We were delighted to catch up with Nicola Silke this month and discuss her experience and perspectives as General Counsel at Freightways. Nicola has been a long-term connection of ours at SHIFT and has been a fantastic, supporting member since we established The GC Network during lockdown in November 2021. Her story is compelling and one we know will resonate with many of you in a similar role or weighing up a move to an in-house leadership position.
Nicola started off her legal career at Russell McVeagh in the corporate/commercial team before moving to London in the mid-2000s. Timing is everything and while she felt like she may have initially missed the boat for working at one of the large London firms, Nicola instead took an in-house legal role with Electronic Arts (EA Games), which she enjoyed and whet her appetite for some great in-house roles to come.
After returning from the UK, and enjoying more than seven years in-house at Vodafone NZ, Nicola took on the opportunity to step into a newly established, sole general counsel role in May of 2021. To put things into perspective with this new role, Freightways is an NZX-listed group with more than a dozen business units built up over 60 years in operation. It’s the first time Freightways has had any in-house legal role; traditionally relying on a range of external law firms from the various businesses they’ve acquired over time. Nicola’s new role would have been a significant challenge for just about anyone to take on!
What prompted your move to a sole general counsel role?
“After seven years at Vodafone NZ, where the variety of work was great but the opportunities to progress were limited, I was focused on ‘where to next in my career?’ I didn’t really want to move from legal into the business, as there are many aspects of being a lawyer I really enjoy. In recent years I had watched with interest as various friends and peers of mine had moved into general counsel roles but wondered whether I could make that kind of ‘step-up’ work given my situation with a very young family.
I must admit, I had more than a few doubts about whether I could make this leap initially. I was at a stage in my life where the demands of family life were fairly intense, and I wasn’t sure I could also take on the responsibility of a sole general counsel role in a business such as Freightways and feel like I was doing justice to both. However, everyone I spoke to at the time was supportive and encouraged me to go for it. Ultimately the recruiter for this position really sold me on this opportunity, and how I could use my broad experience to shape this newly formed position and make it my own.”
We here at SHIFT love that Nicola’s bold move demonstrates how you can take on an ambitious, challenging role like this, while still maintaining a balance with your other commitments in life.
What are the most rewarding aspects of this role?
“It’s been really rewarding to have the opportunity to implement initiatives that are starting to increase the levels of awareness and education across the group around key legal risks and issues. So many Freightways staff are fantastic at their jobs but haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to be trained regularly on legal and compliance issues and there has been a really positive reception to my efforts so far.
I’m now coming up to two years in this role. As well as feeling like I’ve had some real wins in terms of improving the legal function – such as implementing a panel for legal services providers and an ever-developing library of materials to enable staff to upskill and start to self-serve for some basic legal requirements – I’m starting to firm up more of a strategic plan for how the legal function might look to best service the needs of the group. And that’s exciting. Along with these basic foundations, I’m starting to see situations arise where ‘preventative’ advice I’ve given has clearly made a difference in the level of risk a business is facing – those are the instances where I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be in this role.
But probably the most rewarding – and challenging! – aspect of the role is I get to look across the group at the highest level with a legal lens and assess and prioritise how legal risks are identified and addressed at a macro level. I’m the first person to have this role and as a result the first person to have looked at the group in this way.
What’s been most helpful in supporting you in your role?
“I feel that my networks have been critical to my success in this role at Freightways, as well as encouraging me to make various moves throughout my career. When I was interviewing for this role, I spoke with one of the Freightways directors, Abby Foote. As an ex-lawyer herself she had a really useful perspective on the move and one of her key questions that helped set me off on the right foot in this role was – ‘With this newly created role, how will you continue to maintain and build networks with other lawyers in the market?’
At Vodafone, I was part of a large legal team of senior experienced professionals. I really enjoyed having the ability to bounce ideas off sophisticated legal specialists who all had a great appreciation of the legal issues I was dealing with. This was something I was apprehensive about losing in the move to a sole GC role. My team from Vodafone have now all gone on to other roles in the market, including sole counsel roles, and a number of us still continue to have an informal regular catch up as a ‘sounding board’ session.
On a similar note, becoming part of The GC network that SHIFT created, and facilitates, has been brilliant. I joined just when you were setting up the network when I was about six months into my role, and it gave allowed me to plug straight into a great group of peers and former connections of mine that meet on a monthly basis. I pick up little gems each time we meet – whether it’s about how to go about adopting legal tech solutions, the importance of data collection to back up business cases when asking for more head count or the best ways to set and hold personal boundaries – and being able to share experiences and discuss common situations occurring in our roles amongst a much wider group of people is absolute gold. Without SHIFT establishing The GC Network, I would definitely have had to spend much more time actively seeking out and building my networks, and would have spent much longer wondering if others were facing the same types of issues as I was.”
SHIFT strongly supports the value of having strong networks of trusted peers in place. Whether you establish your own informal network, or become part of something like The GC network, the key is to make a commitment to catch up regularly with those people, regardless of how busy life gets.
What have you learnt about yourself along the way?
“I used to see myself as a very black & white, ordered person in my approach to work. But, over time and particularly with this GC role, I’ve realised I’m actually extremely adaptable. The breadth of matters I need to be across in this role is much wider than any other role I’ve been in by a long shot, as is the range of Freightways staff I work with – on a given day I can jump from advising our Board of directors on a governance matter or working with the Exec team on an acquisition opportunity, to discussing a customer claim with a customer service rep or a problematic landlord with an operations team member. I really enjoy working with people from all across the group and have been pleasantly surprised at how natural it feels to adapt my approach to situations and style of advice to suit the many different stakeholders and their needs, as well as how comfortable I now am pivoting from issue to issue so rapidly throughout the day as priorities change. It’s also been quite liberating to adopt the approach that I simply have limited time to advise so I can only do my best within those constraints and then move on – so different to the more ‘perfectionist’ approach required in private practice or specialist in-house roles.
One of my other key insights is truly learning to trust my gut instinct when it comes to advising and guiding our business decisions. As a one-person function covering over a dozen businesses my time on any one matter simply has to be limited in a way I hadn’t experienced prior to this role, so I’ve had to get comfortable with making much quicker decisions often on a lot less information than I would like to have. It tends to be times I second-guess my instincts that things don’t turn out as smoothly as they should!
On a related note, I’ve noticed my advice and general approach to issues has been more pragmatic as that is what is demanded by the environment – Freightways is in the business of picking up, processing and delivering so my advice has to focus on the best way of enabling the businesses to do just that. The people working at the coal-face generally have neither the time or the inclination to carefully weigh up a list of complex options to solve a pressing issue, so I need to focus on what is actually required to appropriately mitigate risk or enable progress.”
Did you encounter any self-doubts with the move into this new role?
“Absolutely there were freak out moments in the early days of my role with Freightways. In my first few weeks I had gone around meeting key stakeholders from each business to start building relationships but also to start understanding exactly what the businesses did, as well as the high priority legal risks likely to arise from each. The day after I completed those meetings, I sat down to create an overview of legal risk areas across the group and the enormity of the scope of my role really hit me. Fortunately, I report to the Freightways CFO, Stephan Deschamps, who was incredibly supportive through that ‘speed wobble’ (and others), reassuring me that the group had grown as a successful business for over 60 years without a lawyer so I could simply take things one day at a time! While it’s been a learning curve for the Freightways team to have a lawyer on board as well as a huge learning curve for me, I feel like Stephan and the rest of the Executive have really backed me with the decisions I’ve made and initiatives I’ve sought to introduce as I build the legal function – I definitely feel like a welcome addition to the team.
In moments of doubt, I also find it helpful to remind myself that because this was a new role for the group, any efforts I make to streamline the provision of legal advice or allow people to self-serve on legal issues is highly likely to produce a net benefit to the business overall since no one had previously had the specific expertise or time to build the legal function. It’s very much about focusing on progress over perfection. For example, in the absence of any more sophisticated technology (for now), in the early days of my role I created a SharePoint site as a place for staff across the business to go to easily access useful legal resources. While it’s extremely rudimentary relative to other legal portals I’ve seen and very much a work in progress, I’ve had really positive feedback from across the businesses about the potential value it can add in terms of allowing self-service.
Looking back, a hallmark of the developments in my career seems to be how I’ve followed the template of peers that made career moves before me. I don’t always feel like I’ve had that initial confidence at each step to make such a big decision but looking back I’m really happy with how my choices have played out.”
It’s natural for us all to grapple with impostor syndrome from time to time, or doubt what we’re capable of: this theme rings true across the whole spectrum of the SHIFT Community. A helpful step can be to seek advice and guidance from your trusted friends and peers; and you’ll find they give you that gentle nudge to back yourself and make a bold step.
What are your tips and suggestions for others to succeed in similar roles?
“Before I accepted the role, I was discussing it with one of my former colleagues and good friends, Sam Jack (now General Counsel at Otakaro), and he described how he viewed the key purpose of the role of in-house counsel – ‘you’re there to protect and enable the business.’ Even after being in-house for some time, because I was considering how I would start building an entire legal function this really struck a chord with me and has been a cornerstone of how I view and frame up my role to the business ever since.
For me, building strong connections with others in similar roles has been critical both for reassurance but also for great ideas, especially for solving thorny issues. Connecting little and often, but ensuring I make the time to connect no matter how busy I get takes conscious effort but pays dividends. Looking back, I would have not made some of these big changes in my career if not for trusted peers in my network.
Another imperative when you take on a sole GC role like this is learning to avoid getting stuck in the weeds. You must constantly check whether you are prioritising the right matters, resourcing matters in the right way (using externals or otherwise) and whether the request for help should actually be pushed back on (without impacting the willingness of the business to come to Legal for help at appropriate times) – it’s a massive balancing act.
A final area where we know Nicola has made a big impact in this role is how she manages external law firms – “As a legal function of one I’m big on unashamedly encouraging my external legal providers to try and think like they are simply an extension of the team and to come up with ways to make a very small internal legal function more effective and efficient across the group, whether through bespoke guidance notes and checklists, short videos on legal or contracting basics that can be watched on demand or ‘sounding board’ services for quick views to help triage requests for support from the businesses. The firms we use have tended to be really enthusiastic about this idea so I’m excited to see where this way of thinking takes us in 2023.
Massive thanks to Nicola for sitting down with us and sharing, giving a greater insight into how’s she approaching this sole general counsel role. We look forward to keeping in touch as part of The GC Network and wish Nicola all the best with her continued success at Freightways.