Francesca Yeoman – general counsel & company secretary at UK Coal: Beware of what you wish for…

Was the regular and resounding maxim of my Father when I was young. It was applied to any flight of fancy of an adolescent girl; a pony in the back garden, a grown up halter-neck dress, a dog of one’s own. And in many respects he was right; such things didn’t always live up to expectation.

After fifteen years in the same company however, my two sons incubated, fed and watered and now exploring their own intellectual destinies, I grew dissatisfied with the known bureaucracy of the successful corporate world and the frustration of being stuck on the same rung of the company ladder, a heavy press of other hopefuls around me. I’d been fortunate to have my ladder leaned up against a number of significant and challenging projects; legal architect for the company’s first manufacturing off-shore project to China, implementation of the company’s first global data privacy programme, integration of its first Chinese acquisition, but, whilst the ladder moved from one project wall to another, the view above remained the same. And so, with some trepidation and reliance on the wise words of a host of people, I took up a new role, at the top of the ladder, as GC for UK Coal.

I believe anyone who thinks they’ve got to the top of their intellectual and emotional ladder of life, who’s as comfortable in a London based boardroom as a BA flatbed at 38,000 feet, will still find themselves jostled and shaken up by a stint steering a business through the hundred mile an hour world of corporate rescue and recovery. If I wanted challenge and a different view from the ladder, I’ve certainly got it. And much else besides; Fathers can’t always be right.

UK Coal is the restructured survivor of an insolvency last July, precipitated by a disastrous fire at Daw Mill in Warwickshire, which had been Europe’s largest deep mine. But the road out of insolvency is not an easy gradient, recovery is never assured and, since arriving at UK Coal in November last year, my own learning trajectory has been on a very acute angle indeed. Things stand out;

• The very real relevance of understanding the complex interrelationship of a company’s entire fleet of commercial arrangements and the impact of a default in one, triggering a shock wave through the entire enmeshed structure, such that no one action or inaction can be considered alone; something that many a lonely, late-night negotiator and drafter does well to remember. Being able to “see round corners” neatly sums it up.

• When all ways are treacherous, the ability to properly evaluate the risks, identify a pathway, help articulate the plan whilst lending encouragement and review as the journey gets under way, takes a myriad of skills rarely found in one person alone and it’s the GC who needs to embody the attempt; pulling in the bold, the cautious, the thoughtful, the swift, the analytical and the visionary, as the need arrives. This ability to read people and the situation and match them at the right time takes both time and an exposure to a diversity of life experiences. Working in a number of different environments, whether across international borders or across differing industry sectors, is essential exposure for developing an understanding of the complexity of human interactions.

• Just as no GC can provide the skill set needed to deliver a complex plan of action, so no GC alone can provide the transactional knowledge needed; corporate, litigation, governance, risk, compliance, employment, safety, property, the list of areas impacted in a rescue environment is broad. Having the right law firm is essential; engaged, committed and with a deep knowledge of the business and industry sector is what’s needed. That, and productive, open, two-way feedback, setting out expectations clearly, dealing with issues as they arise, and properly recognising achievements (at every level, the 1PQE who gets the routine work out on time is as valuable as the partner who can see the opportunities as well as the pitfalls) helps create a mutual bond of respect and willingness to work together. And, happily, the fees manage themselves better in such an environment.

• Allowed only one word to best describe the GC’s value, I’d have to choose “balance”. Bringing it to every scenario. Embodying it.

Certainly, I have my challenge. I‘ve an experience like no other; working with bright, committed, willing people, determined to do their best in difficult circumstances. They’ve brought out the best in me too.

A nice handsome grey wouldn’t go amiss either, but that might have to wait a while longer…