How to work with leadership teams at a fintech

Ed Freeman, 26 November 2020

What do fintech founders and CEOs expect from their in-house legal team? And what skills and qualities do you need to work effectively with them? Ed Freeman, GC at Tandem Bank, shares his insights.

This is a chapter from our eBook, 'The fintech GC survival guide'. Download for free now.

Working as an in-house lawyer in financial services isn’t always the most dynamic experience. I’ve worked in huge legal teams at powerful institutions before, but as a lawyer there you’re often passed down a message, telling you what’s going to happen and your likely role in it. Results might be impressive, but your contribution as a lawyer might seem small.

Working at a high-growth fintech is different. The concept of ‘fintech’, in the UK, is still only a few years old, and yet the sector is already worth billions. In my experience, as the legal leader of a fintech, you’ll be making an impact from day one - and working constantly with colleagues right at the top of the organization.

A lawyer joining a typical organization might expect to start by picking up day-today processes, sketching out a plan for the year ahead, and starting to identify key risks. When I joined Tandem in 2018, we’d just acquired our banking license, and from day one I was working on getting a major funding round over the line, working directly with Tandem’s founder and CEO, Ricky Knox.

Looking at the scope of the role, I was expecting to be working on a wide range of tasks, but it quickly became apparent that the most valuable use of my time was to support the CEO on strategic projects. Standard legal fare like commercial contracts had to be managed, of course - but the CEO’s strategic projects, and those of the rest of the leadership team, would be the top priority.

While this can make prioritization a challenge, it’s also really rewarding. Instead of passively receiving tasks from the business, as GC I have the opportunity to be in the room where decisions are made, contributing my judgement and helping to steer the ship. But what do fintech founders and CEOs expect from lawyers? And what skills and qualities does a lawyer need to work effectively with them?

Part of working successfully with founders and CEOs is knowing when you don’t need to work with them

Better visibility, better results 🙈

The CEO of an established, 100-year-old bank is not likely to be somebody with whom you’ll have a lot of access. You might see them in a lift from time to time, or giving a presentation when quarterly results come out. The CEO of a challenger bank is more available, they don’t sit in an office in an ivory tower, but rather at a desk amongst everyone else. In my case, we’re fortunate to have a CEO who’s passionate, energetic and great to work with.

The enforced remote working that came with the COVID-19 crisis has made this even more acute, with video calls constantly being booked not just into the CEO’s diary, but those of the rest of the leadership team with whom I work with too. Now that I can’t walk over and get quick decisions with a 30-second conversation, it’s more important than ever to understand which decisions and judgements really need to come from the very top, and which I can handle myself.

Tandem has a legal team of two, so we’re not exactly flooded with resources. I also act as Company Secretary and I’m accountable for investor relations. The only way we can prioritize the key strategic projects directly, and manage ExCo’s exposure to them, is by making sure we have visibility into everything happening at the senior level. Having constant catch-ups with the various leaders in the business is a great way for me to stay on top of what’s going on, so I can make the call as to which legal questions need to be escalated.

It’s a cliché of course, but legal sometimes needs to act as a counterbalance to the different skillsets elsewhere in the leadership team. We’re fortunate enough to have plenty of experienced colleagues with that entrepreneurial mindset so crucial for rapid growth. Occasionally the legal and risk teams need to bring the more structured, rigorous, detail-oriented viewpoint to risk mitigation. What my CEO wants from me is smart, pragmatic advice, and a focus on delivery to keep up with the pace of change here. But most importantly, what he wants from me is the same thing he wants from everyone else: results.

Less is more 👌

The key to not just getting results, but making sure your leadership team has visibility of them, is knowing what work needs to be done quietly in the background. It’s a point of pride for me and my team that we take care of a huge volume of work autonomously, without needing to escalate to the leadership team. Part of working successfully with founders and CEOs is knowing when you don’t need to work with them.

Making that happen means taking an outcome-oriented approach, applying situational awareness to highlight legal risks when I need to, and back off when I don’t. I send my CEO a short list of the key legal priorities for the week ahead each Friday, and everything else is just handled. Talking for the sake of talking in ExCo standups is to be avoided - only the highest-priority matters need to be raised.

Highest amongst those priorities is fundraising. We’ve raised new capital multiple times since I joined the business, and those projects are led by a small agile team of just myself, our CEO, and a handful of people around the business. To be ready for a funding round, there’s a huge amount of work to get through, from the modelling of financials, completing due diligence and to the negotiation of the deal documentation.

To survive and thrive working closely with leadership at a high-growth fintech, there’s one quality you’ll need above all others: resilience

When I joined in 2018, from the word ‘go’ I was right in the thick of NDAs, term sheets, data rooms, due diligence and investor queries. While the CEO is making the commercial calls, he’s unlikely to want to read a 70-page document every day once it’s had its latest revisions from outside counsel. It has to be down to my judgement to find, highlight and advise on the key points.

In parallel, as Company Secretary, I also need to line everything up with the board, nail down the governance process, make deal timelines clear and follow all the relevant processes for shareholder approval. Getting every signature is a mammoth task, and after the champagne corks have been popped, there’s a whole universe of post-completion matters that need taking care of too.

Throw in investor relations and I really do have my hands full. Handling our investor base is a natural fit given elements of the Company Secretary workload. It’s a rewarding part of the role - it forces you to up your game on the financial side, and it helps to get even more ingrained in the business and the leadership team.

To survive and thrive working closely with leadership at a high-growth fintech, there’s one quality you’ll need above all others: resilience. The ability not just to keep a calm head, but help others keep their calm too, is a quality I hadn’t realized I needed too often in the past. But the breadth and pace of work you face as General Counsel at a company like Tandem makes it a necessity. Develop that resilience and not only will you make it through your company’s scaling journey - you’ll actively contribute to it.

This is a chapter from our eBook, 'The fintech GC survival guide'. Download now, and discover how better legal processes can enable growth at a high-velocity fintech. 

Topics: Legal operations

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