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The Soft Touch: Focusing on People

CEEIHM Issue 1.2.
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Elena Iacob, Head of Legal and Compliance at Alliance Healthcare Romania, reports that GCs need to focus on soft skills and empathy in today’s world.

A Career Choice

For Elena Iacob, Head of Legal and Compliance at Alliance Healthcare Romania, the primary motivation to venture into the field of law was her desire to help people. “Ever since high school, I have aspired to provide help to others, to have a real impact through my work” she recalls. “In order to do so, I went back and forth between becoming a doctor or a lawyer. However, I soon realized that being around people who are very ill, affected me too hard and that it was just not for me.” Still, Iacob is quick to express her profound respect for doctors who, in her opinion, really have to have superpowers to do their job.

“I still wanted to do good, to interact with people, and to be exposed to different situations and problems to solve, so I decided to become a legal adviser,” Iacob explains, admitting that she was also attracted by the idea of finding solutions to complex problems.

So, right after finishing law school, in 2003, Iacob started her career as a junior legal advisor at Romanian distribution company Interbrands. “When my former boss asked me in the job interview where I saw myself in five years, I said ‘in your place’,” she recalls with a laugh. What began as a joke became a reality for Iacob in 2008, when she was promoted to Chief Counsel at the company. “At that moment, I discovered that the power of our thoughts and wishes is not fictional, but that we can reach our goals through positive thinking and proactivity, passion for our work and stubbornness (the positive kind).” 

Iacob spent nine years at Interbrands – a period she describes as an important experience that shaped her as a professional and a human being as much as her formal education did. However, over time Iacob began exploring ideas of other ways in which certain cases and legal issues could be handled. “When I started asking myself these questions, I knew it was time for a change,” she says.

In 2012 she joined Coca-Cola Hellenic in Romania, and in 2018 she moved to Alliance Healthcare, where she has been ever since. “After 15 years in the FFC industry, I wanted to get closer to people,” she says, emphasizing that her current company’s primary goal is to help people, which put it on the front lines of the struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. “I felt that with my knowledge and experience I could support my company on its mission to deliver vaccines and medication to patients on time.”

Business with Empathy

“In life and in our practice we are faced with high-pressure, stressful situations,” Iacob states. In her opinion, it is important to see how people handle themselves in such situations. When push comes to shove, “the usual instinctive reaction is to find the guilty person who caused the problem.” In Iacob’s opinion, this approach is wrong. “Instead, we have to invest our energy in figuring out a solution, because searching for a ‘guilty person’ is just a huge waste of energy and time,” she notes, while adding: “This does not mean that we should not find time to pause, reflect, and learn from our mistakes.”

She works to spread this belief to her colleagues. “I try to be the person who reminds others that we are a team and that we need to put our knowledge, energy, and resources on the table and see how we can make things better,” she explains. 

However, handling issues in a rational and calm manner is easier said than done, as people are often guided by emotions. “Nowadays it is obvious that digitalization is the name of the game,” she says. “However, we are not robots and we cannot just push a button to deliver a review of a 50-page complex contract, for example. People sometimes have feelings which come in the way of doing work.” For that reason, Iacob insists that it is crucial to develop soft skills and empathy. 

And that need is particularly potent today, during a global, crippling pandemic. “I see that many people around me are afraid of the unknown, the uncertainty that surrounds the current setting,” Iacob says. “Fear causes pressure – and everyone has been under a lot of it recently.” As a result, she says, people at work lose sight of things that need to be done and delivered. To counteract this phenomenon, Iacob works to mitigate the negative effects of the pressure-heavy environment her team works in, helping them understand and reconcile their sometimes-contradictory feelings. “I told my team that I am there for them and they can always share their feelings and thoughts with me to take the time to de-focus from work, explore their feelings, and understand them.” In this effort, and because of the pandemic, tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet have come in handy.

She stresses that an even more important tool is good humor. “That is why I always try to open meetings with a joke, or try to insert one when I feel discussions might get tense,” she says. “Another useful method is to ask people about personal things, such as their children, plans for holidays, or what they have been up to lately.”

In Another Person’s Shoes 

However, Iacob believes that before you can understand and help your fellow human being, first you need to feel what they feel. That is where empathy comes in. “We are all managing this stressful situation that presented itself this year,” she says, noting that this awareness that “we are all feeling the stress,” in turn, caused a general feeling of being understood. 

On the other hand, Iacob’s points out, it is difficult to separate people from their job. “My role at the company is not only to understand and help people but also to protect the business,” she says. “I have to make sure the business’s profit and growth are not only sustainable but also legally sound,” she explains. “Otherwise, the company might not only be fined but also have its reputation tarnished.”

Ultimately, Iacob believes that in order to help professionals deliver optimal solutions, you need to understand not only them but also the business. “Sometimes, lawyers provide solutions without necessarily understanding the business side of things.” To change that, Iacob always tries to find a tailored solution. “Don’t tell people ‘no,’ because they really don’t like that,” she says. “Show them that you are trying to improve on what they gave you, in order to find something that works in the end.” Still, in doing so, she says it is best for her to communicate in such a way that her team members can understand her role and her expectations. “I have to deliver the message that I am not their enemy,” she says. Instead, they should understand that she is there to listen to their ideas, while looking to identify sustainable and compliant business solutions.

This article was published in issue 1.2 of CEE In-House Matters. The full edition is available here in pdf format, here in e-reader format, and here in electronic format.

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