Taking on the world: the challenges facing global general counsel

Taking on the world: the challenges facing global general counsel

Earth showing global in-house legal workCatherine Stromdale, Global and European Category Counsel at Unilever, discusses the challenges of managing a global legal team and the importance of coffee in a crisis.

Tell us a bit about your background and the business …

I am General Counsel for the Global and European hair category at Unilever. We have well known professional hair care and styling brands, for example TIGI, as well as retail brands such as TRESemmé, VO5 and Dove. We also have a number of brands that aren’t in the UK but that are massive globally, for example Sunsilk and Clear. The Unilever legal team is large – we’ve got around 170 lawyers worldwide, at global, regional and local level. Previously, I worked in Unilever’s Leatherhead office looking after the sales teams and supply chain for the UK and Ireland operating companies. I have been at Unilever for 5 years.

Before moving in-house, I was in private practice but was often seconded out. This meant that when I left private practice I knew exactly what sort of in-house environment I wanted to work in. You work in-house because you want to be part of the business. You want to be rolling your sleeves up, getting stuff done and helping the business out. That’s what it’s all about.

What are the key challenges you face when dealing globally?

In my interview for this role I was asked how I would bring the global legal community together. I gave a glib answer that managing a global portfolio and dealing with people around the world was limited to dealing with time-zones and being able to understand what people are saying to you. In reality, there’s much more to consider.

People around the world work very differently and have different cultural mindsets. For example, we tried to implement a new process with our Japanese business in relation to what we call product lookalikes. It turned out that in Japan, if we find a product in the market that looks like ours, we just pick up the phone and have a polite conversation with the offending company and ask them not to do it again. They apologise profusely and then don’t do it again. There’s absolutely no point in trying to embed a new look-alike process in Japan because the local culture means they can deal with the issues quickly and amicably already!

Ultimately however, you need to learn on the job about the characters of the actual people you’re dealing with rather than just go by what nationality they are. Some of it boils down to experience and learning from your mistakes. Generally, you should go in without any preconceptions and just be very careful about your approach. Be mindful of what you know about the people you’re dealing with. Do not assume that what you think is fine is going to be interpreted in the same way by someone else, particularly where you don’t share the same first language. I’ve a tendency to be quite irreverent and blunt, so I’ve had to rein that in. Instead of getting straight to the point, I have learned to ask first about the weather, or what they did at the weekend.

What have been the challenges around needing to know foreign law?

One of the expectations often placed upon me is that I know every local market’s law. When I am asked for a global legal view, the first thing I ask for in return is the local legal views for our key markets. I cannot give a global view unless I know all the relevant markets’ views – a global view is a considered amalgam of the risk profiles and key issues locally – not just my view!

We have local legal teams in each of our key markets. I do need to have a heads-up on the headline issues and nuances for those markets as this does enable me to give preliminary advice pending local input. I take into account any local input from my well-qualified colleagues who know exactly what’s going on in their markets. For example, when we do a global analysis of claims on a product, they will get sent out to the local countries and then local technical and local legal work together to work out what the risks are for them. It is then sent back and I work with the global teams to decide what the best global position is. We will choose to take risk in some countries and not in others depending on what the local feedback is, what position the local markets want to take and how important the market is to the overall hair portfolio.

You arrive at your desk and there is a global crisis. What is the first thing you do?

I go and make a cup of coffee! The first thing you need after the coffee is a sense of perspective. Marketing is an emotional business and marketers get so involved in their products that you’ve got to be careful not to immediately react. When looking at your inbox and the many emails that went flying round in the hour after the problem arose, you must take a step back and bear in mind there is likely to be a lot of noise, with people desperately trying to find a solution to the problem.

My role is to cut through all of this communication; to cut through the local, regional, global, regulatory, legal and technical views and look for the crux of the matter. I’m not going to contradict the local teams’ advice as they are the experts – I just want to know exactly why an issue has arisen and what their thoughts are. Once I know this I can go away and find a solution. It is my role to find that nugget, focus on it and solve the problem.

How difficult is it to accept that you can’t be an expert in all the jurisdictions you deal with?

Lawyers really struggle to not be the expert. When you’re in a global role you are moving from lawyer to lawyer/manager. You are managing input from all the legal experts globally. You have to be able to rely on everybody else and bring them together. When you are no longer the primary advisor, you have to get off the fence and share in the business risk and the decision-making. I’m very clear with my commercial colleagues that they are the ultimate decision-makers as I don’t want to take the accountability, power or authority away from them. They have to be ultimately happy with the decisions, but if they want me to tell them what I would do in their situation then I’m happy to do that (with the caveat that I may a different view of the world to them by virtue of my role in the business!). It is quite scary acting without reliance on your own legal expertise, but that is the role of a global General Counsel.

What are the core competencies that you need in your role?

You need to be a very good communicator. You need to have empathy but you also need to understand when to stop empathising and get on with it. You need to be highly organised and you need to be able to take a call on risk. You also need to be extremely strategic.

A lot of my role is about implementing strategic change, improving process and enabling other people to do their job well. For example, our technical claims guys in the hair team are excellent and they know their products inside out. They know what we can and can’t substantiate in terms of claims. We can empower them to get 90% of the way through the text of the claims without needing help, but they need to be trained to identify the 10% that is borderline. That is where I come in, helping technical people get much better at their job, take on more responsibility and stretch their skill-base.

What have you learnt since you’ve been in the role?

A year ago I felt like a fish out of water because the hair market is so complex. There are so many projects going on at any one time. I think it’s taken me this long to get my inbox under control and work out what project names mean! In a big organisation where change happens fast, it’s difficult to have the induction and immersion that you need before you actually have to do the job. But that said, if you don’t like flying by the seat of your pants you shouldn’t be in this job.

You have to accept that you’re never going to finish your to-do list. You’re going to turn up in the morning and end up doing something completely different to what you planned on the train on the way in. If you spend all day thinking how busy you are and complaining and worrying about it, it takes over your mindset and it stops you from being effective. There are ways to deal with a heavy workload. Apart from just being pragmatic, effective delegation is vital and I’ve got a great team who are really skilled. Lawyers can be control freaks who don’t naturally delegate, but if you’re a lawyer/manager you need to constantly delegate (and supervise where appropriate!). Team work is critical.

If the business wants something done tomorrow then they’ve got to understand that they need to give you all the tools and information that you need to get it done tomorrow.  If they think it’s urgent I need them to tell me why because then I can go to someone else who also thinks their work is urgent and tell them why they’re now lower down the list. Sometimes it is just about being upfront with people to manage their expectations. You can’t please everybody all of the time.

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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.