Table talk simon fish

Simon Fish, General Counsel Emeritus, BMO

For our inaugural episode of the ZSA In House Table Talk series, Ken Fredeen was joined by recently retired General Counsel of BMO Financial Group, Simon Fish.

Since retiring, Simon has gone on to other exciting things, including being named as Chair of the BMO Climate institute. While the full interview can be found below, Ken follows up his engaging talk with Simon with a few of his learnings from the extraordinary human being and former General Counsel; in particular as they relate to leadership development and the role General Counsel and their teams play within an organization and beyond.

All leaders are the product of many formative factors. In Simon’s case, growing up in apartheid South Africa, his father arrested for challenging apartheid laws, Simon himself targeted by the South African security police, and appearing before Desmond Tutu who led the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee. His subsequent moves to Washington, D.C., London and The Hague, transitioning from private practice to corporate practice with three different multinational companies which included three different General Counsel positions, all factored into creating this global General Counsel.

In this article, I want to explore two areas which Simon and I discussed, and which will be the focus of our work at ZSA In House: Leadership and the role of General Counsel.

Let me start with Leadership. It is hard to think of another General Counsel with such a track record of developing leaders. More than a dozen of those leaders have gone on to fill General Counsel roles with other organizations, and two CEOs to boot. Simon did not disclose his secret leadership sauce, but he did give some advice: he hired people who were more talented, smarter, and better than himself and looked for the qualities and attributes he had learned are necessary for strong leaders.

Did Simon have any regrets with respect to his leadership?  He thought that he could have been more empathetic, taking the time to listen more carefully to his people. Fair enough. I think we can all do more of that, and in the COVID virtual world we live in, leaders certainly need to be more empathetic.

There was another reflection I had from the interview. Simon is known as a DEI champion. Leaders cannot hear from reports who are afraid to speak up.  Creating that inclusive workplace, particularly in this virtual world, is critically important for a successful team and a successful General Counsel.  Talent is on the move these days.  I suspect that talent retention will be easier for leaders like Simon.  His success included his skill at creating diverse and inclusive teams.

Leadership is elusive, and can be fleeting.  It is bestowed upon us, a great privilege indeed. But respect and followership are earned and not included with the title of General Counsel. The styles and strategies which results in this, come in many forms.  Simon’s early life was filled with great leaders and leadership examples: his father, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and others including Bill Downe and Rob Prichard, the Chair of the Board at BMO who understood the importance a strong General Counsel brought to organizations. What takes years to form can come tumbling down in a moment of time, a single event. The spotlight shines brightly on leaders all the time, from all stakeholders, including our teams. Not all leaders are ready for that responsibility.

Leaders build strong confident teams. He joked when he reflected on hiring people better than himself. Maybe that was the secret sauce I was looking for. Are General Counsel willing to take that risk? It is no surprise that Simon’s team members can be found as General Counsel throughout corporate Canada.

On leadership, I will end with this one thought. It was not by accident that Simon was Table Talk’s first guest. We can learn a lot from great leaders like Simon. Benchmarking, observing, and listening carefully to great leaders, is how we hone our own leadership skills and style. Throughout his three General Counsel careers, Simon carefully observed and learned from other leaders – no doubt some good and some bad.

Like the topic of leadership, I could have spent more time on Simon’s observations on the role of General Counsel. His speech in 2017 when he was recognized as a Distinguished General Counsel, is well worth the read. It is an excellent summary on the role and could well have been a chapter in my favourite book on the topic, “Indispensable Counsel’ by E. Norman Veasey and Christine T. Di Guglielmo. In fact, Simon is quoted in that book as saying that his activities as General Counsel were divided into two parts:  activities related to revenue generation and the role of gatekeeper and compliance. His speech fits into the second category of course, though in his interview he emphasized the importance of lawyers finding solutions for businesses, not simply saying ‘no’. Saying no is hard, but finding a workable solution is harder, and key to what we do.

General Counsel never want to hear the question Justice Sporkin posed in 1990: where were the lawyers? When General Counsel and their teams do their jobs, the question will not be on the lips of stakeholders such as the regulators, courts, shareholders, and the public. The path to this beautiful peaceful place is winding and tricky at times and certainly does not have a road map, but requires a strong, ethical and at times fearless General Counsel with a strong moral compass. Simon was and is that leader and I hope that by getting to know him a little bit better over the hour we spoke, you took away some ideas and strategies which will make you a better leader and better in your roles as corporate counsel. If you missed it or want to listen to it again, check out the recording above. It was a privilege for me to have that hour with him.

Our next Table Talk guest is Beth Wilson, Dentons former Chief Executive Officer. Again, our focus is on leadership, this time from a senior leader who saw leadership from both sides of the professional services fence.