Why Flexibility is a Key Leadership Asset

Stephanie Harris Issue 12 - July/Aug 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

Anne Chwat, Senior VP of International Flavors and Fragrances, originally planned to be a teacher, but a winding career path led her to companies as diverse as Seagram, BMG Music and Burger King

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“Herrick is very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Anne Chwat. Anne brings incredible intelligence and pragmatism to her role as General Counsel. As an influential leader within IFF, she zeros in on the essential issues, is resourceful and decisive in her approach, and is always focused on IFF’s future trajectory.”
– Mara B. Levin, Partner, Herrick Feinstein LLP

By Stephanie Harris

Business, much like life itself, is constantly changing. The more willing you are to ebb and flow with the changes, the more success you are likely to experience along the way.

Case in point: Anne Chwat, Senior Vice President, General Counsel (GC) and Corporate Secretary of International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF). When Chwat joined IFF in April 2011, she was unfamiliar with the flavor and fragrance industry altogether. Today, she is responsible for the firm’s global legal, regulatory and corporate governance affairs, and she leads its global compliance and ethics initiatives.

Chwat, who originally set out to be a teacher, has traveled a career path that led her to share a witness interview room with John Gotti; facilitate merger and acquisition deals in the fast-paced, high-stakes Wall Street of the early 1990s; negotiate a move that transformed the music industry; and take a major fast-food chain public (and then private). While she ended up in roles she never envisioned, she has experienced a great amount of success in them.

“Flexibility is extremely important,” Chwat said. “It can take you in directions you never would imagine.”

Chwat_Anne_sidebar1The Open-Minded Path

When Chwat completed her undergraduate degree at New York University (NYU), she set out to teach for the New York City Department of Education. The low salary and department’s lack of organization, however, led her to rethink her plans. She decided instead to return to NYU to obtain her juris doctorate, as she aspired to be a criminal defense lawyer.

During her last two years of law school, Chwat gained hands-on courtroom experience as a criminal defense lawyer in the New York City federal courts. She was working with the Federal Defender’s Office in the Southern District of New York at the same time John Gotti and his mafia colleagues were on trial. Although Chwat felt the work she was doing was important, she came to realize it was not how she wanted to spend the rest of her career.

After finishing law school, she took on a role doing transactional work for the international law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. After seven years with the firm, she moved to an in-house position, serving as the Associate Corporate Counsel for Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., the parent company of Universal Studios, Universal Music Group, Universal Theme Parks, Tropicana and the Seagram Spirits & Wine Group.

Seagram’s eventually was sold to Vivendi, and as the deal was being finalized, Chwat was offered a position with BMG Music. She eventually was promoted to GC and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer—her first taste of executive leadership—in a time when Napster and free downloading was challenging the music industry’s business plan and forcing it to look at alternate business models.

“We were trying to fix a business model that no longer worked with the transformation of digital music,” she said. “And when Steve Jobs developed iTunes, which transformed the music industry, we were one of the first companies to negotiate a deal to sell single songs. This was the beginning of a huge change in the industry and the business model.”

Chwat’s next challenge was negotiating the transaction to merge BMG with Sony Music to create the second-largest music company in the world. After the deal was completed, she accepted a position as Executive Vice President, GC and Corporate Secretary of Burger King Corp. In doing so, Chwat found herself living and working in Florida, which, as a lifelong New Yorker, she never imagined herself doing. While with Burger King, she oversaw all legal aspects of the company’s initial public offering in 2006; the turnaround, expansion and globalization of the brand; and the sale of Burger King to the Brazilian private equity group 3G in 2010.

After completing the transaction, Chwat decided it was a good time to return home to New York City, and she accepted a position with IFF. “I had no experience in the fragrance and flavor industry, but it fascinated me,” she said. “It is very science based and represents a whole new realm of work experience for me.”

Grooming Future Leaders

Since joining IFF three years ago, Chwat has made it a priority to build and develop a strong team that works collaboratively to achieve success.

“One of the primary responsibilities I feel I have in an executive role is to develop a successor and other leaders within the organization,” she explained. “I have a philosophy that if someone is better than I am at my job, that person should have my job. I try to hire people who are smarter than me or have a skill I don’t have. It makes my job easier, and it serves the company in the best way.”

Once she has found the right people for her team, Chwat then focuses on their professional development. “I’m constantly assessing my team,” she said, “because people change over the years. I look at their strengths and weaknesses, and that’s how I construct their development plans.”

Employee development, according to Chwat, focuses on grooming her attorneys to one day take over her role, advance within the department or move into a business role within the organization—which she views as a positive even though it often means losing a great employee.

“I’m proud to say I have lost a lot of attorneys over the years who have moved into business roles. Often lawyers are not necessarily perceived as being strategic businesspeople, but I try to ensure my team members understand their role in driving the business strategy.”

And it is that strategic element that is extremely important to Chwat. When developing employees, there are three specific areas she stresses: expertise, leadership and management, and innovation and strategic thinking.

“You cannot be a leader unless you have that third element,” she said. “I want my team members to be perceived as innovative, strategic business partners, and I want the businesspeople to want them to be part of their teams.”

In grooming her staff to be innovative business partners, Chwat emphasizes the importance of being solution-oriented. “Rather than saying, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ I want my staff to say, ‘I have another way that may work better.’”

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One of the Guys

Not only does Chwat’s impressive resume include experiences she had never imagined, but it also exemplifies achieving success in male-dominated industries—a challenge she overcame by working hard and establishing herself socially.

“There is not a company I have worked at where learning how to socialize the way the men do wasn’t important,” she said. “You need to step back and understand who you are working with.”

Seagram was a spirits and wine company, and to be a part of the club, Chwat needed to learn how to drink whiskey. When she was in the music business, she needed to be a part of the nightly social scene at nightclubs and concerts. At Burger King, the men smoked cigars and ate hamburgers, and she did too.

“You really need to step back, observe and understand what you need to do to fit into the social element,” she said. “I would not underestimate how important that socialization piece is to get to that next stage.”

Today, as one of the few top women executives within her organization, Chwat ensures she is available to other women and makes a point to serve as their mentor. “It is important to let women know your door is open and you are interested in who they are,” she conveyed.

Chwat said she did not feel as if she had women to talk to early in her career, so she makes an effort to get to know the women who work for her and at her company generally on a personal level.

“I also try to be flexible with the women who work for me because women often have different issues and responsibilities than men. For example, women with young children may need to leave work early or during the workday to participate in school activities, but they may be afraid to do so because it might hurt their career. My philosophy is that as long as the job gets done and our clients are satisfied, take the time to be with your children. I’ve found that often employees become much more devoted to their work when I accommodate their personal conflicts. If I hadn’t been flexible over the years, I would have lost some really great women.”

And Chwat, more than anybody, understands the importance of flexibility in growing one’s professional career.

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Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

Anne's Key Partners:
 Herrick, Feinstein LLP (Litigation and Corporate matters) | Greenberg Traurig, P.A. (Outside Counsel) | Skadden (M&A, Tax & IP)
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Stephanie Harris

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
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