Guest article by Alison Hood – VP and Head of Legal, International at Aimmune Therapeutics and coxswain at Marlow Rowing Club

When I first talked to Toby about this article, it was going to be all about Leadership (a deliberate capital there).  Since then, and several revisions later (sorry it’s taken so long Toby), I still can’t decide if this is an article about leading a legal team or rowing – and actually it’s about both.  And also about returning to things, keeping your cool, taking opportunities and being brave.   

I stepped away from a GC role in 2010, when my husband’s job moved us to the US, and for the next 8 years I worked as a legal consultant supporting small biotechs in the start-up phase. When I joined Aimmune Therapeutics in 2018,  I was quite nervous about what it would be like to be back in the corporate world.  Aimmune were a San Francisco based biotech with ongoing clinical trials, and I was their first ex-US legal counsel hire, joining what was then a small UK-based R&D team.  The five years since then has been rollercoaster ride – supporting pan-European clinical trials (including the challenge of maintaining drug supply to patients during covid), setting up new companies in 4 countries, moving to new offices in London, drug approval, commercialisation and drug launch across Europe, acquisition by Nestlé and then divestment and transition of our product to a new partner.  

For me, this meant building and leading an EU legal team to support the business as it has grown and changed, and juggling providing legal support for today’s business needs and challenges alongside planning for the future. 

Alongside all of this, in my spare time I’m a cox.  In layspeak that’s the person at the back (or front) of the boat who does the steering and the shouting.  I first got into doing this when I was a trainee –  I’m quite petite and that was probably the sole determining factor when I was asked by a (tall) tax partner if I’d ever considered being a cox, and I spent a few years on the Thames learning all about rowing.  But then life then got in the way, and it was nearly 25 years later, when my daughter went back to uni after a summer coxing at Marlow (it runs in the family), and I was asked if I’d like to come back.Now I’m in my third season back coxing for the women’s masters squad at Marlow.  It’s great!  I love it!  Even the mornings when we are on the water in the dark and rain at 06:30!

I’ve found that a lot of the things that are important in coxing are the same things that are important in leading a legal team. My first piece of advice  is you might not have done something for years – but you never really lose the skills, you just need to be confident about giving it a go. I was pretty petrified the first time I got back in a boat, and in my legal role I was not at all sure what the process was when we set up our new companies across Europe, but the knowledge comes back 😊

The responsibilities of a cox are a lot like leading a legal team. You need to be able to assess risk while the world is moving around you.  A cox is responsible for the safety of the crew (who are all facing backwards), safety of your boat (you have no idea how expensive a boat is), and safety of other river users (it’s a long list…  other rowers, kayakers, paddleboarders, swimmers, sailing boats and river cruisers!)   

A cox also needs to be able to steer a good course, especially in a race when the adrenaline is running high.  Leading a legal team is the same.  There’s all the routine stuff going on every day, but then also often lots of incoming information on new business activities and issues that you need to manage. Sometimes this might mean you need to drop everything for a crisis that needs immediate attention. 

So my second tip is have a plan, but be prepared to change your plan.  Stuff happens.  Dogs and swimmers can be invisible until you are almost on top of them, a faster boat overtaking means you need to move over (a bit) and then get back on the racing line. Likewise a work crisis can blow up from a single email.  Keep your cool, adjust your plan, share your plan if you need to, and implement.  It might not be the perfect plan, but if it will get you out of immediate trouble while you think of next steps then it’s a good plan. 

A cox also needs to know their crew, and know them as people, not just rowers. This makes a huge difference to how you can support and motivate them.  For a crew who are in the last 500 m of a long race on a cold, rainy afternoon in February on the Thames, their bodies are saying STOP but you are the voice in their ear encouraging them to  ‘empty the tank’ to the finish line.  They are trusting you to keep them safe, to steer well, and to know what’s going on around them.  And similarly it’s a big responsibility to lead a legal team. My third tip is get to know your team as people, be willing to show that you are a person yourself, and develop those relationships of trust that will be invaluable when the s**t hits the fan on a Thursday afternoon and you need to work together to deal with a crisis. 

And lastly, be brave and take opportunities to learn.  It’s just as scary – possibly more scary – to try something new when you are further along in your career.  Walk the walk and show your team that you too are willing to put yourself out there and do something you’ve not done before. For instance, as part of a Nestlé leadership course, full of total strangers from across the world, we were lined up by height (no prizes for where I stood) and the shorter folk were put in charge for a management role-play activity. I had to make up (on my feet) a justification to the entire group for the nonsensical business project we’d come up with.  I think I spent the whole day getting over the experience – but afterwards I did feel that I’d learnt that I could put myself out there and survive.  

Likewise a message came round a couple of months ago asking for a cox for a crew who were training for the Head of the Charles race in Boston – and I put my hand up. That Sunday morning I was out coxing for a crew of Olympian and World Champ rowers (including Dame Katherine Grainger) – yes I was very nervous, but wow it was an amazing learning experience!  

So is this about leading a team or rowing?  You decide!  

And any rowers out there in the Crafty universe, happy to have a chat any time – only other rowers find rowing interesting 😊

PS #yeahmarlow