In our new series, “GCs At Cool Companies Talk About Work (with apologies to Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee) we speak with the world’s leading general counsel to discover the essence of the modern top legal leader, and their impact on core business challenges.
This month we talk to Elisa Garcia, GC at Macy’s. The GC at the Fortune 500 company has more than 25 years of experience advising corporate leaders at Office Depot, Domino’s Pizza, Philip Morris International, and GAF Corp. She has been named by Fortune as among the top 50 Powerful Latinas in America. Garcia was a contributor to our recently launched 2019 General Counsel Landscape.
In your career, was it hard to become a GC?
I have been extremely fortunate throughout my career to have had wonderful mentors and folks that really pushed me to do more. I never found that being a woman inhibited my ability to do anything. Frankly, my being a Latina woman has actually helped me, because of the Spanish language skills, and not just the language skills, but the cultural skills and my ability to work within the region.
One of my big steps was when I became regional counsel for Latin America, for Philip Morris International. I was successful in that role because of my ability to speak the language, negotiate contracts in Spanish, and also the cultural nuances. I was able to navigate more easily than some others who had never spent any time in Latin America. I have been extremely fortunate in my career and never really experienced any issues.
“Frankly, my being a Latina woman has actually helped me”
Is it getting better for women and minority lawyers to secure the top legal jobs in companies?
Executive committees and boards are being more conscious in getting women and minorities into leadership roles. I think the GC role is one of the easiest ones for them as there are so many qualified women. It’s not as easy to get some women leaders in CEO or CFO or president positions. There are fewer women in the feeder roles for those kinds of positions than there are lawyers. It will continue to grow in larger steps than it has grown naturally.
“Leadership and management skills are two very important skills to have.”
What are the most important skills for a GC or Chief Legal Officer to have?
For me, at the GC role, leadership and management skills are the two very important skills to have.
How important is it as a General Counsel to fully understand the company you work for?
I learned this when I worked for Domino’s Pizza, in my first General Counsel Role. I remember that in my first week or so we were looking at some advertising and we were going around the table, asking what do you think of this, what do you think of that? I immediately said, ‘you know the typeface of the word “free” needs to be a bit smaller because the terms aren’t really half the typeface. I am giving all the legal arguments, and my then-CEO [David Brandon] just stopped the meeting and said ‘Elisa, I can buy legal advice by the hour, what I want from you is your opinion as a mom with two young kids at home — is this ad going to motivate you to get Domino’s pizza for dinner?’ I was like, ‘really, you want to know that, from me?’
He taught me how important it was to understand the business, and since that day, one of the first things that I do and I stress to my team is you have to know how the company makes money, and you have to stand in the shoes of the people that do it. At Domino’s Pizza, we said that everyone in a management role had to know how to make it, bake it and take it. I took pride in the fact that I could make a large Pepperoni in 44 seconds, but what you get from that knowledge is incredible.
Here at Macy’s, it’s the same thing, I make my lawyers spend time in the stores so they understand when we are requiring the stores to do x, y, and z, they understand how things get done. How does a floor associate do the training and how we can we make sure it gets done in the most economically efficient way? Nobody taught us those skills in law school and they are absolutely necessary to find a solution to business problems, as well as legal problems.
I make my lawyers spend time in the stores so they understand when we are requiring the stores to do x, y, and z, they understand how things get done. How does a floor associate do the training and how we can we make sure it gets done in the most economically efficient way?
You bring your legal skills, you bring your risk-lens but you really need to be a business problem-solver.
Is the GC as significant as the CFO or other high-profile positions?
I think it is, though going back to when I started as a lawyer 30 years ago that wasn’t necessarily the case. A lot of General Counsels reported to the chief operating officer or the Head of HR or CFO. We are seeing less of that because as companies think about the role, they realize you have to have a direct connection to the CEO. Macy’s recently changed that with my arrival — before which the top legal role did not report to the CEO. With a new CEO coming in [Jeff Gennette] they realized it was important for him to have a legal partner on the team.
In what ways is the modern GC making an impact on business?
I think that we are now more prepared to be business management participants because we understand the business and we are a hub for so many different areas. Lots of companies operate in silos, but the legal department and the general counsel supports all of them, similar to the CFO, and similar to the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). Like them, you have your fingers in all of these silos, and often bring them together, and you know what other areas are doing. I think it’s a very similar role to the CFO and CHRO, that’s why it has risen to the C-level.
Make sure to download the General Counsel Landscape 2019, in partnership with the Association of Corporate Counsel for further insights.
Check out the full 30-page report for full data, graphics interviews, and analysis on:
- The Anatomy of a General Counsel
- The Fortune 500 GC
- Gender and the GC
- GC Compensation
- The GC Reborn: The New Skills of the General Counsel
- The New Strategic Leader