Putting Diversity at the Core of Talent Management

After more than 40 years in law, one of the nation’s first African American general counsel still pushes for diversity

While diversity has increased in the boardroom and in the legal profession, James T. Breedlove can remember a time when minority lawyers faced significant obstacles. The high school valedictorian simultaneously earned JD and MBA degrees from Harvard in 1975, and four years later, he became one of the first African-American senior corporate lawyers in the country when he stepped into a senior legal role at Philip Morris Capital Corporation. Thirty-six years later, Breedlove is still advocating for a multicultural environment in the legal world.

Breedlove is senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Praxair, a Fortune 250 industrial gas company with 2013 sales of $12 billion. Since his arrival at Praxair in 2004, Breedlove has implemented several process changes to help position the company in its key global markets. He strengthened a global compliance program, revamped policies for using outside counsel, changed litigation and regulatory practices, and, most importantly, has pushed for hiring the best talent for his global team of 72 lawyers (26 in the United States), wherever they may come from.

While building this robust team, Breedlove has focused on two major components—strong talent management and diversity. “Diversity is the core element of talent management,” he says. “If you’re going to get the best and the brightest, you have to reach out to the broadest spectrum of candidates around ethnicity, gender, and national origin. Strong talent management and strong diversity initiatives are inextricably linked. First-rate companies always focus on recruiting and developing the best talent. . . and it’s impossible to do that without emphasizing diversity.”

Some companies fall short on the topic, but Praxair is focused on building a strong team with various backgrounds that can win on the global stage. Currently, 31 percent of Praxair’s US legal department is minority-based—as defined by the US Department of Labor.

Effectively leading a large global team is critical, and Breedlove was quick to promote collaboration. “When I came here, our regional departments seemed to work in isolation, which resulted in a failure to optimize resources,” he says. Diverse teams can take full advantage of their different backgrounds and perspectives when leaders regularly and effectively collaborate. Thus, Breedlove is careful to pair lawyers from different regions together on transactions where complimentary skills exist. He’s also built a series of working groups through which teams of lawyers work on various projects and geographic issues.

A lawyer from Mexico might provide input on an ongoing project in Russia. “This allows lawyers who don’t usually work in a certain geography to participate and gain new perspectives while sharing practices from other regions,” Breedlove says. “It gives us a competitive edge and helps move projects along more quickly.” From 2005 to 2013, he led a quarterly global legal call, and in 2014, he renewed the practice. The collaborative teams and international calls aren’t just steps taken for diversity’s sake—they’re also important developmental tools. Breedlove says these calls help younger lawyers build on skills, encounter new issues, and interact with their more seasoned counterparts.

While his internal efforts are paramount, Breedlove has also helped coach and sponsor talent outside of his own company. “I’ve coached and mentored many minorities over the years who’ve gone on to great careers,” Breedlove says. He stops short, though, of advocating for the same practices in other industrial gas companies. “If our competitors aren’t smart enough to focus on diversity, then Praxair benefits because we know it’s the right way to build a strong team,” he says.

Strong diversity practices occur when a company sets the tone from the top, and at Praxair, this idea guides every step of talent development. Breedlove, whose legal career has spanned 40 years, knows he’ll retire in the not distant future. When he does, he’ll do so knowing that there are several lawyers at Praxair capable of stepping into his shoes to continue creating a collaborative office.