We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Rosanna Neagle, VP for Legal Affairs at Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream/Nespresso USA, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about her family’s story, what inspires her, and what advice she’d give a newly appointed general counsel.
Rose Ors: What has influenced your career choices?
Rosanna Neagle: In 1981, I joined a law firm out of law school and realized early on that the partnership track would not give me the life balance I wanted. This realization was a bit of a shock because I then had to think about Plan B.
My Plan B was to go practice law in-house — it’s a decision I would repeat.
After eight years practicing in-house, I had another plan — to work in the legal department of a company whose products or whose mission I believed in. That company turned out to be Levi Strauss. It was 1994. I should mention that when I interviewed for the position, I was a month shy of giving birth to my second child. I give tremendous credit to the company and to Albert Moreno, Levi’s then-general counsel, for welcoming me at that point in time.
At Levi, my career path evolved organically and in an upward trajectory. The next choice I faced was when I was asked to go to Brussels for three years to lead Levi’s European legal team. The decision to accept the position was a big leap of faith for me and my family. But we were all in. My husband took a sabbatical from his job. Our two daughters, both in elementary school, were excited about the adventure.
Professionally, I jumped into the deep end of the pool. I was going to lead a team addressing a lot of issues that were totally new to me. It was not easy, but it was the most rewarding risk of my legal career.
My next major career transition was in 2007 when I decided to join Dreyer’s — about a year after the acquisition by Nestlé. It has been a whirlwind 11 years that have allowed me to continue learning — both on the substantive side of the law, but also about the importance of authentic leadership. I love working for a consumer-packaged goods (CPG) company and being part of the product development process — providing legal input to help the business put our products on the shelf. It never gets old to walk into a store, see a product and know that you had a part in making it happen.
Rose Ors: What were some lesson learned during your European tenure?
Rosanna Neagle: It was very humbling for me to lead a European legal team when I knew nothing about the laws and regulations in Europe. So, I was immediately candid with my team. I said to them, “Hey, I need you to help me figure this out, because I’ve never dealt with the issues that face us in Europe. First explain it to me; and, second, let’s work through how we get this done.”
The big leadership lesson for me — one I still benefit from applying today — is that you can lead effectively without being the person who has the answer to every problem. My time in Europe made me comfortable leading in an environment where I needed to ask many questions to understand the business and legal issues facing the company. Also, I think having to ask many questions and letting others “do the talking” made me a better listener — a skill that makes all the difference in business and in one’s personal life.
Rose Ors: What inspires you?
Rosanna Neagle: Something that’s dear to my heart are stories of refugees and immigrants who have risked everything in the hopes of attaining “The American Dream.” Today there are so many of these stories that, although painfully difficult to read, are poignant and inspiring. Like you my friend, I’m a Cuban refugee, so those things speak to me on a personal level.
Rose Ors: I feel the same way about these stories. Can you share yours?
Rosanna Neagle: In 1961, my parents, my younger brother and I arrived in Miami from Cuba. We joined what became an exodus of Cubans fleeing Castro’s communist regime. My parents, both lawyers in their mid-40s, left everything behind to regain a sense of dignity and freedom. My father’s first job in Miami was as a janitor; my mother a bank teller. They both became teachers and, at 50, my mother started a legal translation company that she successfully sold 15 years later. The American Dream.
Rose Ors: Why did your family move to the Bay area?
Rosanna Neagle: My father did not want to stay in Miami. He felt that it was too close to Cuba and that the proximity would make it harder to let go of the past. While many Cubans believed that they would return to Cuba, my parents were of a different mindset. They believed nothing would change in Cuba and that the U.S. was now home — it was time to assimilate!
The decision to move to the Bay area was simply because it was far from Cuba and had mild winters. My parents had been to New York in the winter and they did not want to live in a cold climate — anything but that kind of cold.
Rose Ors: Thank you for sharing your story, Rosanna. Now for the “what if” question: What person living, or dead would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?
Rosanna Neagle: I would invite Katherine Graham. I find her story remarkable. Her wealth did not shield her from the difficulties she faced when she took over The Washington Post. Her incredible integrity and strength are what inspires me. She was a remarkable woman.
I would also want to invite Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres. All three of these women are examples of what it means to be authentic — that’s their power.
Rose Ors: What would be some of the things you would ask them?
Rosanna Neagle: I would want each of them to describe a situation that terrified them and how they handled it. I would also ask them to tell me a mistake they made and what they learned from it. When you hear the answers these strong and accomplished women give, I think they become more relatable.
Rose Ors: So, you would ask questions that get to their humanity?
Rosanna Neagle: Yes.It would be a fantastic way to get to know them as people, rather than icons.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed general counsel?
Rosanna Neagle: My top-of-the-list advice is to build meaningful relationships with both your legal team and the company’s business leadership team. The role of general counsel requires that we wear two hats. We are the guardian of the ethics and the law and we are also a business partner to the company. As a business partner we must understand “the business” of the business. So, sit with your CFO and start to understand the company’s profit and loss (P&L). Understand what drives the top line? What drives the bottom line?
You have to understand the business tension points, so you can begin to identify potential legal risks. Then do the same thing with the marketing group and then the next critical group. It’s a crucial part of our role and a fun one.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.