ITT Deputy GC Hufford places high value on mentoring

wendyphotoWendy Hufford likes the idea of giving back what she’s received—and many young lawyers can thank her for that.

As the Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Assistant Corporate Secretary of global manufacturing company ITT Corp., Hufford owns a lot of responsibility. Throughout her legal career, she has cultivated a wide set of skills that primed her for her current post. But she also credits her focus on litigation and regulatory issues earlier in her career with setting her up to be the lawyer she is today—and she shares that wealth of knowledge with other young lawyers in her department and beyond.

She herself had good role models. Hufford grew up in a small family-oriented suburb of New York City with very supportive parents, who encouraged their daughter to work hard to achieve her goals. After graduating Yale Law School and taking several respected positions in the legal field, her superiors throughout her career—at a law firm and in several in-house positions, including Credit Suisse, GE, Cardinal Health and ITT—played significant roles in grooming her for success.

Today, Hufford is a member of InsideCounsel’s 5-165 program, which has identified her as a rising star and a likely candidate for a GC position in the coming few years. As a key player in the program, Hufford not only gets great advice from seasoned senior-level professionals, she also gives back by sharing her knowledge and experience—all in the interest of advancing women in the legal profession.

Let’s talk about how your career unfolded after law school?

After law school, I was a law clerk for the Honorable Robert J. Ward of the Southern District of NY. I assisted him in his courtroom and researched and drafted his opinions. I enjoyed that because it was a two-year clerkship and I would see the opinions that I drafted get argued, and hopefully affirmed on appeal.

Then, I went Davis Polk and became a litigator. While I loved the time I was there, I couldn’t help but notice that we were always brought in after a serious problem occurred. And because I like the idea to be able to guide a client proactively on the front end and try to prevent a problem, I decided to go in-house.

My desire to be proactive in the litigation world, in fact, led to the development of the GE Early Warning System, a proactive issue identification and  remediation process that was rolled out globally at GE during my tenure there.

So after Davis Polk, you went in-house?

Yes. My first experience going in-house was with Credit Suisse; then I moved to GE. At GE, I was the Global Head of Litigation for GE’s Consumer Finance Business and earned a reputation at GE for process improvement and for being able to clean up complicated legal and regulatory problems. Ivan Fong, then the GC of GE Vendor Financial Services was aware of my skillset. After he left to become CLO of Cardinal Health, which had serious legal and regulatory challenges at the time, I was recruited to join him, and I relocated to Columbus, Ohio.

I was in Columbus for four years. After three years, I left Cardinal Health after a major spinoff that led to the reorganization of the legal department.

How did the ITT Corp. opportunity come about?

After I left Cardinal Health, I founded a consulting firm called Effective Dispute Management. It was during the recession so I was focused on helping companies improve legal processes and save money on outside legal spend. I was networking to get clients and ultimately was connected to Frank Jimenez, at the time, the new GC of ITT  (he is now GC of Bunge). He hired me initially as a consultant to assist him in cost optimization and legal process improvement for ITT.  After I developed a proposed plan, he ultimately hired me as Deputy GC to help implement my suggested improvements.

So, I moved back to New York, and then I led a legal department convergence process reducing our outside counsel from hundreds of law firms to just 18.  That project drove ITT’s legal spend down by over 20 percent.  I also negotiated over $5 million in free value added legal services from the preferred provider network that was selected.

You’ve spent a lot of your career with a litigation focus. How does that transfer to your in-house work?

I think a litigation and regulatory background is valuable in all areas of legal practice because litigators learn to become experts quickly in whatever issues come their way. They have a good eye for avoiding risk and you naturally come to a situation with a sense of caution. That’s a useful skill set to bring. And having spent the vast majority of my career as a litigation and regulatory specialist, and having reached my career goal of becoming a chief litigation counsel for a Fortune 20 company, I then deliberately decided to broaden my skill set and become a generalist.

Now, in my current role, I provide legal guidance on a wide range of legal areas, including global human resources, commercial contracts, executive compensation, benefits, ethics and compliance, IP, global privacy and data breach, and social media.

I also serve as Legal Operations Counsel and Assistant Corporate Secretary of ITT. I still work on some  litigation and investigatory matters, but it’s more in the context of human resources, intellectual property and compliance.

Tell me a little about your legal department.

When I joined ITT, it was a $12 billion company and had about 50 lawyers globally. About six months after I joined, they executed a double spinoff and divested the company of its defense business and water business. Since I had spinoff experience due to my time at Cardinal Health, I was given the opportunity to be a project manager for the legal work in connection with ITT’s double spinoff. It was a very busy and exciting time for me.

In November 2011, Xylem and Exelis became separate public companies and the lawyers were divided between the three companies. So now, ITT is a more focused, diversified leading manufacturer of highly engineered critical components and customized technology solutions for the energy, transportation and industrial markets. We partner with our customers to solve their unique challenges. We have employees in 35 countries and sales in 125 countries.

In 2013, we had $2.5 billion in revenue and there are about 14 lawyers globally. It’s much smaller than it was, which is why I’m covering so many legal subject areas. It has been a great experience for me to broaden out as a generalist into these new areas, which has prepared me for a future general counsel role. It is the first time in my career I have worked for a smaller organization.

What are your best practices for adding talent to your department?

In addition to using the services of executive recruiters for more senior roles, one of my best practices is to train and mentor junior lawyers.

A few years back I hired a promising law student to be my administrative assistant. I invested time training and mentoring her to take on a junior role for the department. When she recently graduated law school and passed the New York bar, she was given the job of junior in-house lawyer and now works for the company in that capacity.

You don’t hear about in-house hiring directly from law school often, but it allows you to train a new professional to learn from the ground up and teach them the skills that are absolutely tailored to what you need.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

Right now, it’s managing and prioritizing the large volume of projects and issues that come to me and my small team. I pride myself on giving timely and accurate legal guidance to clients and, because I cover so many legal areas, sometimes my team and I don’t have the capacity to do everything. That’s when I rely on my top-notch network of preferred legal providers to get expertise and resources very quickly to my clients

What do you love most about your work?

What I love the most about being a lawyer generally is you help people with their problems. They come to you with an issue and if you do your job well, they will leave with a plan to address that problem.

What I appreciate about my job at ITT is getting to handle a diverse set of challenging legal matters every day. I never know what new issues or question will cross my desk. It’s a rare day when I actually do what I planned to do because so many new and interesting issues have come in. Also, I have really enjoyed working with the people here and find they are helpful and give me the assistance I need to do my job.

Clearly, you’re a mentor yourself. Tell me a little about the mentors you’ve had growing up in your legal career.

I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve had tremendous mentors, and those relationships continue today. At Davis Polk, I had litigation attorney Sharon Katz. She showed me the ropes when I was a junior associate.

At Credit Suisse, my first in-house experience, I had Ray Dorado, who is now at Bank of New York/Mellon. He was so patient and took the time as a manager to teach me what I needed to know about being an in-house lawyer.

At GE, I had wonderful mentors. I was hired by GE General Counsel Brackett Denniston, Barbara Daniele and Steve Ambrose. They were extremely supportive of my growth and development and helped me navigate my way through the GE world and afterwards.

And then when I left GE to follow GE alum, Ivan Fong, I found another great mentor in Ivan. We regularly stay in touch and he gives me good guidance and advice on my career.

Last, I have had two great mentors at ITT. I had Frank Jiminez who hired me, and I also had Burt Fealing, who became GC when Frank went to one of the spinoff companies. They helped me learn the skills necessary to interact confidently with the C-suite and the Board and gave me the opportunity to learn corporate governance skills.  They modeled executive presence and demonstrated the confidence and presentation of information that was needed at that level. They both are willing today to be sounding boards for me and provide career guidance and support whenever I reach out to them.

I feel very lucky to have had such wonderful mentors during my career.

How have these mentoring relationships rubbed off on you?

I feel like I owe a duty to pay it forward to other attorneys. I’ve mentored a number of young lawyers, one of whom is the head of compliance at GE, Al Rosa. I mentored him as he grew his legal career and moved from the legal side to the compliance side at GE.

All of the other members of my GE team and Cardinal Health team that I hired are all still at GE or Cardinal Health and are in great roles there. And, as noted before, the law student I hired here at ITT is now working as a  junior attorney. I really believe experienced attorneys need to pay it forward and help others learn and grow.

Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs?

At GE, I participated in a number of formal executive leadership programs, including a week-long financial training class at Crotonville.

At ITT, I had an executive leadership and business class taught by Harvard Business School professors.

Most recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the 5-165 Leadership training program with other deputy GCs. That program provides training on how to be a successful GC from other GCs and offers coaching and simulation sessions that commonly arise in the boardroom and with executive leadership. It has been so beneficial to learn these critical skills and network with these highly qualified executive female attorneys, all of whom have been identified as the next generation of GCs by InsideCounsel magazine.

The tricky thing is getting the executive recruiters to give someone who currently isn’t already in the job a chance since a sitting GC is usually given priority as a candidate. The challenge for the program is getting the executive recruiters’ buy-in to put deputy GCs on the GC slates so that promising up and coming candidates can be considered by clients.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a company someday?

Start at a law firm and become an expert at whatever area of practice you’re most interested in. Specialists are very valued in-house.

Once in-house, young lawyers can remain in the specialty and rise to senior roles or they can broaden into different areas and pick up a range of skill sets, if they aspire to become a general counsel.

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