Inside Track: When Scandal Strikes | GC-Turned-Business Exec | Olympic-Size Ad Rules


By Jennifer Williams-Alvarez

MAKING MOVES. Airbnb CLO Belinda Johnson was recently named COO of the company, continuing the trend of in-house counsel moving into non-legal executive roles. In 2006, for example, Pfizer GC Jeffrey Kindler was named CEO. Accenture GC Julie Spellman Sweet was similarly named CEO in 2015 and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan was previously in-house counsel at FleetBoston. Why does this kind of move makes sense for companies? 

  • Natural fit. “General Counsel are natural fits for the C-suite because they’re deeply involved in so many aspects of a company,” Lee Udelsman, managing partner of Major Lindsey & Africa’s In-House Practice Group, told me in an email.
  • The running list. For one, Udelsman wrote, GCs develop such a deep understanding of the entire business. And in recent years, they have been tasked with overseeing a number of different departments, such as HR, compliance, security and corporate communications.

    Another factor that makes GCs suitable successors to the C-suite is their intimate familiarity with the board. "Often, GCs are responsible for orchestrating the quarterly board meetings and communicating regularly with board members in between those meetings," according to Udelsman. He said this special relationship "enables GCs to gain the board’s confidence and be considered for opportunities in the C-suite." And in public companies, specifically, GCs often participate in quarterly earnings calls, exposing them to analysts and investors, Udelsman noted, which "helps position them for broader leadership roles."

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