Coping With COVID-19: Respect, Adaptability, and a Human Touch

CEEIHM Issue 1.2.
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Zsuzsanna Lippai, Legal and Compliance Manager at Mercedes-Benz, explains how she had to adapt her negotiation style in a COVID-19 world.

CEEIHM: Please tell our readers about your career leading up to your current role with Mercedes-Benz.

Zsuzsanna: During and after my university studies, I worked for several international companies (including Procter & Gamble and Friesland) where I gained solid legal and compliance experience in multinational and multicultural environments. Since 2007, I have been working at Mercedes-Benz Hungaria Kft. as Legal and Compliance Manager.

CEEIHM: This has been a challenging year for many companies/in-house counsel. What did you find to be the biggest challenges for your function?

Zsuzsanna: Home office – as a new working arrangement caused by the pandemic – led to a new form of collaboration. This was a sudden change. Previously, I also had the opportunity to work from home, but not for such a long time. Thus, I had to switch from personal meetings to only virtual communication.

New technologies – and the digital transformation – came into focus in the course of my day-to-day work, including the digitalization of workflows and preparation for the more extensive use of the electronic approval process.

Moreover, the need for and importance of legal support for events and sponsorships, as well as the carrying out of orders significantly increased. We had to react to our partners’ inquiries in order to reschedule cooperation programs, and, if possible, postpone them.

I did my utmost to act proactively and provide legal guidance to my colleagues immediately after the state of emergency was declared. My objective was to enable them to react to the situation positively, so that they would be aware of the different legal eventualities and possibilities, including questions about whether the pandemic could be deemed a force majeure event.

There was greater pressure on everyone to solve the unexpected situation in the best possible way so that their businesses could survive the pandemic and they were able to keep themselves and their loved ones in good health. Understandably, this situation led to tensions and potentially uncomfortable discussions.

CEEIHM: If you had to identify one element that helped you out the most in all of these, what would you point to?

Zsuzsanna: I was sure about one thing: it is worth finding win-win solutions with our business partners and customers. Our main purpose was to maintain fruitful cooperation in the future, too, with a legally well-grounded solution. 

One of our key corporate values is respect. It is important for us to treat our customers and business partners with respect. During this time we implemented this principle into practice. 

CEEIHM: And how does this "respect" apply in practice – say, in the uncomfortable negotiations you highlighted earlier?

Zsuzsanna: One example occurred when a customer approached one of our authorized dealers and said that they could not take over a vehicle put in production due to unforeseen circumstances surrounding COVID-19. I provided, of course, a legally adequate answer, however, I pointed out that the preferred option would be to accelerate the production process if technically possible. This way we can make sure that our partners appreciate that we seek a solution and as the situation allows, they will take the vehicle over and we retain them as our satisfied and loyal customers.

CEEIHM: I assume that applying a human touch often necessitates a form of compromise from your side as well? What were some of the main arguments you used internally to nudge the company towards these compromises? 

Zsuzsanna: It goes without saying that a situation like COVID-19 requires more adaptability from everyone. We all had to work in a way different from our usual practice and we were all under pressure.

The key issue we faced in remote working with new collaboration methods was ensuring effective communication, especially to get your ideas through to other people.

We did not have any problems with this specific aspect as my colleagues immediately accepted my arguments. I always try to put an emphasis on explaining my point of view in a clear and factual manner, which I try to demonstrate with examples. I have always been a lawyer with an entrepreneurial mindset, so I took the business side into consideration more naturally, and I also pointed it out in my legal advice. 

CEEIHM: How do you, as a head of legal, go about developing the soft skills needed within your team to incorporate this kind of an approach? 

Zsuzsanna: I do not have my own team, but I work with external law firms. The way we cooperate fits perfectly into my holistic legal view of the impact of our legal support, both in the short term and for the long run.

I believe that people develop their soft skills over time to become effective team members. Luckily, I have always had strong interpersonal skills, which helped me during these times. I believe that showing your human side in your communications is becoming increasingly valuable. 

In the future, there will be a need for a mix of soft skills and hard skills, in which the soft skills will get an even bigger focus than ever before. I am convinced that the combination of these skills will be the determinant factors of success. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have reached out to a couple of people with whom I had not been in daily contact before. This has become a weekly practice for me. I usually ask them how they are doing. This way, I make sure that I maintain strong connections with all my contacts. 

CEEIHM: How, if at all, do you expect this will influence negotiations with the different stakeholders of the company in the long run?

Zsuzsanna: I believe I have built a trustful atmosphere with the people with whom I collaborate and I expect this will influence our smooth cooperation with them in the future as well, all while also aiming to maintain a strong professional legal position within the company.

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.