Transcript: Agnes Foy podcast

In the week of International Women’s Day, we talked to lawyer Agnes Foy about corporate culture, codes of conduct, and how #metoo brought about change for men as well as women.

This is a transcript of the podcast Agnes Foy on IWD and corporate culture between GRIP senior reporter Carmen Cracknell and lawyer Agnes Foy.


Carmen Cracknell: So Agnes, thank you so much for joining us. Can you just start by talking about yourself and your professional background?

Agnes Foy: Sure. Well, I’m Irish, but I feel part English and part European as well. Most of my career was spent on trading floors as a lawyer rather than as a trader. I also worked as a commercial litigator and represented a number of traders at disciplinary and investigative tribunals. I also worked in nuclear safety and as a commercial litigator. And now I’m a startup entrepreneur. I’m along with a team of 10 others. We have co-founded a tech enterprise that is focused on transforming the way that SMEs use legal contracts. That’s me in a nutshell.

Carmen Cracknell: And how is the startup world different to what you did before? Is there kind of a really big difference in the culture?

Agnes Foy: I think there’s a big difference in the I’ve moved to Sheffield as of last August. And that was because I worked before I launched myself into the startup world. I worked on projects for various city based startups. And usually there were men in their 40s who had worked up until then in large city linked organizations.

They left because they were either disillusioned or not progressing up the career ladder. But they were simply duplicating what they knew in organizational terms. So there was no big change. They were now attempting to channel processes and practices through a technology route. They weren’t changing anything. So I moved to Sheffield and most of the entrepreneurs on the project that I’m part of now have not worked for large organizations.

So their mind is uncluttered by the control and coercion aspects of large organizations. And also they’re younger. And so they’re more intent on making a meaningful difference rather than the nonsensical poppycock of, oh, I’m going to have an IPO in three years and make three hundred million and buy myself a football team. There’s none of that nonsense.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because I’ve worked in these sort of startups you describe. And I always hear the word disrupting and disruptor. But as you say, it is usually guys in their 40s who are really well connected in the venture capital world already. And they’re just kind of taking that over to startups.

So do you think it’s like quite a specific thing to London because you’re now in Sheffield? Is it a bit more open in kind of the regions than is it more London centric thing, this this old school culture that you’re talking about?

Agnes Foy: I think it’s more London centric because it’s embedded in large organizations. And because all of the startups I worked for were city based. That’s what I saw. But perhaps there’s a broader culture that I wasn’t privy to.

Carmen Cracknell: So this different environment that you’re talking about, is it more positive for women in particular? Because, you know, International Women’s Day is coming up. So we’re kind of we wanted to talk about in the context of that specifically.

Agnes Foy: I definitely think so. The supportiveness that I received and the welcome that I received from the women on the Cooper Project. That’s what it’s called here in Sheffield. It was very different. And but I also think that that there’s a stronger sense of community and collaboration here than there is in London.

Carmen Cracknell: So you’ve written a lot about codes of conduct and that’s been a big topic in the last few years with the FCA and different organizations implementing these. Where have codes of conduct arisen from and why are they now so prevalent?

Agnes Foy: Well, I think lawyers have to take responsibility for drafting codes of conduct. The drawback to that is that the process of legal education is a rather warped thing. And what it causes lawyers to do is see the world on hierarchical terms. Only the legal profession could dream up the idea that equal equals different. So all written codes of conduct reflect that equal equals different ethos.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah. What do you mean by that?

Agnes Foy: It means that they’re written as a loaded dice, they generate siege mentalities, a blame culture and a win-lose outcome.

Carmen Cracknell: You think codes of conduct don’t really help in work environments? They kind of just make it easier for people to bring cases against other people?

Agnes Foy: They would help if they were drafted with some thought. But they’re not.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah. What’s kind of lacking, just to give an explainer about how they’re drafted, the mentality behind that?

Agnes Foy: It reflects the traditional lawyer education and mindset, which is generate a siege mentality, play a blame game and have a win-lose outcome. That’s bad for culture, culture of any organization. But that’s the framework within which lawyers are educated to operate.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah. What do you think? What is a better way to encourage a positive culture? I think you said before you feel like culture gets in the way of innovation. Can you also explain that?

Agnes Foy: Sure. Well, so most most of us, but particularly lawyers and particularly men, are taught to are socialized to revere abstractions. So in a corporate culture context, the most common utterance from middle or senior management is, oh, it’s in the best interest of the company. This is a blatant untruth. It’s in the best interest of middle or senior managers. And because the company is an abstraction, nobody can go and ask the company directly.

So therefore it’s a loaded dice. So innovation by its nature is a disruptor. If you go back to all of the people in kind of populating city tech based organizations, say over in Shoreditch there can’t be much disruption about any of them because they’re all wearing the same uniform and the same type of beard.

So so there’s not much originality going to ever come out of those conformists. Easy to make them conform and innovators by definition want to affect change. They don’t want to conform. They fix on something or fixate on something that they feel needs to be changed. I think the biggest challenge for innovators is not the innovation itself. It is the process of educating people to want to change. We all say we love change, but nobody really loves change when it’s applied to themselves.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, is that and that’s something that like these days is taken on by HR departments, isn’t it? Do you think they are the most suitable people to be giving that training?

Agnes Foy: Well, the misunderstanding that people have, young people about HR departments, is that HR is your friend. No, today’s HR has been a somewhat gormless tool of management. After about 20 years, everybody in HR starts to look like they would prefer to be on the phone to the Samaritans because their choice of career is not what they had expected it to turn out to be.

Carmen Cracknell: Moving on to a question regarding regulation. The FCA’s stance on non-financial misconduct and the correlation with market abuse. Do you think the FCA is going far enough to tackle non-financial misconduct and can the recommended actions work?

Agnes Foy: Well, I greatly admire the many initiatives of the FCA on trying to affect cultural change. I think, so, for example, the impact of Harvey Weinstein on NDA’s men used to think was just something to do with, you know, female nonsense and it never applied to them. I think the FCA has done excellent work in attempting to make men appreciate that they too are being bullied by other men and are equally entitled to call this out.

So the FCA moving, bullying and harassment and sexual harassment, which are the routine aspects of male lives in large organizations, to move that centre stage and get men to question it, I think is a fabulous thing. Going back to NDA’s, although it’s unconnected with the FCA, I think that the post office scandal has definitely heightened male awareness about the bullying aspect of NDA’s and the contract content that lawyers never questioned while they were drafting it. They figured equal, equalled, different.

Carmen Cracknell: What else has been or what have also been the big changes that you’ve seen since the Me Too movement? Is that the main one or are there other things that you’ve seen?

Agnes Foy: Well, I think women are able to speak much more openly about a whole range of horrible things that have happened to them. And I think younger men, I mean by that, men under about 35, are more amenable to listening. I also think that these days most families need two incomes to get by.

And so the idea that the man holds the purse strings no longer holds true. But I also think that male behaviour stems from how they are treated themselves at work by other males. And there’s a really interesting body of research done by a man called Michael Roper, who was at the Cranfield School of Management, by a British organizational man. Basically, I think it should be mandatory reading for any HR department, because it highlights if a woman said it, she’d be shot.

But it highlights with tangible examples how men so willingly and abjectly perform wifely duties for their male bosses, without question, without questioning at all what they’re doing. So how do men learn to coerce and control? Well, they learn it in the workplace because they’re coerced and controlled most of the time.

Carmen Cracknell: So there’s obviously still some way to go, but there have been a lot of changes in the last 40 years since, I guess, you started out in your career. Has the bulk of the change happened in the last few years since Me Too, or has it been a gradual process, do you think?

Agnes Foy: I think very significant changes were precipitated by Me Too. I can’t remember when it was published, but some American, I think called Cheryl, wrote a book called Lean In. And I think over the last few years, leaning in appears to younger women to amount to a madness.

Because if you lean in, you simply are endorsing and becoming part of a very toxic environment that doesn’t even work well for men. So I think the big change is leaning out. And I think going back to the tech environment that I’m currently in, I think the bulk of those men want to lean out, not in. And that’s great.

Carmen Cracknell: What does leaning out mean?

Agnes Foy: Disassociating yourself from toxic corporate environments and wanting something better. Because in many ways, the most victimised, oppressed and abused grouping of all is young men. Well, there’s a whole load of unwritten rules of conduct that they’re asked to adhere to, based on the premise that the older men grew up and spent their whole careers within a system that was all about command and control, and pretending that nothing is chaotic. When all of it is, I think any young man with sense would reject that.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, so it’s mainly, I guess, bullying by older men and the expectation that younger men should take part in, let’s say, out of work socialising, like drinking or things like that. Is it that sort of thing?

Agnes Foy: Well, I mean, that’s a little part of it, or some part of it. But just the routine bullying that amounts to: You do all the work, I get all the credit. And if anything goes wrong, you’re the one who’s going to get fired and blamed, not me.

Carmen Cracknell: I did have a question in here about whether you had some examples of men behaving badly and what happened and the lessons learned from that. Is there anything that comes to mind?

Agnes Foy: Well, I was thinking about a trader that I represented a few years ago. All sorts of dastardly stuff had gone on on the trading floor. He had filed a number of complaints and there were a number of investigations. It worked its way up to a settlement. And my advice to him was that for his own peace of mind, he insists as part of the settlement that he spend at least 15 minutes with the CEO directly discussing the issues. And he was incredulous about this idea. On the one hand, he was a big alpha male who, you know, is out and proud as an alpha male. On the other hand, he’s cowering to senior management.

Anyway, the net upshot is instead of listening to me, he secured himself and thanked me for getting him 500 grand extra because he agreed not to see the CEO and just signed the settlement agreement. And I said to him, you will regret that because you need your dignity and you just got a pay off to keep your mouth shut and that will prey on you. And he wasn’t interested in hearing that. But six months later, he realized he was totally estranged from his wife, mainly because of his job.

They were living on two different planets. He had a new job on a new trading floor and he ended up having a nervous breakdown. And it is because no money will compensate for the indignity that you subject yourself to. He learned that lesson the hard way.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah.

Agnes Foy: He agreed to be just a little cog in a wheel that could be bought easily. So he learned a lesson. I learned a lesson. The lesson I learned is how amenable men are to being paid off. And then they don’t connect that payoff with the emptiness and pain that they feel.

Carmen Cracknell: Have you seen a lot of cases like that?

Agnes Foy: Yes. But I was working on the trading floor in 2019. The guy beside me got very excited when another guy started working behind him. The two of them wiled away lots of time every day talking about football. I have no interest in football, but I can’t help but overhear what they’re saying. And I was surprised initially because it wasn’t where somebody kicked the ball or how to kick the ball or whether it got into the goal or not.

It was all about buying and selling men. And I thought to myself, well, there’s a reason to interest boys in football when they’re young, because it normalizes the buying and selling of men. That’s all they talked about. I didn’t know who any of these men being bought and sold were, but it just, they were objects and it made the two men feel very in control for yabbering dispassionately and frankly, non-sensically about who has been bought and sold today and how much for and who.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, there’s so much money involved in football.

Agnes Foy: So going back to the trader that I mentioned, being bought and sold was normal, but he didn’t change anything for a man who was so upset about what he saw, actually, criminal activity that he saw.

Carmen Cracknell: What would have been a much better or ideal outcome for him?

Agnes Foy: I think if he’d directly gone to the CEO and said, this is actually what’s happening. I’ve now signed a settlement agreement, so I can’t say anything about it. But I’m telling you so that you know. I’m telling you so that you can look into it yourself.

Carmen Cracknell: What do you think would have resulted from that?

Agnes Foy: Well, it’s the iceberg of ignorance and the people at the top often don’t know. Sometimes this is for it’s better for them not to know, which is incorrect, but it’s a premise that people use. Other times it’s because the middle and senior managers don’t want a light to shine on their own grotesque incompetency.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, I wanted to finish on a question about International Women’s Day. In your view, does International Women’s Day actually mean anything or is it purely symbolic?

Agnes Foy: Well, I think all international days or national days are symbolic, but I think it’s nice for women to have a women’s day that celebrates female achievement. And what’s the best way that women in FinTech and financial services can help each other? By doing what we were taught how to do best, which is collaborate, women are taught to collaborate. We excel at it. So creating an environment where collaboration is the norm rather than tribalism and that is people focused, not transaction focused.

Carmen Cracknell: That does sound good. Well, that brings me to the end of my questions. Where can people read your work?

Agnes Foy: Well, I’d be much more interested in people registering that in the not too distant future, we will be launching contracts for SMEs, which will include fund management outfits and contracts that actually put people first and are not running along the traditional lawyer mindset lines.

Carmen Cracknell: How do they differ, kind of what’s their unique selling point?

Agnes Foy: It’s a surprise, big surprise.

Carmen Cracknell: Are you allowed to divulge the name of the company?

Agnes Foy: It’s called Swift Hub.

Carmen Cracknell: Lovely. Well, thank you for joining me, Agnes.

Agnes Foy: Thank you very much. I’m really happy that you asked me to do this and I’ve enjoyed it too.

Listen to the audio.