GC to C-suite
GC sits down with Barclays’ Amol Prabhu to discuss his recent transition from in-house to the C-suite and find out how life as a lawyer prepared him for one in business, as well as his advice for lawyers looking to carve out a similar path.
Road less travelled
For many lawyers, part of the draw to move in-house is the opportunity to play a more direct role in the business, as opposed to offering purely advisory services from the outside looking in. It’s also the chance to develop their commercial acumen beyond the level a career in private practice would allow.
That allure is as potent as it’s ever been, as the profile of the in-house team continues to grow beyond the realm of traditional legal advisory, pulled ever closer to the commercial heart of the organisation. The skillset that this is cultivating within the in-house team is undoubtedly making the general counsel a better adviser, and it has the happy side-effect of preparing lawyers for top-level, purely business roles – and, as a result, the ceiling offered to lawyers looking to move in-house is as high as it has ever been.
Barclays’ Amol Prabhu is an exciting example of this rising ceiling. Belonging to an exclusive but slowly growing class of business people who transitioned from in-house counsel to the C-suite, Prabhu has spent 15 years at Barclays, working in Dubai, Hong Kong, London and now Johannesburg. He was most recently the head of emerging markets legal for EMEA, before accepting the opportunity to serve as Barclays’ co-head: Africa and the chief representative officer: South Africa.
Chief Representative Officer
Trading one eclectic job description for an even broader one, Prabhu assumed the role of chief representative officer and continent head for Africa in 2018.
While there are legal elements to his current purview – for example, there is a regulatory component together with the same legal considerations with which all senior business people have to grapple – it is primarily a commercial position, one that Prabhu explains has three core components:
‘The first part relates to front-line origination. We have a developed investment banking business that has advised South African and African clients for more than a decade. The corporate finance products we offer are focused on: international M&A, equity and debt capital markets, and leveraged finance. The goal is to continue to develop and grow that business, providing African clients with global solutions and global clients access to the African continent.’
‘The second part is more of a chief operating officer role: establishing the office here in South Africa from scratch – which should be completed by the end of the year – and ensuring that office is fully operational and regulatory compliant.’
To see a legal professional step out of the legal team and right into a commercial role is not as common.
‘The third part is management and oversight across all of our Barclays businesses on the continent. While our investment banking franchise is well known, we provide Corporate Banking offshore solutions to clients, as well as an offshore Private Banking proposition. These businesses, while related, are hugely different in the products they offer, their operating models and, most importantly, the clients they support: the spectrum is broad, from advising a sovereign at one end through the relevant corporate and financial institutions, all the way to individuals. With that breadth brings a whole range of complex commercial, legal, compliance and reputational issues that you have to manage.’
It’s this last component that largely precipitated Prabhu’s physical relocation to South Africa. It’s Prabhu’s name on the regulators’ ledger, which means he is the first point of contact for all things Barclays in South Africa and, if anything goes wrong, it is Prabhu that the regulators go to first – making someone with the requisite legal knowhow and confidence an ideal candidate to take a role that traditionally may not have been taken up by a lawyer.
Selling Down to Scale Up
The role was born from necessity, following a period of change in the structure of Barclays’ presence in Africa. In 2016, Barclays sold down its 62.3% stake in Absa (it still retains 14.9%), a local bank and Barclays’ defacto Africa entity for regulatory reasons. The sale required an examination of Barclays’ offering in the region and an assessment of what was required of Barclays in order to make the post-Absa era work, something that Prabhu involved himself in from his seat in London as head of emerging markets legal.
‘While I didn’t work on the actual separation between the two banks, I focused on the go-forward model. My initial work considered: “What does it mean for Barclays in Africa with respect to investment banking?” – because that is where I sat – but it rapidly transpired into asking similar questions of Corporate Banking and Private Banking,’ explains Prabhu.
Amol Prabhu, Co-head: Africa and chief representative officer: South Africa, Barclays
‘When you’re speaking with senior management, they want a composite view of what we’re doing for the African franchise across all businesses and how they interrelated, and so I found very quickly that I was working with all the senior executives across the different businesses in order to be able to work through and determine what that would look like. In parallel, I was leading the regulatory dialogue in South Africa and also with the UK FCA and PRA to say, “This is what we are thinking, we want to proactively be supporting our clients when it comes to Africa, what do you think, does that work?”’
‘With South Africa, it became very clear that we needed to establish a representative office with an “on the ground” team if we were going to continue to do business there going forward.’
Prabhu’s whole career being focused on emerging markets, his coverage of Africa for over a decade and his deep knowledge of the numerous Barclays businesses made him the ideal candidate to represent Barclays in South Africa. In fact, Prabhu was so integral to the whole process he ended up writing the role profile for the job that he would eventually end up taking himself.
‘I wrote the role profile, not with the intention of taking the job myself,’ he explains. ‘I’d like to say I was the natural choice, but the reason my name came up was because the role was so expansive: it wasn’t just a siloed role of “We want you to do X,” it was the requirement of having management and oversight across all of the different businesses across multiple countries, dealing with whatever came through the door and also having that legal/regulatory expertise to be able to interface with the regulators.’
A sample of the most senior executives in business will show that there is no one true path toward progressing to the top. To the extent that generalisations can be made, it is often financial or purely commercial professionals filling the C-suite. To see a legal professional step out of the legal team and right into a commercial role is not as common. Given the diverse (and increasingly commercially driven) portfolio given to in-house counsel and the skills already required of that role, this should not be surprising.
According to Prabhu, a life in law at Barclays prepared him to move upwards and outwards from the legal role, in very specific ways.
‘One is the ability to absorb and critically analyse large amounts of information, from numerous viewpoints, weigh it up and make a decision. That’s essential. Also, being comfortable with uncertainty – it’s not like you always have all the facts to hand. But you have to use your judgement and be prepared to take a decision which you are accountable for,' he says.
‘Inherent to that is an appropriate risk radar. I think, particularly since the financial crisis, the value that is attributed to individuals – particularly in the C-suite – that have a good sense of risk, control and governance, as well as being good business leaders, has increased significantly.’
View From the Top
Going from the adviser to the advised is another source of value for Prabhu, giving him the advantage of yet another lens through which to view legal advice.
‘It has really brought into sharp focus what quality legal advice actually looks like, and what a quality offering from law firms is. To my mind, there are simply three things:
‘Number one is knowledge. Technical ability is a given – if you don’t have the technical ability, you’re not even at the table. What I mean by knowledge is: do you really know your client? Do you know how they work, do you know their structure, and equally importantly, how much effort have you taken to understand the ultimate client (the actual client of Barclays) and the jurisdictions that they operate in? Their sector? Their position? The real law firm quality differentiator are the firms that have taken that extra step, so they can give you advice with the context of the ultimate client in mind. Speaking bluntly, there are around 20 international law firms in London that claim they are very Africa focused. Some of them need to realise that creating an internal Africa group and a nice glossy brochure doesn’t get you there and you get found out very quickly, because clients are smart.’
‘Number two is commercial. Yes, you’re looking for legal interpretation, but you’re also very much looking for guidance. In emerging markets, often the law is unclear and sometimes there is no law on a particular issue, so you need lawyers who can handle that and provide you with coherent, pragmatic advice balancing not just the legal but also the regulatory, reputational and other issues. There’s not necessarily a right decision, but there’s a better decision that you can make.’
‘Technical ability is a given – if you don’t have the technical ability, you’re not even at the table.’
‘Number three is likeability. We spend hours and hours working on transactions; days and days on the road. Do you actually like the people that you’re working with? Irrespective of how good the lawyer is, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them or want to put them in front of your client, you’re not going to hire them.’
‘I’ll give you an anecdote. I call it the Euro Disney Test. We were in Morocco, had pitched for a deal and three of us were flying back to London the next day. The 2010 ash cloud diverted us to Paris. We landed at Charles De Gaulle, and I contacted my PA who said that the only way back was a Eurostar leaving at 11pm from Euro Disney which she had booked us on. So what do we do – we spend the whole day at Euro Disney. So my question when I think of using a law firm partner is: would you be up for the Magic Mountain rollercoaster or wouldn’t you? Because people who enjoy working together work better together. When you hit tough situations in a transaction, which you inevitably will, there is more of an impetus to get a better resolution. So it does have a meaningful impact, not just on the quality and experience of doing the deal, but the quality of the outcome.’
Laying the Path
Having run the gamut of vantage points within business, from the purely legal to the purely commercial, Prabhu has a range of experience rarely seen, even on the top rungs of the ladder. As such, he has a lot to say to lawyers at the beginning of their careers.
‘First of all, take time – take real time – to understand yourself. What kind of lawyer are you? Are you more of a private practice lawyer? Do you like that environment or are you more suited to in-house? You’ve got to understand yourself, understand what you like, what drives you – do you like variety or do you like to specialise? Do you like the commercial aspects or do you not? It just depends on who you are as a particular individual. I don’t think young lawyers take enough time to think about this. And it changes during your career, so these are questions that you have to ask yourself periodically and give yourself time to think about. And you have to be honest with yourself: what makes you happy?’ he says.
‘Second is work hard – there are no shortcuts here – but, importantly, you’ve got also to work smart. You’ve got to think to yourself when you’re working – what am I learning from this? How is it improving me as a person? What new skills am I deriving? How is it getting me to move forward in relation to the goal that I’m trying to achieve? That’s why the first point is important. You have to know yourself in order to know what goal you want to achieve going forward, and then you need to go on that journey to prepare yourself.’
‘The third, which rightly is getting increasing airtime now, is mental and physical health. Make no mistake – this job is tough. You have to work out what keeps you mentally strong and physically fit. Mentally, for me, it’s spending time with the family. When I get home my two-year-old son is there to greet me and all he wants to do is play. I find it really allows me to switch off, and makes me better at my job when I switch back on. Physically it’s the gym – I find it a great stress buster. For a junior (and senior!) lawyer, you really have to think what works for you, what helps you, and make sure you do it. Irrespective of how busy your life gets – and it will get very busy – make sure you make the time.’
The last piece of advice is something that Prabhu insists upon – securing quality mentors: ‘Seek out, work with, and learn from, excellent people who will guide you. You cannot make this journey alone,’ he says. ‘There are many people who have been/are instrumental in my career: two in particular are Simon Croxford, current GC at UBS, who was my first supervisor at Linklaters and then at Barclays for nearly a decade, and one of my current bosses, Karen Frank, the CEO of Barclays Private Bank.
Things to Come
Does Prabhu see career progressions like his own becoming more common among in-house lawyers? Not necessarily. To him, it all comes down to two things: the individual and the organisation.
‘I think it is a very individual question. Throughout my career, I’ve very much enjoyed the commercial side of the business. So for me, making that progression, it was one I had thought about very carefully, but it wasn’t a hard decision for me. Again, it’s all about knowing and being honest with yourself. It is also important to make this transition in an organisation that supports you and knows the value you bring to the organisation.
‘The question I would ask general counsel is, “how legal really is your role?”’
Some individuals enjoy legal and the general counsel role, and don’t want to move across to a commercial role,’ he says. ‘But the question I would ask general counsel is, “How legal really is your role?” I know some GCs who have more non-lawyers reporting to them than lawyers. When they are in the boardroom, is the culture within that business that they only comment on legal issues, or are they a stakeholder at the table that inputs on all issues and has (and is expected to have) a view on business and commercial issues? I wouldn’t get hung up on title – I would dig a bit deeper. Yes, there is a place for advising on legal legal issues, but you always have to advise with understanding of the wider context. And I think when you get to that level as a general counsel, you have to view yourself – and hopefully the business views you – as a wider culture carrier and senior leader, as opposed to just the general counsel.’
A recurring theme in Prabhu’s career has been both his curiosity – a willingness to ask how things work, or why things are the way they are – and his confidence to get involved in things other lawyers would have shied away from.
It is this curiosity and confidence that guided Prabhu up the ladder at Barclays, and positioned him as the lead candidate for his current role. Now the question remains: where will that curiosity and confidence take him next?