In Legal They Trust

Deborah Tyler navigates international legal challenges and cultural nuances by building trust and consensus

Balance is crucial in many areas of life, and perhaps even more so for an in-house lawyer. Deborah Tyler, deputy general counsel at Sharp Electronics, is no exception. As a corporate generalist responsible for a wide variety of tasks (advising multiple business teams, negotiating deals, leading major internal investigations, overseeing large litigation, and more), she balances her time and workload. And as an American woman in a Japanese company, Tyler regularly balances nuance and cultural differences.

Sharp Electronics, headquartered in Mahwah, New Jersey, is the US sales and marketing subsidiary of Sharp Corporation of Japan. While most of its work is done on the US side of the business, Sharp Electronics has adopted a dual system of Japanese and American management and decision-making styles, and its workforce includes a significant amount of Japanese expatriates. All of that has created an atmosphere heavily influenced by Japanese culture.

For Tyler, that unfamiliar culture offered a unique learning curve when she joined the legal team in 2008, but one that she has navigated with poise, rising in the ranks and earning the trust of colleagues and leadership alike. “They rely on us and appreciate our recommendations at the parent level,” Tyler says.

Unlike the fast-paced American approach to decisions, where the imperative is to decide quickly and act, the Japanese approach is focused on both the deliberate process of decision making and the result, which is generally reached after achieving consensus. Great value is placed on the careful analysis of data from every angle and every level, which takes time and deliberation. “Everything fits into that framework,” explains Tyler. Her team will offer advice or recommend an approach and then answer several levels of questions. Ultimately, their recommendation will be communicated with several different groups to gain everyone’s buy-in.

A Seat at the Table

A case study on the benefits of soft skills in international business
A particularly unique negotiation for Tyler was with a company in Taiwan. Certain risks that were not appreciated in Taiwan were significant to Sharp’s business in the United States, but reaching an understanding with remote communication was challenging, so Tyler accompanied Sharp executives to Taiwan. “There were language barriers, cultural differences, and legal distinctions that appeared insurmountable,” she says, “but we sat across the table for a week and were able to make significant progress on what mattered to Sharp.” That personal interaction ultimately led to a satisfactory solution for both parties. “Being there was crucial,” she says. “I’m proud of the results.”

While the process may seem rigorous, Tyler and her team appreciate that it compels them to think collaboratively about the big picture and the long view at all times. They consider every piece of advice they offer from all perspectives in order to make the best recommendation for the company. “It took time to understand that the value was not only in the decision itself, but in the process to get there,” says Tyler. “Once I understood our role—that we were invited to be a vital part of that process—I could appreciate it and recognize the level of trust that had been placed in our legal department.”

Tyler’s adaptability may be surprising to some, based on the fact that she is a former litigator. But her experience advocating in the courtroom and articulating her position in the face of opposition have been assets to Sharp. Sharp was looking for a dynamic, agile person with the unique knowledge that could only be found in a lawyer who had gleaned expertise in many areas from working with a variety of clients. It wanted a person who could identify the critical areas of risk, see a potential problem coming, and navigate around it. Tyler fit the bill.

But perhaps more than legal acumen, Sharp needed an attorney it could trust to provide sage advice while moving the business forward. “Litigators in a law firm don’t always have to think about trust,” says Tyler, “but trust is a big deal in-house—especially in a Japanese company.” Trust builds relationships and relationships build trust; both are required for a legal team to successfully support the business.

Tyler’s integration at Sharp has been notable, in part because she is a woman in a traditionally male-dominated corporate culture (she is the first female deputy GC and officer of Sharp Electronics). “I’m proud of the fact that I can sit comfortably at a table full of male senior executives, and that I am in that seat because they want to hear what I have to say,” she says. “I try to be very respectful of the Japanese culture, and to frame my advice accordingly.”

On one side of the scale is Tyler’s open-minded approach to communication and learning, as well as her business-minded, customer-service mentality. On the other side is her legal expertise and killer intuition. Each holds the other in tandem as she navigates the ins and outs of culture, process, and the law in the same way that she does everything else—with impeccable balance.