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CURIOUS MINDS: The 2020s Will Be the “Age of the Chief Legal Officer,” Says ACC’s Veta T. Richardson

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 5 minute read

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 5 minute read

We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds”, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work

In this installment of Curious Minds, Rose speaks with Veta T. Richardson, President & CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel, about her influences, her career path, and the evolving role of chief legal officers within the legal ecosystem.

Rose Ors: Who are the individuals outside of the legal industry who have influenced how you approach your work?

Veta T. Richardson: I’ve been influenced and inspired by the example and the stories of individuals who have shown courage in how they’ve lived or led. Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley are examples — my mother is another example.

These are individuals who inspire me because they looked at the world and their original place in it and had the courage to reach higher and step outside of what’s expected. Doing that, they achieved more than most, especially given where they came from. Those are the stories that have influenced my work because they make me approach it in a more fearless way.

Rose Ors: How do you approach your role as the leader of ACC?

Veta T. Richardson: I approach my role at ACC as I’ve approached my career journey — according to five principles: The first principle is taking stock. I continually examine where ACC is going against where we want to go. I look at the gaps, and together with my team decide how we are going to close them. The second principle is to not be afraid to take risks. Every organization and individual needs to take risks to grow and prosper — staying in your comfort zone is antithetical to success.

The third principle is to take credit, meaning offer clarity about the value that you bring to the table. I always ask, “What does success look like for this role or project or task?” I then plan and track how I will contribute as an individual member and as a leader.

The fourth principle I call taking a hand. I spend a lot of my time mentoring others. It is very satisfying and important to invest in the success of others, as well as not being too proud to ask for someone to lend a hand to advise you. Finally, the last principle is using your voice to take a stand. I believe that no one can lead effectively if they lack the courage to, when necessary, use their position to voice perspectives that differ from the status quo. Leaders lead.

Rose Ors: What books have influenced you?

Veta T. Richardson: A favorite book — one I have read many times — is Who Moved my Cheese by Spencer Johnson. It is a business parable featuring four characters — two mice and two “little people” — who live in a maze and search for cheese. The maze serves as a metaphor for aspects of your life and the cheese serves as a metaphor for the things you want from those aspects. As the characters navigate the maze looking for cheese, the cheese keeps moving and you see how the characters respond to changing circumstances.

Veta T. Richardson
Veta T. Richardson, President & CEO of the ACC

The increasingly complex set of regulations, the global landscape, geopolitical risk, and the speed of change and disruption requires that a company’s top legal executive also be one of the company’s top business leaders.

My other favorite book is I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse To Live as Mice in a Maze that Someone Else Creates by Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra. It is a story about three mice. These mice refuse to accept the reality of the maze and see themselves as more than characters in a rat race. The book was a real eye opener for me. It confirmed for me the importance of creating your own reality versus accepting what someone else creates.

One of the best lines in the book is when one mouse says to another, “You see Max, the problem is not that the mouse is in the maze but that the maze is in the mouse.” As a woman of color this lesson resonated in a very deep way. It so beautifully illustrates the importance and impact of writing your own narrative rather than blindly accepting or conforming to the expectations of others — a lesson that was another gift from my beloved mother to my sister and me.

Rose Ors: What is a big-picture issue facing the ACC today?

Veta T. Richardson: We are currently focused on how we can, as an organization, best advocate for assuring that a company’s chief legal officer (CLO) has a seat on their company’s executive team and an empowered voice in the board room.

The importance of achieving these dual goals can’t be overstated. Today, being an exceptional legal strategist is table stakes. The increasingly complex set of regulations, the global landscape, geopolitical risk, and the speed of change and disruption requires that a company’s top legal executive also be one of the company’s top business leaders. We believe that this coming decade will be known as the Age of the Chief Legal Officer, as those in that role become key players in the C-Suite.

Rose Ors: What are the key steps in that evolution?

Veta T. Richardson: ACC believes that the first step is for the CLO to report directly to the CEO and to play a role in the development and execution of a company’s strategy.

Along the same lines, for a company to enjoy the full value of a business savvy CLO, he or she should be given the opportunity to develop a relationship with the board of directors and attend board meetings. We are already seeing this evolution happen and we are committed to lending our voice and influence to support it.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.