If you haven’t yet read the long piece in Fortune magazine about the rise and fall of Jeff Kindler as the CEO of Pfizer, you really should. The story may or may not be true — I have no idea — but it would be interesting reading even if it were a work of fiction about corporate political intrigue.
I’ve never met Jeff Kindler. I do know several people who are close friends of his, and I’ve watched his career from a distance as he moved from Williams & Connolly to GE to the general counsel of McDonald’s to the general counsel of Pfizer and then, startlingly, to the CEO of Pfizer. The Fortune piece traces this whole career in detail and then describes why and how Kindler resigned from the CEO spot after serving only very briefly.
Why mention that article here? First, I’m doing you a favor; if you hadn’t previously heard about the piece, now you have a link.
Second, the article said two things about in-house counsel that rang true with me — whether or not these things actually occurred at Pfizer….
The article discusses the plight of Amy Schulman. When Kindler was elevated to CEO of Pfizer, Pfizer’s existing head of litigation (Allen Waxman) took over the general counsel job. But Waxman resigned unexpectedly a year later, and Pfizer chose Schulman, a litigator at DLA Piper, to become its new general counsel. Schulman was well known in the pharmaceutical product liability field because, among other things, she had been lead counsel for Pfizer defending its Celebrex and Bextra cases. She was a widely respected lawyer. But she was a litigator.
Imagine that situation: You’ve been a litigator for a couple of decades, and you’re very good at your job. You occasionally work with corporate boards (if you’re handling sufficiently high-profile cases), but your knowledge of securities regulation, executive compensation, M&A, and the like may be a tad thin for someone taking the top spot of the law department at the world’s largest drug company. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be easy enough to learn on the fly — take a crash course in corporate issues before your first day on the job; defer answering questions for the first few months, to give yourself a chance to consult with your lieutenants who actually know the SEC rules; bluff your way through the early business meetings. If your CEO had only an MBA from Harvard, he might never notice that you were faking it for a while.
But the CEO to whom poor Amy Schulman was reporting had the wrong degree. His was a JD, not an MBA, from Harvard. He’d clerked on the Supreme Court and served as general counsel for two different public companies before he took over the CEO spot at Pfizer. This was a guy who probably knew a thing or two about corporate law, and he was looking to Schulman (who probably knew far less about those matters) for advice. In that situation, these words from the Fortune article rang true to me: “Shortly after hiring her in 2008, Kindler started to sour on Schulman. He criticized her knowledge of corporate law . . . .” I bet he did. No wonder Schulman told colleagues that she “felt like a ‘battered housewife.’”
(Note that at least one other person quoted in the Fortune article comes to Schulman’s defense. And, even if the speculation I laid out in the last two paragraphs is true, Schulman could surely have learned, over the last three years, enough about the intricacies of corporate law to now be a very fine general counsel.)
The second thing that rang true in the article was the description of Kindler’s management style: “Kindler’s tendency to grill people in public made other team members cringe. At a 2008 retreat he browbeat Ian Read, head of the pharma division, in front of colleagues. ‘He was just crushing onto Ian in a way that made everybody feel uncomfortable,’ recalls one witness. Kindler had an issue with the budget, the witness recalls, but his cross-examination seemed aimed at ‘breaking’ Read.”
Those precise words may be a little hyperbolic, but there’s some truth to the fact that recovering litigators tend to be pretty fierce questioners. You’ve spent a lifetime trying to pry the facts out of witnesses. A typical witness tells you a long, meandering story, which discloses nothing that matters and conceals everything important. You probe, and probe, and probe again, to try to figure out just what in God’s name the truth is. You think you’ve unearthed everything, and then the witness blurts out something entirely new (and previously undisclosed) at his deposition, with the video camera running.
You don’t have to live that life for too long to become quite a pest when you’re trying to learn facts or make a decision, even outside of the litigation context. I have no idea whether Kindler was uniquely bad (or, indeed, bad at all) in that regard, but the skill set that makes someone a great litigator can make the same person an awful manager. That lesson, implied by the Fortune article, should probably be taken to heart by litigators everywhere.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.