Scroll though these featured profiles, get to know our Women, Influence & Power in Law GCs of the Year and In-House Lifetime honorees. These women throughout their career have been not only amazing leaders, but exceptional business strategists, complex problem-solvers, and of course, great lawyers.
The Women, Influence & Power in Law (WIPL) Awards dinner is held at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C.
What was your route to the top? I was fortunate to work for exceptional leaders throughout my career—leaders who pushed me to take on different roles in legal, encouraged me to pursue assignments outside of the U.S. and prioritized business and leadership training. The sponsorship I received along the way taught me the importance of helping others achieve their potential. And I recognize now that the investments I made in my teams have been a fundamental part of my success. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on delivering impact—finding creative and practical solutions to difficult legal challenges. These have included every legal challenge you can imagine from working to avoid bankruptcy, to restructuring, to taking a company public. Learning from each of these made me a stronger lawyer and leader.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? I am not sure law schools do enough to really prepare students for the life of an in-house counsel. Had I known that being successful in house requires many skills—business, communications, leadership, psychology—I would have focused on these before entering the workforce.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? When I first became a GC, I found that I was not as effective as I needed to be—my greatest strengths (passion and commitment) were sometimes my biggest weaknesses. The advice I received (and took to heart) is that if you want to be effective as a leader, you need to come in many colors (not as many as the large box of Crayola crayons but more than one color). I learned that this doesn’t take away from being authentic—I was still me, but I became far more understanding that small changes in my behavior can have a very positive impact. This advice was particularly effective because I could quickly test it and put it into practice.
What was your route to the top? Self-confidence, perseverance, hard work and a firm conviction that settling is not a viable option. This combination of traits, I believe is vital to not only surviving but thriving in our industry. The key and most difficult characteristic is persistence. The difficulty lies in being consistently determined while remaining graceful, learning to keep at it without growing resentful, accepting that, often times, you must work harder. I started my career at a large firm, I wanted to do more international work but didn’t get the opportunity. But I was persistent with my career path. I worked my way into bigger professional roles and international practices, where I joined the media industry and now have the title Executive Vice President, General Counsel for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? Personally, I wish I had been a better advocate for myself; by practicing self-care along the way and taking things less seriously in some situations. Professionally, I can’t stress the importance of networking early and often. I understand, especially at a young age, that “networking” can feel like a bad word—but it doesn’t have to be. Think of it as making connections—and remember that it is important to give as much as you receive in any professional relationship. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious in your goal, but don’t forget that ambition and authenticity can reside side by side.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? “The leader seeking knowledge becomes wise. The leader who displays grit is respected. The one who displays both becomes unstoppable.” Over time, it makes you a more well-rounded leader. It is not enough to be smart; you need to be persistent. “We need to reflect the communities we serve, or we lose the opportunities to cater to them. At any given point, and for a limited time, we may hold power… but eventually, these individuals will find alternatives (this applies to customers, employees and audiences). There’s no brand that’s strong enough that it can afford to ignore the preferences and appeals of employees or customers.” This teaches us to value others and be a leader in service of others, not as an absolute all-knowing decision-maker.
What was your route to the top? A fair bit of luck, good mentoring, challenging legal assignments, hard work, a business orientation, and personal sacrifice---all of that has resulted in an incredibly rewarding career that now enables me to be in a position to “pay it forward” by mentoring and developing the talented team of lawyers at Celanese globally.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? I did not appreciate at the outset how important early career choices are in the work you end up doing and how important it is to find a position that will expose you to the kind of opportunities for legal work that you are seeking.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? The best advice I have been given and now share is to: 1) be humble and realize it’s ok not to always know what to do in every situation and (2) do not be afraid to try something new and risk failure—it builds our character and opens windows of opportunity. Without being willing to risk failing, you will miss the excitement of taking on new challenges and fully developing your potential.
What was your route to the top? Cherée’s route to top wasn’t easy. Cherée is a big believer of “Lift While You Climb.” She was raised by her single parent mother with her two younger children. In her 12th grade while living in Florida, Hurricane Andrew destroyed her home making her family homeless. During the time that her family was homeless, she found discovered volunteering. Throughout her entire college experience, she tutored students from elementary school through college. Later, in her legal professional career, she became a Girl Scout leader and set a goal to help as many people as she could. Today, Cherée mentors 25+ people at all stages of their careers. She had many people who helped shaped her career and she believes it’s important to return the favor.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? Cheree's nuggets of wisdom: The number of women, women of color and people of color who remain in the field of law after a decade is abysmally low. I’m not going to be smartest in the room all of the time. However, I will never know nothing. It’s ok to ask for help. I am going to mess up, and it’s ok. The students who struggle, also turn out to be great lawyers. Physical health is key, but so is your mental health. You will likely not need those cases that you memorized. Everyone takes a different path, be comfortable with yours.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? The best leadership advice that Cherée was given and now she gives is take command of your own power. In other words, be comfortable with your magic. Recognize, appreciate and cultivate the value that you bring to your team, your department and your company. Your unique qualities are what set you apart, and when we combine our strengths with those that are around us, we can lift ourselves pretty high. More importantly, we can lift while we climb. Many times, others saw more in Cheree than she saw in herself. She had to learn to trust them, trust the process, trust her gut and trust God.
What was your route to the top? I always said yes to opportunity and looked for ways to get new and different work to expand my skills. I didn’t wait for people to ask me to take on something new, I offered to take things on, and I worked hard to do a good job. Most importantly, I didn’t look for anything in return, like a raise or a promotion – I just valued the growth and experience that came with learning and doing something new. Over time, I built a reputation as someone who was not afraid to tackle big issues or big jobs.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? I wish I had known how important it would be to embrace technology and the ways it can help lawyers work better and more efficiently. We work on adopting those technologies all the time in Legal Services, but to have been oriented to technology from the start would have given me a head start!
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? The best leadership advice I’ve ever been given is “disagree and commit.” In a large, high-performing team, there will always be differing views about how to approach and solve problems, and constantly working towards complete consensus and unanimity is completely inefficient at best, and utterly impossible, at worst. Give yourself and your team permission to express objection and disagreement, but then rally behind the group decision. This advice was effective because it takes the realities of group dynamics into account, but gives you a path to action and decision despite disagreement.
What was your route to the top? Connie’s route to the top was non-linear. She has followed her passion and she cares—it’s in her DNA. Fearlessly, she took on opportunities, many of which were not legal-specific. Connie likes people—she believes that who you choose to work with is almost more important than the job itself. Having built both CLOC and CLI, she has proven she is excellent at building communities. She said,” Success begets success and I’ve fortunately been able to drive forward a number of successful communities, works of passion and social equity and justice.”
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? Lawyers are typically conservative and risk-averse because they are trained and hired to avoid risk. When Connie started out, she was initially reluctant to make mistakes. However, she has come to realize that you have to be willing to look at mistakes as new adventures and let them energize you. Do something every day that scares you. Making mistakes doesn't always feel good, but once you've made a hundred mistakes, you know you can recover from every single one of them and tweak until it is right. Most errors are not catastrophic but they can inform success. Connie has surrounded herself with other professionals who have the kind of passion, drive, vision and fearlessness that she does.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? Connie recently read President Obama’s book, A Promised Land. What struck her most was that it only took a small group to get him going on his path to success. She says, “When you get a small group of people together who have qualities of collaboration and fearlessness, you can move mountains. Once you have something special, success leads to more success. I am always impressed with the impact a small set of passionate, outspoken women can have. It's really still mind-boggling to me how much of an impact and a difference just a handful of people can make in an entire industry.”
What was your route to the top? Cecil’s route to the top was powered by core philosophies collected throughout her 40-year career: 1) Raise your hand often to take on new challenges and career opportunities. 2) Embrace new subject areas to expand your knowledge and influence. 3) Use each setback as an opportunity for something much better. 4) Build a team by investing more in the people with whom you work rather than the work itself. Cecil knows there is no straight or easy route to the top. Rather a map of winding roads, built brick by brick, day by day. For her it was the unexpected adventures, interesting people, and lessons learned along the way that have made for sustainable success.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? To quote Cecil’s favorite Don Henley song, My Thanksgiving, “Sometimes you get the brightest light from a burning bridge.” Throughout the years, Cecil felt lost as she made agonizing post-downsizing career moves or faced disappointments that sent her original plans zigzagging in a new direction. Now, in hindsight, she confirms Henley had it right: whenever her first dreams were dashed, the next were even brighter and more rewarding. The learning has been to stay resilient and attuned to the future even while devastated in the present. Her advice: “Your ‘place’ is out there, you just have to find it. Try new areas, meet new people, and be fearless.”
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? Not a day goes by that Cecil does not think of the small blue wallet card her first mentor gave her nearly 40 years ago: On one side of the card was a beautiful dove with the words “Be kind…” and on the other side “… for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This advice is the core of Cecil’s leadership philosophy. It is a powerful reminder of our shared (but often neglected) humanity. Cecil models compassion and empathy, as she helps others overcome challenges and recover from setbacks. She does not spare the tough conversations, but always approaches them with grace and understanding, knowing that everyone she meets is fighting a hard battle.
What was your route to the top? I have always taken risk in my career when presented with opportunities. I started at a law firm, and moved to an in house role within my first 4 years of practice. While in-house I set my sights on becoming General Counsel of a public company, which I achieved in 1999 when I joined RSA Security (NASDAQ: RSAS) as the company’s first GC. I came to ADI in 2006 as the company’s first GC, and over the past several years, the CEO asked me to take on responsibility for other functions. At present I lead the Legal, HR and ESG functions in the company, which gives me a broad view of challenges and opportunities for ADI’s people and business.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession? When I started practicing law, women were expected to dress a certain way (a skirt suit with heels), act a certain way (pleasant and agreeable), and stay quiet about the aspects of their lives outside of the office (no pictures of kids on the desk). When I moved in house, I decided to dress how I wanted (I haven’t worn a skirt since 1989); express my opinions; and openly discuss my life outside of work. My ascent within every one of my in house roles was swift and no one cared what I wore, as long as I was a useful partner to the business. I tell every new grad: authenticity is the key to success. Be yourself. It will work out.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective? A friend once told me that to lead, you have to “get your message straight”, meaning keep it succinct and fact based if you are trying to persuade your boss or colleague. This advice has served me well over my career, as I have ascended the leadership ranks of various companies, because communication is one of the most important jobs for any team leader. Clarity of message is essential if you want your team to be aligned and working toward common goals. Research shows that listeners have to hear or see a message several times to understand and retain it. I still work hard to hone my messages, and I encourage next gen leaders to spend time developing this critical skill.