Liberis general counsel Alexis Alexander explains how legal teams can retain the listening ear of the exec board post Covid-19 and continue offering a voice that isn’t just about highlighting risk, but asking the right and often overlooked questions that allow for better strategic decisions to be made.
CBILS and the furlough scheme are coming to an end, how do you think this will impact small businesses?
Liberis is an alternative finance provider to SMEs so this really is central to what we are all about. I think for many business and especially their employees, there will be a case of delaying the inevitable as the use of furlough and CBILS will not be enough especially in light of the impending second lockdown for these businesses to survive. A lot of our customers are literally living hand to mouth and don’t have the kinds of reserves that larger businesses have to cope with such intense turmoil in the economy. The other problem is it is exactly these types of businesses who are often unable to obtain bank credit because they don’t meet the rigid credit requirements. The good news is there are actually some great alternative finance providers out there like Liberis who can help these SMEs. I have a natural bias of course ???? but Liberis’ business model has always been to serve these underserved businesses. We advance a lump some of money in exchange for purchasing a small percentage of the SME’s card transactions: this means that when a merchant isn’t selling we aren’t taking a fixed monthly repayment like a bank. This allows the SME breathing space and is positive for their cash flow. It is down to the government and industry bodies to get the word out about these alternatives: a lot of SMEs don’t even realise they have options outside of the traditional bank model. CBILS is a helpful initiative (and Liberis is an accredited CBILS provider) but it is not a long-term solution: these alternative financing platforms are.
How can General Counsel shift their mindset from firefighting to growth enabling?
One thing I have tried to do throughout the COVID 19 crisis, is to not take my eye off the North Star completely. Crises are just that: temporary periods of turbulence. They need to be addressed quickly and appropriately but there has to be life after the crisis. So whilst I was executing on all the COVID response workstreams (and there were a lot of them!) I always kept the company and legal department OKRs up on my giant whiteboard in my study. Now admittedly these OKRs have evolved and been impacted a bit by the pandemic but ultimately, we are still determined to become the single funding platform our strategic partners need and to serve the underserved SMEs better than anyone else. This means that all the growth opportunities and plans we had could and should not be forgotten and put in a closet. I would still check in on them and move them forward where I could, even during the first lockdown. As a GC the key is not so much about big swings in mindset but rather being agile and able to tilt emphasis without losing the overall vision and long-term strategic goals of the busines.
Lawyers have had the listening ear of the exec board throughout the peak of the pandemic, how can legal teams keep that position going forward?
The GC unquestionably had to be a key player during the initial crisis and the first lockdown. This is partly because a lot of the decisions that had to be made centred around legislation and so legal was more than a hoop to jump through but rather critical to strategic decision making. The rules around furlough, the new finance initiatives from the government and the associated requirements, the need to quickly try and negotiate contractual commitments: all of this had legal at its core. This also meant that the GC got to demonstrate their attributes much more publicly than is usually the case (we are often the hidden doers making sure things happen and don’t go wrong in the background) allowing the business to appreciate how useful and important legal is but also how they can contribute positively to strategic decision making. It is not just about executing on the “legal” side but the ability to keep calm and carry on. Lawyers generally tend to have a huge capacity to “get on with it” and to be the rational voice in the room. As and when we move back towards normality or the new normal, it is important that the GC and the legal team don’t stop being relevant. The business still needs to view us as a positive force for good, for delivering on the company OKRs and for offering a voice that isn’t just about highlighting risk but asking the right and often overlooked questions to allow for better strategic decisions to be made. Now is the time to harness what we have achieved: in a changed world where risk appetite and tolerance of certain behaviours will be lower, we need to be present, to be relevant to influence our key business stakeholders. But to do this we need to speak the language of the business; talk in terms of numbers and metrics; show the importance of doing x or not doing y by correlating directly to businesses OKRs and offer solutions and alternatives.
What advice would you give to trainee Alexis?
My trainee-self spent a lot of time worrying and thinking about every eventuality that could come of every decision. Something I would have told her is “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Understand risks and be open to them but trust your gut. I almost didn’t take up the GC role at Liberis as I was told by everyone it was “the wrong time”. My twins were not even 12 months old and going to set up an in-house legal function at a rapidly expanding fintech wasn’t “sensible”. For the first three months I thought they were right. However, I can honestly say now it was the best thing I ever did. I have never felt more alive in my career and never felt more passionate about the business I am working for. I would also tell her to know the importance of striking the balance between confidence and humbleness. In-house lawyers often worry that they aren’t getting their contribution across or that they aren’t heard. To an extent this is true and lawyers are often the unsung heroes of a transaction of project success. However, the way to demonstrate your value is through a mix of confidence in your convictions ALWAYS backed up with data but also humbleness and a willingness to listen. If you are in the room with the powers that be, you don’t need to talk to be heard, you are heard when you talk and you really add value so pick those moments.