2020 has been a year of transformational change. As General Counsels navigate through even more changes on the horizon - politically, economically, and culturally - they must learn how to be great at change. We were fortunate to sit down with Ileana Falticeni, General Counsel of GoodData to get her thoughts on the importance of not only managing change, but at times being a catalyst for change.
Change is an energy and it’s constant. When I refer to it as a concept, it’s in order to reflect on what change means to you, relative to your comfort zone. When I refer to it as an activity, I refer to two types: (i) external factors affecting your industry, business or company environment and (ii) the GC as a conduit or catalyst for change inside the company. A GC’s comfort level with the concept is translated directly into how successfully the GC is able to act. The more comfortable you are to push past your comfort zone, the more likely you are to embrace change, to act as a thought leader in your company and to shape your career.
We’re all familiar with the external factors impacting our businesses in 2020, and as GCs, we know that helping our companies navigate through them is what our Board, CEO and company are counting on. This comes with a lot of competing constituencies and objectives and it’s not easy to know how you, as the GC in the midst of so much external pressure, can act as the conduit or catalyst for change in the right direction for your company. Of course, a GC being “right” is not absolute (wouldn’t that be nice?), but you will have a thoughtful view on what your company ought to do to successfully navigate your business into 2021.
This means being comfortable to articulate your ideas, initiate change or drive change to an outcome. These are critical business skills and there’s no formula to develop how to be effective at them. There are many ways. For me, agnostic of the country, industry or company I was working in, being effective has depended on the amount of effort I’ve put into:
Becoming a trusted business partner and being able to influence an outcome is an evolution that never ends - you never arrive at being “trusted” and just “make change”. You have good days when your voice is heard and bad days when you feel you’re pushing a boulder uphill in molasses. Distilling advice from a (few) mentor CEO(s), becoming trusted is similar to a process of building up credibility like pennies in the bank - one at a time, saving them up, and knowing when to spend (a bit like the Gambler, but that’s another article altogether). Their advice for building credibility as a GC:
You couldn’t conduct your role as a GC without access to a tremendous amount of company information across all functions. When you’re aiming for change, it’s likely because you’re trying to improve or re-direct something that’s gone awry. You can use the vast source of data points at your disposal to inform your viewpoint on the best course of action and to influence an outcome within the company. Canvass what you know from your interactions with customers and partners about revenue, from vendors on costs, from key activities like contracting about internal operations efficacy, from your balance sheet about the factors affecting your company’s runway and the terms for the company’s capitalization, and most importantly from employees about… everything really. Gather information about your sales activities (missed numbers or poor growth), churn or customer satisfaction issues, employee turnover or complaints, product pivoting, competitive losses, or investor/Board confidence issues. Most importantly, check in with your own instinct (ignore at your peril) and take the great advice from great peer networks like TechGC and (for me) the Women’s General Counsel Network… thanks to all, I’ve skirted some whoppers!
Sometimes you can’t be effective at change; you have to ease into it based on what happens around you. There’s so much external change that it’s impossible for you or your management to have a clear direction about the best course of action. The best you can do is plan for shifting, parallel possibilities (and say it ten times fast while meditating). This involves (i) identifying credible, parallel paths of action, (ii) knowing the degree of unknowns in each path, and (iii) planning how to optimize the outcome for each path depending upon which one emerges. It sounds like chess, but it’s much more like backgammon - the dice you’re dealt can matter much more than your skill.
I love change. I didn’t realize that until I went in-house at Barclays in London, after practicing US securities law for six years in private practice. Since then, it’s been a journey of change every 6-12 months and I’ve never looked back. I transitioned to the Barclays Compliance team in 2006 at a time that Barclays was adding legal muscle to its risk management activities. Every few months I was charged with solving legacy problems in new functions, with new teams (or building them), and operationalizing legal requirements into technology and good behavior. No easy task - if you think engineers don’t like change, try bankers! The Financial Crisis hit (aptly named) and we worked around the clock to figure out why and navigate the daily changes around us. Regulators gave us the green light to purchase Lehman Brothers and their prescribed merger timelines meant squeezing a year’s worth of technology and risk management activities into 2 weekends of work. After that, the changes only accelerated. In 2011, I joined TD Bank in its Toronto headquarters for (what I thought was a temporary role) and became a part of their regulatory transformation journey for 3 years. That journey proved to be one of the most meaningful times in my career because I truly acted as an agent for change. Dodd Frank requirements had reached TD Bank, and a strategic response was needed to bring cohesion to a thousand tactical implementations. The only answer was a single, cross-silo solution bringing together a $200-550MM+ budget, 450+ personnel and 150+ business applications across 6 different business lines, with accountability to the TD Bank Board, the GC and the CRO. I was told it couldn’t be done - but it worked, and I’ll never again doubt the power of information to influence change. By 2014, I knew I wanted to be in the heart of the technology innovation wave and I moved to San Francisco. I quickly got a sense of the landscape working with Compliance.ai, an amazing AI-driven RegTech aimed at financial services. Leveraging the extensive enterprise, regulatory and change management experience from past life, I found a home in FinTech with CloudLending and became a GC. I found I could easily abstract learnings from previous experience and apply them to my new business. After a successful M&A exit in 2018, I joined GoodData, a leading BI and analytics company, and quickly deep dived into more complex technology activities.
If my goal is to always find change, I’m not disappointed. Any industry based on data is constantly on the move. The company also embraces change; for the past short while, it’s been focused on driving innovation across product, platform, customer service and culture. A bit of background: established in 2007, GoodData is a mature private company with offices in San Francisco and a large subsidiary in the Czech Republic. The CEO and engineering team are relentless about innovation: platform changes have resulted in a new architecture and a new front-end, and product changes offer customers multiple product options through a single BI stack ((1) hosted and fully supported by GoodData, (2) available on cloud data warehouses as well as public and private clouds already used by customers, or (3) on-premise or public clouds for customers with data sensitivity issues or large volumes of data). In Q2 of this year, GoodData doubled down in this hybrid BI strategy with a strategic investment from Visa and it’s been full-speed ahead, under the leadership of a CEO who constantly reaches for new heights. In the midst of so much activity I stay focused on the relationships and on building trust, offering parallel paths for getting things done while introducing my own thoughts along the way (sometimes using up my pennies in the bank…).
From a legal perspective, the innovations have meant introducing even more change to the company. In an effort to improve, re-invent and scale simultaneously, we focused on re-defining Legal leadership and operations; facilitating product demands related to new development, licensing models, vendors and globalization goals; increasing revenue and decreasing costs through thoughtful planning for customer, partner and vendor relationships; optimizing our debt and equity profiles; and managing legal and regulatory risk associated with regulatory pivoting and privacy and data protection changes. Then 2020 arrived, with its multitude of external changes, and it’s meant re-visiting all of our Legal objectives to help the company navigate in a very challenging environment.
It’s hard to know where to focus first. 2020 has been stunning in the unpredictability, the intensity, the volume and the interconnectedness of change - simultaneously. The general consensus is that we’ve not seen the end of new external events.
External changes don’t affect us equally, but in some shape or form, we’re all managing the business impact related to:
I don’t think the nature of the GC role will be affected; it’s already very broad. The factors that make a GC successful are expanding. CEOs and management teams are looking for you to contribute to the business resiliency strategies that are proving successful in this period, including a laser focus on existing customers and product stickiness; a deep, detailed knowledge of target customers, their industries and behaviors; a transition to business models with high visibility into revenue, such as high margin variable cost businesses and subscription based businesses; a reduction in fixed costs, especially commercial real estate; and employee retention, employee diversity, and building a remote workforce.
Separately, everyone in your company is looking to you for crisis management, dealing with the next unpredictable change, and your compassion. This is where being a trusted business partner really matters. More than ever, your company needs a thoughtful voice.
And most importantly, your community is looking for the benefit of your experience in any way you share it! Thanks to all who contribute to our collective knowledge in TechGC!