Larissa Joy: Lawyers test, challenge and bring skills that are incredibly valuable to the boardroom
We recently welcomed Portfolio Lawyer, Larissa Joy, to share the interesting turns her professional life has taken with our BCKR members. Larissa is somewhat of an evangelist for a plural career. She has taken a number of varied paths during her entire career and continues to do so in the further development of her portfolio.
Larissa’s first holiday job was as a tour leader with Saga, which when she looks back on it, taught her a great deal. She ran into trouble when, leading sixty American passengers, the Danube had completely dried up and the tour was conducted by land in coaches. She went on to lead Saga’s first 50 day round the world tour. Difficult as the Danube experience was in the days of no mobile phones, she realised early the value of putting oneself into new and testing situations as an instructive experience.
Larissa trained as a lawyer at Theodore Goddard. Her next move was in-house at IMG where she combined the role of lawyer and working on music, sport and television deals, combining her interests in the media and music, one of the factors that had led her to train with Theodore Goddard. Next, she moved into advertising – joining a 90-strong firm that was looking to sell the business. They needed a lawyer to help them with preparing the business for sale and also with setting up new offices in Europe. They sold successfully to a holding company and merged the agency with an exciting network of agencies, where Larissa picked up a great deal of experience about mergers in people businesses. After several years in the combined business, she followed the Chairman to the Ogilvy group, where she was in charge of assessing potential new businesses for acquisition. She went on to become Vice Chairman of WPP’s Ogilvy Group UK.
From there, Larissa joined Weber Shandwick as their UK COO, just after a merger and having performed that role successfully, was asked to take on a European leadership role. She was then headhunted into the world of Private Equity – in the emerging markets field – joining Actis as a Partner and COO. Her experience of managing change, managing people businesses and mergers and acquisitions were relevant to her new role. She was soon doing business in emerging economies such as India and Africa. It taught her a huge amount, not least how to achieve success in different cultural environments and she learnt about partnership.
After the birth of her third child she came to the conclusion that she needed more control of her time. That was when the role as Chair of the House of Illustration came along, and alongside some consultancy work in professional services, other portfolio roles followed after that. Her NED and Chair roles now consist of:
- NED at Charles Russell Speechlys
- NED at Saxton Bampfylde
- NED at L&Q
- NED at Helpforce which works to develop the future of volunteering in the NHS
- Chair of The Foundling Museum
- Chair of SBT. This is a consortium of Clifford Chance, Bain, EY, Permira, Thomson Reuters and others who collaborate to invest in growing high-potential social enterprises.
Larissa’s approach has broadly been to be predisposed to say “yes” when asked to have a chat about the potential opportunities that come her way, however unusual the role might sound initially.
Due diligence: Though it is obviously vital that you take the time to look at the previous financial history and to review the Board and take soundings in the market about an organisation, it is also important to talk to people within the organisation you are thinking of joining. It is also important also to bear in mind that due diligence tends to be about looking backwards at what has happened and sometimes things can, and do, take a different course. For example, Larissa joined an organisation as Senior Independent Director in the early part of her portfolio career where the reason for bringing on board new NEDs was because, following a change in leadership, there was a desire to improve governance and viability ratings and to assess future strategic options. She accepted the role, having significant confidence in the Chair and the individuals she met, knowing the whole picture and found the challenge of being on the Board throughout the turnaround very interesting and satisfying and learned a great deal. Larissa stresses that the one to one time you spend with your colleagues (on both the executive and the non-executive side) is very important.
What perceptions of lawyers on boards have you encountered?
A question Larissa has been asked several times is along the lines of: “I see you are a lawyer by training – are you going to be the type of Board member that always points out the risks?” Larissa stresses that lawyers are so valuable for the efficacy of good governance of an organisation. They test, they challenge, and they offer an alternative perspective. They bring skills that are incredibly valuable as part of a cognitively diverse boardroom.
She believes that the best firms can be a huge help and she has always tried to be helpful to them in their searches, suggesting names and giving advice when they are conducting a search. It is a good way to start a relationship. Ask for their advice and try to meet with as many as possible to build relationships. Head-hunters are an important part of your route to market, as well as your networks.
Highlights and pitfalls of portfolio life
Larissa loves the opportunities to make connections between the different organisations where she is an NED or Chair, where that makes sense and does not create any conflict. It is very important to ensure that time is not filled up to allow some room for when NEDs are called on to deal with an unexpected situation, when inevitably more time is required.
When developing your portfolio career, did you have a structured plan or did you keep an open mind and see where things led?
Larissa remembers going to see search firms when she was thinking of leaving Private Equity and saying, “this is my experience – what can you offer me?” But at the time she was not certain about which direction she wanted to take. She now realises that can make it tricky for the search firms to help! She learned to keep an incredibly open mind. She stresses the need to think carefully about your network and who people you know who rate you might be willing to introduce you to. Think strategically about people you know on boards or about your particular sector. It is hard to find the time to network – but even use social occasions to make connections and help other people because in the end it all comes full circle and things are increasingly interconnected.
How do you assess the time a role will require?
For an organisation that is less used to having NEDs, you will probably need to complete a year’s cycle to get an idea of the time commitment required. You may be pulled into a ‘task and finish’ situations but it is important that you don’t get pulled into the executive side of things and remain independent. The role of the Chair is often a greater demand on one’s time.
Do you find there is much difference working in the Not-for-Profit sector as opposed to your commercial roles?
On the surface, if well-run, there is almost no difference. Governance is important in both. But difficult or unexpected situations will occur. Not for Profit can be quite full on in terms of revenue and fundraising.
A good Chair will ensure proper debate. Diversity of thought and challenge is good and should be celebrated. Equally, it is important that risks and major issues are robustly aired. Operating in a regulated environment brings its own challenges and having a Regulator helps to underpin a good discipline to be vigilant about governance and compliance.
Is it important to have a balance between Not for Profit and commercial roles?
Larissa finds it exciting to have both and to bring the two together. Networks built in the Not for Profit world have been invaluable in building her portfolio and also very rewarding.
Do you turn down many roles?
She is often contacted about things and she will always take the time to suggest other people to help in the search, but at the moment she has a full portfolio so tends to signpost people in other directions.
Why would you want to have a lawyer on your board?
A partner in a law firm for example understands cashflow, how to market, run a team, good governance, compliance, contracts, and will have successfully built relationships and trust. They are likely to have sector expertise, the ability to recognise when to red-flag an issue.
When these skills are part of what a person does day to day they can sometimes underplay them – these are such valuable skills for an organisation – in and outside the boardroom.
Discussion under Chatham House rules