ConAgra GC mixes together the right ingredients to make a successful career

Colleen Batcheler discusses the rewards and challenges of working in-house at one of the top U.S. packaged foods companies

Ever since Colleen Batcheler can remember, she wanted to be a lawyer. She’s not sure why—there were no lawyers in her family and she doesn’t particularly remember encountering any as a child. But, she says, it was something she got into her head early on while she was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., and she never wavered.

When it came time to go to college, her goal to be a lawyer was first priority. So when her parents offered her a free ride to any State University of New York (SUNY) school, she chose SUNY Fredonia and majored in political science and economics—setting herself up for a life in law.

“I felt I would be an activist lawyer and have a glamorous life working in the public sector,” she remembers.

Upon graduation, Batcheler headed to Cleveland to study law at Case Western Reserve University, and that’s when she really got to experience law and start carving her path. While in law school, Batcheler’s coursework centered on litigation. So when she took a job in the Sherwin-Williams Co. legal department during her second year of law school, a whole new world of law opened up to her.

“I was getting this other experience at the legal department—M&A and corporate secretary work,” she says. “It led me to drive my workload into more of a business and corporate focus, and I just started loading up on those classes.”

When she finished law school, Batcheler took an associate position at Jones Day, where—on her first day—she looked through the internal “facebook.” She sought out all the partners who were doing the work she was interested in and offered her assistance. Although Batcheler says she found great satisfaction in her work at the firm, she decided to leave in search of work-life balance. And her next positions set her on course to one day serve as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of one of the top packaged foods companies in the country—ConAgra Foods Inc.

Q: What did you do after Jones Day?

A: I took a role with Cleveland Clinic Foundation. I ultimately left there pretty quickly because an opportunity to join Albertsons grocery chain came my way. The Albertsons GC asked me to come out to Boise, Idaho, to meet him. He was terrific, and there were other great leaders there. It felt right. So we moved to Boise in 2003, and I stayed there through the company’s sale to a consortium of buyers in 2006. That was a complex experience, and it was a bit of a whirlwind. But it was an amazing learning experience. Then I joined ConAgra.

Q: How did you end up at ConAgra?

A: ConAgra had a CEO transition in fall 2005, and the new CEO made the decision that he wanted to build the legal department. Historically, it had a wholly outsourced legal services model.

I was the fourth lawyer hired as vice president and chief securities counsel. So it was a building process where a colleague, Robert F. Sharpe Jr., was asked to help build the legal department. He decided to bring in a senior person in various areas of law. So he hired four of us, and said, “OK, go figure it all out.”

Q: How did you become GC of ConAgra?

A: Sharpe’s goal was never to be the GC of ConAgra. He had been in various senior legal roles, and that wasn’t where his passion lay. He wanted to have the reporting line off his plate, and that was to my benefit. I was appointed GC in 2009.

Q: What interested you about in-house practice vs. law firm work?

A: It really was the balance issue. It’s just as hard in-house and just as meaningful. It’s tough, but a bit more predictable.

The thing I didn’t expect was just how many issues come across an in-house lawyer’s desk that would never go outside and accepting that you will take on greater breadth than you previously had.

Q: What do you like about working as a GC of a Fortune 500 company?

A: The diversity of my day. I get to spend time on people matters, strategy, pressing legal issues, sustainability and external relations issues, and every one of those efforts is in collaboration with other engaged colleagues. We’re all focused on creating shareholder value.

Q: What do you love most about being a lawyer?

A: While as a profession we are blamed for creating disputes, we’re also a profession that solves problems. I get to spend my time developing strong knowledge of facts and an understanding of goals. I put creativity to work coming up with solutions. It’s required that you see the big picture. It provides a lot of intellectual stimulation.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job with ConAgra?

A: Like many GCs, I face pressure to be more effective with greater efficiency. Balancing priorities to keep my team engaged is a critical part of effectiveness.

Q: As a woman, what obstacles have you confronted in your career? How did you overcome them?

A: I do feel I have been judged on my impact and not my gender, but there are always those dynamics where you are one of a very few number of women in a room. I don’t golf, and I usually don’t care about last night’s game. Finding ways to make informal connections with your colleagues can be a little more difficult. You have to find ways to do that without losing yourself in the process.

We are in a much different environment today than we used to be. Organizations want diverse, smart people in their ranks and in their leadership. But I am mildly frustrated at the amount of time the stats are taking to show progress.

Q: You’re a member of InsideCounsel’s Transformative Leadership Advisory Board. Why did you get involved?

A: The work InsideCounsel is doing with that program is terrific. The awards highlight something different than what you see in other programs.

There are a lot of organizations that are trying to support the advancement of diversity in the legal profession, and we support that. We have a terrific representation of diversity in important jobs on our legal team. It’s not just supporting external organizations, but the best candidates need to be seen so you can truly drive a diverse team and bring a great approach to problem solving.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large company?

A: The key is to build your financial acumen. There are a lot of lawyers who went down the same path I did, but they think they can’t understand financial and reporting statements—and it’s so key you do understand. Ask a lot of questions.

Editor

Cathleen Flahardy

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