Lessons I Learned in Law

Kenny Robertson on being a cultural architect for your team

November 09, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 11
Lessons I Learned in Law
Kenny Robertson on being a cultural architect for your team
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Kenny Roberston, Head of Outsourcing, Technology & IP legal team at NatWest Group. In his role, he leads up a team which supports some of the largest outsourcing transactions in the UK and which continually pushes to be innovative and progressive and provide great customer experience for stakeholders. He is also Chair of the Law Society of Scotland’s Wellbeing Steering Group. 

Kenny shares some of the lessons he’s learned in law including:

·      Be Yourself! Giving legal advice is a relationships game, and its hard to build relationships without being authentic. 

·      Play with your head up (to use a sporting analogy). Be aware, be able to identify opportunities, adapt to change and be ready for whatever might be around the corner.  

·      Create and nurture a positive culture within your team.


Kenny admits that early on in his career he tried to live up to his pre-conceived ideas of what a lawyer should be, and how damaging this can be for lawyers’ wellbeing. He explores where these ideas might stem from, how the legal profession is changing and how developments such as AI may even alter the skillset required to be a lawyer in the future. 


Kenny shares details of his pioneering initiative in collaboration with the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Law Association. Kenny also reveals how he’s worked to cultivate a transparent and psychologically safe organisational culture within his team at NatWest. He elaborates on the three pillars that form the bedrock of his team's ethos: High Performance, Progressive Mindset, and Teamship, and how they factor into the bank's ESG agenda and climate goals. 


Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment


Follow Heriot Brown:

Twitter | LinkedInFacebook | Instagram

This episode of Lessons I Learned in Law is brought to you by Beamery.

Beamery is an AI-powered talent platform, designed to hire candidates faster, develop the skills of your workforce, and increase employee retention.

Find out more at Beamery.com

Scott Brown  (0:01)  
Hi, welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law with me, Scott Brown. I'm founder and managing director of Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. We are specialists in placing lawyers in fulfilling careers in the in-house market. If you've not listened to the podcast before, on each episode I'm delighted to be joined by a top legal mind. Hope my guest today doesn't mind me calling him that, as they break down three key lessons that they've learned from working in law. The idea and the hope is that you'll be informed and inspired and can see some things from your career that you could apply to your own career path. I'm delighted to be joined today by Kenny Robertson. Kenny, thanks for joining me. 

Kenny Robertson  (0:47)  
Yeah, thanks for having me. And thanks for calling me a top legal mind, it's not something that I'm used to being described as, but I'll take it!

Scott Brown  (0:54)  
 Oh, well, there's a first for everything. So Kenny's head of outsourcing technology and IP at the legal team at NatWest, which is formerly RBS, and he's been there, he's part of the furniture, he's been there for 17 years. So we'll dive into that a bit more, into his career and what took him there during our conversation, no doubt. I'll apologise in advance, we'll put subtitles I think on for this episode, I tend to find myself slipping into a deeper Scottish accent when I'm speaking to fellow Scots. But good to chat, Kenny, and really happy to have you as a guest

Kenny Robertson  (1:29)  
Yes, thanks for having me and I too will try to speak as slowly and as eloquently as I can manage!

Scott Brown  (1:39)  
We'll jump in, Kenny, we'll jump to your your first lesson. 

Kenny Robertson  (1:42)  
The first lesson for me was the importance of being yourself. I think when I started out my career, as you mentioned, I've been at the bank a long time I was in house at a software company before then and I started out in private practice. And I think when I started out, I sort of conformed to what I thought a lawyer should be; aloof, standoffish, sort of Ivory Tower, very keen to sell IQ without realising as I grew up, and it dawned on me that it's a contact sport, giving legal advice and legal support. And it's a relationship game. And I think it's hard to build relationships unless you're authentic, and you're genuine, and you can be yourself and the stakeholders, or clients, are able to see that and start to forge a relationship. When I was younger, I suppose I didn't have the confidence to do that necessarily. And I still see that a fair bit in others of thinking that they need to conform to what their idea what the concept of a lawyer is, rather than allowing them to be who they actually are. One of the things I really enjoy about my job at the bank is I can be myself. There, you're encouraged to be yourself and bring all your ability to the table rather than sort of conforming to a sort of sets the idea of what being a lawyer means and we'll maybe touch on this later on. But certainly from my perspective, the job has shifted significantly in 2023. From what it was when I started and it's important to, to reflect with that. So that's been my first lesson, which is I tried to embed with myself and the team is the people being feeling comfortable to be themselves 

Scott Brown  (3:16)  
Very good lesson. Where did you sort of flip that switch? Is there a time in your career where you feel it first clicked for you? 

Kenny Robertson  (3:24)  
Probably when I left private practice, I mean I, when I started I trained as a foreman I trained in Glasgow and London for a short period. I  qualified as an IP lawyer. And I left when I was two or three years qualified to join a company, which was called Graham Technology. And it's been bought and sold a couple of times since that was kind of revelatory for me in terms of what that was like moving in house and the difference between the environment I was used to to the environment I was going into and the culture that was there, which maybe neatly or otherwise leads into my second lesson, which was, as you probably have picked up Scott, I use all football analogies. And my second lesson was about playing with your head up, which I kind of learned to very much at Graham Technology in or what I mean by that is whether it was rugby or football playing number 10 of what's going on, what are the players, where's the opportunity, what's around the corner. And when I moved to Graham Technology from private practice, I realised quite quickly that there was far more to being a fully contributing member of staff than simply giving technically correct legal advice. So you're even in induction training, talking about your books being encouraged to read, putting an emphasis on curiosity. I found that, as I said, an absolute revelation, the humanity in terms of management and leadership. The importance of openness and transparency. And to answer your question around being yourself, me being a sort of, you know, straight jacketed lawyer wasn't going to work. You know, everybody, we had I think 200, 250 members of staff, you needed to get stuck in, and you know I needed to, to be part of our team, there's only a couple of lawyers there and I had to adapt to the environment, I found myself and being, as I said, the traditional lawyer wasn't what they needed, which, what for me, it was great. I loved my time there, it was really transformational. And a lot of the concepts that I taught, there are a lot of thinking that I learned, very much adapted into, when I became a grown up, and I eventually got my own team. And the couple years I was there while they stayed with me. So that focus on learning, as I said, being curious, what's around the corner, what can we adapt? We do as a team, weekly what we call "learning labs", and it's just small, literally bite sized type things like, an hour a week maybe, focusing on different topics. And through those learning labs, and other just generally the culture of which we'll talk about later on. We've introduced a whole bunch of stuff from other teams, other areas of law, and some things out with law. So for example, we've looked at how Pixar operate and we've taken some of their concepts of brain trusts, we use behavioural science, we try to rule out much theory, design thinking is quite a big thing for us psychological safety, WeWork, the O Street lawyers, we were talking about earlier on Delta model lawyer, we've rolled that out as well. And we wouldn't have known any of that stuff. If we weren't playing with a head up when we weren't trying to build a network user network, understand what might be able to fundamentally make the ball go faster. The result of all that is I think we operate much better as a team, I think we are much more engaged as a team, when we are able to talk about things like design thinking. We've got a lot of stakeholders and innovation teams in the bank, they work in design thinking all the time, and just being able to hold a conversation with them about the various stages of design thinking they don't really expect that from us. And when we are able to demonstrate that we're aligned with where they're going, it makes a big difference. And generally just makes us more interesting and more interested as a team with stakeholders, and much more engaging as a result. Play with your head up, has been fairly central to how I've tried to operate.

Scott Brown  (7:35)  
Excellent. Just going back to that move in-house to Graham Technologies, who was teaching you that, was it other lawyers or? To have that shift in A) being yourself and B) being curious and looking at different perspectives? Were you working with other lawyers in that team? Or was it the business as a whole?

Kenny Robertson  (7:52)  
Yeah, the latter, right, it was just very much in the DNA of the organisation is that you're in a fairly dynamic young leadership team, which wasn't what I was used to. But yeah, you just had to very quickly adapt and pick up this is how things were done around here. And it was great. As I said, I think I thrived in it. You also realise and what sets you down and explains this for you need to be here. And as part of maybe talking about being yourself and it being a contact sport, is being able to read a room and understand what a client or a stakeholder needs once is, yes, you need to give legal advice and mitigate risk. But your need to do in a way which is accessible and the way that the stakeholder needs it or the client needs it not the way you want it to look at it. So rocking up and sending a lengthy email to cover your backsides for what you're doing, you need to be able to adapt. So yeah, it was just very much in the DNA of the organisation.

Scott Brown  (8:45)  
Yeah. Where do you think, see the being yourself and feeling you have to play up to that preconceived ideas of what a lawyer is, where do you think that comes from? How does it, how does that come around? Because it's something that I hear a lot speaking to junior lawyers, but also of I guess, people throughout the profession.

Kenny Robertson  (9:02)  
I mean, I think it's a fairly conservative profession. Right. And it's what I mean that we operate in a profession that, we're built on tradition and precedent, and how things were done before and maybe looking in the rearview mirror. And that's kind of what's expected to some extent, as a lawyer, you're a safe pair of hands. One of the things I like about working in house is, yes, you're all that but certainly in my team, you've got bit of a longer leash to go and experiment and try things and innovate, so I think it's just traditionally sort of been hardwired into what a lawyer means I think, what I touched on earlier on, I think we're maybe at a bit of an inflection point about what it is to be a lawyer to 2023 and whether that's driven by some of the generative AI that's emerging that I think in a few years time may pose some interesting existential questions for what skill set is in a lawyer in 2023, but I think some of that also feeds in the expectation if you like, apart from dentistry we have the worst statistics for depression, suicide, addiction and so on. I do wonder how much of that is not just workloads, which is obviously something to do with it. But also, maybe some people feeling they can be themselves and they need to be someone they're not. And that's not a lot of fun every day is being someone that you feel you need to be rather than who you are.

Scott Brown  (10:21)  
Yeah. I hadn't head that stat in terms of being compared to the dentistry, but yeah, I think the culture is a huge, huge thing. And I think the profession you can say across the board does have that stuffiness and you do a lot of work around diversity, and we have we first met during an interlaw event. Tell us a bit about the sort of work that you've done there both as an individual and with, with how you've implemented some of those things at RBS. I think you've touched on a couple

Kenny Robertson  (10:49)  
During lockdown, George Floyd's incident happened. And as you mentioned earlier on, my whole team is based in Edinburgh. And from our race perspective, if you like, I think stats are that 98% of Edinburgh's white. There's not an awful lot of diversity in Scotland, generally, a racial diversity at least. And that was what you would expect that we don't do an awful lot for people of colour. And we sort of challenged ourselves on was that really an Okay? Do we really get a pass for that? So we were in lockdown. Everyone was working on screen, we were a small square on our laptop. So we started to think about, actually, does that pass? Do we just sort of pretend there's nothing we can do, is that really sustainable? And so we reached out to people we knew, you know, Catherine McGregor, Celine, Brett, and others. And we put in our work experience programme. And in that work experience programme, it was targeting, particularly law students who were of a non white background, so with others and so forth from London, from Manchester, Coventry, whenever it was, we allowed, we used our network to have diverse students coming in and spending a week working with us. That was great. I mean, still ongoing, it's now, we're now working with the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Law Association, the buying kin in our legal department has a first stage programme that we reach out to law students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we have them in en-masse. They, some of them come back into my team for a week at a time. And it's been great, it's good for the soul as a start for ten is the right thing to do. But in terms of the talent that is out there is enormous. We have some really impressive students with us and even from our own pipeline in terms of you're quite interesting. Law firms invariably come swallow them up before we can get our hands into them. But it's been a really great experience for us. Hopefully, it's been a good experience for students as well. And let's talk about culture as well. But this basically supported, who we are trying to be as a culture in terms of trying to give back as best we can.

Scott Brown  (13:00)  
Nice, really good to hear. Looking outside the box in terms of like, not just being defined by where the team is based. Fantastic. So, the football analogies, where do those weave their way into into your daily conversations?

Kenny Robertson  (13:140  
I used to only use one, but I use for too many it's, completely ridiculous, but I think you described yourself I think as a locked in lawyer. I would describe myself as an accidental lawyer. The only reason I really did law was my mother saying to me that our father, who died before I was born, but you know how amazed he would have been to have a lawyer and the family. Okay, I'll give that a go! Wanting you know, but fundamentally, I wanted to be a footballer, sadly, I was not good enough. And by the way, it wasn't that I you know, I just didn't make the grade or I broke my leg. I was not good enough with a capital N-G-E! So yeah, football has sort of been part of my routine. I've got a season ticket at one of the major teams in Glasgow and it's not Celtic.

Scott Brown  (14:01)  
I see you've elated another half of the audience!

Kenny Robertson  (14:05)  
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, apologies. Your listening figures will be plummeting. I know, it's a bit of a busman's holiday. But when you do look at some of the initiatives and football, some of the stuff that Guardiola did at Barcelona and just sort of culturally he, you know, tried to infuse into a dressing room and into a club. That isn't, I know it's easy to overdo the sports psychology and sports analogies, I know that's very popular with middle aged men like me. But I've tried to lift bits and pieces that are relevant while not boring my team senseless by using too many analogies.

Scott Brown  (14:42)  
How have you learned management, how have you acquired that skill set? 

Kenny Robertson  (14:46)  
I read quite a lot. And I try to learn from others. I mean, there's you know I've made lots and lots and lots of mistakes, but trying to say to my daughter, she's 13, there's an easy way to do things and there's a hard way to do things. The easily to do things, trying to learn from others, and also that I think there's something to be said, first of all, talk about vicarious learning. So wherever you are, is looking at how others are leading or managing and asking yourself questions will. Did that work? Did that motivate me? Did that inspire me that that made me feel belittled? Or did that? Did that actually, is there something I can steal? So we used to have a general counsel at the bank, called John Collins, John mentored me for a period when he was at the bank, I adored John, I thought he's tremendous. You know, I would look at John, when he's on his feet as humanity, how he knew everybody's name was very inclusive. He made you feel part of something. And I would try and learn from that, and in terms of the impact he had on people, and likewise, you look at others and you, you "I wish I'd have said it that way," or "I'm not sure how that landed," or, "I'd have given a bit more of yourself there". And I've tried to do that, as I as I've gone through my career, but as I said, there's not... it's the learning, you're going to get scuffed up, and you're going to make mistakes. And I have lots but I do try and read reasonably widely and talk to other networks, ask what you know, what's, what worked what's not worked. Learn from others. One of the many advantages we have as lawyers is there's a lot of clever people. And there's a lot, particularly in house, there's a lot of generous people with their time, and it's our great ecosystem to lean into each other. And learning from others who are, in my experience, invariably, incredibly generous with their time, and incredibly keen to help and incredibly keen to try and make the profession better. And bring on the next generation. Leaning into that is one of the things I really really enjoy about working in house. 

Scott Brown  (16:46)  
Yeah. It's also a great lesson for people as well listening and any any junior lawyers that listen that are, I dunno, apprehensive or put off maybe reaching out to people or don't think it's a first point a call, right? There's a lot of people out there that do want to help and very generous with their time and paying it forward or whatever phrase you want to use. 

Kenny Robertson  (17:06)  
I was listening to one of your previous podcasts and Sterling Miller was on it. And we as a team have read Sterling's blog posts for years. He happened to post one a couple of months ago that was very on point to something we were looking at and we reached out to him, messaged him, and immediately he comes back to me "great, great to have a chat any time you want to speak". That's the kind of thing that makes the world go round. And it's giving that back and that generosity, that's exactly what I'm talking about. So yeah, I would completely agree to the young team, what's the worst that's gonna happen? Someone's not going to reply, they probably will reply. People are flattered that you're interested. But yeah, I'd certainly be brave and reach out for something you're looking to build up. Yeah.

Scott Brown  (17:48)  
Nice. What was your position as as a footballer?

Kenny Robertson  (17:51)  
Uh, I played in midfield badly! I'd like to say box to box and getting up round the park, but that wouldn't be true. So yeah

Scott Brown  (17:57)  
Yeah. Having moved here, I've just recently reached out to a football team to try make some a wider social group of friends. And yeah, I think I'm gonna play tomorrow night. They're an eleven a side team, I'm actually quite worried as to um, I've not kicked a ball in about five years, I'm actually dreading them being really good. And then just being like, Oh, no! But I had text the guy the other day. I was like, what's the what's the standard age group of the team, is it 25/24 to 37? I'm 38. So, I'm fit,  I'm not football fit! I'm vanity fit and go in the gym. But not Yeah, not run, not run that distance so we'll see how that goes. I'll be crippled, I think! 

Kenny Robertson  (18:39)  
I'd be keen to hear how you go on with the the Dutch technique against the Scottish or lump it to the big man

Scott Brown  (18:49)  
get them turned?

Kenny Robertson  (18:51)  
Like, if in doubt, get it out as the total football purists are horrified!

Scott Brown  (19:00)  
Yeah, I'll let you know when I can't walk to pick up my clothes. we'll move on to lesson three. 

Kenny Robertson  (19:14)  
Third lesson's the culture. Maybe to some extent, what I've spoken about before, is largely another form of culture. But the one thing I've tried to do as a team on culture is the best thing I've done as a leader. I mentioned reading books earlier on and one of the guys I like to read is, um, his name is Ben Horowitz. And there's a quote in one of his books, that if you don't set your culture, two thirds of it will end up being accidental and the rest will be mistake. And I think that's probably true. So when I, and this is going back, there's a bit of a journey here around how we've tried to implement culture but when I became team here a few years ago, one of the things that we did early was introduced this concept of psychological safety. And we start talking about that. And we ran something called failure camps, which is a concept that was created by Professor Cat Moon. She's a lecturer at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville and Cat's a friend. We started to run these failure camps to build up that sense of openness, vulnerability and trust, to where we start, sort of, sort of began to to have that platform in play. And then that allowed us to have embryonic conversations about things like what do we mean by culture? What does that word mean? It's bandied about a lot. It's important we're clear about what that means. So how are things done around here? How do we interact with each other? What do we, how do we want things to be around here? And then we spoke about well, what is our culture right now? And this is where the psychological safety bit came in of, well let's be candid with each other. And let's be honest, about where do we think we are culturally, warts and all. And where do we want it to be? And that that that ultimately led to a fairly long list of incontrovertible statements about what kind of team we wanted to be, so it was far too long, 26 bullet points. But importantly, it kind of got us used to living there. So it wasn't just a whole bunch of words stuck up on a wall, it was stuck in the inside of our jotter things or in the office, it was referenced in team meetings. And ultimately, that became the three sort of cultural pillars, as we call them in the team. The first is high performance, which doesn't mean perfection, it means you do the best you can, with an asterisk of you're going to make mistakes on things. And we're human. And it's important that you can share missteps with others, from, from a trust perspective, from a vulnerability perspective, belonging, and also to be honest, just sharing risk. Because the chances are, if somebody that X had tried to achieve Y, and Z happened instead, most people would have done X to achieve Y. And it's useful just sharing that, what actually unpacked there. So high performance, do the best you can, draw, try and lean into things. The second thing is about progressive mindset, which is really what I was touching on earlier on, about playing with your head up, around being curious what's around the corner, what's going on out there, what are our market trains, are we speaking to the right people, what could we bring in, try and get kites in the air to try and see what works in terms of how we operate as a team. And the last point is teamship. And that isn't just going out for a pint with each other, although that obviously has its place. It's about forgiveness. It's about tolerance. It's about accepting, it's about a bad day not making a bad person. It's about being coachable. It's about assuming positive intent, and accepting people as they are into the team. Those are our three cultural pillars. And they really are pretty much a Northstar for how we operate, how we recruit how we behave. We ran a session a couple of weeks ago with Dentons, and the O Shape guys, and they want our culture to travel. So that they for example, can feel that this is what we're about as a group, rather than without me having to say it's 1,2,3. But just get a general feel of this is what we're about. We also talk about as a sort of growth opportunity for people in the team of us being cultural architects. So whether you've got, I was going to use another football analogy about having an armband on, you're wearing the armband that... Yes. Whether you're in a formal management position or leadership position, you can still adopt or be a cultural architect in terms of what you're role modelling or leading the correct type of behaviours, even when it's hard, and a lot of this stuff is hard. It's easier to you know, if someone you know, if someone's you feel annoyed to someone to complain to them, or bitch about them to somebody else. That's not OK, that's not how we operate. That's not the sort of team we want to be. So that's all led to the I think the team being a really good place. I think it's a happy team. I think the recruitment has gone well. I think we are in a good place. But the culture that we have, it underpins everything we do. And I've gotten without it's the best thing that I've tried to introduce my time. 

Scott Brown  (24:14)  
That sounds great. I think a really good overview of the of that culture and the process that you went through and everyone being involved in defining that. How does that align with the business's values and culture?

Kenny Robertson  (24:28)  
So we've we have our five bank values and it aligns quite well for them. So there's us going through all of them and he says under pressure to try to remember all five, but there's things like inclusive, robust, sustainable, ambitious and curious. Well done me, I got to the five! So, things like curious is absolutely on point. Ambitious. I want us to be a high performing team. I want us to be the best we can be. And sustainable but we're talking earlier about ESG and human rights I mentioned that, you know, we became, I think the first UK bank to go outwith climate transition clauses and or templates for patch supply contracts we did that because we play with our head up we've been talking to the chancellor, what's going on how you can be, how can we get involved in this? How can we help support the bank's ESG agenda and the bank's climate goals. So it's the strong alignment, we were trying to be as a bank, particularly given the sort of technology agreements that we do more and more the bank is operating as a technology company that that happens to be in financial services. So both in terms of technical work that comes through the door, and and how we operate a huge opportunity for my team to be in a really nice place to positively impact where we're trying to go as a bank.

Scott Brown  (25:43)  
Excellent. Thanks for sharing those lessons, Kenny. Those are great and a really good insight into what it's like working in the working at the bank and what's got you to where you are today. Thank you for your time.

Kenny Robertson  (25:53)  
Thanks for having me. I've enjoyed it.

Scott Brown  (25:55)  
And anyone out there that's looking to reach out and flood your inbox with those requests for for a quick five minutes, how would they be best to reach out?

Kenny Robertson  (26:05)  
I'm on LinkedIn. That's probably easiest, then yes and I'll promise I'll not be a hypocrite and ignore you if you want to reach out. I promise I'll come back to you.

Scott Brown  (26:17)  
Thank you for listening. I hope you've enjoyed that lesson of Lessons I Learned in Law. If you have, then please subscribe over on your favourite podcast platform, whichever that might be. And if you've got any suggestions we're really keen on hearing your feedback, any suggestions of guests or, or topics that you would like us to cover in particular? Then reach out on hello@heriotbrown.com or drop me a message on LinkedIn. I've been Scott Brown. Thanks for listening. Till next time, bye!