Balancing Act

AGF Management’s general counsel, Mark Adams, shares tips for keeping on point in his many roles at the international investment firm

After eight years at investment management firm AGF Management Limited, former securities lawyer Mark Adams wears many hats. The seasoned executive serves as general counsel, senior vice president, and corporate secretary. With responsibilities spanning regulatory compliance, corporate governance, and legal advice for operations spread across the world, Adams has to balance his time and skills. “Sometimes all the roles come together, but sometimes they all pull in different directions,” he says, noting that the company depends on him to provide comprehensive legal guidance. “In private practice, you can say, ‘Well, I’m not totally sure of the facts you’re talking about because I am not in your business,’ whereas because I am embedded in the business, I am completely accountable.”

1. Don’t get buried in the details

“If the company is negotiating a services agreement with IBM, I can’t spend my time working on it, because I just don’t have enough time,” Adams says. That sort of work is managed by other lawyers at the firm. “I delegate enough to my team so that I can spend more of my time providing advice to the management team at a strategic level,” he says. Certain members of the legal team have also been provided special responsibilities, handling issues particular to two key business lines at the company, further relieving burdens on Adams’s time.

2. Stay informed

“I am not a compliance expert, but I have to keep myself up to speed with compliance issues,” says Adams. “I get calls every day from senior- and executive-management team members asking me, ‘Hey, compliance raised this issue, so why do we have to do this?’” In order to answer such questions, Adams makes a constant effort to remain current with the breadth of legal and regulatory issues facing the company. “It’s almost a mediator role, and, as a result, I need to rely on my team, but I also need to know what’s going on,” he says. “There are a lot of decisions that have to be made that require legal advice and input.”

3. Communicate constantly

Adams holds frequent and regular meetings with his compliance, corporate-governance, and general-legal teams. Such meetings elicit dialogue between the team members and keep everyone on the same page. “My teams are located on the same floor, and I have a lot of hallway and ad hoc discussions with them every day,” Adams says. “It is basically strategic watercooler chat.”

4. Know your cycles

While he has many responsibilities, Adams finds that each has a specific time frame. Managing those time frames allows him to juggle many tasks. “As corporate secretary, I have to manage the quarterly board meetings,” he says. Preparing for each meeting is a month-long process. At first, Adams felt consumed, but he quickly observed that it was a regular process. “Once you notice the cyclical schedules of these things, you can kind of build everything else around them,” he says.

5. Prioritize

“Knowing what you need to do first is a key challenge for every executive and every organization,” Adams says. “Legal, governance, and compliance are shared services among our various business units and entities, and everyone is demanding my time, saying, ‘Well, my project is a priority.’” Adams concedes there’s no magic formula to tell you what actually is most important—just experience. “After a while, you develop a bit of an instinct,” he says. “I’ve been with the company for eight years, and I know if something is a key issue for us.”

6. Be proactive

Adams holds regular meetings with AGF senior executives. “These meetings are an opportunity for them to bring up issues and concerns they have, and it’s a chance for me to say, ‘Hey, here’s an issue we in legal or compliance think is coming down the road, and I know it will affect your business unit,’” he explains. He also uses e-mail to keep the management team aware of impending issues. “I’ll send them an e-mail saying, ‘Here’s something we see as an potential issue, and this is why it’s relevant to your business.’”

7. Manage globally, hire locally

With business units operating all over the world, AGF contends with numerous constantly changing regulatory environments. “It’s a minefield,” Adams admits. The key is to deploy the right resources in the right place. “The preference—if money wasn’t an object—would be to have your own people on the ground at every operation, but you have to make trade-offs,” Adams explains. In some areas, like the United States, the company has in-house compliance personnel. Elsewhere, it retains outside firms or consultants. “It’s crucial to have someone on the ground who knows what they are doing,” Adams says. “We do the same business all around the world, but every place we do business wants us to do it under different regulatory structures.”