Leslie Turner is the former Senior VP of Hershey Company and former Associate General Counsel for the Coca-Cola Company. With over 30 years of legal experience, she has served as a senior legal executive, providing strategic counsel, risk management, and policy advice to senior business leaders of Fortune 100 and 500 companies. Today she joins the show to discuss her journey to becoming involved in two of the biggest companies in the USA and the unique challenges she faced along the way.
Listen in as Leslie explains her experience with failure and why she didn’t let this hurdle stop her from achieving her dreams. You will learn about the advancements in inclusivity inside the law, the benefit of understanding your values, and how to ensure your values align with your work.
Empower to In Power, a podcast mini-series highlighting the trailblazing journeys of women who boldly carved a path to leadership.
“I have generally grown up in the south and never wanted to be that small-town girl.”
People who empowered them along the way.
“What differentiates an extraordinary leader from other people is their degree of emotional resilience.”
And how they continue to empower forward for the women to come.
“The tools that I have learned in my life, they kind of reside in a big toolbox that I carry around with me.”
Thank you for joining us.
Vicki Shackley: Welcome to SignatureFD’s Empower to In Power podcast. We explore the attorneys of some of the most successful women in their industry, their journey, and who helped them along the way. I’m Vicki Shackley, director of SignatureWOMEN. Also joining us today as co-host is Dan Dubay, director of SIGNATUREEXEC. Today we’re so excited to have the esteemed Leslie Turner, former SVP general counsel and corporate secretary of the Hershey Company and general counsel of the Coca-Cola Company, two of our favorite brands. Leslie, thank you so much for joining us today.
Leslie Turner: Oh, you’re just so welcome. I’m thrilled to be able to participate, and I’m glad that both Coca-Cola and Hershey are two of your favorite brands.
Vicki Shackley: We had a lot of that the last year. Leslie, tell us about your journey and how you got to senior leadership roles with two of the most recognized brands in the world.
Leslie Turner: Well, before I start, I guess I had some preliminary thoughts around it. And I think in the career journey, it’s helpful to have a destination or focus, even if it’s vague. Some kind of outline’s helpful because it gets you moving. And I’d say my focus was not so well-defined, but clear enough that it drove me along a path that led me to work in a number of different environments.
I wanted to be a lawyer, and I knew that early on. And I call myself a Perry Mason baby because I used to sit and watch TV with my grandma. We watched Perry Mason. It’s an old black and white show about this lawyer, and all these dramatic things would happen to him. And I was like, I want to do that.
But that was different than what my family background was. My mom was a registered nurse. My five aunts were all nurses. My dad was a salesman, a psych technician. So, no one really knew the journey in the law. I grew up knowing that bedsheets had to have hospital corners from my mom in folding them, and I knew about bacteria and hand-washing. But the law was a whole different field.
So, I made the decision to go to law school, Georgetown Law. And thankfully, a person who is still involved in my life today became one of my first mentors. And we’ll talk about, I know, mentors a bit later on. After Georgetown law, my first position was with a judge in the DC Court of Appeals to Judge Price. I was just a law clerk there, learning some foundational professional skills. And I did that role, and from there move to being a baby lawyer at a global law firm in Washington, DC.
And at the time I entered the firm, I was in the litigation practice, there was one other African-American lawyer at the firm, an associate and myself, and they were two African-American partners. And the day I started at the firm, the other African-American associate told me, he said, “Today’s my last day.” I was like, “Oh no.” And he wasn’t the sole reason that I was there, but just helpful to have someone who had some similar experiences in life.
And so, he left and he gave me some advice that day that’s been extremely helpful going forward in my career. He said, “When you started the firm, you might feel like you’re isolated and no one’s talking to you. You might think, well, maybe it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m an African-American woman or I’m a new associate or they don’t like the way I look or whatever it is.”
And he said, “It isn’t always about race. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. It might be that person is having a bad day. But rather than sitting and waiting for them to come and ask you to go out to lunch when you see others going in groups and you’re not invited, you go out to their office and you invite them to have lunch with you, and you make the effort to step out. And I’ve used that advice in all the things that I’ve done through life.
So, I spent about seven years at the firm, a seven-year path to partnership. And the year that I was up for partnership was also the year that Bill Clinton was elected president. And I had an opportunity to step into a Senate confirmed policy role in the administration in the Department of the Interior as the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior.
And when that opportunity came up, I asked a number of people what they thought I should do. Vernon Jordan was one of the African-American partners at Akin Gump. And he certainly had been one of my sponsors for partnership. And he was, of course, wanting me to stay at the firm. And I talked to some other folks, and I decided to take that step. The advice they gave was just say yes, yes, yes and think about it later.
And I am so driven by having different experiences and growing, both professionally and as a person. And I thought this is something I really didn’t know a whole lot about. And so, I decided to go do that. So, I went into the role at the Department of Interior as assistant secretary, and it was a role that dealt with the U.S. territories, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. And it was a policy position. And it was just a time of great growth for me.
A few years into, about two years into the role, we’re going through a restructuring of the federal government. What’s the best way to be effective? And I had recommended that my position be eliminated. And we went through a number of exercises to get there. And the role was eliminated. And I stepped into a policy consulting role for the secretary of the interior, and did some work with him on indigenous rights issues, return of homelands in the Hawaiian Homeland community, return of lands in this Virgin Islands and things of that nature.
And I got a call one day from a Vernon Jordan, and he said, “Are you going to come back and practice law anytime? You’re doing policy work. And I’ve learned that once people are doing this policy work, they feel like they’re in the upper room. And at some point in time, you need to come back down to the cafeteria with the rest of us. Are you going to do that soon?”
And so, I made the decision to go back to the practice of law in a law firm and return to Akin Gump for several years, and became a partner during that time period. Had a opportunity to spend several weeks in Las Vegas during the course of my return on an administrative matter, and was part of a team that represented the Chief Justice in New Hampshire in their state’s first ever impeachment proceeding.
And I just mention those things as a kind of exposure to cases that I had during the course of my career at the law firm, so it was foundational in basic skills. But news of the day was often the kinds of matters that we worked on. So, I’ve been doing that for a while. It’s very comfortable, the law firm environment and what I was doing.
And I’d got a call one day from a search firm. You get calls all the time, but I suppose it just came at the right moment. And they said, there’s an opportunity to go in-house. And I said, “Well, tell me what’s the company. If you don’t tell me, then I really don’t have time to talk.” And so, they disclosed it was Coca-Cola, and that Coca-Cola was looking to bring someone in to head up from a legal perspective one of the units called the bottling investment group, the BIG group. And it was a role that would write itself. There wasn’t a lot of detail around it. But the company owns or manages bottlers that bottle the different beverage products.
And so that group needed a legal head. And the responsibility was to, in essence, build a law firm among the local lawyers. The bottlers were from Pakistan, they were in Germany, they were India, they were just all over the world. And so, I needed to make sure there were local lawyers available around the world for the bottlers, as well as all of the governance structure that was needed.
And I did that role. I was there in 2006 I started. And I was there for about two years traveling the world, and quite frankly, enjoying it. My first day at Coca-Cola during orientation, the morning, that afternoon, I was on my way to Stuttgart, Germany for a business meeting with the bottling group. But I got a call to come back to corporate headquarters, and was then appointed as the general counsel of Coca-Cola North America. And that role had the usual business issues you deal with for company, contracts and commercial issues and transactions.
And eventually the position for the global general counsel became available. Clearly it’s a role that I would like to have. And I was working through with the company on what that role would entail and who was eligible for it. And I can stay. Long story short, the company selected someone else. And that was the first time I did not get a role that I wanted, that I was putting myself in position to get. And I could say, quite frankly, it was not a happy day when I got that news.
And then shortly thereafter, I got a call from another well-recognized brand, as you said, and that was the call to become the general counsel for the Hershey Company. And I would say that my time at the Hershey company was just one of the sweetest opportunities and times in my career. I think just the synergy with the then CEO and chairman made it an environment that was both substantively challenging, as well as an opportunity to not just be a lawyer, but consigliere, and to be in the, C-suite. Sort of borrow a phrase from Hamilton, to be in the room where it happens. So, I’ll stop there. I could go on and on.
Vicki Shackley: Wow, that’s amazing.
Leslie Turner: Yeah, yeah. So, that was my journey to the Hershey Company.
Dan Dubay: A lot of routes you wouldn’t think to become general counsel, but you ended up fulfilling your journey, so that’s really cool. Can you share some of the things that leaders that you worked with that really shaped your leadership and empowered you to lead others well?
Leslie Turner: Yeah, I’d say it started… If I go back to my law firm days, being a baby lawyer there. I’ll name names, and if we need to exit them out, we can. But I know I’ll miss people. So, I’m just saying, these are just an example. There are lots of people out there that were influential in my career.
But one of the first was Vernon Jordan. Passed away most recently, most certainly a civil rights icon, business executive. And Vernon was a giant, both in person and in heart. And he gave the eulogy for Supreme Court Justice Marshall. In that eulogy, he talked about how Justice Marshall taught people in the African-American community to dream large dreams and work to achieve them. And so, that really was always in my mind, and Vernon provided opportunities to actually dream those big dreams.
My first exposure into the corporate world was back in those baby lawyer days at Akin Gump where he would bring a group of us on the corporate plane to a corporate event and meet with executives and learn about life in-house. And also taught me that it was important to always reach back and bring someone else along. So, that influenced how I think about using my career and my access and opportunity.
John Dowd at Akin Gump is other one. Learned a lot about building teams and being part of a team and how you influence and get the most out of people. One of the things he often talked about working long hours was you got to feed the team. And so, feeding was about food, but also about giving them the incentive to continue.
And I’ll do one other who’s been a real influence in my life for over 30 years. I won’t call her by name because she’s asked me not to, she’s so humble, but she was at Georgetown Law with me a year before me. And this is someone whom over the decades has moved from mentor to sponsor to good friends.
And it was really about the discipline of the law, always being prepared, learning how to translate your skill sets so that if you’re looking for an opportunity, wanting to move to an opportunity, people knew what it was you were capable of doing. And also the importance of keeping your values and north star in the forefront of your life, whatever it is that you’re doing. So, those were just a few of the people that influenced me and affect the way I work and I led people when I was in those leadership roles.
Vicki Shackley: Great, Leslie. Leslie, tell us about some of the areas of progress you’ve seen for women, and women especially of color, in the legal profession and in corporate America, and what else needs to happen. Do you have any views on that?
Leslie Turner: Yes, I would say that I’ve seen the expansion of women of color into different areas of the law where it’s not just family law or litigation, but it’s on the business side, the transactional side, in areas of the technical expertise, within the science area of the law and such. So, that’s been a real good thing to see that broadening of it of where you’re finding people of color and African-American women in particular.
And I focus on African-American when we talk about what needs to happen,. Because surveys that have been done show that of all the people in the workplace, whether you’re talking about women, be talking about Latina women, Asian American women, African-American women still remain the last consideration. And the most recent study said that both in law firms and incorporate that they’re still having the challenges to get opportunities to succeed.
So, I think the change that needs to happen, I’m hoping that we’re going to see that now where it’s not just about specific things, an opportunity for a position, but it’s a systemic change, the way these organizations view their systems about giving people good work cases to work on, giving them an opportunity to interact with clients. They say that that African-American women are more likely to have mentors, but those mentors are not influential mentors in your organization. That’s a very different thing to have a mentor who has some influence over your opportunities to get the kind of work that will develop your career, access to promotion opportunities.
I mentioned being in the C-suite and being in the room where it happens. Oftentimes your conversation on who’s our top talent and what opportunities should be given to them. And if you’re there in the room, you can sponsor, you can raise your hand and say, “Hey, how about this woman? She’s really fantastic, great skillsets. We ought to be moving her along into a leadership growth position.” So, those kinds of things will make a difference.
Vicki Shackley: What do you recommend women do to be heard and to get into that room?
Leslie Turner: Well, I always say women have always been doing the things they needed to do to be prepared. And in fact, they’re always better prepared and well-prepared to get into the room. If there were some things, additional things, to do, it would be to have that line of sight to seeking out mentors who have influence, who were able to also move from mentor to sponsor and advocate for them.
I think the other thing is, and I’m saying this. I have a bunch of nieces and I’ve just seen that women coming up, this next generation, are so much more confident. And that may be because you’re seeing others, like there are a few of us ahead of them. And they’re saying, “Hey, I deserve to be here.” And they’re going out and they’re really advocating for themselves, that they add value, and here’s how they want to add value.
So, I would to say keep on doing what they’re doing. Because, actually, I will say, and I’ll be a little long-winded here, for me, the change needs to be on the external. It needs to be on people who are… some changes, systemic change that we’re talking about in society on a greater basis is the same type of systemic change that’s needed in the legal profession. It’s about who has the opportunity to be promoted, who has the opportunity to get good experiences.
When you’re taking a bet, oftentimes when you’re forming leaders, you might take a bet on someone. This person has good skillsets. They know how to manage a business. They know how to lead a team. I’m going to give them a chance here. And sometimes you see people, people tend to pick people that look like them. And so, we need to figure out how to break that cycle.
And also, the other thing I would say is that the conversation around systemic change is being talked about by a broader audience, by non African-Americans, non people of color, and that I think now is good progress.
Dan Dubay: When you look at some of the systemic changes, can you dive into the role of education? And you sit on the board of Georgetown and on the regents in Stillman College. So, can you address a little bit of how education, higher education, plays a role in that?
Leslie Turner: Oh, going to talk about education, something near and dear to my heart, Dan. The education environment itself is one that can level set who has the background and the training and exposure to step into different aspects of society. But at the same time, I think the academic environment through its teaching, its curriculum, through the faculty, through the internship programs, through their policies around selecting students where they’d go to search for talent in some non-traditional places, can make a huge difference. And just changing that approach at a university level can really move the needle forward in expanding opportunities for young people
Dan Dubay: Multi-faceted broad-based approach. Yeah.
Leslie Turner: Yeah, it really needs to be. And I am really delighted to see that institutions like Georgetown, Georgetown Law in particular, their matter college instillment are really focusing on bringing in kids from all kinds of backgrounds, both ethnically, economically diverse. Because we know it doesn’t really matter what you look like, the answers to a lot of the issues with dealing with can come from anywhere. And so, I think the academic environment is one that can play a real vital role in this issue of diversity and inclusion.
Dan Dubay: Wow. Well, one of the things, I don’t quote you by name, but when you were getting ready to retire from the Hershey Company, and we were talking about what’s next, and you said something that just stuck with me and it fits our firm so well, helping clients use our wealth to live their best life. And you said, “I’m not retiring, I’m just going into preferment. I’m only going to do the things I prefer to do.”
I just love that. That fits into our net worthwhile where the intersection of your wealth and the accumulation of more to the achievement of better and how you try to integrate that. So, can you dive in just a little bit as we close up and just share the ways that you’re living out your preferment, your net worthwhile, today?
Leslie Turner: Well, I have to be certainly transparent that that notion was not mine. I didn’t originate it. But someone on the board at Hershey … having a conversation about my change in status. And she said, “You can’t talk about retirement. So much going on. It’s the preferment.” And that clicked for me and saying, how do I prefer to spend my time, and where do I prefer to spend my resources?
So, I do serve on a board of a publicly traded company. I like the intellectual stimulation and interaction with dialogue, and the opportunity to continue to help build a legacy of people, talent, and a pipeline from a minority perspective, from a diversity inclusion perspective. So, I get a chance to do that.
And then with funding. And Dan, you’ve been really helpful in this regard, too, as we talk about the whole person and not just the financial. But to focus on what’s important, what matters, rather than a scattershot approach, I think, to giving and involvement. Education is a passion for me as well as the environment.
And so, I have been just steering my time that I have in those two areas, and my board and my nonprofit board and volunteer time is in those three areas where I can have an impact and where I can affect what the policy and mission is at those organizations and why that’s consistent with my own values.
Dan Dubay: That’s great.
Vicki Shackley: Right. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
Dan Dubay: The other thing, yes. The other thing was leaving time for family. And my significant other, he’s got three kids that are on their way to… college bound, coming out. So, there’s lots going on. I’ve got my nieces who are in college who are starting their career. So, making up for all that lost time of working and just spending time in the moment with people that I really care about and that matter. So yeah.
Vicki Shackley: In the last year it’s been nice to catch up with family and spend time together.
Dan Dubay: Yes. Yeah, I think one of the benefits of the pandemic, if there is a benefit, is that it’s brought back for a number of people what’s important, spending time together, making and having meals, cooking again together, playing games together virtually some way. So, that’s such an important thing.
Vicki Shackley: It wasn’t all bad. Leslie, thank you so much for your time today. And there’s so much we’ll take away from this and our listeners will take away from this. So, I just wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to tell us your story.
Dan Dubay: Oh, you’re so welcome. And again, I just appreciate having the chance to share and hope that there’s some way others can find an opportunity to give back as well.
Thank you again for joining us on Empower to In Power, a podcast mini series by SignatureFD. Be sure to join us every month to hear more stories of strong women and their journeys to leadership.