By Kellye Walker / Huntington Ingalls Industries
Kellye Walker, general counsel and executive vice president of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), understands that GCs wear many hats. She’s not only her company’s top lawyer, she’s also one of its business leaders. And she leads a team of lawyers by trying to set the tone and guide them without getting in their way. The interview has been edited for length and style.
MCC: Tell our readers a bit about your background and your current role at Huntington Ingalls Industries.
Walker: Sure. I’m currently executive vice president and general counsel at Huntington Ingalls, which we’ll call HII, and I’ve been here about two and a half years. This is my fourth general counsel role. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to be general counsel at a number of companies in several industries, including big box retail at BJ’s Wholesale Club and consumer products at Diageo North America, which is a beverage alcohol company. Immediately prior to joining HII, I was general counsel of a company called American Water Works, a large water and waste water utility company.
Before that, though, I went the somewhat traditional route of practicing in law firms, rising to the partner level before moving in-house.
MCC: Can you tell us how you do your role as the leader of the law department and within the company overall?
Walker: I really think of myself as wearing a couple of hats. Naturally as general counsel, my job is to lead the law department, and I’ll talk a little bit about that. I also wear a hat of being a senior executive in the company, which means that I look beyond the law department perspective. As a member of the senior team, I take into consideration the holistic view of the company. With respect to the law department, I view my role as setting the direction of the department, providing insights and guidance as the company faces significant legal issues from time to time. But my role is also to make sure that I’ve got a strong, robust team of very talented people. Having a strong team allows me the opportunity to provide guidance. But more importantly, it allows me to set the tone and get out of their way so that they can do their jobs. As a leader, I think one of the more important things that we do is to have and develop a strong team so that those people can be strong employees and advocates for the company.
MCC: In your role as general counsel and executive vice president, how do you influence business decisions? And do you consider the role of the general counsel key to a company’s success?
Walker: Absolutely. I consider the role of general counsel as key to the company’s success for a number of reasons. The first is, of course, to defend the company and advocate for the company, as appropriate, in whatever the company may be seeking to do from a business perspective. Looking at the role more broadly, as lawyers we’re trained to think analytically and to think through issues thoroughly. Bringing these skills to bear, being able to think three steps ahead and look around the corner – looking at things more broadly from a company perspective – tends to add significant value.
There have been challenges over the years as general counsel in particular have become or viewed as business advisors and not just legal advisors. We constantly have to be mindful of when we are providing legal advice and when we are providing a business perspective. I have had the good fortune to be in companies where the general counsel is well respected. In those instances, that business perspective is welcomed because it’s a different vantage point from maybe the way an operations person or the strategy person or the CFO may see an issue.
The way you get to that point is first understanding the business. When someone goes into a new company or is a first-time general counsel, one of the things that I strongly advise people to do is get to know the business. What is it that drives that business? What’s the company’s strategy? Where is the company looking to go over the next several years? What are the things that could potentially be obstacles or stumbling blocks for the company? Once you understand those things – and it’s a continual learning process – you’re better able to advocate for the company, have impact and influence on your department, but even more broadly, on the organization.
MCC: Can you describe your role as it relates to board and investor relations?
Walker: In my capacity as general counsel here, I play a significant role with respect to the board, working with both the chairmen of the board and our CEO on setting the agendas for the board meetings, so that they’re focused on the right things and properly exercising their fiduciary duties.
I also have been quite proactive in making suggestions of things the board should be considering, especially given the current landscape in the public company arena. Whether it’s shareholder activism, or cybersecurity or whatever may be happening in the broader marketplace, I view a significant part of my role as making sure that our board is on top of those things. They are very sophisticated and business savvy, so quite often they bring those things to us. But one of my jobs working with the board is making sure that those things are happening and that the board is getting what it needs to do its job correctly.
With respect to investor relations, I and a member of my team work very closely with both the finance team and the investor relations team with respect to our periodic disclosures. We work quite closely with the IR group and the broader finance group as we’re preparing for our quarterly conference calls with Wall Street and the analysts, etc.
MCC: Are there any challenges or mistakes along with successes that you’ve had in your career that you could share with our readers?
Walker: After doing this for almost 25 years, I clearly have had my share of challenges and stumbling blocks and things I could have done better and done differently. I think one of the things that I have learned through experience and hard knocks is the importance of finding time to communicate with and talk with colleagues both internally and external to the organization. That is a huge help, and it’s almost like the old adage, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
We have to make the time for those things because doing so can often help us avoid many pitfalls. I’ve learned that the hard way. There have been times in my career when I didn’t nurture the relationships I should have because I was so “busy” that I didn’t make the time. As a result, I made some mistakes that could have been avoided had I picked up the phone to call someone with whom I had developed a strong, trusting relationship. Fortunately for me, I was able to recover from the mistakes, but there have been countless times where I have spoken to someone after the fact, and they’ve said, “Oh, you should have called me beforehand. I just had this issue last year.”
Time is a precious commodity for all of us, and it is easy to sometimes feel like we don’t have time to build and nurture relationships. But developing relationships is so critically important to our success. Doing so helps broaden our thinking. It helps us bring new perspectives, new ideas to the table so that we don’t get so myopic. We all have these careers that we want to grow and develop. There clearly are some things that we have to do to have the careers that we want, and for me I think that focused relationship development is a critically important one.
MCC: Who are some individuals in business or in law that have influenced you and the decisions you’ve made in your career or even the trajectory of your career?
Walker: Oh, I’ve had a number of people who have influenced me. I’ve been very fortunate. You mentioned business and the law, but first and foremost, one of the people in my family who influenced me was my grandmother because of some of the things that she was able to overcome and do as a person of color who grew up in the pre-civil rights era. She is a strong woman who, no matter what she faced, was determined and had a lot of resilience and perseverance. She instilled those things in me.
From the perspective of influences in business and law, there have been innumerable people. There are people who are very well known and popular that I look up to and admire – both contemporary and historic figures. The list is a long one. But from a very personal perspective, at each one of the organizations where I have worked, I have had at least one person who I looked up to and who invested in me to help me be successful. Having that is critically important. For me, it has been a true gift.
MCC: What do you think some of the key barriers and derailers are for women in the practice of law?
Walker: For many women, whether you’re trying to seek leadership or not, decisions on how much we’re willing to work, how much we’re willing to sacrifice for family or for other things that we may want to do are very serious considerations. As we operate in the work setting, we have to learn how to make sure that our voices are heard and our points come across. For example, if we say something in a meeting and it’s not recognized, but a man makes the same point right after us and it’s recognized, we must learn how to diplomatically assert ourselves and actually be heard.
As women, we have to make a conscious effort not to sell ourselves short – that’s something that women do more frequently than men. One example is how we assess our readiness when seeking a promotion or seeking a next level job or special assignment. If the new role requires seven things, sometimes women feel like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even think of applying if I don’t have all seven.” Yet, quite often men will go for it if they have four of the requirements and say, “I’ve got four and I can get the rest of them.” These are the kinds of things that we, as women, sometimes do that keep us from moving forward. So, as we think about what can impact our progress, we must remain cognizant of these kinds of things and make an effort not to allow them to derail us. This level of vigilance and focus will, I believe, allow us to continue to advance as we have.
MCC: There seems to be quite a bit of momentum behind programs supporting women in their practices and their journey to leadership right now. What do you think is driving that agenda? And are there any programs that you’re currently involved with or would recommend to our readers?
Walker: There’s a renewed sense of focus on diversity in a variety of ways, and obviously gender diversity is one important one. There has been some notable success. For example, a number of large law firms now have women on their executive committees and have women as managing partners. This has increased significantly over the past several years. That kind of success breeds additional success. I also think we are being more vocal, particularly in the legal profession, about the gender diversity issue and its importance.
There are some studies that show that organizations and teams that are led by women can be more productive than other organizations. It’s this kind of information and empirical evidence that is leading to the programs that are now focused on women in leadership. In addition, more and more women are being much more vocal, and standing up for what we believe we all deserve because there is no doubt we come to the table with a strong work ethic and excellence as our backdrop.
With respect to things that I am involved in, there are a number of organizations that I spend some time in. I also spend time developing individualized relationships – many of them with very senior women in other organizations. For me, I often get a little more impact from the one-on-one relationships at the level where I am now.
For your younger readers, I absolutely think there are organizations that they should consider; but they should be discriminating. I would counsel them to spend a little time, talk to members of the organizations, maybe go to a meeting. If it’s not what they think it should be, then they should find something else. Being discriminating with our expectations and our time, we will have a greater ROI and continue to have more success in getting true value from those organizations.
Kellye Walker is executive vice president and general counsel for Huntington Ingalls Industries, where she has overall leadership responsibility for HII’s law department and outside counsel. She oversees and directs a broad range of legal advice and support for the company’s business activities, including corporate governance, compliance, litigation management and mergers and acquisitions. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Louisiana Tech University and a juris doctor at Emory University School of Law. She can be reached at Kellye.Walker@hii-co.com.