Leaders League spoke to Silvia Madrid, Unicredit’s head of legal and compliance Iberia, about the leadership lessons that have been learnt during the current crisis and the permanent legacy it will leave in terms of how in-house legal departments will operate in the future
What has been key to effective leadership during the crisis?
During a crisis such as the one we are facing, which is characterized by uncertainty, leaders face problems which are unfamiliar and not well understood. Therefore, it is key that they adapt and get ahead of changing circumstances, avoiding overreacting to yesterday’s past events and focus on speed rather than precision (swift decision-making is critical). In my view, they must align teams’ focus, set clear priorities and empower teams to discover and implement solutions that are in accordance with those priorities, fostering collaboration and transparency across teams and keeping teams together. The most important word for me would be communication, which should involve providing constant updates, and this should continue once the crisis has passed.
Another crucial part of leaders’ role in times of crisis is taking care of their teams – understanding their team’s emotions, circumstances and distractions, and finding ways to engage and motivate them. They need to promote psychological and emotional safety so people can openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns. This promotes healthy debate and allows the teams to make sense of the situation, and understand how to handle it. They also need to demonstrate empathy and remain attentive to the team’s well-being.
Another concept I have recently encountered, and which I find to be very appropriate, is “bounded optimism”, which means a combination of confidence and realism. In other words, in a crisis, leaders cannot display excessive confidence in spite of obviously difficult conditions, but they need to balance such confidence with recognizing the uncertainty of the crisis, understanding and facing facts, and acting accordingly.
What has been your biggest challenge during the crisis?
I would say my main challenges have been digital signing and keeping up and adjusting to the fast-changing regulatory framework.
Regarding digital signing, the challenge has been to effectively address the closing of continuous transactions without the possibility of physical signing, in a cross-border environment which was not, up to now, used to digital execution, where different jurisdictions with diverse legislation comes into play.
In relation to the fast-changing regulatory framework, like all legal professionals, I have made a significant effort to keep up with continuous legislative changes that have affected almost all aspects of the legal spectrum (regulatory, finance, corporate, labor, tax, antitrust, and market abuse to name just a few) – some of which have even been published at weekends – in order to implement such changes in accordance with the local business model and labor force.
Additional concerns have been privacy and cybersecurity – which have been particularly significant issues during the crisis – keeping the business continuity plan updated, and reviewing the impact of material adverse change and rebus sic stantibus contractual provisions in the legal documentation.
Because we are an international organization and thus work with our counterparts in other jurisdictions on a daily basis, remote working has not had a major effect on my day to day way of working. However, It has affected our interactions locally – we have adapted by arranging daily calls among the full team, where we provide updates from all areas. We also organize ad-hoc skype conferences to address any urgent matters of concern, have discussions or conduct training.
What measures has UniCredit taken to ensure the safety of its employees?
The most important and urgent one was the relocation of the employees by way of remote working, even before the Spanish government declared the State of Emergency and subsequent lockdown.
We have been monitoring the legislation issued by the government as well as the UniCredit Group’s internal guidelines and have adapted the working environment accordingly. We have also provided constant updates to local staff, by way of daily calls, as well as from the top communications issued by the group’s management. We believe that in times of crisis, communication is crucial and the most important job is taking care of your team, both physically and emotionally.
Do you expect to see changes to legal departments in the future?
Definitely. Starting with the obvious, which has not only affected legal departments, but the general workforce, more remote working. We have all made a great effort to implement, almost overnight, a working from home environment – this has been quite successfully, and it will be impossible to go back. This will be a permanent option for many employees going forward, or a combination of ‘remote-presence’ working.
This brings me to the next change – enhancing digitalization. All the tools which drive collaboration, like web conferencing, collaboration platforms and legal management solutions have become, or will become, key elements in in-house organizations. This also includes e-billing and digital signing procedures, which have become crucial during the crisis.
Digitalization also implies that legal departments will free up physical document storage, which will have a clear impact on office space and document destruction costs. This will be a significant change as well.
And let’s not forget about distance-learning, a surprising revelation. I’ve attended several webinars during lockdown, and have obtained the same knowledge benefits, without the commute downside. Of course, you pass up networking opportunities, but still, webinars are here to stay.
Legal departments will have also to reevaluate the balance between in-house and external work, and optimize their outside counsel mix. They will need to consider whether more of the work they are externalizing can be handled either in house, by less expensive alternative legal service providers which are fast growing, or even by new firms that may emerge post-crisis through consolidation and specialization.
Finally, legal departments will also have to review their continuity plans to be prepared for future disruptions and challenges, incorporating the permanent changes in how companies do business after the current crisis concludes.