Rich Konrath made his family proud when he followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, graduating from Ohio State University. Armed with an English degree, he did exactly what many others in his shoes would do. He headed straight to law school.
But that’s where the typical career path of a successful lawyer ends, and an adventure begins.
While many of his fellow law school classmates at University of Toledo headed to law firms upon graduation, Konrath went to Washington, D.C., to join the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). The decision set him on a course unlike that of most lawyers; a course that included Konrath cutting his teeth in a government agency, succeeding in several in-house legal positions for one of the country’s leading industrial manufacturers, moving himself and his family abroad for seven years to gain a wealth of legal experience at the international level, and ultimately becoming the vice president and general counsel, North America, for CNH Industrial, a global leader in the capital goods sector.
All those years and experience, and never once did Konrath work in a law firm.
Tell me about your work with the SEC.
It was a great experience right out of law school. I worked in the Division of Corporation Finance. It gave me the “regulator’s” mindset. It has been valuable throughout my career, knowing how regulators think, how prosecutors think. I’m able to provide advice and input based on that mindset. It was intellectually challenging, very hard work. At times government agencies get a bad rap, not being as hard-working as the private sector. But it is a demanding job.
Why did you decide to leave?
I was there for six years, and out of the blue, got a call from a recruiter for Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill. I was starting to think about my next move, and I realized I had enjoyed working with in-house lawyers at the SEC; helping them wade through securities law. So I took the interview. That was 1993.
Caterpillar was having issues with the SEC from a disclosure standpoint, so they were looking for an SEC lawyer to come in and help out. I was hired as their securities counsel, leading all SEC matters. I was the only securities lawyer at the time, and reported directly to the GC.
What was it about in-house work that attracted you?
At the SEC, I enjoyed much more speaking and working with inside lawyers than the outside lawyers because they were directly involved in promoting the company’s goals. They were involved in strategy. They weren’t just the hired guns. They were working directly with the company managers but doing what they needed to do within securities law. That was really an attractive part of going in house.
You spent much of your early career in securities work. Why did you move away from it?
I needed to challenge myself and branch out. Caterpillar offered me a position in England, so my wife and three kids picked up and moved. It was a complete shift for me professionally. I was really expanding the scope of what I did.
After three wonderful years in the UK—the family enjoyed it—I was offered another job in Brussels with Caterpillar. This time, it was more of a GC role with the European Caterpillar logistics organization. I was more directly involved with management, setting strategy and worked as part of the management team. I enjoyed having that strategic role and focus.
How long were you in Europe?
We were in Brussels for four years, which made it a total of seven years in Europe. My kids were four, seven and 11 when we went over and 11, 14 and 18 when we came back. They grew up quite a bit in Europe.
What did you do when you came back?
We moved back to Peoria, where I was managing the regulatory group there—SEC, environmental, OSHA issues. I had a team of about 15 while I was doing that.
Why did you decide to join CNH and how did the opportunity come about?
Again, out of blue, came a call from a recruiter. This time, Mike Evers. He told me about this potential position at CNH. What attracted me was getting back to the GC role I experienced in Europe. Being less narrowly focused and more involved in management and strategy. Mike was great at mentoring me through the process and helped me land the position at CNH in 2009.
Tell me a little about your legal department?
Here in North America we have 15 on the team all together, and very leanly staffed—as I compare it to Caterpillar and other companies—which has worked out well. We have nine lawyers and six paralegals. We divide ourselves both according to business and function.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest is prioritizing our legal coverage. We are thinly staffed. We do a tremendous amount for the number of staff we have, so we really need to target our most critical areas, our most critical projects, and really work from there.
Another challenge is getting in-house lawyers and outside counsel to think and project themselves strategically. They need to become counselors and not just lawyers the business is going to for a sign-off on a matter.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
The intellectual process for analyzing an issue, and looking at risks and options—I find that to be a lot of fun. Taking what you do intellectually and molding that into an analysis that will advance the business partners’ goals and allow you to be viewed as more of a counselor.
Also, seeing the development of an in-house team, guiding them and watching them going to their highest ability is rewarding. I enjoy helping to change their mindsets from overly critical thinking to more strategic-thinking and seeing people develop to a point that they can take on my job someday. As much as I enjoy it, I won’t be here forever.
Have you been involved in any leadership training programs?
Yes, and the ones I’ve found most valuable are the ones that go out to your peers, colleagues and people who report to you to get anonymous feedback on your leadership style—strengths and weaknesses. I’ve taken a lot of that advice to heart. Here at CNH, I have gone through some individual leadership and coaching training, more at the point I’m at now in my career.
I always tell my team that seeking out coaching is never a sign of weakness. It’s a strength to accept that you’re not perfect, understand there’s room for improvement and seek it out.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be the GC of a company someday?
A strong work ethic and intellectual skills are a given. You need go beyond that. Focus on building key relationships with business partners. Having your head to the ground and working hard is important, but also ensure that you’re developing relationships with business partners such that they view you as a counselor and appreciate you for what you bring to the table.
I would also encourage young lawyers to keep up with legal developments, not only with reading and CLE, but look at management and leadership material as well. What are other managers reviewing in terms of management style and skills?
It’s also critical for in-house counsel to keep advice simple and business focused. Put yourself in the shoes of the business manager. Be a problem solver. Tailor advice so you aren’t just outlining risks, but also solutions.
None of this is easy. It takes effort.