“It’s never right to do wrong.” Instilled in her by her mother, those simple words have guided Desiree Ralls-Morrison throughout her studies at Harvard Law, her experience gained at Merck, her tenure at Johnson & Johnson, and, eventually, her current role as senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary for Boehringer Ingelheim USA. Through it all, Ralls-Morrison has protected her reputation for integrity and authenticity.
Working for a company that develops medication for both humans and animals has a variety of challenges and opportunities. Ralls-Morrison oversees legal operations for the company’s US department, and she says the company, and thus the legal group, is committed to more than the bottom line. “It’s not just about creating products and incremental dollars,” she says. “It’s about making an impact in health care and patients’ lives.”
“There are fewer people fighting the battle [against injustice] at this level. What I represent becomes even more impactful. So it’s important to me that I do the right thing.”
Ralls-Morrison values her function as business partner and legal advisor to the CEO. She balances her responsibility to the business and to the law equally. “The two go hand in hand,” she says. “I see my role and the role of my legal team as business leaders helping the company achieve objectives in a legal and compliant manner.” Ralls-Morrison’s success in this balancing act comes from being confident in her understanding of the business, her ability to analyze the benefits and risks of decisions, and being comfortable enough to think creatively in achieving business objectives. “For in-house lawyers, the ability to stay focused on the larger goals while doing what is both compliant and best for the business is what separates the good lawyers from the great ones,” she says.
That and an effective leadership style have distinguished Ralls-Morrison as she supports development, as well as the overall health of team culture. “The leadership piece is so important,” says Ralls-Morrison. “At some point in a person’s career, the soft skills that go into making a leader become more powerful than technical expertise.” Being a highly skilled professional is a requirement, but things like self-awareness, emotional IQ, the ability to influence others, and flexibility under pressure are valuable and necessary.
Despite possessing these soft skills, at various points throughout her career, Ralls-Morrison has faced obstacles as a woman, a working mother, and an African American. Instead of allowing those experiences to deter her success, she used them to inform her perspective. “I learned to not assume that every situation had to do with the fact that I was a minority,” she says. “If I was overly sensitive or allowed the situation to limit me, it would have had more power over me than it deserved and impeded my personal and professional development and progress.” Still, when the intent clearly was not positive, she took a stand against injustice for herself and others who would follow.
Even now, though she doesn’t fight the same battles she did earlier in her career, being a minority in a high-level position has unique pressures. “There are fewer people fighting the battle at this level—fewer examples of people making it through,” she says. “This means there are fewer individuals to whom I can look for support, but it also means that what I represent becomes even more impactful. So it’s important to me that I do the right thing.”
As she looks to the future, Ralls-Morrison reflects with gratitude for those who supported her. “I have had mentors who are men, women, racial minorities, and those who are not,” she says. “I have sponsors who have been able to move my career along. I also have a very strong family that has supported me and made sacrifices along the way. I would not be where I am but for all of these individuals.”
Following the example of those who helped her, she feels compelled to give back to the community. For her, that means mentoring young, aspiring professionals in various fields. She was honored for that work when she was named a Woman of Power and Influence by the National Organization of Women in 2015. “There are many coming behind me who need the way paved,” she says. “I have to do what I do for those people who will follow.” Her mother’s mantra rings in her words.