Q&A with Susan Comparato, CEO of Syncora Holdings Ltd.

Susan Comparato is CEO, President and the only woman member of the Board of Directors of Syncora Holdings Ltd. Syncora is a global company that provides financial guarantee insurance and other credit enhancement for debt obligations in the United States and international capital markets. Susan was one of the key leaders of Syncora’s complex restructuring during the financial crisis and has been praised for her work with regulators in guiding the company out of financial distress. Prior to joining Syncora, Susan worked in private practice at a law firm and at Barclays Capital.

I recently sat down with Susan to talk about her path to becoming CEO at Syncora, the importance of working effectively with regulators and what it’s like to lead a company in the financial services industry, where most leadership positions are held by men. This interview has been condensed from its original form.

Q. What was your career path before you arrived at Syncora?

After law school I went directly to a law firm, Brown & Wood, which is now Sidley Austin. I went into the securitization group. After about six years, I decided that I needed to broaden my experience, so I went to Barclays Capital and worked on the risk finance desk. Ultimately, I came to Syncora in 2001 as the company’s primary transactional attorney. Syncora was a company that was beginning to focus on financial guarantees on structured products. It had a broad-based transactional practice, including municipal and project finance transactions, so I was able to see a broad spectrum of deals, and that was good for my career. When my boss, the General Counsel, left to head up Syncora’s London office, I was able to move into the GC position. For me, that was the best of all worlds, where I could still be involved with transactions and also with more corporate issues as well.

Q. What was your path like from General Counsel to CEO?

I was GC for a number of years, and then an exciting time came in 2006, when the company went public. Shortly thereafter, the financial crisis hit. As a result, another chapter of my life began: during the financial crisis, when Syncora was in financial distress, I became involved with the company’s restructuring, which ultimately led to me becoming CEO.

I did not wake up one day and decide that I would be CEO, but the opportunity to get involved in the restructuring presented itself, and since a lot of the senior level people were departing during this difficult time, I became one of the key leaders at the company. I began trying to figure out ways to improve the company’s financial condition, and that involved making deals with stakeholders. When we completed our restructuring in 2008, and the company found itself on better footing, I was named CEO. I call my promotion to CEO a “battlefield promotion.”

Q. There must be real differences as a CEO versus a General Counsel. What advice do you have about adapting and succeeding after transitioning into a new career role?

When entering into a new role, it is important to listen and meet as many people in the organization as you can, including people within your group as well as people in other groups. As a lawyer, you have to determine what the company and the business people at the company need and how you can be helpful and make the most difference. When I began my job at Syncora, where transactions were the life blood of the company, I had to think about how to advance that strategy for the organization.

If you want to talk more specifically about being CEO versus General Counsel, I think that GCs are often reacting and solving problems for the company, but they are not necessarily setting the agenda for the organization. The CEO is setting the strategy and the agenda for the direction in which the company is moving. Another difference is the level of communication with other people at the company. A CEO has to be much more communicative with company employees because employees want to feel like they know where the organization is heading.

Q. After being one of the leaders of Syncora’s restructuring, you have been lauded for emphasizing transparency and cooperation in working with regulators. What qualities do you think have contributed to your effectiveness with regulators?

Prior to the financial crisis, although the company was making all of the required regulatory filings, we were not building relationships with the regulators. Once we saw the crisis unfold, it became very clear that regulatory relationships are key because you are going to have bumps in the road no matter what organization you are. When we saw during the crisis that we did not have this necessary base relationship, Dick Dunham who was at the time a senior partner in the insurance regulatory group at Debevoise, helped us to begin to develop that relationship. We had some ideas about how to work through our restructuring and began a dialogue with the regulators, and they were appreciative that we involved them, engaged them and were not trying to hide anything from them during this process. We showed them our problems and suggested solutions, and the next time we came back to the regulators we were able to say we were making progress. It comes back to transparency, communication and trust. When an executive or a lawyer is thinking about how to approach a situation with regulators, if their company is experiencing easy times or things are going smoothly, it can seem unnecessary to meet with regulators. But when times are good, that is the time to plant the seeds and make sure you are nurturing these important relationships.

Q. What lessons have you learned and challenges have you faced as a result of leading a company in which you are the only woman on the Board of Directors and the other leadership positions are predominantly held by men?

In financial services the general trend is that there are a lot of men, so having been in financial services for as long as I have, I am used to it. When the company entered distressed mode during the financial crisis, because we were working with hedge funds, the setting became even more male. I think the key for a woman is not to focus on that. You just need to do what you think the right thing is for the company and make assertive recommendations for the steps you believe the company should take. Do the job you are doing, and do it in the best way you can. Do it in your own style. What is most important for women is that they develop a way of approaching an issue, a way of leading and a way of creating teams. You have to take the style you are comfortable with instead of trying to act in a way that is more traditionally “male,” because otherwise you are just faking it.

Q. You are an alumna of DirectWomen, an organization dedicated to increasing the representation of women lawyers on corporate boards. Tell us a bit more about the organization.

The organization started with the belief that women are notoriously underrepresented on boards. The DirectWomen institute selects women lawyers who are what you might call “board-ready,” meaning that they have had vast experience working with different corporate matters. The women selected then meet with the institute to discuss their resumes and corporate topics they will need to know to be a successful director. I will say though that I believe that board membership often results from networking, and DirectWomen encourages networking as well. At the end of the day, while it is good to be board-ready, you have to combine that with networking, keeping in touch with people and being at the forefront of people’s minds, because there are not that many board positions available. Many boards ask sitting board members if they have recommendations for filling a board seat. For example, I have a board seat on a private company now, DBRS Inc. (a rating agency), apart from my board membership at Syncora, which I was offered because of a reference from someone I used to work with. DirectWomen is great for preparation, but they would say that it is really up to women to network and create opportunities in order to find a place for themselves on boards. There are different paths, such as starting on the board of a non-profit, but you have to actively find that path for yourself.

Q. On a lighter note, what book is on your bedside table right now?

I am reading the book, How To Raise An Adult, which was written by a former dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims. The whole idea behind the book is that parenting has become quite intense, especially compared to when I was growing up. Today, parents are shuttling their kids from here to there and trying to plan much of their children’s lives, but we cannot forget that decision-making skills are essential for a child to become independent. For some kids, college is a shock when they don’t have their parents around. Even in college, some kids rely heavily on their parents, whereas in my generation you just went to college and talked to your parents maybe once a week. It is very easy for a parent to do too much for their child. You want the best for your children, but it is also important to prepare them for the future. I wish I could tell you that I’m reading some great fiction novel, but I find this book especially interesting because my daughter just turned thirteen, and I also have a son, who is ten. So that’s what I’m reading now.

Yana M. Mereminsky is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.