Sylvia Kerrigan, a former litigator, with over a decade of boardroom experience under her belt, shares her career trajectory and insights on corporate culture and leadership.
CCBJ: You have tremendous experience—as a litigator, a general counsel, a public company director, and an executive director for a higher education energy center. What led you to join the boards that you’re on, and was serving as executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Marathon Oil Corp. a springboard for joining them?
Sylvia Kerrigan: I was happily beavering away as a litigator at a law firm when one of my clients, Marathon, asked me if I wanted to come in-house and do what I was doing for them outside. Once you’re in-house, you have a very different practice, and it changed my career, my perspective and my entire view on life. In-house, I really had to become more of a generalist; to align more with my clients rather than being an intellectual purist or an expert within a particular silo.
That was my path to the C-suite—working offshore with the drillers and the guys on the platforms and pads. I learned the business from them. When I got to the C-suite, though, I had to learn a whole new set of skills because there, work is conducted in the language of finance and not in the language of law. That was sort of a second, entirely different career.
A third aspect of my career was learning what it’s like to govern a public company. I saw how exciting and strategic it all was; how all the issues you read about in Corporate Counsel magazine are really front and center in board members’ minds. I realized I wanted to be on a board and my boss at the time, Clarence Cazalot, allowed me to do that while continuing to be general counsel. When I retired from Marathon, after about 10 years in the C-suite, I was already on one board and soon thereafter, I was asked to join a second.
Now I’m lucky enough to have four boards under my belt—and I’m embarking on another journey, one in the higher education world. Whether you’re on a technical track and you need to understand geopolitics and regulations, or you’re on the legal side and you really need to understand the language of business, there’s so much cross-pollination in our increasingly complex world. The best corporations, and the best boards, work best when you have a mixture of those skills; when everybody has their own area of expertise, but everybody also understands everyone else’s perspective. I hope both students and people with established careers can benefit from that idea.
That’s really fantastic, because I know through WCD (WomenCorporateDirectors) that corporate boards covet sitting senior executives. Tell us about your leadership style and who or what has influenced it.
I’ll start with the end and then go to the beginning of that question. I’d say everybody influences my leadership style because I think that there shouldn’t be any single style. Unless there’s just one personality type in the world, and I’m not aware of that being the case, I think the most successful leaders try to supply whatever is necessary to bring out the best in the people they work with. There are people who work best on their own, people who work best in teams. There are people who are disruptive and some of them need to be brought along more directly, while others are self-correcting if they realize that they’re disappointing their peers.
It all depends on the group dynamic. If I were going to sum up my leadership style in two words it would be flexible and responsive.
What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring new people for your teams?
In my opinion—and I didn’t coin this phrase; it was made famous by a football coach—the greatest ability is availability. I look for people who show up. I look for people who try their hardest. Whether they know what they’re doing or not, if they’re trying their hardest, I’m willing to work with them. I also like people who have a little bit of humility about w hat they don’t know, because there’s no shame in that. The only shame is in pretending to know what you don’t know—and taking everybody down the rabbit hole with you.
How would you describe the culture of your organization? You can answer from the perspective of Marathon, the corporate boards you’re on, or the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Center.
I really appreciate what happened late in my career at Marathon, which was a growing recognition of the importance of diversity, inclusion, belonging—all things that have upended typical corporate hierarchies. Many business books talk about the four quadrants of company culture. As long as you have people in all four of these quadrants, you’re generally doing well.
On the other hand, you can’t build a culture based on just one or two quadrants, and at the beginning of my career, I think that’s what people did. You would have the engineering-run company, or the private equity-backed company, or whatever the case may be. And your law firms would be an entirely different culture as well. When I went to the United Nations in 2000, it was my first leadership job. I was part of a team evaluating the claims that arose out of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. You couldn’t do that with just lawyers. We had a reservoir engineer. We had a forensic accountant. We had an asset valuation expert from Lloyd’s of London.
The team’s interdisciplinary nature was key; each member approaching this problem from a different angle. If you try to impose a single culture, you diminish the higher end of the group’s potential because you’re basically settling for a norm instead of letting each member be the best at what they are.
What an incredible experience that must have been.
Oh my gosh, yes. And as a woman, it was an opportunity to go work in the Middle East, where women were not given many public leadership roles at the time, though that certainly is changing and I’m so grateful for it. There were countries that asked me to not act as the leader when I was in-country; that my second in command should appear to head the team.
And I give the United Nations credit for responding, “If you won’t respect our team culture, then we won’t come to your country. And the burden of proof is on you to establish that you’re entitled to this money, so if we don’t come to your country, it will impact your ability to prove that.” That was kind of an early lesson for me in why you can’t just cram everybody into a single paradigm. The UN backed me up as an individual. I hope I learned that lesson and can pass it on to others as well.
Does that apply as well to your board service and/or your work for KBH?
Absolutely. Board service is a microcosm of any team, but on steroids. You’re dealing with the biggest issues, but with a very small team. Typically boards are 7 or 8 people. I’ve been privileged to be around some very intellectually gifted, accomplished people, and if everyone’s trying to evaluate the same problem with a different set of skills, hopefully you will reflect all of the aspects of the issue and come up with the best solution.
The KBH Center is built on the concept of interdisciplinary cross-functioning as well. That’s why it’s sponsored by more than one school—the McCombs Business School and the University of Texas School of Law. We’re working on bringing other UT schools under the same tent so we can create that true partnership and avoid the siloed mentality that we may have had in the past.
The benefits of interdisciplinary approach and letting everyone shine seem inarguable, but a lot of leaders can’t manage that. The fact that you can is a testament to who you are as a person and a leader.
Whatever the case may be, I have a lot of humility, because I have a lot to be humble about. We all have a lot to be humble about. And if we forget that, then we shut down people who may be able to teach us something.
Absolutely. Speaking of teachers, what is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
When I became general counsel at Marathon, the head of HR told me that what had gotten me there wouldn’t keep me there. That was another one of those aha moments when I realized it’s not enough to be the best version of yourself; you also have to be responsive to others.
What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?
Now that I’m on boards, I view lawyers in a different way. Actually, that started as soon as I joined a corporation and continued when I was in the C-suite. Over the years, I grew frustrated by lawyers who were good at their narrow subject matter but had no perspective about how they fit into the bigger picture. And this plays out in everything from being inflexible when trying to generate multiple solutions, to not understanding one’s own value proposition.
For example, I’m a recovering litigator. But there are people who will always want to litigate on principle. Even if that’s not you, some of those people may be your clients. You have to ask yourself: Is this a fight that’s worth the money, because lawyers (and I say this as a lawyer) are often horrendously overpriced compared to the value that can be created from the output of their work. Appreciating how to how to get as close to the goal line as you can with the most reasonable expenditure of funds that you can—really understanding that proportionality—is a perspective I wish I could give everybody. That’s something I’ve learned that I wish I’d understood better when I started out my career.
We can’t end without mentioning the pandemic and what you think the future holds.
The pandemic has changed us, hasn’t it? If we didn’t know we had to be flexible before, we sure know that now. Necessity’s the mother of invention, they say, and I think that’s certainly been proven true. Here we are on Zoom and I feel like you and I have caught up in a way that we couldn’t have done before the pandemic. And just as we’ve both grown comfortable with this format, I think teams have grown comfortable with a more hybrid approach to working and learning. I also see the potential of cascading that out to people who don’t have immediate access to educational opportunities, career opportunities. Covid was a crisis, but it was also a liminal event—a transitional stage of a process: there was a before and there will be an after—and you have to embrace whatever good might have come from that, and not just try to go back to before.
Absolutely. As a friend and colleague recently said to me, “The past no longer is predictive of the future, given what we’ve all been through.” Thank you so much for your time.