Up next in our “As the Leader” series, Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, speaks to Andy Hendry, retired vice chairman, chief legal officer, and secretary of Colgate-Palmolive.
Q. How did you get into the field of law?
A. I always had an interest in law, and I’m not exactly sure why. When I got out of college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was either going to be law school or business school, and I decided on law in part because a law degree is good to have, even if you don’t end up as a lawyer.
The first year of law school was rough, and I was concerned I was a square peg in a round hole. I get bored very quickly, and the law in general, and law school in particular, is very detailed. But when you get into second year, they start to relax the rigidity. And by the third year, you can take a lot of clinical programs and seminars. It got progressively better as it went along.
Q. What do you see as the GC’s role in fostering culture?
A. If done correctly, a GC is not only the head lawyer for the company, but a true member of the C-suite team that is involved in everything, which gives them a unique role for a couple of reasons. First, a big part of the culture is making sure that it’s got the right kind of ethical environment, and that is really the province of the general counsel—not totally, but uniquely.
Secondly, the GC works with every person who runs major operations for the company. Somebody like the head of manufacturing may have a very big responsibility, but it doesn’t span the entire company. General counsels are pretty much always working in somebody else’s territory, and that gives the GC a real ability to influence things.
A wise general counsel will use that power because a healthy culture means the number of problems is going to lessen. Problems usually start from weaknesses in a company’s culture that allow people to do things that they shouldn’t do.
Q. What are the subtleties of influencing others on the C-suite team?
A. I’m a great believer in listening and watching. You have to understand where a person is coming from, so you know how to interact with them. But as a general matter—and this is something the CEO can help you with—you need to make clear to everybody that you’re not there just to be their lawyer. You view your role as owning the problem as much as they do, and you want to work with them in a team environment and help them succeed.
Q. You worked with Reuben Mark as the CEO for much of your tenure until he retired—that’s rare in business. What was the key to your working relationship?
A. From the day I walked in the door, Reuben, in a very quiet way, made a commitment to my success. That was critical because I was the first C-suite officer hired from the outside in the company’s 200-year history.
Our relationship was based on mutual respect. A good general counsel and CEO need to have the kind of relationship where, if they’re not in agreement on something right out of the gate, they are able to talk it through, and in most cases, come up with a consensus about the wisest way to approach it. And you need to understand that as long as it’s lawful, at the end of the day, it’s his decision.
Q. If you were giving advice to somebody who was interviewing for a GC job, what would you suggest they ask the CEO to make sure it’s going to be a good working relationship?
A. I would try to get the CEO to relax and talk about where they see the company going as well as their approach to running the company and managing the senior leadership team. What’s it going to be like the first time they have a staff meeting and you show up?
Beyond that, it becomes more about personal chemistry. Everybody’s got their likes and dislikes about how things are done, and you should ask questions about working styles to make sure it will be a good fit. Is the CEO a three-prong outlet and you’re a two-prong plug?
Q. You oversaw a team of about 200 professionals. What key lessons shaped how you led?
A. The biggest lesson I learned over time was that being a leader of an organization should be viewed like an upside-down organization chart. The leader’s job is not to boss people around, but to support them, give them the resources they need, and to keep the trains running on time and coordinated. You set the tone and the standards, and then you cut them loose, though not completely, so they can do their jobs.
Q. C-suite positions require a lot of drive and stamina. Where did those come from for you?
A. I give a lot of credit to my mother. I grew up in a family of very modest means, and she was a single parent and an absolute dynamo. Because of her, I probably didn’t notice just how bad off we were at times. You realize that you’re going to have to make your way in the world, that you’re not going to be a trust fund kid, and you’ve got a mother who absolutely knows how to do it. Then you just get out there and go.
I am also very receptive to learning from other people, and I don’t mean people just sitting down and talking to me. I’m always watching, and I pick up on the right and wrong way to do things.