The evolution of a career: from General Counsel to NED and Coach

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Louise Franklin, Associate Partner, who leads our General Counsel, Legal & Company Secretariat specialism, speaks to Tonia Lovell, General Counsel, Independent Non-Executive, and an Executive Coach and Mentor.

Tonia has an impressive career in Legal spanning over 20 years, and speaks to Louise about her experiences to date, and how her journey has transformed.

Louise Franklin: Tonia, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. As an introduction it would be great to hear about your executive career journey and some of your key highlights.

Tonia Lovell: My executive career journey was very simple: seven years at Linklaters, followed by twenty-one years at the consumer goods multinational, Unilever.

At Unilever I was a corporate/commercial lawyer before becoming head of the UK legal team in 2002. In 2010 I was appointed Chief Legal Officer of Unilever, and my final role was as Group Company Secretary/ General Counsel Governance.

I really didn’t expect to stay at Unilever for the majority of my executive career, but the combination of great people, the company’s values and purpose, and the quality of the work (including multiple mergers and acquisitions, a takeover defence, strategic review, corporate structure review and a number of competition law challenges) was more than enough to keep me there.

Two further highlights for me were building the foundations of a 400-strong global legal function with a strategy and vision, and the privilege of working with the Unilever Board through my role as Group Company Secretary.

LF: How has your executive career helped you make the shift into a portfolio focused career within the advisory/ NED world?

TL: During the eight years I was Company Secretary to the Unilever Board, I was able to witness what being a ‘great NED’ looks like – including the really powerful questions to ask, how to ensure oversight doesn’t stray into operational interference, and how to build great relationships in the Boardroom. In my NED/advisory roles, I now try to put that into practice.

I passionately believe that the key skills of  a lawyer are a strong basis for a competent NED – the ability to ask difficult (or sometimes simply common sense) questions, the ability to absorb a huge amount of detail and yet see the big picture or spot what’s missing, and (if needed) the ability to address the elephant in the room.

LF: How have you seen the role of the General Counsel and Company Secretary evolve throughout your career?

TL: General Counsels have evolved from being great academic lawyers, negotiators and contract drafters to being business partners, managers of risk and reputation, and sometimes even profit centres.

Company Secretaries have progressed from being professionally qualified minute-takers and administrators, to trusted governance advisers.

LF: Are there any specific elements of the role of a Legal professional that will become more prevalent given the current climate and impact of a post COVID/ Brexit business landscape?

TL: I think that ESG transparency, disclosures, supply chain issues and the management and consideration of multiple stakeholders, are all issues where both General Counsels and Company Secretaries will be spending more time in the future. In addition, in my time as General Counsel we outsourced most of our employment legal advice, but I believe with greater workforce engagement, and the increase in flexibility and agility of workforces post Covid, legal matters may increase again for in-house lawyers.

LF: What motivated you to move into the coaching/ mentoring space to provide support and guidance to people on their Legal career journey?

TL: As I reflected on my executive legal career, I realised that there were points on my journey where I could have been more confident, more effective and better at building relationships had I had the support of a trusted coach/mentor sitting outside the organisation to discuss these matters with.

During my last few years at Unilever I found that I really enjoyed investing my time in more junior lawyers to help them to develop and flourish. Coupling this experience with the reflection described above (that having a coach would have helped me to be better!), was my motivation for becoming a coach/ mentor to members of the legal community (and in-house lawyers in particular).

So, I went to Henley Business School and took the Professional Certificate in Coaching to add some tools and techniques to my on-the -job coaching experience, and now I love having coaching/mentoring as part of my portfolio to help other legal professionals enhance their careers and reach their full potential.

Thank you so much for your time Tonia. If you would like to get in touch with Tonia, please contact her here.

Find out more about our Legal & General Counsel practice