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Earlier this month, the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership hosted the annual CEO-General Counsel Conversation Series, with Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestlé, and Leanne Geale, executive vice president and general counsel of Nestlé. The conversation was co-moderated by Anu Bradford, Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization and director of the European Legal Studies Center, and Eric Talley, a professor of law and co-director of the Ira M. Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership.
Here are highlights of the conversation, edited for space:
The Role of the GC in Culture
Schneider: What you do not want from a general counsel is a “Dr. No.” You want someone who, if needed, has the moral fiber to say no, but then the next sentence should be, how can I help you? And, how can I work with you to find a solution that works? This is the attitude that the entire legal group needs to have inside the company.
Geale: You have to be very clear about the objective of the team, which is to help the broader business reach its objectives. That is your starting point, and everything else flows from that. Our principles for the entire function are enable and protect. We are here to enable the business by understanding the objectives and identifying the risks and solutions. And then protect our assets, reputation, people, and bottom line. If you can embrace those two aspects, then you are serving your business partners and your colleagues.
Developing Business Acumen to Become an Effective Partner
Geale: First and foremost, you need to be curious and learn the business. How do you make money? Then you can overlay your legal and analytical skills to find solutions to potential roadblocks or to come up with new ideas to achieve an objective. And listening skills are really important to understand the objectives and the challenges. You should get out from behind your desk and go see your company’s operations. That makes a critical difference to your understanding as a lawyer.
Schneider: For those who think they might want to be a CEO, step one would be to truly reflect on whether you want the role—a lot of people are happy with specialist roles. Do you want to be a true generalist? For a second year MBA student, the courses you choose will help tell you where your heart is and give you an idea of what you want to do.
In terms of early career steps, if you are interested in general management, I advise getting general management experience early on in smaller units, whether that is a subsidiary of a large company or a small standalone business. You will learn so much more in those roles than taking a specialist role with a plan to move into management at some point. It teaches you about the unique balancing act of different requirements and functions that defines general management. That doesn't change as you move up. The numbers get bigger and the responsibilities get larger, but the core principle is that you are always trying to find that balance.
Geale: When we are recruiting, typically we are looking for someone who has a couple of years of training as a junior associate in a law firm before we bring them over to the in-house environment, which is multifaceted and very much a team and collaborative environment. You see things end-to-end with your business colleagues. If that is the type of environment you thrive in, that might be the route you want to take.
Another thing that I would say is important, particularly for lawyers, is communication skills. That can make or break you. You need to communicate understandably, whether the issue is complicated or simple. If someone wants more information, they will come back to you. You have to be clear when sharing your views and possible solutions. That is the key.