CEOs' Higher Expectations of General Counsel
The following was published on June 3, 2015 in Corporate Counsel magazine. Senior counsel at global companies talk a lot to me about the range of competencies they need to be high-performing legal and compliance chiefs. CEOs and boards of directors around the world are expecting far more of them, and they realize the need to build their skills.
Nothing demonstrates these changing expectations better than the recent promotions of two very competent general counsel: Julie Spellman Sweet of Accenture and Thomas Sabatino of Hertz. In making these executive appointments, their CEOs recognize their contribution and show the essential connection they expect between the general counsel and corporate leadership.
From 2010 to May 31 of this year, Julie Sweet was general counsel and chief compliance officer of Accenture Group. She is now Accenture’s group chief executive in North America. Julie spent 10 years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, leaving the partnership to join Accenture (323,000 employees; offices and operations in 200+ cities in 56 countries; fiscal 2014 net revenues of $30 billion).
News about the appointment quotes Accenture’s chairman and CEO: “Since joining Accenture in 2010, Sweet has distinguished herself as a key member of our senior leadership team,” said Pierre Nanterme. “She has made a significant contribution to our business strategy and our investment strategy, as well as to our Capital Committee, and has demonstrated a strong commitment to our clients and our people. Julie brings to her new role a wide breadth of international experience from her more than 20 years as a business leader and a practice builder.”
Contributing to corporate strategy is high on the legal chief’s list of their bosses’ expectations, according to the Global Counsel Leaders Circle early 2015 benchmarking study of senior corporate counsel in global enterprises. Also high on the list of expectations are skills to communicate with diverse stakeholders and proven competence in addressing compliance issues.
I have more than a hunch that Sweet delivered on these counts. Her central goal, consistently articulated, was to organize Accenture’s legal and compliance function and build legal professionals’ skills in order to optimally contribute to Accenture’s businesses and growth strategies.
I’ve had the great pleasure and fortune to work with Sweet and her senior team on various projects, including in her first weeks at Accenture. From my perspective she has the competencies recognized as most important in the Leaders Circle’s benchmarking study. In addition to being a very hard worker, Sweet is a gifted communicator and leader who took a seat at Accenture’s top table from the start. She has high expectations of her team and delegates well. I remember thinking back in 2010 that Sweet would run a major business before long, and that chapter begins now. Bravo to Julie Sweet—and to Accenture for recognizing her value.
Thomas Sabatino is another legal chief whose new job demonstrates the value of meeting corporate leaders’ growing expectations. Earlier this year Sabatino became the EVP, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Hertz (a holding company that includes the Dollar, Thrifty and Firefly brands; car and equipment rental and leasing across 10,300 facilities in 145 countries). He joined Hertz from his role as GC of Fortune 50 company Walgreens, where he also became an EVP and CAO shortly before the Boots Alliance merger announcement.
Sabatino’s role in a smaller company is significant due to its astonishing breadth. He will oversee legal, compliance, human resources, labor relations, communications, government affairs, community relations, real estate, facilities and security.
I hear often from legal chiefs that the legal part of their role comes second to understanding and effectively influencing the business. No better demonstration than this quote from Sabatino’s new boss, Hertz President and CEO John Tague: "Tom Sabatino is a seasoned executive who is also widely recognized as a leading general counsel. Tom will be a senior advisor and business partner, not only in his capacity as chief legal and compliance officer, but also in his role leading significant corporate functions.”
Sabatino and Tague knew each other and worked together in a previous executive role; Tague sought out Sabatino for the Hertz job. A veteran of diverse industries, Sabatino has been through two mega-mergers in the last 10 years: United-Continental and Merck-Schering Plough. He was EVP and GC at United Airlines and Schering-Plough, and GC at Baxter International Inc. and American Medical International Inc.
With a small group of senior corporate counsel on a chilly April day in Chicago, Sabatino talked about his career and this latest move. I have enjoyed knowing and working with Tom since his time at Baxter; he wrote an essay in my “Bright Ideas” book. Over drinks by the fire at a central Chicago business club, we fired lots of direct questions at Sabatino, who was both relaxed and focused. As usual, his responses were straight and clear, demonstrating his quick intelligence and impressive ability to hit the crucial point. Sabatino speaks without bravado, as if you’re his neighbor—and you listen.
When asked about time management in his multifaceted new role, Sabatino stressed the ability to differentiate ‘urgent’ from ‘important’ and the necessity of a strong team, plus direct lines of communication. Contrary to common knowledge, he believes that experienced in-house lawyers can adapt quickly across industries. Corporate legal services delivery is fairly consistent, he said: “What’s specific is the business, and you have to know it in order to recognize legal issues and opportunities.” What skill has served him most? One he got from a past CEO: to continually “listen and learn.”
Leigh Dance is the founder and executive director of the Global Counsel Leaders Circle, a membership forum of top multinational legal and compliance counsel. She also runs ELD International, a 22-year-old global legal services management consultancy.