The Legal Executive Institute’s Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color is excited to continue our series about the Black GC 2025 Initiative. To discuss the necessity and importance of having significant technical legal expertise in a general counsel (GC) role, we sat down with Wanji Walcott, senior vice president and general counsel at Paypal. For aspiring GCs, she advises to learn the business and gain financial acumen by reading the quarterly earnings reports. She also suggests getting a “finance buddy” and developing some legal expertise in areas such as: corporate governance, compliance, government relations, and international legal issues.
Legal Executive Institute: Can you talk about how you came to be involved with the Black GC 2025 Initiative?
Wanji Walcott: My involvement in the Black GC 2025 initiative started with informal interactions with black general counsel colleagues who recognized the need for an increase in our ranks at the GC level. A small group of us got together to talk about how to move the needle, and this turned into the Black GC 2025 advisory council.
The Black GC 2025 advisory board identified three key areas for “ready now” candidates. Please share with us the importance of having significant technical legal expertise in a GC role.
When you make the transition from a deputy-level role to the GC role, you are taking on additional responsibility. Before this, in a deputy role and even in your prior roles, it is important to be a subject matter expert. At the GC level, there is going to be an expectation that you can manage a breadth of issues that arise — corporate governance, general compliance issues, government relations, strategic relations, international, etc. It’s important to have technical legal expertise in some of those areas.
From personal experience and observation, there is no one way to rise to the level of GC with significant technical legal expertise in every area. However, it is important to show progression across some of these areas, and you do have to establish the capability to manage all of the areas. And so, I think we are all developing an expertise as our careers progress.
Please talk a little bit more about your specific path and how you obtained your legal expertise. How did you use your experience to develop that?
Over ten years ago, I made the decision that I wanted to be general counsel. My background was focused in technology as a transactional lawyer in financial services. Once I reached the mid-level point of my career, I began to think about developing as many of the skills that I thought I would need one day to become general counsel.
My strategy included making myself available for stretch assignments and new opportunities to gain international experience in finance. I also started raising my hand for corporate secretary duties to support a board committee, if the corporate secretary was busy tending to other committees.
I grew from being a technology transactional lawyer to being a payments lawyer, as payments moved from online to mobile. This became my area of expertise.
At my prior company, there was a need for a lead lawyer to take over responsibility for these areas when the company was kicking off a new business unit focused on online and e-commerce payments. I raised my hand and said, “Look, I know we’re starting this new initiative. I want to take on this role.” The group president at my previous employer was Dan Schulman, who is the current CEO at PayPal. When Dan eventually left to join PayPal, I left to join as well, not as the general counsel, but as the lead product lawyer to leverage the expertise that I had previously built. About a year later at PayPal, I became general counsel. I was a business unit lawyer who developed an expertise in a specific business area that was the key focus of the company where I am now.
I want to pivot to drill down more in the technical legal expertise to focus on financial acumen. How have you been to attain the expertise and develop these skills in the roles you have held?
I began to focus building this skill just past my mid-career point. Also, as I became a people leader, I began to get lawyers on my team focused on honing and building that muscle and skill as well.
You really have to understand how the business makes money, what the key financial drivers are, and what the key metrics are. Understanding this is important to round yourself out and emerge as a trusted advisor of the business. It is important to not be only the “help desk” on legal issues.
For more with Wanji Walcott, check out her recent interview in our “Upfront & Personal” column.
As I started with PayPal as the lead product lawyer in a deputy-level role, I knew that it was critical to understand how the business makes money. Supporting my finance colleagues or the CFO, I needed to understand how we measure performance and how we report performance for disclosure and risk-management related issues each from an economic perspective, a leverage perspective, and a liquidity-management perspective.
With the experience you have gained, do you have a handful of tactics that you have used to understand the business?
The nature of my job is in support of quarterly filings, annual reports, analyst reports, and earnings releases, as well as advising and reviewing this information for accuracy. Once published, a “ready now” candidate should be trying to understand the substance of these reports and filings. The second thing is to learn about the key metric by which the company measures itself. To do this, find a finance “buddy” that you trust to create a safe space to ask questions — even those that you think are elementary — and discuss with that person what the metric means to the individual working in the finance organization.
To illustrate, when I am in a meeting with the CEO or CFO, I am not going to ask these elementary type of questions. After the meeting, however, I will go to my finance buddy and ask, “What is the chart saying? What is this measurement and how did we derive it? What is the difference between X and Y? Why are we talking about it like this? Give me some context.” This tactic been super helpful. I advise people on my team to do that too.
What is your secret sauce for leading people well?
I tend to focus on a couple different principles.
- Be present for my team — That means I am being present when we are together; I am not doing other things or thinking ahead to my next meeting.
- Being caring — Focusing on relationships is core to everything I do.
- Inspiring others to take on responsibilities and job duties — This is key when trying to get people onboard and willing to follow you.
- Be a good example and be accountable — Set for yourself the same high standards that you expect of others.