Susan Comparato is the Chief Executive Officer of Syncora Holdings Ltd. Its operating subsidiary, Syncora Guarantee Inc., provides financial guarantee insurance and other credit enhancement for debt obligations in the U.S. and international capital markets. Susan is also an alumna of Sidley’s New York office. Ed Fine recently sat down with Susan to hear more about life as a CEO, what she looks for in outside counsel, and how important it is to ask for honest feedback.
Ed: How did you get started at Syncora?
Susan: I started in the legal department. I came aboard in 2001 as the first attorney to be a structured product, structured finance expert. Over time, I grew that portfolio and started getting involved in more general corporate matters. By the time the crisis hit, everything that was going wrong was in my sweet spot of expertise. I became very involved in working out the company and working out the credits that were causing the issue. The training I received at Sidley gave me a huge leg up.
And then you became CEO. Do you continue to find your legal skills helpful in your new role?
Susan: I use my legal skills every day – not so much in terms of legal research, but looking at issues, identifying problems. A good lawyer is a problem solver. It's a way of thinking, a way of processing information, a way of asking questions. It's also a skepticism; a lawyer is able to see all different sides of an argument. That is the base of it all, though I would say in terms of writing a memo, I don't do that anymore.
But I bet you still know how to read a pooling and servicing agreement?
Susan: I do – but I don't think I could do it for a living.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
Susan: What’s typical is that I start my day with a list of ten things and I get to the end of the day and I've done one of them. It took me a couple of months to realize I’m in a role where people come in and talk to you about projects they're working on for you, on projects they're working on for someone else. It's getting the pulse of what's going on across the company.
Before the financial crisis, there were quite a few monoline insurance companies. Do you think there's still a role for monolines and if so, what might that be?
Susan: I think there is a role, but there are only a few companies today that are actively providing financial guarantee insurance on more basic transactions. There should be room for another model where you can do more complicated deals, but there are a lot of challenges to make that work. One possibility is what I'd call revised credit enhancement where you guarantee only a portion of the transaction, but there is still a significant benefit. A lot of people don't realize how much surveillance work a monoline does, and how valuable that is. We do what investors sometimes can’t.
What factors do you look for when you're hiring outside counsel?
Susan: One, someone who really focuses on their practice, their expertise. Two, I want to know how they handle work on a transaction because you may be a skilled lawyer, but if you can't manage a transaction, then it can go terribly awry. Three, communication skills. Sometimes if I haven't given sufficient instructions or the other party hasn't asked enough questions, I find myself with a 60-page memo, but I didn't want a 60-page memo. You have to feel like the person is open to a constant dialogue and sometimes the dialogue isn’t going to be pleasant.
Do you have any advice for someone starting out in private practice?
Susan: Being hungry for all kinds of work is essential. You really should expose yourself to a variety of different areas because you may be surprised by what you like. Second, probably even more importantly, ask questions. I think people have to be less afraid of feeling foolish. Ask the questions when you're younger because there is a point in your career when asking the questions is difficult. Third, be strategic about your career. Too often you can get in a rut of allowing assignments to come to you. You have to make your own path, and you have to talk about where you can improve. People generally don't like to have those conversations, but that's the only way you're going to learn.
Did you have any mentors in your career?
Susan: I think my first boss at Syncora was a terrific mentor. Not only did he have great legal skills, but he was also very good at managing relationships within the company. And he seemed to do his work and still have a family. I think some people believe you're going to get one mentor, this one person who is going to tell you everything. You have to pick different people who have different qualities and that helps you build a community of people you can talk to.
Do you have time for things like reading or community outreach?
Susan: I try. I started playing tennis again when I was about 40 and it’s fantastic. In terms of my kids’ school, I like to go with the projects that you can do alone at 10:00 p.m. at night. I was in charge of my son's school directory, and that's perfect. These projects may not always be glamorous, but you can still help out and be engaged. I do some work with my law school. I was in charge of the reunion recently, and I talk to some incoming students. I envision someday having more time for all that.
Do you think either of your kids is going to be a lawyer?
Susan: I think my daughter would have a lot of the skills, but then she'll say, "It's so much work!" I always say to her that lots of professions are a lot of work and you have to find one where you're willing to do a lot of work. Your career could be 30-40 years, so you better like what you're doing every day. I think at the end of the day I've been grateful for starting off at a law firm. It kind of prepares you for anything.
Published January 2016 - UPDATE, Chief Administrative Officer at Argo Group
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