Chain of Command

Dianne Ralston is no stranger to change. In the last three years, she’s tackled a diverse leadership portfolio for three different companies. She shares how her experiences have built upon one another and her best practices for smooth transitions.

Modern Counsel: You started with FMC in early 2015. How did your previous roles prepare you for where you are now?

Dianne Ralston: I began my legal career as a litigator in private practice. After litigating for several years, I became increasingly interested in strategies to prevent disputes prior to litigation. Having worked for Shell Oil Company prior to law school, I had a business background, so I began looking at in-house opportunities. I took a role with global oilfield services company Schlumberger Limited and spent 17 years there. I was attracted to Schlumberger’s focus on finding good lawyers who would fit in their culture rather than a specific private practice specialty. They believed in developing lawyers through diverse legal roles. My career included legal roles with different business units and different legal functions. I also took a business role outside of the legal department. Those experiences expanded the breadth of my legal knowledge and practical business understanding—vitally important assets for a general counsel, which I became at Weatherford International. The diverse legal issues and dynamic business environment there provided experience and perspective that helped me transition into my current role at FMC Technologies.

MC: Is that trajectory fairly standard for a GC?

DR: There is this traditional wisdom, which I don’t espouse, that in order to become a general counsel you need to be a securities lawyer. That’s not my background. I believe that litigation experience gives you the perspective to better anticipate the potential negative consequences from a contract, an employment decision, an acquisition, or other business decision. By anticipating the issue, you can implement strategies to eliminate the potential outcome or to reduce its impact.

MC: How do you approach transition to a new company and a new role?

DR: I do my homework before I join a company. When you’re coming into an organization, you need to have authentic curiosity about the company’s history, technology, and its people. I learn as much as I can, not only about what’s currently going on with the company, but its history and where I can add value to the current needs of the organization.

MC: Describe your first 100 days on a new job.

DR: In the first month I get up to speed. People will make a line outside my door, and I need to demonstrate responsiveness. But, by month two or three, I need to be more strategic and start setting my own priorities. This includes doing an assessment of my department in terms of people, processes, and systems. Within the first few months I’ll make an inventory of what is working well and what is not and make a plan to address improvement areas.

MC: What are the challenges of transitioning to a new company?

DR: Every company’s culture is different. Everything from the mundane to the strategic will be very different. Understand that and take time to learn the culture and the history behind it. A GC is brought in to be a part of the leadership team, so you need to demonstrate where you can add value on both legal and business issues. The biggest challenge in the early days is navigating that delicate balance of knowing when to interject with new perspectives or direction and when to sit back and listen and learn.

MC: How do you gain trust in a new role?

DR: The three biggest factors to gaining trust with your peers are demonstrating your willingness to work hard, your desire to collaborate with and learn from your peers, and your ability to give practical legal and business advice.