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As a partner at Dentons, Hartley Lefton helps clients figure out how their businesses should be innovating even when the industry itself is not conducive to change, takes over the regulatory legalese, and finds ways for innovative organizations to move forward. We asked him about what it means to support and inform the intrapreneurship in both startups and large, multinational organizations.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How would you define it?

To me, intrapreneurship means being entrepreneurial within an environment that is not necessarily entrepreneurial. This would be in an industry that is not known for innovation or risk-taking, like accounting or – in my case – law, but would also apply to organizations of a size that makes it challenging to practice entrepreneurship as we normally think of it, like government.

I have had the opportunity to take my practice places that I did not necessarily intend. So for example, I have worked for many years with large financial institutions and have a good understanding of the regulatory environment. I also do a lot of work with startups. The nexus of these two client sets has naturally led to a growth in fintech and insurtech work, as I understand the really key issues that both of these groups are considering.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies and people start off thinking really big and then end up either doing the same thing day after day, or making minor improvements to an existing product or service. I think that intrapreneurship means taking a step back and asking not just “what are we doing?” or “how can we do better at what we do?”, but also “what should we be doing?”

Tell me about your day job: how do you do what you do? What motivates you to keep moving forward?

I am a business lawyer at Dentons, and I work with intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and people at different institutions to help provide solutions to their business problems. The best part of my job and my motivator to keep moving forward is helping clients solve problems that are crucial to their businesses, including some really complicated questions.

I enjoy getting to know my clients and their businesses very well – some really impressive people doing unbelievable things. I am happy to support them and take things off their plates so they can focus on building their businesses.

Describe the latest most interesting project you have worked on. What happened? What are the results of your work?

A lot of my most interesting projects recently have related to what I call “near-insurance” or “near-finance”, helping companies provide services and products that are finance-like or insurance-like to their clients, but without tripping the wires that cause them to fall under the complicated and strict financial regulatory system.

We have been very successful at working with clients on these efforts, both traditional companies and innovative companies who are doing fascinating things to help fill a hole in the market and provide a valuable service to their clients.

I find that we get the best results by building in legal and regulatory quality at the front end – it is much easier to design something right and compliant at the outset than it is to launch something that has a regulatory problem and then deal with regulatory issues afterwards, such as fines, regulatory investigations or ‘cease and desist’ orders that can really interfere with a business.

Which company / large organization in your mind is doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by? Who are you mentored by?

The companies that do innovation well are the companies that understand their internal barriers to innovation. As they say, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it – so if you realize that you are of a size or in an industry that is resistant to change or entrepreneurship, building internal innovation teams or giving people incentives to design or embrace innovation can be very effective.

Encouraging innovation can start with something as simple as changing your culture with respect to meetings or conference calls. So much of my day is blocked off with commitments that are important and completely justifiable, but also get in the way of innovation or thinking or otherwise just getting things done. The risk is that you get stuck in execution mode the whole time (“what are we doing” and “how can we do it better”) and not in innovation mode (“what should we be doing”). I struggle with this, to the point where I now block off time for some of the higher-level thinking and I will not intrude on that time unless a client or colleague needs me and I can block off other time within the next couple of days or ideally that same day.

I feel inspired by a lot of my clients who are working hard to change how consumers deal with finance or with sales or with technology or any of a number of other really interesting fields, and I try to spend time with people doing very different things and dealing with very different challenges. I really like speaking with friends and clients who are dealing with the same challenges as I am, for example in government, in infrastructure, in finance and other businesses. Within our firm, we have a very effective mentorship program, but for me the inspiration comes from informal mentorship, and the people I work with who care about making our firm the place where the best lawyers provide the best support to our clients. I look at the clients and what they’re doing, and I want to help them do things that are actually changing the world. I am really thrilled and proud to help people who are designing and working on important things.

What’s your best advice for the intrapreneurs and companies interested in nurturing the culture of innovation? How do you spot – and overcome – the barriers to move things forward?

This is much more art than science, but the first thing to think about is firm culture. Intrapreneurs looking to make their mark should look for find senior mentors when necessary to help clear some runway for them. When you create an environment of change and stay organized, it can ultimately lead to very important progress within a firm or organization in the years ahead.

I encourage people looking to innovate not to focus on ROI too quickly, and to focus on strategy and goals, not tactics. Similarly, there is such thing as a productive loss. We can and should celebrate wins, but we should learn from failures since those can provide real value.

There’s a danger in falling into your industry group and becoming isolated, and indeed, I do speak to lawyers all the time. But I get the best ideas from speaking to people in fields outside of law. A lot of them deal with the same issues I do, but from within institutions that can be change-averse, even if they’re client-centric. Working with them through problems and innovations usually leads to better practices and stronger ideas on how to effect change in these kinds of environments

Hartley Lefton

Partner - Business Transactional and Regulatory Lawyer Dentons

Hartley Lefton, J.D., M.B.A., is a Partner - Business Transactional and Regulatory Lawyer at Dentons in Toronto.