave or work. Culture can have such an incredible impact on human behavior because we are ultimately social animals – we feed off of the values and beliefs that we share with those around us. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. A bad culture can have drive negative behavior within an organization, causing people to either disengage or actively engage in destructive behavior.

The impact of culture on behavior is why it is so critical that organizations be crystal clear on their values and the beliefs that underpin them. This is not fluff. Culture is the invisible medium that causes organizations to succeed or fail. There is a reason business guru Peter Drucker allegedly said that”culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Culture rests on beliefs and values that can shift in subtle ways over time, it is critical to be mindful of it, track it and cultivate it. Culture is like a living thing that you cannot take for granted. In some sense it is like a garden that needs to be constantly watered, nourished and tended to.

[Kristy]: Your book goes into detail about the negative consequences of misalignment of what the company says it values and the actual behaviour of employees and managers.  I found the test you suggested by Levi Nieminen fascinating.  How does it work?

Words really do have consequences, especially when they are misaligned with actual behavior. Think of Enron. This was a company that had admirable, even beautiful, values on paper. And yet its top executives created a culture that was inconsistent with those values, which in turn caused a lot of confusion about what behaviors were acceptable.

To avoid such confusion, stated values must never be aspirational. They must reflect the actual culture of the organization, reinforcing the best of that culture. People within the organization should be able to intuitively nod their head and agree that they reflect who you are.

If you are unsure whether your stated values are authentic, Levi Nieminen’s ingenious test helps you to determine whether that is the case. It goes like this:

– Think of the three most challenging situations your team has faced in the past couple of years, and then ask yourself whether your values helped to make sense of what was done and why.

– Think of the last three times when your team had to make a decision based on insufficient information. In each case, think about how the decision was reached and whether your values helped to explain or justify what was decided and why.

If you find that your decision-making was divorced from your values in these cases, there may be a disconnect between your culture (how you actually dealt with these situations) and your stated values (how you said you would act). I think this can be a helpful way to run a spot check on your culture and stated values.

[Kristy]: You talk about the challenges of managing and hiring people from different generations in your book.  How can a positive corporate culture attract and retain talent for different generations?

Managing a multi-generational workplace can be difficult because it requires you to adopt a creative and flexible approach. But the truth is that if you care about your team. you really don’t have a choice. Millennials are now the largest part of the workforce, so you will need to accommodate them if you are going to replenish your talent and build it for the future. That means you need to adopt practices that are attractive to Millennials, such as more transparency, a focus on output over input’, and a willingness and ability to mentor people and provide as much context and meaning as possible to the tasks you assign. Millennials are attracted to managers who provide them with a sense of ownership and give them a varied diet of things to do. They like modern technology and corporate cultures that are comfortable using it. Adopt these things and you may find that you are not just attracting Millennials but also others! Finally, you need to see how you can embrace more of a “gig economy” approach to hiring, such as taking a more flexible approach to project-based work. Not everyone wants to stay until they retire with a gold watch at the end of a long career. Nor do you necessarily need that.

But while it is important to configure your workplace to appeal to Millennials, you must avoid alienating your Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers in doing so. That may mean configuring your workplace in such a way that inter-generational diversity can be productively harnessed. Different generations will have differing priorities. You will need to balance these interests in the right way.

My book captures a number of ways in which this can be done. For example, you might want to consider, within the confines of what your company policies, whether you can reward people differently, depending on what they most value. If Millennials value flex time but Baby Boomers prefer more holiday time to see the grandkids, why not see if you can’t give each group what they want? You might also want to consider adjusting communications to fit generational preferences, with more face to face communications with Baby Boomers and more email or social messaging connectivity for Gen-Xers and Millennials.

[Kristy]: I really enjoyed your discussion about the problems of “legacy culture.”  What do you mean by that, and how can a compliance officer who is new to an organization overcome it?

In legacy o
rganizations, there is a culture already present and replacing it wholesale is a fool’s errand. However, it is possible to shift the existing culture, tilting it in a new direction, even if that can a rather delicate manoeuvre. If you push too far too fast, however, you may damage the foundations of the existing culture, with potentially disastrous consequences. Instead of wholesale replacement, think of how you might prune a bonsai tree. You’d want to be very careful not to damage the trunk, which takes a long time to grow. Instead, you would prune the branches to gradually tilt the direction of growth, so that the shape of the entire tree changed over time, even though the trunk would remain firmly in place. Applying that analogy to a legacy organization, you would want to consider identifying the core elements of the existing culture that need to remain and then identify which aspects of it you want to shape and influence. Focus on improving those parts of the legacy culture that are sub-optimal. The changes you are seeking are more iterative than revolutionary. To do this requires that you first develop credibility and then seek to make changes when a suitable opening presents itself that enables you to leverage your credibility. Such openings often come at times of change, such as when the company enters markets or experiences financial crises or other setbacks. If you are new to the job, be careful about considering your arrival to be such an opening – you will have very little credibility in the first 100 days.

[Kristy]: What are your top three tips for building an outstanding legal team? 

First, you must begin with what I call the “hardware”, i.e. the hard, tangible, measurable aspects of running a legal department. These are things like:

– assessing your core risks and talent and designing an integrated team structure around those elements;

– unifying your budget and optimizing your spend;

– rationalizing your service delivery model;

– selecting the right outside partners; and

– identifying the technologies that will support your efforts.

Once you have taken on and demonstrated success with the hardware, you will have gained the credibility needed to focus on what I call the “software”, i.e. the less tangible but even more critical components like culture, leadership and talent. Here you will want to focus on things like:

– developing and reinforcing your subculture;

– identifying and tweaking your unwritten cultural assumptions;

– managing the generational context; and

– recruiting legal leaders who have the skills and qualities you need to run a high-performance team.

There will of course be interplay between these elements and steps are bound to get mingled. But when in doubt, return to the basic formula.

Third, throughout it all, you must pay attention to change management and strategic direction. Failing to address these will scuttle everything.

I cover each of these aspects in some detail in my book.

[Kristy]: Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us Bjarne!


Bjarne is General Counsel, Chief Legal Officer and member of the Executive Committee of Pearson PLC, a FTSE 100 company. At Pearson, Bjarne leads 170 professionals across six continents. He previously held various positions in Europe, Asia and the United States with The Coca-Cola Company, most recently as Associate General Counsel. He has also held positions at Kimberly-Clark and the law firms of Sullivan & Cromwell and White & Case. Bjarne is a frequent speaker, panelist and lecturer. He authors the “Career Path” column in the ACC Docket and he serves on the Editorial Board of Modern Legal Practice. His book “Building an Outstanding Legal Organization: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel” can be found here:


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