Genevieve Kelly is not what one thinks of when you hear “surfer girl from L.A.” She does in fact surf, but she has built her career by excelling in a variety of professional experiences. Today, Ms. Kelly is the vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Dole Food Company, Inc. responsible for leading Dole’s legal department and staff of 21 individuals worldwide.
What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
I always loved to write. While in college, I spent time working and writing for some newspapers including Newsweek On Campus and the Washington, D.C. bureau of The Baltimore Sun. While working as a cub reporter, I learned a lot about meeting critical deadlines and asking hard questions. But as a journalist, much of the time you are limited to simply reporting the facts. The desire to have more of a voice and shape ideas led me to the legal profession and a career in business law.
I also studied European law while on a Fulbright scholarship in Belgium after law school. That wonderful experience opened many doors for me and allowed me to focus on an international business practice within law.
Have there been specific people or opportunities that have helped shape your career?
There was a law professor at Georgetown, Dr. Robert Drinan, S.J., whose approach to teaching really resonated with me. He turned the Socratic method into a collaborative dialogue. It was different approach for a first year law school class — one where varied opinions were always acknowledged and explored. It also showed me how effective that kind of open, collaborative process can be. I have tried to extend his example to my own career, particularly now that I am in a position to lead the legal function at Dole. I ask people within legal to partner with their operations and work cross-functionally throughout the organization. I believe it’s important for the lawyers to understand the big picture so that they can contribute as broadly as possible to the success of the company.
Are there particular traits that you believe successful women share? How about successful women lawyers?
Obviously, work hard. But it takes more than doing good work. Sometimes we can get buried in the day to day tasks that we all have to accomplish. I think it is important to slow down and step back at times and remember to connect with our colleagues or clients. Developing the personal connection is important because we need to be respected and trusted; network with colleagues and recognize the social aspect of work. That doesn’t mean being best friends; it just means remembering to care about the personal aspirations and motivations of others. As an example, I have observed that successful executives develop a skill for “being liked.” At that level of success I think it stops becoming about proving oneself and becomes more about supporting and connecting with others.
What’s an example of a challenge, and how have you overcome it?
I have worked in many areas of the world from Europe to Africa to the Middle East, and there are always lots of challenges. One experience that I’ll always remember was early in my career when I was in Yemen to negotiate an oil production deal. The Yemeni men on the other side of the table had not had to negotiate with women before and in fact needed to ask my permission to look at me while they spoke. Of course I gave them permission, and it worked out fine. We even ended up chewing quat together while we worked through the deal. That is what I love about traveling and international business — there is always something new! But travel has also shown me time and time again how people are generally more similar than different and that solutions can be reached by approaching people this way.
What advice would you give to women looking to join the field of law? What about women looking to work in-house?
I have worked in private practice and in house in several different kinds of businesses — from hotels to energy to investment banking to food. From these experiences, I have realized that what I enjoy most is partnering with the business. I would advise anyone looking to work in house to make sure they have a real interest in the underlying business because as a general counsel, you are not providing just legal advice. You have to be part of the business team and combine your legal acumen with your business judgment.
Also, I never really had a professional mentor, probably because I was fiercely independent. As I look back, I think I really would have benefitted from that. I would advise young lawyers to seek out mentors who can provide advice on career development, advancement and satisfaction. Fortunately, today there are many more successful, accomplished women to look up to and reach out to for guidance.