In her role as Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Ann Harlan was a member of the senior management team at The J.M. Smucker Company. The J.M. Smucker Company, a Fortune 500 Company listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SJM, is a manufacturing and marketing company of over 40 well-known food and pet food brands in North America with more than 30 manufacturing locations. Ann participated in all Board and Board Committee meetings and served as primary advisor to the Board and senior management on matters related to corporate governance and executive compensation as well as key regulatory, risk, and legal issues.
Prior to joining The J.M. Smucker Company, Ann was a partner with a large Midwest-based law firm where her practice focused on corporate mergers and acquisitions as well as commercial finance transactions.
Ann currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Gorman Rupp Company, a New York Stock Exchange Company, where she is lead director, and she also serves on the Board of the FlavorX Corporation, a privately held company.
Ann is a frequent speaker on corporate governance and related Board subjects, including the role of the Board in succession planning and corporate culture development. She adds her expertise to the strategic counsel, leadership development, succession planning, and other services that BarkerGilmore advisors provide to legal and compliance departments, CEOs, and boards across the country.
What are the hot-button issues for today’s legal departments?
One of the most critical and challenging issues for General Counsel to manage today is the blinding speed of change. This pace of change cuts across all industries and business segments. Senior legal officers have been always called upon to do more with less, but now those same General Counsel are asked to react even faster and in a more disruptive and competitive environment. These continually changing business models and ever-evolving business risks demand that effective General Counsel craft responses and proactively develop strategies to address anticipated changes before that change even happens.
What are some of the challenges you faced in your executive role and how did you resolve them? What are your proudest accomplishments?
When looking at my executive role, some of the biggest challenges were also some of my most significant accomplishments. It was through addressing those challenges that there was an opportunity to impact and guide the growth of the business. During my tenure with Smucker, much of our growth and change was through acquisitions. That scale of growth and change, especially through acquisitions, can be tricky to integrate and can be very disruptive to the business. Change was navigated at Smucker beginning with the thoughtful negotiation of documents governing the transaction and continuing through both the execution of the transaction and the entire integration process. It was 1) about understanding the strategy, 2) working with the business to identify the specific steps to achieve the objectives, 3) clear and timely communication, and 4) evaluating unintended consequences before acting.
It was a privilege to be part of a management team that worked together to increase annual revenue from $500 million to almost $5 billion while maintaining the core corporate culture and values. At the end of the day, it was that level of attention to sustained growth with all stakeholders in mind that resulted in the successful execution of the corporate strategy.
In what ways did you make the most significant impact on the company you served?
My goal was always
- to be viewed as a lawyer providing good advice and also a proactive business partner,
- to be part of the team that creates the vision and sets the goals, and
- to execute on those goals.
What are the best “words to live by” that you want GCs to know?
When I think of what might be the “silver bullet” of “words to live by” for General Counsel, it is #1 know the business and #2 develop a reputation of trust at all levels of the company. In order to be a good leader and a trusted General Counsel it is essential to make certain your legal and business advice is grounded in a deep understanding of operations, strategy, and risks to the business. From that deep knowledge of the business, GCs will develop the trust of their team, the trust of senior management, and the trust of the Board of Directors. This trust is critical. Quite simply, people don’t follow the advice, wisdom, or guidance of leaders that they don’t trust.
What are you passionate about?
The two passions that drove my work at Smucker and continue to energize me today might be summarized as follows:
- first, providing solid business and legal advice aligned with the Company’s strategic plan,
- secondly, developing a legal team that is viewed as innovative and solution focused.
If all executives, including General Counsel, work to leave their company stronger than when they started, then they will leave a legacy of a legal department that works together with the company to achieve the best outcomes and will also establish a culture of development. I was fortunate to lead a legal department of committed professionals focused on the success of business today and in the future. In turn, they are also developing the next generation of leaders. This goal of “always better” feeds my continued passion to help other executives and General Counsel achieve their potential and to work with GCs to enhance the professional development of their team. At the end of the day, when employees like what they do, are engaged, are good at what they do, and see opportunities for themselves, the company benefits and it shows in the financial results and across a number of different metrics. Everyone benefits.
How have you helped others succeed?
One of the most effective tools for professional development is a continual feedback process, both positive feedback as well as identifying improvement opportunities. Making feedback a regular part of continuous improvement is a proven path to long term change and development at all levels from the C-suite to brand new hires right out of school.
It has also been my experience that hiring for attitude, perhaps even more so than aptitude, often yields the best talent. In the legal department at Smucker, we hired lawyers who were smart lawyers and also aligned their success with the company’s success.
To link the two thoughts, to hire smart talent with the right attitude and to provide honest, open feedback to continually be better and do better is a formula for success. It is largely about emotional intelligence, understanding strengths and weaknesses, continuing to ask questions, and a healthy respect for disagreement and dialogue.
In your role as a BarkerGilmore advisor, where do you see yourself adding the most value to GCs?
Being a General Counsel requires a shift in how you practice law. Working with General Counsel as they hone their skills and become strategic-thinking members of the leadership team, while continuing to be the excellent lawyer they were hired to be, is an area where all of us in the advisory group at BarkerGilmore add value. It is also helpful for experienced General Counsel to have someone that has experienced what they are going through that can lend insight and perspective. It is that perspective and coaching background that provide a unique value.