Episode 25: Becoming a trusted partner - with Thomas Christiansen, GC at Trackunit

Trackunit's General Counsel, Thomas Christiansen, joins the Inspiring Legal studio! We're talking about being the first Legal hire, how to educate the rest of the business, how to help Sales, and how being agile in a small company helps you get ahead.

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Stine: My name is Stine and I'm a part of Openli.

And today I'm going to be joined by Thomas Christensen, who is going to introduce himself in a second. But before he does that, I can just already now give you a sneak little kind of advertiser as to what we're going to be talking about today. Because Thomas has been on a journey with the company Trackunit.

And that has been quite the impressive journey going for, well, growing across many countries. On top of that, growing himself, being the first one in legal and how that has impacted the culture. Well, that's what we're going to be talking about today. Welcome, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you, Stine. Nice to join you.

Stine: Well, it's us thanking you for being here. Thomas, I know a little bit about you and your company, but the listeners might not. 

So maybe could you give an introduction to who you are and your background. And maybe also Trackunit, just so that people get to know a little bit more.

Thomas: Oh, yeah, for sure. 

So, yes, and yeah, you're correct. I was the first legal in Trackunit. I have a background first from corporate law. So, well, in Denmark, we have a split. You have corporate law and ordinary law.

So my first education was a candidacy in our masters in corporate law. I did do a normal law, so to speak, afterwards. So I have both. And that's my educational background. And I've had a little bit of a diverse kind of career to go into it.

I actually started working for a university as a kind of a, what is it, department head at an administrative level for a center. Working with tele infrastructure, which is suddenly where I ended up afterwards also. But that was not the trajectory I was set out to be.

So I left them after three years working into a company that was a bit of a startup working within, well, a lot of legal work, mostly focused on employment law. That was bought by a union, a Danish union called Krifa. And then I worked for them for about three years after they bought and merged it into their organization.

So I learned a lot about employment law there. Didn't really feel that that was my plan for my future. So I heard about a small Danish company that was just been acquired by Goldman Sachs and Grow Capital at that point. And that sounded very interesting to kind of move out and be in an in-house legal.

So I started there in May , I believe it was, which is a long time ago for most people. But yes, so that was my kind of introduction into the work in Trackunit. Trackunit is a company that does fleet management. We are a software company, have a hardware component as well, enables us to collect data, have roughly about one and a half million units deployed all over the world, collecting data in construction. So it is the construction world that is our main focus.

So we call it off highway. And our purpose in the entire company is actually to eliminate downtime, which is one of the biggest issues for our industry. And plays a lot into the legal over, by the way, we like to optimize, we like to be efficient, we like to make things in the best possible way. And it's a not so digitized world that we are trying to help digitize and actually make use of data.

And as we also spoke a little bit before the podcast, as well, being open about data and what you can use it for to help pretty much the industry. And we see a lot of traction in that. Recently been acquired by HG Capital, so Goldman Sachs.

So the PE journey, private equity journey is also part of, let me say, my internal education, so to speak. It has been quite a journey going from a, let's say, a normal eight to four job to be owned by a big conglomerate PE bank that has some requirements, not just on the legal side, but also the compliance side. 

So it has been a how to build this structure in a, let's call it a small North Jutland company, maybe not used to too much legal. And well, trying to see how you actually gain a role of being a trusted partner as a legal person. 

Stine: So, Thomas, when you joined the company, you were their first legal hire.

Thomas: I was.

Stine: How did you kind of go about educating the CEO and the CFO about, hey, I'm the new guy. I'm the one who helps with legal. And what does that even mean? So how did you do that? And what were your learnings from it?

Thomas: I would say I was a little bit naive when I started. I had like a big idea about now I have to build structure. I'm going to teach these people how to do legal, how to do everything in the right way.

Very quickly, I learned software is definitely not a place where you build structure. It's where you need to be agile.

So that's one of my big learnings. If you're in a company, and maybe even as the first one, I used to, well, I'm inspired by a few other legal people. So I call it building walls. I can't build boxes. I can build walls. And within those walls, they can pretty much pounce as they want.

I'm just making sure we don't end up in places where we go to jail or get big fines or, well, get into media trouble or anything else. That's pretty much my main task is keeping us within these walls, both compliance and legal-wise. And I had to learn to forget about the boxes and just say, well, I'll keep us in line, but I'll help kind of impact the business on the best possible way. 

And I think the journey is mainly, well, all the legal business will know that we have a tendency to be always in a little bit of conflict with our salespeople because they see us, well, we are slow, we're a bottleneck. We do everything to kind of stop the commercial journey.

And just convincing them, no, that's not what we're doing. It's actually enabling you to do things in a correct way. And I think, well, it took a few years, but I would say that our legal actually appreciate the legal department now. So sales help, legal help sales.

But yes, educating everybody, including CEOs. I think from what I've heard from others, but also my own personal experience is that when you start as the first legal hire, it's a lot about not only building processes, but it's a lot about getting people to know what you can use legal for, how legal can support and be a business player. But at the same time, it's also a find balance in regards to you also need to build walls. You need to protect the business.

Stine: So can you maybe just tell a little bit about how did you get started? Like, how did you go about that journey? 

Thomas: Yeah, for sure. It's a, I'm a big fan of the book, The Trusted Advisor.

It has a very good trust equation because when it boils down to everything, it is a matter of trust. You can't come in and kind of roll over a sales department or an engineering department saying, hey, I'm going to teach you how to do this. At least so we stay compliant.

It is more a, no, no, this is a business partner. I'll use an example.

So we had some very big negotiations. Our current CEO at that time invited me to join the negotiations, traveling to the customer and just being in the same room, understanding the business, understanding the requirements from the customer, what they're actually asking. I guess there's a lot of legal people going, we know how to put things on paper, but that's maybe not what the customer is asking for.

You need to understand the why behind it. And just being in that room doing negotiations for a few days, actually, well, at least from the sales point of view, seeing that, well, legal can actually enable you to get a higher price. They want to change a clause in a contract that has a value.

It's not just a, well, let's do DAP instead of X works on Incoterms, or let's raise the warranty in two years instead of one. And that actually showed, at least that point, sales that, hey, maybe this guy can even help me get my bonus up because I actually get a higher price. So I think that trust building is a very key to getting an impact on the organization. 

Stine: So moving with you and your journey with Trackunit, from what I'm hearing is that you joined after they got bought by an investment or private equity company. And how did that transition go about?

Did you experience change in the culture? Did you experience change in your role and the work that you were doing compared to what you had seen before, maybe? 

Thomas: Yeah, I will say I just started just when they were acquired.

So I say I'm guessing if I have to think a bit into the mindset of the CEO, he got handed, I don't know,  days of compliance and told you have to uphold antitrust, anti-bribery, corruption, money laundering, and so on. And he went, I don't know anything about this. I need somebody to help me here.

But the culture is, and maybe that's also a little bit speaking about being a Dane, we have a tendency to have a very low practical approach to it. And, well, maybe even in Northern Jutland, people will say we're a little bit slow. So moving from that into a high-speed growth engine that has become under a blue rank, that is for sure a change and a change in mindset. Because you go from a let's make sure that everything is crossed and checked before we move it out the door until we don't have time to do that. We have to make sure that it's a product that runs and people can trust it.

But it's okay to fix patches while we're working because that's actually what the customer expects. I think that was the main cultural change that we can actually build the rails while driving the train pretty much. And just having a mindset of it's okay to fail. I think our current CEO, he was the CTO and CCO at one point here. He actually introduced what he called a fail culture. Sounds bad. It isn't.

Remember to fail, remember to do it soon, and learn from it. Because mistakes you learn at the very late stage is the ones that's going to hurt the company the most. And we don't have any blame game. It's not you that failed. A mistake happened and now we need to learn from it. So it's more on the solution more than the people who actually did the mistake.

Stine: And everybody does mistakes, right? 

So after that, not you personally, but the company went into another transaction and another phase of the company. How did that then impact the way that the company is working and the way that you're working?

Thomas: So yeah, I would say we have a few stages going through. One is being owned by a PE bank, but just expanding into a global role, understanding different cultures across the world. It's also you come with one mindset and suddenly find out that mindset doesn't fit this market.

And that's not just sales. It's also legal, right? You have a certain way of doing things, maybe even country based. And suddenly you have to expand into areas where you pretty much have zero idea. And we are still doing that. It's a continuous journey and learning. And yes, if you're referring to the latest switch, we went from a Goldman Sachs owned company to a HD Capital.

These are very different. If you know anything about PE banks, Goldman is very numbers oriented. HD is very oriented on the business of software, which means we actually have a owner now that has dedicated teams that are helping building networks. And expanding on how you gain knowledge from all the portfolios. And they actually have also communities like Oberlin.

They have something called, in their case, Hive, where every general counsel in all the portfolios can actually chat on a daily basis if you have issues. And we can compare, well, do you know a legal guy in Malaysia? Oh, sure. I use this law firm. So it's a usable network, which definitely drives a – it's a good way of collaborating across companies.

Stine: We all have experiences, right? So for you, with that change, what has it meant for you and your role and the way that you've been giving advice to the business? Have you seen a change?

Thomas: A little bit, yes.

Because before, it was focused on the way that we are trusting our in-house legal purely. And then, again, when you are a business decision maker, so a CEO, a CFO, sometimes you're okay with making decisions on a 70% basis saying, hey, that's enough. I don't need more than that.

And sometimes you want to go expand a little bit. And, well, as I say, I can give you the 70%. If you need, I need to call a law firm or somebody else. 

In this case, it actually helps that you can say, well, I don't need to call a law firm. I can have four other portfolios going, yeah, we did the same thing. Well, confidence goes higher. It's not as costly. And it's also a collaborative mindset.

So the culture changes a little bit that we're not afraid to actually show that there's things we don't know because everybody was on that journey. And everybody has sit there wondering, how do you do this? Any experiences? What do we do? Do we hire people here? Do we use law firms? What do we do?

And now there is a, hey, there's a knowledge bank, so to speak, you can make use of. So my role is that it's changed in a way that I can actually seek a little bit advice from somebody further along the journey. And I can also give advice to somebody who's not as long on the journey as we are.

Stine: If you look at your own role and your own kind of personal development, where do you see that you have maybe gotten the biggest type of aha moments? Or where have you grown yourself the most where you might not have thought about that?

I think in the last year or two. I've looked a little bit back. It sounds bad. I'm not that old, but I've been looking a little bit back on the different things I've learned here. And maybe also seeing some of the people that I hire, we have a tendency to be perfectionist when we're just out of law school.

Everything has to be a hundred and ten percent. And at least in where I'm sitting, that's not a possibility. Decisions have to be made before because you don't have time or resources to do everything a hundred and ten percent. And leaving behind a little bit of that perfectionist and a little bit of the control freak that's pretty much built into our education, it's been a tough journey. But it's also been a necessary journey.

And I will say that, well, hopefully my boss would agree, it's made a better lawyer. I can actually make business decisions instead of just making legal decisions. And I actually appreciate that. So the new people you're getting on board. How do you coach them? And how do you get them to be that type of business partner, so to speak?

It's a mindset change. It's not something you can snap your fingers and do. It is a – well, in lack of a better word, it's a bit of a coaching. You have to – I use the word we have a feedback and setting the right decisions pretty much. So if we can't explain our expectations and get feedback on it, you're always going to fail. And that is pretty much where for the younger people I have hired is that, no, no, no.

You have expectations that's here. Mine are actually only here. I appreciate you wanting to reach that level where you want to go higher than my expectations are. But in essence, you've spent thirty percent of your time doing things that in essence will be redundant at one point because it's just us knowing that we are legal people and we can do it in the right way. And actually, it's a nudging.

You can't just snap your fingers and tell them, hey, tomorrow you do have to work seventy percent on that and seventy percent on that. It has to give them feedback saying that you're actually doing okay when you reach that level. That is what I expected. That's what the company expects of you. And, well, mindfulness is something we use in here.

For me, it's a little bit overused word, mindfulness. It's a thing we've been calling everything we pretty much do where it's focused work. It's something you, well, if you look back in history, Zen has been in Asia for many thousands of years. Same thing.

It's mindfulness, right? But it is that focusing on one thing to reach that level that needs to go to and then accepting that is what it is. I think my CEO said the other day that our biggest job as leaders nowadays is to kind of slow down the new talent. Because the way that the world works now is that they run with  kilometers an hour when they get out of university.

And I want to impress everybody around them, including their peers. But you don't have time to get the experience if you're running  kilometers an hour. You have to slow down and actually get experience within one area before you move on to the next. I think that's good.

I think what many are experiencing with people that are just coming out of law school and starting in-house is that many of them are super smart people. They are motivated in ways that, Jesus, if I had that motivation when I graduated, holy crap. And so I think what I am hearing and also experiencing myself is that they come on and after three months or maybe six, they start, so what about my personal development?

So what are my next steps? What can I do now? 

Stine: So my question to you is the following. Do you experience the same? Are you seeing the same trends? 

And if so, how maybe are you getting those talents to understand there is also maybe a craft that you need to learn first? That there are some things you might not know that you should know before we take that next step. So what do you think? 

Thomas: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head there. It is a, that's one of the toughest things you do as a leader. It's not been that long.

Stine: Still, I see a very big change, right? We had time. We actually did learn a craft at a time where I call it a little bit jokingly the swipe generation. Everything is  seconds, then you can just swipe to the next. And it feels a little bit, you need to slow down the swiping, right? No, no, no. Stay with this task just a little bit longer. 

Thomas: But yeah, you're right. Keeping that motivation, but it is dialogue, right? You need to speak to your people. You need to explain what's happening and you need to kind of figure out each individual what their motivation is and keeping it. It's a fun task to have.

Stine: So maybe, Thomas, just out of curiosity, how many people are on your team and how are you totally low practical maybe? Are you having one-to-ones on a regular basis? 

Is it the classic when you're at the law firm, you have this kind of career progression? Like after six months, this happened. After  months, this happened.

So how are you going about that? Currently, I have three people working for me. I had some more people before corona as well.

Thomas: We had some transitions there, but now three. One of them is an engineer because I also have the responsibility for product compliance.

So again, different mindset, different way of working. And that's actually fun to see or at least for me to learn from because he has a lot more technical insight than I do. But yes, you're right.

So we have in tracking and we use something we call impact conversations, which is at least a quarterly session. It has nothing to do with performance review.

It has nothing to do with salary. It is actually just a conversation on how are we most impactful both as leaders. So how do we actually communicate what is happening between an employee and the leader? But also how do we best impact the company in what we do?

Maybe it sounds a little bit much to have it at the quarterly, but it's in our experience, at least we need one every six months. And it's never a fixed date. It is if the employee thinks, hey, now I actually need an impact conversation.

They bring it up. If they don't, yeah, it is my task as a leader to say, well, we need to have this. We need to kind of see what we're progressing on.

And we also address what is your next move? And is it going to take two, three, five years to get there? And so we actually have a development plan pretty much built into this as well, but very much focused on this.

How do you do an impact on the company? So that's where you are leading people. You also need, I would guess we all need to develop ourselves. At least have an idea of are we succeeding?

Get that tap on the back and say you're good at your job. Or you can do this better and then you'll be even better. So how are you developing yourself? I have the same conversations with my boss. And funnily enough, there's always stuff to learn.

I think it's very much on a personal level. Well, again, my boss is the CFO at this point. I have been reporting to the CEO at a different point. So from a factual point of view, it's not that much feedback.

I am the expert within legal. That's my job. So he can actually give me impact on how to better communicate for first of all upwards. So it is C-levels. It is the board of directors. It's everything we do there. And maybe also big learning for me. 

I have a tendency. Maybe other legal people have too. We want to produce a product and then we want to show them how good we were at the product. Saying, hey, look what I did. And maybe keeping it a little bit to ourselves until we are ready to present.

His main point for me to work on is he needs me to over communicate. Pretty much everything I do, it's not because I need an answer for him or anything else. It's simply just to be on a Slack messaging channel.

So we Slack, we email, we phone calls. And it doesn't need to be more than one or two lines. That's it. It's just so he knows this is what's happening. And yes, I can fix it.

It's not a problem. But he just doesn't want to be surprised by a CEO hearing it from somebody else in the organization going, I have zero idea. So I'm learning to actually communicate a little bit more to my boss and what I'm doing and what's happening across the organization.

I think in general communication apparently can't be done too much. It's actually you can only do it too little. Completely get what you're saying.

I think also from a legal perspective, you don't many don't like to brag. You don't want to go and say, hey, I updated the terms and conditions. Like nobody normally really cares that much about it. Of course, if you're impacting sales, they care. But otherwise, you're not going around and saying, hey, and we just did our anti-bribery training.Woohoo.

So, but there is something about telling people what is you're doing? What is the impact? And why? And I think that's maybe something talking also about culture. Explaining the why. Why is it that we have this training? Why is it that we updated the terms? So that people get more of the underlying foundation of what it is that legal is also doing. Definitely.

Stine: So, when you're communicating, not just to the CFO, but internally into the business, any tips and tricks to share?

Thomas: Yeah, I think so. I think we lack a little bit in our education. We learn to communicate, but we learn to communicate factually.

We don't learn to tell narratives. And sometimes, yes, narratives can be a way of hiding things, I know. But in most cases, it's actually, and I hate the term, but you have to be a little bit political when you say things to an organization or maybe even outside the organization. I have a tendency to use humor a lot.

We are a company that actually uses humor a lot here, so it actually fits into the culture we have. So sometimes, yes, it's a funny meme while you tell something that needs to be addressed. It is, well, we do trainings. There's always some sort of competitive thing. I know if you do gamification, it always helps a little bit.

We have very, very, very competitive people here. So as soon as I do a training, I make a test, I put a medal on it. Everybody wants that gold medal. So suddenly, the training is just more into it. Everybody is listening to it. But just as an example, we're rolling out some cybersecurity training at the moment.

We've been introducing some of the cybersecurity standards, and we are running something that's called the Insight Man. It's a company who has done a with actors a how do you do this. And I had the pleasure of actually being able to send something out. It has nothing to do with that, but there was a small link you had to click.

And I think about half of my colleagues kind of jokingly said, well, we can't click this. It's from the legal guy, but we just saw that video. And if we click a link, it's phishing. So sorry, we can't do what you're asking us to. And suddenly, it became a joke. But speaking from the legal point of view, everybody got it.

Everybody listened to it. It's now something that's part of everything. Oh, you remember that legal guy who sent that out? Yeah, okay, maybe we better do that, right? So it is using the culture and the company to kind of get a message across. Where ours is humor, it could be something else for a different company, right?

But it is just kind of getting to know your business and knowing how to communicate inside that business. That is where you're going to make an impact.

Stine: So, Thomas, you're inspiring us with memes and links and funny, catchy stories. And personally, I love the fact that the phishing and then the links, it's clickbait at its best, right?So, who do you get inspired from? Where did you get your inspiration? 

Thomas: A few places, I would say. Again, I am in a tech world, so I must say Elon Musk is one of them. It impresses what he's doing. And just having a somewhat twisted mindset. Thinking a little bit outside of the box, right?

You're doing business model that nobody's done. Why are you giving things away for free? Well, there is a benefit at the later point. So you have some things there.

And then I think it's Daniel Kaufman who wrote a book about mindsets. I have been reading it. It's a system one and two. Nobody's read it. It's a quite good one.

I remember reading it. But understanding how your mind works. So both that, the trust advisor. There's actually a different set of books you can read. But having a self-awareness and understanding why you do things in a certain way, that inspires me a lot.

I actually like to learn every single day. I've even stated it to a CEO. The day I can't learn anything more Trackunit, that's the day I'm going to quit. So learning from anything, I can pretty much. So again, that's what I do. So, yeah. 

Stine: Thank you so much, Thomas, for joining this episode of Inspiring Legal. It has been a pleasure having you. And thank you so much for sharing.

Thomas: Thank you. 

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