Nick Khadder brings lessons he learned from previous leaders and legal roles and applies them to his position as General Counsel at Amyris, Inc.
Nick Khadder has never forgotten his early days as a lawyer. Immediately after joining Fenwick & West LLP in 1998, he was assigned a tough financial deal for a startup company. It was unfamiliar territory, and he was learning on the fly. Then, the partner he was working with took an unexpected leave and Gordy Davidson, then chairman of the firm, stepped in.
“I was pretty intimidated by that, actually,” Khadder said. “But through the course of that transaction we developed a really good rapport and Gordy became my supporter early in my career.”
That relationship proved to be invaluable, because Davidson was well-respected throughout the entire business community. Years later it was Davidson who helped Khadder get an interview with biotechnology company Amyris, Inc., where he now serves as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary.
Key lessons along the path to in-house GC
Using Davidson as his role model, Khadder learned the art of communicating with business people and delivering practical business advice that went above-and-beyond just explaining the law.
“You have to explain how a company should react to that law in a way that minimizes risk while supporting its business goals,” Khadder said. “And above all, you need to come to the table with solutions, not problems or blocks.”
He also learned to step back, take a breath to calm himself, and remember all the resources he has available when faced with a difficult situation, rather than letting his “lizard brain” full reign to react in the moment.
When Khadder left Fenwick to try his hand in-house at Protiviti, a subsidiary of Robert Half International, he learned how to run an in-house commercial transactions practice from Protiviti’s GC. At his next stop, Leapfrog Enterprises, he learned to take ownership of the documents he drafted—to be able to explain them and understand their political implications.
“The various types of things you do over the course of your in-house career are all establishing a foundation of knowledge that allows you to perform well as a GC,” said Khadder, who believes being a corporate and securities lawyer is the best, although not necessarily the easiest, path for a GC.
When he came to Amyris as assistant general counsel in 2010, it was a whole different ballgame. Although it’s a public company, Amyris feels like a start-up company—it’s fast-paced, processes aren’t yet jelled and business priorities are constantly shifting. It was difficult to get a handle on it at first, but the GCs who preceded him helped him understand how to deal with the pace and function at a higher level.
“In the end, you’ve just got to figure out a way to do it,” Khadder said. “They did a really good job of helping me adapt to that reality.”
The GC executive leadership role
When Khadder stepped into the GC role at Amyris in 2013 he faced new challenges. The role required integration of all the practice areas he’d covered over the years (corporate and securities law and transactional practice, primarily on the corporate side) as well as areas he’d never dealt with before.
“One of the tougher things initially is being okay with not being the expert on everything you have to talk about from a legal perspective,” Khadder said. “It’s really important to have a great team in place that you can rely on, whether it’s your in-house legal team or outside counsel.”
Khadder also had to develop a more strategic business mindset and “flex new muscles” to take his knowledge of the company to a deeper level.
“You’re contributing as part of an executive team that is directing the entire company—its priorities and its next steps,” he said.
Good communication and relationships with others, while always key, is a critical component of the GC role, especially when it comes to rubbing elbows with the company’s top execs. Sometimes it requires breaking down silos.
“Knowing people makes it easier to take personal and professional risks,” Khadder said. “It takes time to develop confidence in a new role. And learning to speak up in an executive meeting setting as a businessperson, not just as a lawyer. Those are all things I had to focus on getting comfortable with early-on.”
A proactive, balanced approach
Khadder’s communication style with his team (four attorneys, two paralegals and administrative support) is proactive and disciplined. While it’s tempting for a small team to fall into the habit of conducting business around the water cooler, he feels scheduled team meetings not only keep everyone informed; they contribute to the cohesiveness of the team.
His personal approach for keeping on track of it all is to strike that middle ground between micro-managing and total delegation. His goal is to stay in the loop—being aware of and comfortable with the direction everybody on his team is going—so he can respond to questions and give the best advice possible to the executive team,
“Frankly I’ve been enjoying it,” Khadder said. ♦
GC Forms Group for Peer Support
When Nick Khadder stepped into the role of GC, he wanted to connect with other area in-house GCs, but couldn’t find a vehicle. Undaunted, he dipped into his list of contacts, and with the help of a likeminded GC, founded the Bay Area General Counsel Forum this spring.
Khadder’s vision for the group is similar to that of the Young President’s Association. It’s a venue where GCs can ask fellow GCs for advice about challenges they are facing in a confidential, supportive environment. Besides quarterly meetings, fun outings give them opportunities to get to know each other on a personal level—the first for Khadder’s group was a baseball game.
“I’m pretty excited about the group,” Khadder said. “Lawyers tend to be more insular and have a hard time reaching out. I think we all could benefit from collaborating a bit more with others in the same position.”
Currently the fledgling group is organized via an online message board and consists of about 25 GCs.
“It’s still pretty small, but I see it as a valuable resource for the future,” Khadder said. “I’m still figuring out how best to grow it and put it to use.”
Nick's Key Partners:Shearman & Sterling (M&A Matters) | Fenwick & West (Corporate Matters)
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