As general counsel, senior vice president, corporate secretary, and chief compliance officer at Canadian Western Bank, Gail Harding wears many hats, but she plays one consistent role: value builder. No stranger to multitasking, Harding, who divides her week between Edmonton and her family home in Calgary, launched her career at the Alberta Securities Commission and Alberta Stock Exchange before transitioning to private practice. Advantage spoke with Harding about the general counsel’s role at one of Canada’s fastest-growing banks.
Advantage: Why did you leave private practice?
Gail Harding: I did financing and mergers and acquisitions for 14 years. It was very transactional. You do one deal and then you move on to the next one. Canadian Western Bank is the only publicly traded Canadian bank headquartered west of Ontario, and I would be its first general counsel. The thought that I could help build the bank into a large, regional financial-services entity was very appealing. I liked the business, I respected the management team, and I wanted to leave a legacy.
How did you build the general counsel’s office at the bank?
When you build a department from the ground up, it reflects your philosophy. I think the legal team should add value for the bank. Part of that is getting my lawyers to understand the business. When a new project is being planned, I want my lawyers at the ground level along with the marketing and IT people. When I first joined the bank, I reviewed a project the bank had been working on for some time, and I discovered a legal issue and had to stop the project. I don’t want the legal team to be the last reviewers; I want them to be participants in the process. I came here to build; I didn’t come here to be the “no” department.
What occupies most of your time as general counsel?
Public governance and advising on major initiatives. The legal group spends a lot of time advising on business operations, marketing, regulatory, and intellectual-property issues. Additionally, I head up regulatory compliance, a nonlegal group responsible for anti-money laundering, privacy, and consumer regulations. I spend less time working on specific projects and more time advising senior executives and managing the legal department, trying to make sure that our lawyers stay strategically focused and don’t take on tasks that should be left to other departments. As general counsel, I practice half law and half business. The only way you can succeed is to be a businessperson who uses legal analysis and training to deal with problems. That’s the biggest difference between being a staff lawyer and being part of the senior-management team.
How do you manage a legal team working across so many business divisions?
I have three lawyers and a paralegal now. I try to assign the lawyers to different business groups. That helps them develop a better knowledge of the business and the relevant law. We meet once a week as a group and talk about all the projects that they are dealing with. It helps everyone keep a broad perspective.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Managing people. At a law firm, you are really like a sole practitioner. You may share overhead, but you really run your own business. Here you have all types of personalities with different skills and aspirations. Managing such diversity is one of the toughest things management does. At the same time, mentoring someone and seeing them develop is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. It is also one of the most important jobs of management as our ultimate success really does depend on our people.
What challenges do you see over next few years?
Growth is a major issue. When I joined the bank in 2004, it had just completed a record year with $44 million in net income. Today, we generate $44 million in net income every quarter, and we have 2,000 employees. With that expansion, we have to ask, ‘Do we have the right processes in place to support the organization?’ Regulation is another concern. In the last few years, every one of our numerous regulators—banking, securities, money laundering, privacy, and consumer—has added more regulations. I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.