The Legal Executive Institute’s Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color is excited to feature a conversation with Phyllis Harris, General Counsel (GC) & Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer at the American Red Cross, in which she discusses her perspective on the importance of having executive presence — a key competency identified by the advisory council of the Black GC 2025 initiative.
As the Red Cross GC, Harris leads a multifaceted team of 25 legal professionals that support the organization’s humanitarian and military support missions while delivering a safe blood supply for the nation. Prior to her current role, she held positions at Walmart as Chief Compliance Officer for Walmart US and as Vice President for Environmental Compliance. Before joining Walmart in 2006, she spent 20 years at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lastly serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Harris says she thinks executive presence is a top-three, critical skill area for GC candidates because in that role, the individual is a “C-level executive on a team with the CEO, CFO, COO and CIO, and credibility is key — you have to be a person that when you speak, they listen.” When Harris was appointed to her EPA regional counsel role, she was the first African-American and youngest person ever appointed to this position. She recalls being “thrust into leadership,” learning early that she had to be very mindful of executive presence. Indeed, she immediately assumed the lead of a team of about 120 lawyers and professional staff.
Because Harris started with the EPA right out of law school and without an environmental law background, she recalls having to learn complex scientific and legal concepts, as well as having to explain these concepts to diverse audiences of community advocates, colleagues at the Department of Justice, state officials, and NGOs.
And when she joined Walmart, she had to translate complex environmental requirements to store associates. I learned to “keep the messages simple,” Harris says. “And break the information down to what is of utmost importance and most relevant.” She also paid attention to body language and her audience’s attention span. For example, when using PowerPoint, she only puts a few words on each slide and uses analogies to explain concepts that she knows executives or audience members will understand and appreciate. “Every word matters,” she says. “Language is important.”
Defining Executive Presence
Harris defines the key concept of “executive presence” as being comprised of four fundamental attributes of leadership — purpose, impact, integrity, and heart.
1. Purposeful — According to Harris, a purposeful leader demonstrates a vision and strategy for the Office of General Counsel that is evident to C-level executives as well as the individual’s peers, colleagues, direct reports on down to junior staff. A critical component of the purposeful GC is to ensure that the legal department staff understands the vision and strategy for the office, how the work they do aligns with that vision and strategy, and how they contribute to the overall purpose of the organization.
2. Impactful — An impactful GC is intentional about how the legal department supports the business in achieving its strategic goals and clearly demonstrates the value the group is bringing to the business. Impact is the influence the GC has within the organization, Harris says, and ultimately it becomes the “the legacy the leader leaves behind.”
3. Integrity — Harris defines a person of integrity in a GC role as one “who will always stand for what is right, particularly during difficult moments.” She also thinks of integrity as a virtue that, “fundamentally, you do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.”
4. Heart — A GC with “heart” demonstrates executive presence by listening to and understanding everyone’s voice. Such a GC ensures that everyone feels valued and is intentional about making sure that everyone’s perspective is considered.
Key Executive Presence Experiences
A “Ready Now” GC candidate “is an individual that has an ability to identify a host of issues because of the diverse experiences that they have had over the course of their career,” Harris says, adding that because of her 20 years at the EPA, her experiences at Walmart, and the experiences now at the American Red Cross, she is very comfortable with making legal recommendations on a variety of issues and “problem-solving for organizations that operate under complex regulatory environments.”
Further, when looking at outside counsel candidates, Harris looks for “a person who has been able to develop a great relationship as a trusted advisor for the business and has helped an in-house GC team navigate complex issues to move the business forward,” she explains.
“I look for candidates that can point to specific scenarios where they have helped business partners find creative solutions to difficult problems that resulted in a win for the business, navigated significant M&A matters, or helped conduct and resolve significant investigations,” she adds.
“Great leaders with executive presence lean into what they do really well,” continues Harris, noting that she mastered executive presence using her key strengths — the combination of enhanced self-awareness, intellectual curiosity, organizational effectiveness, and her knack for developing the talents of others through mentorship.
When Harris was Walmart’s chief compliance officer, she gave presentations to members of the board. During one presentation, the chairman of the board was present and she had not realized it. After she finished, the chairman stated, “That was a great presentation. Tell me about yourself.” It was the ultimate elevator speech moment for her, and she knew then that she had come full circle on mastering executive presence.
You can read other interviews in the Black GC 2025 interview series with Wanji Walcott, General Counsel of PayPal, on legal technical expertise; and with Juliette Pryor, General Counsel at Cox Enterprises on building excellent judgment.