This article features highlights from episode 9 of our podcast, The Abstract. You can listen to the full conversation here.
Genessa Stout’s journey from being a receptionist at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP to her current position as COO and GC of Tally is shaped by curiosity, dedication, and an evolving perspective. Today, she stands at the intersection of legal expertise and business acumen.
During her time as an attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), she was motivated to effect change at its source, which is when she decided to make a move to PayPal in an in-house legal role.
“The only way you can change the way a consumer is treated upfront is within the company that's offering the consumer the product. And when I had that realization, it shifted things for me. It led me to PayPal when I decided to work on consumer problems from a different perspective. PayPal helped me understand the complexities of building and delivering products at scale.”
In this article, we'll delve into Genessa's perspectives on expanding the role of GC into a spectrum of functional domains beyond legal. Through her words and experiences, we will uncover her roadmap for legal professionals aspiring to embrace a broader realm of influence within companies.
Charting the course from the first legal hire to GC & COO
The idea of being the sole lawyer in an organization, especially the first one, might seem daunting at first. Genessa admits that she initially felt a sense of trepidation about taking on this role.
“It took me a while to adjust to the idea of being the first lawyer at Tally, but then I realized it's just like anything else. You figure out one problem and then move on to the next problem. That's what we do as lawyers. We just figure out one problem after another, and it's not as overwhelming as it seems. When you think about the whole thing, it feels overwhelming, but when you think about it like, ‘Okay, now I'm working on this. I do know the answer to this, and then we can think about the next problem,’ it gets easy.”
Genessa's journey as a GC didn't unfold in a linear fashion but rather organically evolved as the company's needs grew.
“Tally had started out as a lending company. We lend money or we lend lines of credit to consumers with credit card debt. This helps them save money on interest because we give them a lower APR and help them pay off their cards more efficiently. This requires lending licenses. So, that was a big start. Because I'd had a lot of exposure to just regulatory frameworks, Tally was a good starting place for me. I eventually started evolving into more than just legal issues.”
As Genessa delved into legal issues like trademarks and beyond, she realized that her expertise could extend to other functional areas.
“I understand that somebody could have their heart set on being COO as their goal. But that wasn’t the case for me. My role just evolved from GC to COO because I started taking on a lot of the people responsibilities, which is a pretty natural segue for a lot of lawyers. There were a lot of overlapping employment issues, especially when COVID-19 started, and I started taking on more of them. As I started figuring out more of these problems, I realized I can understand this and figure out how to navigate through it.”
Trust-building beyond legal boundaries
The journey from being a General Counsel to a business leader requires more than just legal acumen—it calls for trust, collaboration, and the ability to work in domains beyond the legal scope.
"People need help and you should be willing to be a partner to them even if it isn't a pure legal issue. Lawyers are trained to think and analyze problems. We have a lot of skills and being a thought partner and helping people navigate forward is a great way to build trust. You might not have the answer but you can help figure out an answer or considerations for the answer.”
Learning and upskilling become essential components in this journey. Genessa's transition from GC to COO saw her actively reading and learning from various resources about the different functions.
"I was very intimidated to start leading finance, and I feel like I support finance instead of leading them. We have a really great team in place at Tally that I’m proud of.
Not that I'm an expert in finance, but to be able to hire someone who's great and then support that person, I needed to have some sort of understanding. That can be as simple as reading a book, like Jack Altman’s ‘People Strategy’, and a lot of articles. Start getting yourself educated. Talking to people who are in the space has also been really helpful for me. We have a credit team at Tally and that’s what I’m trying to learn more currently. Even though I’m never going to be an expert at credit, as I learn more about it, I can learn more about how to support people in that function so that the real experts can do their best work."
This journey involves understanding the nuances, challenges, and goals of different functions, enabling leaders to provide a foundation of informed guidance.
Building a culture that encourages feedback and empowers people
Genessa unveils the art of shaping and nurturing a thriving organizational culture—continuous investment and adaptation.
"Your company’s culture is what it is today and you can't count on it being the same way for the next six months. You have to invest in culture and always be sensitive to it, realizing that it's growing and evolving. Don’t take culture for granted."
Genessa also emphasizes the critical role of leadership in shaping culture.
"Culture is modeled at the top. The behaviors of the leaders are going to inform the culture. It’s not just the CEO or COO; it's also the people leading the teams. It continues to trickle down.”
A poignant story Genessa shared highlights the impact of feedback on shaping culture.
"I had a situation a few weeks ago where somebody was giving me some feedback on something that they thought I could have done better. It can feel hard, especially when you work really hard on something and try to do a good job, but they're telling you it wasn't good. The real test is how you choose to respond in that moment. That’s what really informs the culture.”
Openness to constructive criticism, willingness to listen, and a commitment to growth are pillars that underpin a culture of continuous improvement.
“Sometimes, you need people to tell you things even when it's hard to hear. My team told me it really stresses them out when I Slack them at 10:00 p.m. And I was thinking, ‘This is where I'm catching up on everything. It helps me feel less stressed to be getting these things off my plate.’ But them explaining it to me and me being willing to receive it has helped me change my behavior and not Slack somebody at 10:00 p.m. I recognized the need to be respectful of their time.”
As culture adapts and evolves, it is the collective commitment to nurturing it that ensures a harmonious and vibrant organizational environment.
"During our town halls at Tally, we try to have somebody give a values presentation where they talk about one of Tally's three different values. It can be whatever they want. They just need to express the way they see the value model and what it means to them. We have things built into our culture where we repeatedly reinforce the behaviors that we want to model."
Stepping outside the box to step into multifaceted roles
Genessa offers invaluable advice on how to transcend the boundaries of the legal realm and seize opportunities to make a lasting impact across various business functions.
“Understand the business from different points of view and understand what each group cares about. Try to understand how the whole machine of the business fits together, as it will give you insight into the way the company works. If you're a lawyer who simply says, ‘No, this won’t work,’ it's not very helpful. The goal is to try to figure out a path forward."
A critical piece of advice Genessa underscores is that you can't confine yourself to your lawyer lane. Expanding your scope means venturing beyond familiar domains.
“You need to do other things and be willing to branch out in a way that's not too annoying. Another thing is to be willing to own hard, complicated things that nobody else wants to do. It might be a lot of work. but you should take it on if it needs to be solved for the business. That gives you a lot of scope and wisdom about what the business needs.”
Genessa's journey reflects the organic nature of the expansion of her role into being a COO.
“I didn't seek out most things but no one was bringing them to me either. It was more like help. ‘We need help with this. Will you help us?’ That's the way life works a lot of times. I don't think I have demanded to be in charge of something. Instead, when someone needs to understand and figure something out, and I have strengths or some knowledge in that area, I simply ask them to let me be part of the solution.”
Recognizing your strengths and offering your expertise, even if it isn't in your predefined lane, can be a game-changer. This approach speaks to the essence of taking on challenges with a learning mindset.
“Whatever the task ahead of you is, even if you don't want to do it or it wouldn't be your first choice of things to do, just try to be awesome at it. Own it and do the best that you can do.”
To listen to more of Genessa’s insights on transitioning from the role of GC to a multifaceted position, check out the full conversation on The Abstract.