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Mayes Takes Risks and Stays Focused on Ultimate Goal

by Lloyd Johnson

Michele Coleman Mayes
Michele Coleman Mayes

The meeting was scheduled for 8:00 a.m. and no one was happy about starting the day so early. Dutifully, they showed up and glowered over their coffee. No one dared to complain, so the tension in the room was reaching worrisome heights. At about 7:55 a.m., Michele Coleman Mayes, Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s deputy general counsel, burst into the room wearing black patent leather sneakers.

The first words out of her mouth were the ones swirling in everyone's minds. "Who's responsible for scheduling this meeting so early?" she demanded, then broke into a smile. For a moment, the room was silent. Then everyone begin to laugh.

It takes only a few minutes with Mayes to know she's not your typical corporate lawyer. Mayes is practiced in taking risks and speaking her mind. Such a combination seems professionally lethal, but it has worked for Mayes because she does it with style, finesse and a heavy dose of sincerity. As a result, she's gathered an enviable skill set that includes government, litigation, transaction, and business experience.

In December 1996, she was named vice president, deputy general counsel-international and corporate, and assistant secretary at Colgate-Palmolive. Approximately 58 lawyers report to her. She oversees all major legal matters internationally for Colgate. If her work experience seems fairly well rounded, it isn't by accident. She is shooting for a general counsel position.

PERRY MASON'S INFLUENCE

"I enjoy jobs that allow me to make an impact," she says. "When I look at the position of general counsel, I see a position that sets direction, policy and philosophy. I see bringing others along, and there's nothing more rewarding than seeing someone who has worked with you succeed."

Mayes didn't waste any time deciding that she wanted to be a lawyer. When she was 11 years old, she made her decision to become a lawyer and stuck to it.

"Maybe it was Perry Mason," she speculates. "My parents weren't lawyers and no one in my immediate family was a lawyer."

Her mother worked as an office manager for two doctors - one of whom was female. Her father worked on the assembly line for one of the automobile companies. Neither was college educated. But they instilled in her a belief that she could do anything she wanted.

Though it may sound idealistic, what she wanted to do was make a difference in the world. And law, though it can't change attitudes, can change behavior.

"The message I got from my parents was there weren't any limitations," she says. "But if I set out to do something, I had to do my best."

"The only regret I've got is that I didn't take more risks sooner," says Michele Coleman Mayes, vice president and duputy general counsel, Colgate-Palmolive Co. "Time waits for no one."

Mayes received her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and her S.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. After graduation, she was hired in 1976 by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, where she was assigned to the civil division. When her husband was transferred by General Motors to New York, Mayes moved to the civil division of the U. S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.

"Back then, most attorneys got some experience at the U.S. Attorney's Office and then moved on," says Mayes. That was her plan. But in 1979 her husband was transferred back to Detroit.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit offered her a position back in the civil division. Shortly after returning, she was promoted to chief of the civil division. The title and attendant responsibilities were attractive.

But there was a catch. The offer was given right arond the time Ronald Regan was challenging Jimmy Carter in the presidential election. An acting U.S. attorney was in place and it was risky for Mayes to take the job because whoever was elected president was likely to appoint a different a U.S. attorney.

Mayes decided to take the job. Fortune smiled on Mayes when newly-elected Reagan appointed the acting U.S. attorney to the position, which meant Mayes' job was secure.

The next time Mayes was presented with a risky decision, she was more prepared to take the leap. In 1982, she left the U.S. Attorney's Office and joined Burroughs Corp. in Detroit, which later merged with Sperry Corp. in 1986 to form Unisys Corp. She spent nearly a decade there, handling litigation and bet-the-company matters as Exxon Valdez and numerous shareholder lawsuits. In 1987, she was named staff vice president and associate general counsel, worldwide litigation.

ROUNDING OUT HER SKILL SET

Eventually, she decided something more was needed to round out her skill set if she wanted to become a general counsel.

"Most CEOs don't think that much of litigation and litigators because, by definition, you are attempting to resolve a problem rather than preventing one from occurring," she says. "I knew I needed more corporate transactional experience."

After so many years as a litigator, Mayes held a very senior title at Unisys, with the accompanying salary and responsibility. To make a move at this point of her career was risky.

She turned to then general counsel of Unisys, Andrew D. Hendry, to let him know she wanted to do something else and to seek his advice. But Hendry left Unisys in 1991 to become general counsel of Colgate-Palmolive, headquartered in New York. Mayes thought that whatever direction she took, it would have to be done without Hendry's help. But not long after he left, Mayes received a phone call from him.

"He told me, 'You said you wanted to break out of the litigation mold,"' recalls Mayes. "'Well, I'm offering you that opportunity. "'

It was a new position at Colgate-Palmolive: division general counsel of Colgate-U.S. (North American).

"You know the saying," says Mayes. "Be careful what you ask for because you may get it."

Mayes hesitated. She knew nothing about consumer products. Her background was the hightech industry. She knew litigation, not transactional work. She'd be the only woman on the management team.

Despite all those concerns, she decided to take the leap. In 1992 she joined Colgate as vice president and division general counsel.

GOING WHERE THE ACTION IS

Eighteen months later, she was sitting in the office of Edward Fogarty, president of what had become Colgate-North America, hovered over a document.

"What do you think about taking over human resources?" he asked.

She looked up. "'Are you talking to me?"

He nodded.

"I don't think so," she said and returned her attention to the matter at hand. But it wasn't a casual inquiry. Again, Mayes was thrown into a quandary.

"The letters, 'HR' hadn't even passed my lips," she recalls. "My idea about HR was, don't let the check bounce."

She thought about it. She'd learn about compensation plans, benefits, recruiting, high-performance work systems. These were things she didn't know but were importani to understand if she were to become general counsel. She decided to take the job and was immediately thrust into major union negotiations.

"It was the best thing I ever did," she says. "I started to understand how people work within a company, what motivates most people and how an organization functions. "

Three years later, she was poised for her next move. Management asked if she'd be interested in the international aspects of corporate law. Her reaction? "Of course," she says. "Over 70 percent of Colgate's revenues come from overseas. That's where the action is."

Since 1996, when she was promoted to her current position, she has been intimately involved in moving the legal organization in Europe to be more Pan-European in focus. She is currently involved in developing databases to link the global legal function.

And if there's a risk involved in making the leap to her next goal, general counsel, this time she's sure she won't hesitate.

"The only regret I've got is that I didn't take more risks sooner," says Mayes. "The thing that people forget is that time waits for no one. We may not all have equal opportunity or the same amount of money, but the one thing that is truly equal is time. How people use it wisely, or unwisely, is frequently a very critical factor that separates them."

Reprinted by permission of Corporate Legal Times.

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