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As part of our ongoing “As the Leader” series, Ritva Sotamaa met with students for a comprehensive discussion that included the key leadership lessons she’s learned over her career, including in her current role as chief legal officer at Unilever. Here are some highlights, edited for space, from the conversation, which was moderated by Katharina Pistor, the Edwin B. Parker professor of comparative law at Columbia Law School.
"I come from a university town in the middle of Finland. My mom was a dentist and my dad was in the military. He served in the United Nations Peace Corps in the Middle East, and we lived there. As a young girl, I saw such different cultures, including the year I spent in the state of Washington during my high school years. I knew I wanted to do something international. I wanted to be part of that global fabric. In Finland, we have to make the choice right after high school about our careers. I'm very lucky that I made the choice to be a lawyer and I have had a wonderful career as an international lawyer."
Managing Cultural Differences as CLO of a Global Company
"It's helpful to come from a small country because you always need to look outward. It's also about trying to learn and listen and bring your own style into the picture. I’ve never had huge difficulties adjusting to different cultures, but there are some approaches you have to change.
For example, in Finland, it’s not customary that you speak a lot in leadership team meetings. First of all, Finnish lawyers and European lawyers, 15 years ago, weren’t typically part of leadership teams. And so when I join a leadership team in the United States, I'm expected to be vocal and I'm expected to speak as I think. In Finland, you would always think first, and then come up with the best answer. In the U.S., you speak as you think, and you evolve your thinking as you speak. It's about learning to adjust and pushing yourself to do things differently. That is a challenge, but it is also very rewarding and helps you grow as a leader."
Shaping the Culture of the Organization
"My approach is to make sure that we have a strong culture in the legal team with shared values around the world. As lawyers, we bring to the table what's in our heads and what's in our hearts. We bring our minds, our judgment, our expertise, but we also bring the values and really look at things from an ethical and long-term perspective. And you need to balance them if you want to be a successful lawyer. I put a significant amount of focus on really flattening the organization. We want everybody to be a full participant in the team. We are now extremely global. My leadership team alone has 11 nationalities."
The Impact of the Pandemic
"The pace has accelerated and interactions are happening in real time. We’re also finding that it really pays off to bring everybody in the company along in this difficult time with virtual communications with the whole company. So we spend a lot of time in town halls in different kinds of forums really making sure we keep our people engaged. Our CEO, over the spring and summer, had weekly town halls with the entire employee population. Now we have them bi-weekly. People really value that because they feel they are part of our efforts to get through this and be stronger together."
Guiding Principles for In-House Counsels
"On my team, we say that our mission is to inspire trust, champion growth and lead for change. In terms of trust, I talked a lot about the values, the ethics and making the right judgments. Growth is about helping to make sure our business is competitive and winning in the marketplace. If you want to be a successful in-house counsel, you have to have the mindset of being able to reconcile and balance these two aspects. And we have to lead for change, because the world is changing fast and we need to ride the wave."
Skills That Matter for New Hires
"When I hire people, I really look for them to take ownership of the issues and not the kind of person who says, 'I'm not part of that business. I'm only advising from the side.' I look for business acumen and a willingness to put yourself out there, take a bit of risk, and use your judgment and experience to help make the corporation better.
There is no hiding when you are an in-house counsel because you are there in the front, in the center. You're expected to contribute to decisions, not as an external sort of a contributor, but as part of a team. And so those are the qualities that I very much look for in people, in addition to making sure that they are collaborative, and can work within our culture and our values."