How to Create Stretch Assignments, According to In-House Lawyer Shanin Fuller

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The Legal Executive Institute sat down with Shanin Fuller, Associate General Counsel, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and Counsel, Corporate, Finance & Securities, at Ingredion Inc. In this interview, she shares her career journey in her quest to be a GC one day and the active role she assumed to drive her legal career, including how she diversified the industries and practice areas of the law necessary for a GC, to earn a game-changing stretch opportunity.

Legal Executive Institute: Tell us about your career journey and future career goals. 

Shanin Fuller: After law school, my first job was at Andersen Consulting (now known as Accenture) in its corporate legal department. I was the first lawyer they had hired directly out of law school. During my 12 years there, I was managing many deals and negotiating complex contracts because Andersen provided IT consulting and outsourcing services. During my tenure, I learned a great deal and had positions of increasing responsibility, including managing a team.

About 5 to 10 years into my career, I realized that I needed to be proactive and acquire skills that would prepare me for my ultimate career goal of becoming a general counsel. After some internal examination, I decided to make it a priority to work for a company that created a tangible product in an industry that affected a large population of people. I focused my search on the food industry and law based on my areas of interest and after taking an online course on international food law and regulation.

I found an opportunity with Ingredion (known as Corn Products when I started) within its IT and procurement function. I translated my IT outsourcing legal experience at Accenture as my value-added contribution at Ingredion. What was very appealing about the company was the fact that they had approximately 10 lawyers within its corporate legal team enabling me to work on a much broader range of topics. Within a few years, I was able to expand my legal expertise in the food industry by moving into another business unit as Associate General Counsel, EMEA.

What are your areas of expertise and the role and responsibilities of your stretch assignment?

As I started to look more strategically at the areas of expertise I would need as a general counsel, I knew I needed to increase my experience in mergers and acquisitions, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) compliance, and board governance. I also needed to gain greater exposure in matters that crossed borders.

I proactively discussed these areas of opportunity with my manager and proposed formal training during our career development conversations. In fact, I earned my stretch opportunity in my quest to gain SEC compliance expertise. Ingredion’s small legal team meant that it was pretty simple to pitch win-win opportunities. I offered to help my colleague on any SEC compliance work that he did not have the bandwidth for, and in return, I asked him to copy me on any mark-ups he made. I studied his mark-ups and spent many hours talking with him in detail about why the changes were made. I have learned a great deal from this relationship, and I am very thankful for the invaluable contribution my colleague has made to my development.

I proactively discussed these areas of opportunity with my manager and proposed formal training during our career development conversations. In fact, I earned my stretch opportunity in my quest to gain SEC compliance expertise.

During the time I was shadowing my SEC colleague, I also found creative ways to learn. As an example, I started a women’s finance group at the company to hone my financial acumen skills and to learn how Ingredion made money and stayed profitable because I knew I would need this type of financial literacy as a future chief legal officer. As head of the women’s finance group, I gathered senior women for monthly meetings to review Harvard Business Review books on financial ratios and study how to read financial statements. Every quarter after our earnings release, I invited the VP of investor relations and the VP of corporate finance to provide a deep dive into Ingredion’s quarterly performance and the corresponding analyst reports. By taking initiative in starting this women’s finance group, I gained visibility to the company’s chief financial officer (CFO), built a connection with him, and told him about my desire to gain exposure in SEC compliance. This connection turned into a regular invitation to join disclosure committee meetings.

Shanin Fuller, Associate General Counsel, EMEA and Counsel, Corporate Finance & Securities, at Ingredion Inc.

After about a year of shadowing my SEC colleague, my stretch opportunity presented itself when I was asked to cover the company’s SEC compliance work while my co-worker was on leave. My attendance at the disclosure committee meetings solidified the stretch opportunity because I was already known to the members of the disclosure committee and because my manager and general counsel were up to speed on the expertise I had attained by apprenticing with my colleague.

In earning your stretch assignment, what skills were critical to your success in addition to being a being a great lawyer?

As I mentioned before, the key turning point for my stretch assignment was being invited by the CFO to attend the regular disclosure committee meetings. It was incredible amount of experience that I had not anticipated. Attending them put me visibly in the room where issues were being discussed and decisions were being made. The stretch opportunity came about from me being intellectually curious, trying to understand what I needed to prepare myself, and having the courage to speak up to ask for what I needed.

In addition, I have been willing to invest my own time and money in my professional and personal development. If I really wanted to acquire additional skills and budgets were limited, I invested my own money. For example, I joined the National Association of Corporate Directors — and successfully completed its governance fellowship program, in order to enhance my knowledge of board governance. The governance fellowship program requires me to attend classes and has a required number of hours of training per year.

What is one piece of clear guidance you would give to your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to take stretch assignments! I have definitely battled — and I still do — with imposter syndrome. I have talked myself out of stretch opportunities before because I thought those around me would figure out that I had no idea what I was doing. It was something that I struggled with, and I think I cheated myself out of opportunities because of it.

Trust that if you are there, you have got something to contribute and you can do it. Stretch opportunities can be intimidating, but it is so great once you are getting it — it’s very empowering and can be a stepping-stone to your next career milestone.

Finally, how can legal employers partner more effectively with lawyers of color to accelerate their advancement?

Two things: Number one is sponsorship. Employers really need to identify good top talent and sponsor those lawyers. More specifically, senior leaders need to mentor and sponsor lawyers of color.

Number two, these efforts must be measured and rewarded. Anything that gets measured is going to get done, and I favor more carrot than stick in these types of situations. It’s also important to reward those managers or leaders that embrace diversity and embrace sponsorship of lawyers of color and help them develop in their careers.