Moving from the U.K. to the United States would be a tough transition for any middle schooler. But Robert and Estelle Watt—West Indian immigrants living in London with their daughter Verona—sought better opportunities than what London could provide at the time for their pre-teen daughter. They saw that opportunity in New York—so the family packed their bags and headed across the Atlantic.
Setting down new roots in Brooklyn, Verona made an effort quickly to fit in. “My neighborhood Crown Heights wasn’t as gentrified then as it is now, so I relied on American TV to help me pick up the accent, so I didn’t stand out,” she says. “Growing up in London and New York—the adversities I faced in those environments—really shaped who I am today, and I loved having that opportunity.”
Verona excelled in her vocational/technical high school and intended on becoming an engineer. But when she headed off to college, she shifted her focus to liberal arts. At Dartmouth College, Verona studied sociology but, on a whim, she took a quarter off during her sophomore year to work at a law firm. “Coming from a blue-collar background, I didn’t know any lawyers growing up,” she says. “But that winter I worked at the law firm, I really fell in love with law.”
The experience led to Verona’s application to law school—and she had her sights set on Harvard. Not surprisingly, she was accepted. “The first people I called when I opened that acceptance letter were my mom and dad,” she said. “I said to them, ‘Look what we’ve achieved. It’s the entire reason we came here.’ They couldn’t have been prouder.”
Verona’s legal career has treated her well—taking her from New York to Japan to San Francisco and beyond. Today she calls St. Louis home and serves as the general counsel of Peabody, the leading private sector coal company in the world.
Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
I initially gained experience working at various law firms, including WilmerHale, Weil Gotshal and Manges, and Freidman Kaplan, in New York and Boston. Then I moved to northern Virginia to help open the corporate department of Pillsbury Winthrop in northern Virginia.
This was at a time when Silicon Valley was the big craze and people were trying to create an east coast version of Silicon Valley. It was a lot of fun to work with all these entrepreneurs who were trying to get their companies off the ground. The experience was equivalent to being an outside inside counsel. I wasn’t just helping draft contracts but also offering advice and strategic counsel.
But sometimes bubbles burst. There was a recession in 1999-2000 and Pillsbury closed our department. They kept me on and offered me two choices: go to work in Tokyo at Sumitomo Chemical, a client of the law firm, or move to the headquarters. I was quite intrigued to go to Japan. I had a young daughter at the time who was in preschool so my husband and I decided we would take the Tokyo opportunity.
We moved to Japan for two-and-a-half years. We lived in Setagaya where there were not a lot of English speakers and we were able to immerse ourselves in Japanese culture. My daughter went to private school with kids from 40 countries. We were exposed to people from all over the world and had the opportunity to travel to places like Singapore and Guam—places we couldn’t have traveled to as easily from the U.S. at the time.
Why did you decide to go in-house?
I spent two-and-a-half years at Sumitomo and made a commitment to Pillsbury to return for at least a year. I came back to the San Francisco office, but I had been up front with them that I eventually wanted to be in-house.
I ended up interviewing with Harsco in Pennsylvania and Chevron in California. Chevron is an amazing company with a huge legal department, but I would have been an M&A lawyer with a sole focus. Opportunities to practice other types of law and work my way up the chain to GC would have been much harder and less certain.
I chose Harsco as an assistant general counsel. Their business proposition was to train me in every aspect of the business and eventually move me to the position of GC.
I spent nine years at Harsco, and they were true to their word. I was able to work as division counsel for each of the four divisions; I worked internationally and was able to learn the business and work with the board and its committees. It was a true apprenticeship from a legal standpoint. I was promoted into different positions, and in 2012 I became GC.
How did you end up at Peabody?
I spent close to a decade at Harsco. My daughter was a junior in high school and my son was in fourth grade. Harsco was going through a lot of turmoil and change, and my stock was underwater. My husband and I were thinking, “What’s next?” I’m the sole earner; my husband is a stay-at-home dad.
We had to think, “What is the right thing to do for the family? What geographies would we be comfortable in?” I started outreach to search firms and a few opportunities came up, including Peabody in St. Louis. The coal industry was operating in a challenging environment—the Clean Power Plan and other factors had changed dynamics for the industry, and the company had taken on significant debt with a 2011 acquisition.
At a time of transition, it was clear the company was putting in place a top-notch management team. I am not one to run away from a challenge. I saw the opportunity to come in and hit the ground running and contribute from day one.
Sounds quite challenging right out of the gate?
It was challenging. We were in the middle of critical litigation that worked its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, and we were able to obtain a stay. At the same time, we had to figure out what to do with the debt. I was part of a core team that helped file for Chapter 11. We filed in April 2016 and emerged a year later a much stronger company.
I have been able to help the company work through a challenging time. From the outside people might say, “Why pick Peabody as a place to work?” I picked it because I like to challenge myself and felt I could make a difference.
It has paid off in all of those respects and hopefully Peabody has gotten something from my time here as well. It’s now a healthy Fortune 500 company.
How has your role evolved since you started in 2015?
When I came in, it was more about handling the immediate challenges and key litigation. I had to hit the ground running and strategically focus on fundamental issues.
Developing people and teams is very important to me, and now I can spend time focusing on my team.
And I’m not all about work. I have also been able to step back and get to know St. Louis. During my first two years, I commuted from Pennsylvania as my daughter finished high school. Now, she’s in college at the University of Pennsylvania, and my family has moved to St. Louis. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the community and join some non-profit boards and a for-profit board, Enterprise Bank and Trust.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
I head up legal and government relations, so navigating both globally is challenging in this highly regulated industry. We must be aware of the many regulations and legislation impacting us, along with the litigation that arises—environmental or otherwise. My team must try to discern what three or five things we must absolutely focus on to ensure we are able to continue to do business.
There are things I may see, a threat or something we need to focus on today, but it may not manifest immediately. I need to take people on the journey to understand the importance of potential existential threats—rather than waiting until the issue grows and triggers a reactive response. We aren’t resource heavy and I have to be selective about our focus.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
The ability to focus on what I love, which is law and regulations, and apply expertise in a very clear business-related way to issues that can ultimately help us achieve our business goals. I am a business person who happens to wear a legal and regulatory hat. Here I can truly be a generalist. There isn’t a day that I come in and know exactly what I will be doing. Something always comes up in the moment. I love that and I thrive on it.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
There are a couple: Marsha Simms from Weil Gotshal has been an amazing mentor throughout my career. She has helped me navigate the legal profession as a woman and as a minority and pushed me to look at these as opportunities and reasons to excel, rather than as setbacks.
Michele Coleman Mayes has been an incredible mentor. Lloyd Johnson, who is committed to increasing the number of women GCs, has been a wonderful friend and a wonderful big picture thinker in terms of what we can do to change this profession.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
Don’t be afraid to follow a path or take on a role that may not logically fit into any defined path. I did not go into the practice of law thinking I would be GC or even in-house. There are lots of things I did that, on their face, didn’t seem like they would contribute to a future career in-house, but what I saw come out of some of those assignments was the ability to lead and influence.
Focus on becoming the best at what you’re doing and study leadership. Know that leadership is learned. Be humble. Step back and get feedback on things that might be blind spots for you.
And make sure you’ve got your own personal board of directors—people who won’t just tell you what you want to hear but will tell you the tough things and push you beyond where you think you can go.