Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved. We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.
Nicole Giantonio: Welcome to the Elevate Together podcast, voices of change in the business of law. Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the head of global marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next Normal Leadership Series featuring Elevate’s chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with general counsel from leading organizations, law firm managing partners, and law company CEOs about leading during this time of change.
Today’s guest is Monica Risam, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary of Lombard International, a global leader in wealth structuring solutions. A member of the global executive team, Monica is responsible for the legal, company secretarial, risk and compliance, and regulatory affairs teams. Liam and Monica discuss the power of being a generous leader, getting things done, and that leadership isn’t about being fast.
Liam Brown: Thank you for joining me for this discussion about leadership in law. I’ve got a number of questions that I’d like us to talk about. I think the first thing to do is to get to know you a little bit. Could you talk about the arc of your career that led you to the role that you have now, please?
Monica Risam: Sure! First, Liam, thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be on this podcast. My career started with a more traditional path. I went to law school in the states to Georgetown in D.C. Then I went to work in New York and London for a big Wall Street firm, Weil Gotshal, for almost five years. Then I made my first foray in a legal department and joined GE Capital, back when GE was one of the world’s biggest companies. That’s where I made the pivot from being, let’s say, a bright and enthusiastic private practice lawyer to learning how to be a business lawyer.
At the time, GE was very focused on developing talent, so I had a great seven years. I started as in-house counsel, supporting a business team, then had my first promotion to a general counsel role when several businesses were merged, and then took on another global GC role. Then, I hit a point where things were going on in my personal life, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I ended up leaving GE and joining Aviva – a global insurer at the time – as general counsel for Europe.
It was an exciting role because it was very senior-level in the organization, and I was working for another woman who was the group general counsel. I was given a bit of a blank slate. They said, “We’ve never had a GC for Europe – can you bring that together?” I was given three issues to think about, and from that, I evolved a team and traction within the European businesses. Then, since the only constant is change, I became the general counsel at the group center.
At the time, Aviva was going through a massive reorganization, and I led on several M&A transactions. I did that role for a couple of years, and then I was asked to become the life insurance business’s general counsel when Aviva bought Friends Life. That, back in 2015, was the biggest merger in the insurance sector in 15 years. So I was the general counsel and company secretary of the life business, which at that time was 80% of the group. So, it was a very large role.
Six years into my time at Aviva, they did another reorganization. By then, I had started to think about where I want to go next. I wanted to do a group general counsel role. In terms of succession, that was the next step. But it wasn’t imminent because there was no role to step into. I had been approached by Blackstone a few years before, but I wasn’t ready to leave Aviva. When the reorganization happened, and I realized I had nowhere else to go at Aviva, I started searching for different roles.
I interviewed for several roles and got very close to group general counsel roles for a couple of different organizations. I’d kept in touch with Blackstone, and when they found out I was planning to change jobs, they reached out and said, “We want you for this role.”
It was an interesting challenge and the next step in my career towards the c-suite. I’d been on the outskirts, flirting with it. But to step into the c-suite and have that opportunity to join a very high-quality leadership team for an extraordinarily high-quality private equity firm was very exciting. So, I joined Lombard in January 2018. Since then, we’ve had a number of changes. Lombard International is one of the largest companies within Blackstone’s Tac Ops group, the tactical opportunities group. It’s one of the more complex companies because of its financial services and multijurisdictional.
I started as the European general counsel with a plan to become the group general counsel. That was part of my contract, but it happened quicker than expected, which was great. I got to build the knowledge of our U.S. and Asia businesses. In April of this year, Stuart Parkinson from HSBC joined as Group CEO. That’s been very exciting for us, and he brought a completely different global perspective to the organization. As General Counsel and Company Secretary, in addition to legal, I’m also responsible for the regulatory affairs, compliance, and company secretarial teams.
I’m one of those general counsels who enjoys governance and board stuff. Sometimes people kind of fall on the other side of that equation, but I enjoy it. I find it fascinating to be in the boardroom and hearing the kinds of conversations and debates and learning from the executives and non-executives in that context. So, that’s where I am, and this is where I’ve been for a little while now.
Liam: Hearing your journey, how do you think the different hats you wear – I’m going to conflate all of your careers for a moment here – influence how you develop relationships with a board, a c-suite, and your team? How do you think about managing yourself, your relationships, and the interface with those different levels?
Monica: The difference between being in private practice and being in a legal department is you have to be interested, excited, and focused on the business. I’ve had opportunities in my career to return to private practice. It was very tempting because I always thought I wanted to be a law firm partner; that’s what I thought I would do in law school. But two things have always kept me in a legal department. One is wanting to see a business succeed and be part of that. I find that very exciting. The second is that I learn a lot. I feel like I have to keep learning every day. I never get bored.
My current job covers 20 geographies. I have a team of almost 50 talented people, not to mention my extended colleagues. So, I start with the business, and then I continue with the people. I firmly believe you spend 90% of your day at work and you should enjoy it and make it enjoyable for people around you. I can’t always claim to get it right, but I deeply care about nurturing talent. The biggest compliment I have had in that regard is the number of relationships I still have with people from my prior organizations who I continue to coach, mentor, and sponsor.
Back to your question, Liam, when it comes to how you navigate, if your true North Star and focus are the business and people, you can’t go wrong because that is important at every organization level. So, I’ve always really tried to build strong relationships. I consider it a 360-degree level. As a matter of personal values, I also firmly believe that you treat everyone the same, no matter what level they are in the organization. I do have to operate with slightly different hats on, as you said.
For a very chatty person who likes to challenge at times, the boardroom is not necessarily the place to do that when you’re wearing your company secretary hat. You kind of take on a different role in helping support the chairman and help the meetings and the governance run well. I always hope to be the kind of trusted advisor and sounding board for the CEO, and I think in my career, I’ve become braver at sometimes saying maybe we can look at things differently. You also have to work with people who want to hear that, and that’s a matter of relationships built over time, etc.
With my team, I always want them to feel that I’m there cheering for them and helping them grow in their careers. I often tell a couple of my direct reports when one day I leave this organization – if I do – I would love to be able to turn around and say, “My successor is in the organization, and I’ve helped develop them in that regard.” With extended colleagues, you have to build very strong alliances with people across different functions. I will say it’s challenging being a woman to do that in financial services. We all know that.
If you always start with being interested in other people and what they do, that helps. I always ask a lot of questions. I don’t believe that I can make the decisions and offer the judgments and the guidance that I have to give as General Counsel if I don’t understand the business problem. I don’t see that as a sign of weakness; I think that’s helped me navigate around the organizations I’ve been in as well.
Liam: You talked there about north stars, and I can see how, if you have that framework, you can apply it equally in any situation.
Monica: I have tried to, over time, reflect on how you bring people with you. At times, the difficulty can be that I might encourage other views, but because I reach judgments and opinions and think I have an answer to something, I’m not always embracing them. I worked with a coach on this, and my coach talked to me about a lovely concept. He calls it “curious eyes” versus “sharp eyes”. He said your default personality in law, where you’re being trusted, compensated, rewarded for making very factual judgments, can be quite black and white, and yet in your personal life, your friends are from every walk of life.
He said, “You don’t surround yourself with overachieving lawyers. You embrace all sorts of diverse views and interests, etc. Somehow, Monica, you don’t always merge them in your career. So, if you can genuinely, authentically, when someone’s talking, stop thinking about when you can speak, when’s it your turn, and hear them and try to understand their perspective. My gosh, that would be just the most powerful combination.” Liam; it’s something I continue to work on because my brain is often racing ahead.
To your point about bringing people along with you, that has sometimes been a challenge. People have told me “Monica, sometimes the train has left the station with you, and people really want to be on that train with you, but sometimes may have not seen things as quickly.” Not to say that they’re not bright; they’re just looking at it through a different lens. When I look at my team now, I have people in the U.S. and Europe, and a lot of my team are in Luxemburg. My team covers many different nationalities. French versus Italian versus Belgium and, they each have very different ways of approaching things.
In a way, my current role has been the perfect storm to make me lean into that and face it because I am dealing with different types of styles, nationalities, and genders yet everyone wants to achieve the right thing for the business. It’s forced me to slow down and take time to incorporate those views. Again, I continue working on it because we still work in financial services at a fast pace. I don’t always think I do it as brilliantly as I should, but I think I’ve grown in that regard, particularly in the last year or so.
Liam: So much of what you said resonates with me. Working with people from different nationalities, different cultural backgrounds, I suffer from some of the same, quickly looking at a spreadsheet and immediately the cell that’s wrong or looking at a document and immediately seeing the typo and directly jumping to all sorts of conclusions that don’t bring people along. But working with different people from different nationalities has caused me to stumble occasionally. Things like my worldview, what I surface, I have a point of view about x, y, or z, and you have that moment when you realize oh, I think I’ve just said something that either offends someone or simply doesn’t provide space or an understanding of where they’ve come from.
There’s that moment of awareness, which I’m sure I didn’t have in my 20s or even early 30s, that moment of “Oh wow, I’ve closed that person down.” The curious eyes versus sharp eyes example, you’ve had people in your life who have helped you and mentored you. How did you find people that could be your guides?
Monica: Liam, it’s sort of taken two different approaches. Sometimes, it’s been offered to me formally through being on a succession plan and someone saying we want you to have a mentor. It’s often just been people I’ve developed relationships with, and I still have those strong relationships. My first boss at GE is still a mentor to this day.
I love this concept that I once heard at a women’s leadership event I went to about having a personal board of directors. When you make important decisions in life, there’s a number of people you consult with. I might consult with my parents, my husband, these mentors, my best friends. So, over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to have gathered many amazing people on my personal board of directors, and I think the key to having kept those relationships going has been a combination of me making an effort and them willing to provide their time.
There have been mentors that have been just there for a discreet purpose or time. However, the ones that have been the people I still pick up the phone to when I was thinking about whether I would take this job, for example, they’re the ones I would say have helped me think about which opportunity of those presented to me I should go for. So, I’ve been very lucky and fortunate that I’ve found people who have been very generous with their time, and it’s something that I truly believe in reflecting on my own values by giving back to others.
How I do it with other people is that I’m very open about the things that I’ve done well and the things I could have done differently as a manager and as a leader. I’m pretty open about that, which has helped me develop relationships where I am now handing tips over to other people. I come from wanting to grow and truly continue to evolve as a leader. I’m very open about that. I don’t have a lot of time, so I don’t read books as much as I probably should. I try and live with life lessons. I try and ask for feedback. I sometimes have to bravely face uncomfortable conversations if I don’t think I’ve done something the right way.
I try to check in with people about how they feel, what more they need from me, but the biggest takeaway I’ve found for me has been slowing down because when I’m running at 120 miles per hour, it’s quite overpowering for some people. The real shift in my leadership journey on this, Liam, was realizing that going 120 miles per hour and giving 250%, which has resulted in being rewarded and promoted, etc. in my career didn’t necessarily help me become a better leader. I had to switch from being an individual contributor and making it about me, and everyone looks at how well I’m doing so I should be promoted, etc., to take that step back.
I have read a number of really good articles in Harvard Business Review, etc. – about that switch when people have gone from being super high achievers to taking that step back to allow other people to do it. Also realizing that that’s not a comment on you not being a high achiever anymore; it’s just about being at that next stage and not needing to constantly prove that I’m the one behind something. That’s part of my personality. It comes back to something that also we used to have as a very important concept at GE.
They call it PIE, Performance Image Exposure, and the foundation of that was lawyers often think that you’re going to get rewarded through your performance. Just because you do your job well, naturally, someone should realize that and help you get to the next level. At GE, they would say that performance is just 10% of it. That’s a given. You’ve got to be excellent at what you do, but then it’s about your image and exposure. So, your image is the part you can control, and that’s the part about the energy you bring to a meeting, how you make people feel, and then the exposure is sometimes a combination of what your boss can give you, your own exposure, etc. But if you see it as the whole together, you realize that’s the key to growing in your career, getting promoted, and getting the next role.
I think sometimes the dark side of that was the image became too much about myself. Over the past three or four years, going through different experiences and different organizations has helped me grow in that regard and realize that it’s so powerful to be that generous leader who takes a step back to help other people shine.
Liam: Monica, in preparation for talking with you, I’ve read you’ve got views on getting things done, change, and micromanaging. How have you learned, or what have you learned? Perhaps it’s looking back in some ways. you look back on the 20-year younger version of you. You now work with all of these other young professionals. What are your philosophies about getting things done and how you get things done through the team?
Monica: I see it as a little bit of an iceberg approach. Sometimes I just need to float above, and sometimes I need to deep dive in because the board or the CEO expects me to be all over a topic. The things that have been effective for me have been to make sure that I’m communicative with my team about why I’m getting involved when I get involved. Some of the things that came out with COVID that we had to do to implement distance selling were very critical to the business.
I was making sure that our team was delivering it. I was driving it at a senior level, but bringing the team with me and also knowing when the team needed to step forward and own the various parts of these processes we needed to put in place. So, I would say it shifts. You have to know when it’s the time to make a stand because you are the one who’s responsible. You have to do that as the general counsel often. But doing it in an informed way, communicating back to your team, letting them know why you’re getting involved in a topic, and I do try and do that quite a lot, but also sometimes just saying to them, let’s talk through the issue.
Sometimes they’re waiting for me to make the judgment call, and I think sometimes hierarchical organizations are like that. I just try to empower them by asking “What do you think we should do? How would you approach it?” Sometimes I’ll agree with that, and sometimes I won’t. If I don’t, I might suggest how to think about it differently. Ultimately though, I always tell my team when things happen. Behind the scenes, within our team, we can debrief, do a post-mortem, etc, but in our front face to the business, we’re one team, and we’re joined up, and I have your back. I say that to my team always. I will never throw anyone under the bus.
Sometimes things don’t get signed; mistakes get made. They’re not seismic, but guess what, that’s life. No one does their job perfectly all the time. Whenever something happens, my first answer is “Okay, how do we fix it? Let’s fix it”, and after that, “What could we have done differently?” I think that I try to empower them. But there are moments where it does become a call for the general counsel so you have to be clear about why that is, because I don’t want them to feel like they’re not trusted to do that, sometimes it’s just the nature of the role. I believe with my team when I talk about that they have a great degree of maturity also to get that. Ultimately, we’re all rising and falling together.
The organization is very sales-driven, so our raison d’etre is to support the sales team but keep the company safe. When everyone has that common framework, I think, as individuals, you work well together. The other thing I also try to do is create an adult to adult dynamic with my team. These are also seasoned professionals. Sometimes in the past, when a relationship becomes more parent/child, it’s not the healthiest environment in the workplace because then you’re not empowering people.
So, as I said, I’m not trying to make out that I get this right all the time, Liam, but the things that stick with me in terms of the mantras I live by are around trying to empower people, support them, and challenge when you need to. Our Group HR director reminded me of this quote from Maya Angelou, which is so profound that I think it probably gave me the best dose of remembering curious eyes that I’ve ever heard, which was – I’m going to read it to make sure I get it right. You will have heard it before, I’m sure. “People will forget what you did and what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”