Shelia C. Cheston, GC of Northrop Grumman
Shelia C. Cheston, GC of Northrop Grumman

For someone who “would have never believed” that she would be an aerospace and defense lawyer, Shelia C. Cheston has certainly made a successful career in the field. Acting as the general counsel of the Air Force for nearly four years under President Clinton and having served as GC of two major multinational defense companies, Cheston has established herself as one of the premier leaders in the industry. Recently, Cheston talked with InsideCounsel about what originally drew her to defense and what those outside the GC chair may not realize about her daily job.

What changes have you seen for GCs between your first in-house job and now?

Across our profession, the view of the role of a general counsel has certainly evolved. Perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, it was rather pigeonholed. I think it is anything but that today. Today, a general counsel needs to be integral to and fully integrated as a part of the company’s leadership team, a leader in the enterprise and a trusted counselor in the broadest sense, someone who both protects the enterprise and helps to articulate and achieve the organization’s objectives. I think that is true regardless of whether you’re talking about the general counsel of a corporation or of a government agency.

What are some of the differences that you noticed working as a GC in government and working in a corporation?

I actually think the roles are more similar than they are different. In each instance, you’re a part of the leadership team, a counselor and a leader, and you need to think about issues from all angles and solutions that are appropriate and support the entity’s objectives. Only the constituents vary between the government and corporate worlds; in the corporate world you need to worry about your shareholders, while in the government it’s about the public policy mission, the Hill and the citizens to whom you’re ultimately accountable.

You’ve worked the majority of your career in aerospace and defense. What drew you to this industry?

It’s funny, because if you had told me 30 years ago I would be in this industry, I would have never believed it. But I think it’s a fascinating industry. It’s global, it’s geopolitical, and it involves law, public policy, politics, international relations, as well as all of the corporate considerations that would apply in any industry. There is a significant component to the culture of our company that ties to the overarching mission of protecting our nation’s wellbeing. Everything one does in this company is done in the context of our customers’ ultimate mission, and that makes a difference.

What are some of the greatest challenges you faced entering an industry you knew nothing about?

It was a steep learning curve, but that’s both challenging and exciting. I spent a fair amount of time when I first got to the Air Force just listening, learning and coming to understand the issues and the way to become effective in that environment. I had some great folks to help me learn along the way.

What advice would you have for young in-house counsel looking to move up the chain?

I always start with the fundamentals. Work hard, do a great job, and hang on tight to your sense of integrity and ethics while staying grounded. And also, be interested in learning, growing and taking on new challenges and opportunities. Be willing to take risks; be willing to try things that are completely different. Have confidence in yourself.

What is one thing that those not in the GC chair don’t know about your position?

One of the roles of the general counsel that is sometimes overlooked from those who are not in the seat has to do not with management of the law department, but with leadership of the law department. You need to create a diverse and inclusive environment where people are challenged, can grow, and have a sense of contribution. That’s not something they teach in law school. It has to matter to you to spend a good part of your day worrying about others and developing others. If you don’t like what you’re doing, chances are, you’re not going to do it too well.