Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Q&As with leading women in the legal profession, in honor of National Women’s History Month. They were conducted and written by the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.
Barbara Levi Mager, general counsel and global head of legal at Sandoz, studied law in Italy. She was interested in an international career, though she never studied English when she was in school. “I had a friend in New York who worked at a law firm that was looking for international people,” she says. “They needed someone to spend six months doing document review for a major litigation. I took the opportunity and moved to the U.S. for six months.” She ended up staying in the U.S. for eight years, learning English, taking an LL.M. in banking, corporate and finance law at the Fordham University School of Law, passing the New York bar exam and working for several law firms in the city. It was right after September 11 and not the best time to look for a job, but she wanted a new challenge, so she thought about moving back to Europe and working in-house. She received an offer from Sandoz, a Novartis Division, which was headquartered in Vienna. She took a very junior role even though she was a senior associate at the law firm. Today, she is the general counsel of Sandoz, leading the legal and IP departments with more than 250 associates. She has made her way up through the ranks of Sandoz and Novartis Pharma, holding many different positions, including compliance regional general counsel; head of legal for technical operations; head of legal for business development; and head of legal for product strategy and global franchises.
Who helped you the most on your career path?
At the beginning of my career, my parents always let me follow my passion. They were not particularly happy when I moved to the U.S.—not that they told me, I could just feel it. However, they never put any pressure on me and supported me throughout my career. My husband and my children have also always been very supportive; they understood how important my work is to me and helped me in many ways and through many difficult times.
Also professionally, many different people supported me. They were not necessarily managers; sometimes they were people on my team who just made me think differently, taught me small things, but those are the things that stick with you.
Were there any moments early in your career that surprised you in terms of how you were treated? What struggles did you encounter and how did you overcome those roadblocks in your career?
Very early in my career, there was one thing that had quite an impact: I was working in private practice in New York and my boss asked me to take over the case with a big client, an Italian company. I prepared a lot for the meeting—weeks of working day and night. I thought that this would have been a great opportunity to show how prepared I was and I wanted to know everything. When the day arrived, I entered the meeting with my files and the most senior guy ended up asking me in a very dismissive way to get him coffee, clearly thinking that this was my job. I was taken so much by surprise that I didn’t know how to react. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I got him the coffee but I felt so humiliated that the only thing I knew was that it would never happen again. What that meeting taught me is confidence and not to allow anyone to put me into a box.
But overall, I was never treated differently than the men. In these 13 years at Novartis, I’ve been given all the possible opportunities without any gender bias. I have had four children in less than five years, I’ve changed roles and managers over the years and they’ve all supported me. I’ve never felt I was held back.
What has been your greatest challenge as the general counsel of Sandoz? What keeps you up at night?
It is not legal issues or cases that keep me up at night, it is people. The emotional part is the hard part; when you have a conversation about gaps in performance or with someone whose self-image is radically different from your own perception. How do you convey your message with clarity and show respect at the same time? How do you find the right balance of challenging and supporting? How do you stay true to your own judgment but keep an open mind for different opinions? I love to work with diverse teams and have constructive conversations. I always say: “Assume positive intent!”
How important is it to your corporation to have women in leadership?
Having women in leadership is more important today than ever before. Diversity and an inclusive environment are critical to performance and gender diversity is an important element. We are spending a lot of time in our executive committee developing concrete actions. We have a good representation of women at mid-level management, but we’ve noticed that when you get to the top, the numbers become smaller. We’re trying to understand why that is and are super committed to changing it. You have to make diversity a priority to drive the change.
How do you or your organization help women advance in the workplace and the legal profession?
We have many programs and initiatives that help us build a diverse talent pipeline, develop female talent and create an environment that supports women balancing work with family. As an example, we are putting together an initiative to develop a better pipeline so that we have more candidates for top roles. When we have open positions, we make sure we have a good mix of diverse candidates and pick the best-qualified person.
I’m super passionate about advancing women in the profession. I do a lot of mentoring within and outside the function. I try to share my experience with others to really show people that we can do whatever we want; it’s just up to us. I am not the only executive who invests in mentoring—this is really part of the way we work. We have started a mentoring program where executives mentor high-potential junior women, and we’ve developed a female executive forum where high-potential women gain exposure to senior leaders and projects. We’re looking into policies, such as for flex time and paternity leave. It’s all about the environment you want to create.
What advice would you give to young lawyers who desire to become a legal leader in a corporation?
Love what you do. Work hard. Don’t put limits on yourself.