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By Stephen Kurczy
As companies push the limits of traditional products and turn nearly everything imaginable into a “smart” product, Colgate had to consider the legal rules regarding data privacy when it came to collecting information on consumers’ dental hygiene and the regulations around selling a toothbrush that collects potentially sensitive information.
To make sure the toothbrush-maker was on solid legal footing, Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Daniels had a critical discussion with Ian Cook, executive chairman and former CEO of the Colgate-Palmolive Company. These types of pointed conversations were common between the executives as they worked together to bring innovative business ideas to fruition. Both Daniels and Cook agreed that this form of open-minded and direct communication is wholeheartedly encouraged by Colgate’s corporate culture and values.
Of all the professional relationships within a company, one of the most strategically important is the symbiotic partnership between the CEO and General Counsel, which is why Daniels and Cook were brought together for a discussion as part of the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership. The initiative leverages the intellectual capital of Columbia’s Business and Law Schools to teach leadership skills for optimizing organizational culture.
“I have always thought that the relationship between the CEO and the General Counsel is the most important partnership that exists,” according to opening remarks at the Midtown event from Reuben Mark, who shared an intensely collaborative relationship with his Chief Legal Officer Andrew Hendry for close to 16 years. Their synergistic alliance helped bolster a corporate culture rooted in compassion, continuous improvement and transparency.
Colgate’s PlaqlessPro toothbrush is just one case in point that highlights the importance of the CEO-GC relationship.
Daniels recalled meeting Cook in 2014, when she was interviewing for the job. Cook asked her: What is the most important quality for a General Counsel and what makes you angry? To which she responded: listening and dishonesty.
To Cook, it was clear that Daniels shared his professional values and would jive with Colgate’s corporate culture, as he also saw listening and honesty as one of the most important qualities of a CEO. (Watch this video with Colgate-Palmolive’s former Corporate Treasurer Elaine Paik about the company’s long-standing values and corporate culture.)
On the quality of listening, Cook advised the MBA and Law students gathered for the Midtown event to always give employees their undivided attention.
“How many of you have been guilty in social or professional situations of looking at your iPhone under the table when you’re talking to someone?” Cook asked. “To the person opposite you, that means what’s on your phone is more interesting than what they have to say. That’s a terrible thing. When I go to a meeting room, I never take my phone into the room, I never look at the phone, because the person that’s presenting has probably spent two weeks getting ready for the meeting. The least you can do is give them the human respect of listening to what they have prepared so hard to give you.”
For Daniels, who previously served as general counsel to NCR Corporation and Barnes & Noble, her proactive approach to providing legal counsel at Colgate-Palmolive started with a visit to the company’s research and development division. Within weeks of taking the job in 2014, she met with the head toothpaste scientist and learned how to make toothpaste from scratch.
“You really need to understand the business,” she said. “You can’t sit over to the side and just be the person they come to ask, ‘Is this legal? How do we deal with this lawsuit?’ If you’re that, and not deeply integrated into the business, you’re not doing your job.”
Another essential role of the GC is as the company’s ethics backstop. Daniels’ office’s mission is “to provide legal expertise and ethical leadership to drive Colgate’s business goals.” To help steer a company in the ethically correct direction, Daniels said, the GC must have a strong conviction for doing business the right way.
“You have to be prepared to take your employment badge and put it on the table and say, ‘That is not happening with me as the general counsel of this company,’” Daniels said. “If that means you get fired, so be it. If you’re not comfortable with that, if that’s not a place you can go, it’s really hard to keep these jobs. I’ve never had an issue of speaking up at Colgate because it’s a culture that tolerates all kinds of news, good and bad.”
As one of the keepers of the company’s ethics, Daniels also spoke about how the code of conduct is upheld at Colgate-Palmolive, one of 132 companies named to industry watchdog Ethisphere’s list of World’s Most Ethical Companies in 2020. Colgate’s suppliers are required to sign a code of conduct and are regularly inspected. Factories, for example, are routinely checked to make sure there is no child labor, unsanitary water, or blocked fire exits.
This culture of strong ethics bolsters work morale, said Cook. “It makes coming to work every day a good experience,” he said.
As Mark has also said: “It’s a simple equation. People do better and they’re more productive when they’re happier and when they feel that people care about them and they’re being given a fair shake.” (Read this Q&A with Mark about Colgate-Palmolive’s core values of “caring,” “global teamwork,” and “continuous improvement.”)
At the Colgate-Palmolive Company, an ethical workplace culture rests in part upon the candid, honest, and forthright communication between the CEO and General Counsel, and the launch of one of the "smartest" toothbrushes on the market exemplifies this powerful CEO-GC relationship at work.