View from the Top: Time Inc.'s Deputy General Counsel Rhonda McLean
You bring several perspectives to your job: you’ve been a part of the legal industry for a long time, you work for a media company, you’re passionate about diversity and CSR and you’re in a position to act as a catalyst for change. How does it all come together for you at Time, Inc.?
I am the deputy general counsel in the law department of Time Inc., and you can think of me as a consumer marketing attorney. So anything that has to do with the marketing of products and services that Time brands generate have to come through me before they get out to the marketplace. So if you are using email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, mailbox, telephone, television, etc.—each of which have different requirements from a marketing perspective—to sell things to the consumer, I have to approve the marketing language that is used in each of these mediums. We are the largest flagship publishing company in the world besides having two book companies, with many of our magazines now having their own TV shows.
Because of our diversified base, my team is divided by kind of magazine (People, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Sports Illustrated, etc.). I love every minute of it and am very grateful to have a diversified practice. Before I came here in 1999, I worked for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as a Federal Prosecutor so essentially I was on the other side of what I do now.
You started an internship program at the FTC for law students…what led to that?
I worked at a law firm for three years as a corporate litigator before I joined the federal government. The FTC hired me away from the firm, because they were looking for government staff attorneys who would be willing to go to federal court and shut down fraudulent businesses. For example, selling franchises to people despite knowing there was no way the franchise would be profitable, ensuring people lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. My job became to investigate complaints about these businesses and then go to federal court and get a temporary restraining order, locking their bank account, taking the keys and shutting these businesses down. We would then claw back whatever money we could to give back to the consumers, but often the money was long gone.
Regardless, I loved doing that and while I was there, I was repeatedly asked by income housing service agencies like the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn to teach a course on consumer protection rights. The idea was to invite people to get certified in consumer education so that they could go to their churches, schools, and community centers and share the information with everyone. That was the beginning, where we created a certificate program on consumer rights.
I did similar outreach with churches and town centers for the entire 11 years I was with the commission, but at the same time I was also the talking head on television for consumer rights. NY1 was a new program at the time, Fox News was just starting, and I would go on Sunday mornings and talk about consumer protection rights. But at the same time I was also responsible for bringing cases to federal court, moving them through fruition and settling with the defendant. The steps were tedious and time consuming and I was desperate to hire law students.
The agency had recently been cut in almost half by the Reagan administration and we were heavily under staffed and demoralized. One of the things that I felt would lift spirits as well as help smoothen the workflow once again was to get law students to contribute, many of whom were equally anxious to come. That was then; today the internship program is still in place.
The agency still gets about 1,000 complaints a month, so there is plenty of work for law and paralegal students. Over the course of the nine years that I was the assistant director, I hired 150 students from law schools throughout the metropolitan area, who either got paid or worked for academic credit. And that continues even today.
You've worked in several roles across a variety of industries as well as the government. What made corporate responsibility a passion for you?
I have been very fortunate that while Time Inc., hired me for my corporate attorney experience, there are certain accoutrements that came with that. My job is to be a consumer advocate, so even inside the law department I am not a 'yes' person. So yes I have to do legal analysis and briefs and all that other stuff but my job has more to do with thinking like consumers.
What would you think about what we said about this or that product? Would you feel that we were upholding our reputation as a good corporate citizen, would you feel we were deceiving you in some way, is what we are doing cheating, are we partnering with people you don’t respect and so might diminish our brand, and so on. This is essentially what my job is, to be the voice of the consumer inside Time Inc.'s law department. The general counsel I work with also comes from government, and we have worked together for 20 years. It helps tremendously that our general counsel values the role, because there are companies that have people in this role but they don’t really respect that, and don’t always listen. I love the fact that my mission is to be socially responsible, and that from a legal standpoint be able to justify the marketing we’re putting out to the general public.
And as part of this, I also get to train the CEO, the general counsel, and other top executives. Corporate social responsibility is a big deal here and I love that my role is central to it.
Let's talk about the leadership: how open were they to receive training from you and/or discuss corporate responsibility?
To be honest, they were already involved with corporate responsibility long before I came to Time. What I did do to firm up their initiatives, was form the Time Warner Women’s Network (TWWN), and then incentivizing these women who were executives at that time from eight different companies, to go out into the communities and do something useful. They were very open to that and it continues even today despite me having stepped away from the program. It is still strong and continues to move forward. The great thing about Time is that there has always been a strong mission to say the truth in response to what is going on in the world and invite readers to become more involved in problem resolution.
How has the recent economic downturn affected the initiatives that you’re involved with, as budgets were cut across the board?
Again we are fortunate that the head of our HR is a woman who is very active in the community. Our president has been on the Avon Foundation Board for 20 years. Absolutely yes, there has been some retrenchment but we continue to have our core programs in place like the BET (Black Employment Tab), HOLA, 3A, etc. I know budgets have been cut but I also know that these organizations still exist and are flourishing.
There have been some recent write-ups that suggested that women care more about social responsibility than men. There was also a recent NPR piece that asked why there weren’t as many women experts in the media, suggesting that it could be due to their lack of aggressiveness to promote themselves, or that we aren't narcissist enough. Thoughts?
I don’t think that’s true, we hear this all the time about the personality of women, their unwillingness or inability to promote themselves, and therefore getting stagnated in their positions or not being able to project what value they are bringing to the bottom line. This is the reason I wrote my book [The Little Black Book of Success] so that women understand that you are your own best advocate, and you have to step outside your own comfort zone to do so.
Even as outgoing as I am, I'm much better at advocating on someone else’s behalf than on my own. It’s just the way I was raised. I was raised in the Bible Belt in a very religious home by people who were very polite. It was very hard for me to come here and it took me two to three years to get used to how fast everybody talked and how rude I thought everyone was, people would just interrupt each other!
What we say in the book is that you have to get used to and study the culture of the community that you’re in. There is a certain way that people work and a certain way that they promote ideas, and if you don’t get that then it’s going to be very difficult for you to move forward.
Specifically at Time though, we've initiated a unique program that has been very well-received. In order for people to get exposure to the executives regardless of demographic, race or gender, and be able to ask how to become a CFO or the COO, we started what we call speed career dating. We get 20 or 30 very senior people throughout our organization to commit to spend two hours with us where they each sit at a table. Junior people then can sign up for an eight-minute date with these executives. So while you’re not interviewing for a job, you are talking about your career trajectory, and asking questions on how did you get to do what you’re doing, what are your responsibilities, etc? We done this several times with great success and it's become a great way to involve senior management and get them to see the diversity of people we have on the bottom who are trying to move up.
What has been some of the feedback from participating employees?
They love it. The executives like it because it’s not a huge amount of time; they’re not committed to actually mentoring someone. Although, we do have formal mentoring programs here as well—and I am a part of one—but because they are more time consuming, they're not for everyone. Partly why this initiative has been successful is that it is really a onetime commitment. Sometimes some people like it so much they ask for a second date. For some people it’s led to a job interview, or an opportunity like a breakfast, or lunch and an introduction to someone else in the company. It also gives the younger employees access to people they feel they are out of touch with.
Work/life balance and employee benefits form a core aspect of CSR, how do you work around them as a senior executive?
I’m not sure. I don’t think there is a balance; I think there is more of a trade off. It’s very challenging to have high powered jobs and the commitment we have to communities, which means a lot of your nights you’re not working, nor are you with your family, but you are out at community meetings. At the end, it comes down to what your priorities are. Nobody can decide that for you, and that’s why I get highly irked when people come and say, "I’d like to move up and I understand that if I volunteer to sit on the board, it will help my career."If you only sit on a board because you think it will make you look good to your superiors, it will be transparent! If you don’t really care about that organization, this disregard will eventually come out and the organization will suffer, as will your career. Time Warner has a board placement service where they offer training once a year for executives who are interested, but one of the things that they counsel against is this kind of thinking.
Do you have any advice for law students who are nervous about job prospects or struggling in the market?
It is a tough time, no doubt. I think one of the things you have to be willing to do is work for free at a place you think you are interested in being hired at. This could include being an extern in a judge’s chambers or an intern at a bar association committee also. I’ve sent a lot of students to bar association committees because often they don’t know that these committees exist and they have the best and the brightest. Many top partners, many of whom are also general counsels at major corporations chair these committees. So as a student you can get a very cheap student membership, and go to the IP, copyright, trademark committee and offer to write a paper or do research for them. It’s a good way to keep your hand in, develop your skill sets, and besides, it never hurts to expand your networks.
I think we have to be really creative, these are hard times and you have to be willing to do the very things that no one else is willing to do or do something that hasn’t been done before. Don’t be afraid to step out there and do that.
As a senior executive, you often talk about the importance of mentoring young women. Do you see a lot of women actively mentoring in the law industry?
I’ve mentored all my life as well as being fortunate enough to be mentored by people in the law industry as well as outside. I mentor people who are not lawyers as well. I don’t really worry about the race, age, or gender of my mentors or coaches as long as I feel they genuinely have my interests at heart. Today, technology has made it possible to stay in touch with your mentors in many ways. I think we need to be more creative with that. I also think that we need to move away from the limited definitions we use of what mentoring relationships should look like.
Instead of saying, "They’re not that many black women around so I can’t be mentored," mentoring needs to become bias-free. Maybe there’s someone from your law school who you don’t even know. Go to your career development office and look for someone who is doing what you’re doing. Generate your own network of contacts and it certainly helps to go when you’re not desperate for work. It’s also not just about collecting business cards, you have to really put yourself out there, read about the person you are interested in and then go from there.
Considering the diverse experience that you have, how do you discuss CSR with executives who have been doing things a certain way their whole professional life and believe that CSR is only about community development and philanthropy? How do you explain that it extends to diversity, leadership development, workplace safety and even environmental issues?
For me corporate responsibility is corporate citizenship. If you are a good corporate citizen, it all falls in place. It’s the same thing for employees as well as corporations. If they want to be successful, they have to do things a certain way with certain factors and stakeholders in mind. So just like we emphasize the importance of understanding work culture to employees and stress the need to constantly find ways they can contribute, promote their skill sets, etc., the same must apply to businesses.
Businesses have to do the same thing or they get stagnant and then die. My approach has always been the same and not because it’s the right thing to do and that you must have a moral conscious, but because it's something you have to do in order to survive as a business. This has to be a part of your bottom line.