UPFRONT & PERSONAL: An Interview with Kevin van Tonder, General Counsel, Legal Shared Services at Schlumberger

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Efficiency, Legal Innovation, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development, Upfront & Personal


Today we continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, on the Legal Executive Institute blog. The column, created by Rose Ors, brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.

Kevin van Tonder is General Counsel, Legal Shared Services at Schlumberger; and he is responsible for driving innovation in the oilfield services company’s legal department, including employing technology, metrics and data analytics to drive performance.

Mr. van Tonder spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about being excited about work, encouraging innovation, and being an explorer.

Rose Ors: What’s a childhood memory that brings you joy?

Kevin van Tonder: My uncle’s farm in South Africa was a magical place for me. When I was a child, I went with my family every weekend. Just going up into the bush by myself with its wide-open spaces gave me a special sense of freedom and joy. Those childhood weekends gave me the opportunity to be an explorer. I’m nostalgic about my life during those weekends on my uncle’s farm.

My uncle sold the farm many years ago or it would continue to be a place I would return to again and again. I would take my family and relish my children’s time being explorers, too. The experience was so profound that I think it’s why now I choose not to live in Paris, but outside it where there are more open spaces that make you feel freer.

Rose Ors: What have been the most significant moments in your career?

Kevin van Tonder: The most significant moment in my career was joining Schlumberger and that opportunity happened because of a series of moments — more specifically, decisions I made during my career journey.

The first decision I made that impacted my career was going to Austria to practice law. Most South African kids go to London, I went to Austria because my wife is from there. I then returned to South Africa and decided to go in-house rather than going to a law firm. I joined a few different in-house legal departments and enjoyed working in that environment. That was the second decision.

Today, the best legal teams are those that have the creative space to explore the realm of possibilities and then turn some of those possibilities into reality. Ours is a unique moment in time in that technology is giving us great freedom in changing the way we work.

The third decision came about when I had a fundamental disagreement with one of the business unit managers. The disagreement was serious enough that I felt I could no longer stay. So, I called a friend who was a recruiter and he said, “Well you know, funny enough, Schlumberger has an opening, how do you feel about travel?” I said, “Well, I don’t mind traveling for holidays.” Fast forward to today. Since joining Schlumberger, I’ve lived in London, Dubai, and Paris. I’ve travelled to more than 36 countries.

I feel gratitude every day that I work in a company that has given me the opportunity to work with such an incredibly diverse group of people. I have a world view now that I would never had had most anywhere else. I go to work excited and humbled to be part of an outstanding group of people.

Rose Ors: What is your favorite pastime?

Kevin van Tonder: I have several creative outlets, but my favorite is photography. Photography gives me the opportunity not just to take a picture, but to make a picture — sometimes with stunning results. When taking a photograph, I see the image in a new light at the moment before, during, and after the shot. I love the entire creative process. It’s exhilarating!

Rose Ors: Does your photography influence how you approach your work at Schlumberger?

Kevin van Tonder: Absolutely. In my photography, as well as my other creative endeavors, I always try to improve my best. At Schlumberger my process is the same. I constantly strive towards making things better — not just by increasing the efficiency of something or the quality of something but by thinking of something in a completely different way.

The creative process of coming up with a new way of seeing things is a critical factor in my ability to work with my team to bring about innovative ways to add value to our company. At Schlumberger I have the freedom — indeed the mandate — to innovate. It’s one of the best parts of my role.

Upfront & Personal

Kevin van Tonder, General Counsel, Legal Shared Services, Schlumberger

Today, the best legal teams are those that have the creative space to explore the realm of possibilities and then turn some of those possibilities into reality. Ours is a unique moment in time in that technology is giving us great freedom in changing the way we work.

Rose Ors: Now, for one of my favorite questions: If you were a fly on the wall what conversation would you find fascinating to hear?

Kevin van Tonder: It would be the negotiations in the early-1990s between the governing apartheid National Party and the African National Congress (ANC). Specifically, the conversations between its two key negotiators — Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC and Roelf Meyer of the National Party — during a fly fishing trip. The trip was orchestrated by someone who knew both men well. Each man was invited to the trip not knowing that the other man was also invited. Before the trip, negotiations between the two parties were almost at a stalemate. The time these two men spent fly fishing put the negotiations back on track — a political game-changer — that influenced the future of South Africa and helped move it from apartheid to a democracy.

So, I would have loved to have been a fly, not on a wall, but at the end of one of those fishing lines. (Chuckle)

Rose Ors: It shows the power of establishing a connection — a human bond. It’s profound.

Kevin van Tonder: Yes. It’s profound and often overlooked.

Rose Ors: So now for the wrap up question: What advice would you give a newly appointed General Counsel?

Kevin van Tonder: If you really want to make an impact on the business, you have to be part of the business. You have to speak to the managers, so you understand what it is that they do and what their concerns are. The only way to do that is to leave your office.

At Schlumberger, I go to the oil fields. I put on a hardhat and go to the rig sites and talk and walk with these managers to get a better understanding of what they need from the legal department. I would also tell a newly appointed General Counsel not to sit in an ivory tower. Be open and humble.

You’re one member of a team — build relationships with the team by engendering trust and acting from a place of integrity.

The interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.