“You work for people, not companies.”

Valeant Pharmaceuticals’ Christina Ackermann shares how career development is not an individual act, nor a vertical one

When Modern Counsel last caught up with Christina Ackermann, she was focused on the functions of a legal team on a global scale. Roughly a year later, Ackermann’s work remains a focal point, but she also shares her wisdom for how mentorship and an eagerness to learn can lead to some
unexpected results.

As the executive vice president and general counsel for Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Ackermann oversees the company’s diverse legal function, provides guidance to the CEO and chairman, and works closely with finance and the commercial team. So far, Valeant has proven to be the right fit for Ackermann, who loves the combined challenges of the company’s highly public profile, active board, and lean legal team.

“I love working with people, so this has been great,” Ackermann says. “I love transactions, alliance management, and litigation management. There’s a ton of it here.”

Ackermann also notes the strength of the company’s culture. “I was surprised to see how collegial Valeant was—with everything that’s going on and the challenges faced, how strong the glue in the culture was.”

While retention has sometimes been a challenge, Valeant maintains a loyal and candid corporation. During her previous tenure at Alcon, Ackermann and others developed a “Speak Up!” initiative to minimize fear in conversations about safety and ethics. But she says that she hasn’t seen the same necessity for such a project at Valeant. Fear is absent from the system, she says, and for that, she credits CEO Joseph Papa’s empathetic leadership and the fortitude of the personnel.

“It’s nice when people appreciate the changes you bring about,” Ackermann says. With her guidance, the company is instituting new technology-based solutions for billing and litigation tracking that get people excited about changes and challenges to come.

This is also Ackermann’s first general counsel position at a publicly traded company, which she joined in August 2016 at the request of Papa, who had been a close colleague at DuPont Pharmaceuticals. “You work for people, not companies,” Ackermann says, adding that she trusted Papa and accepted his offer while in Dallas before even seeing Valeant’s office in Bridgeport, New Jersey.

From her position as general counsel for Alcon Laboratories, this career move is the most recent development of Ackermann’s occasionally unorthodox (but consistently strategic) advancement.

“I love transactions, alliance management, and litigation management. There’s a ton of it here.”

Strategy Is No Game

Some young professionals, Ackermann suggests, focus too narrowly on particular criteria or a strict timeline. Not all career advancement is tidily measured, and working with a greater or lesser number of associates does not measure the appropriateness of a career opportunity. For example, she regards her August 2016 transition to Valeant as an advancement, despite maintaining the same hierarchical status, because Valeant is a publicly traded company. She says that horizontal (or even downward) career moves can pay beneficial dividends in the long run: opportunities to develop skills, expand networks, and become a more versatile learner.

Ackermann recalls one young associate who hesitated to take a new position that wasn’t an obvious advancement—the same number of associates and the same level of responsibility in a new area of the business. But she insisted that he would develop skills and demonstrate growth in the new role.

“They think that moving horizontally will harm them in the long run. What they miss is that they’re actually creating diversity within their CV: showing that they can learn how to think differently, approach problems differently, learn the field,” Ackermann explains.

That diversity pays its dividends when there are opportunities for upward advancement. The versatile candidate stands out, and with experience in multiple departments, associates will also have a strong support network.

“Let’s say you’re always in oncology, or always doing M&A, you only get to know the people in that little field,” Ackermann says. “If you’re moving, you get to know a lot of people within each department, and having multiple people to sponsor and support you is much more effective than having only one person.”

Teach the Mouse How to Bake

Ackermann says that if one wants to move up in their career, not only do they need to perform well, but they also need people around them for support. That’s where sponsors and mentors become so beneficial.

Ackermann herself loves being a mentor. Young colleagues from previous companies and faraway countries continue to call on her for guidance, which she happily provides. “I don’t think I’ve ever turned down being a mentor. I find it so rewarding,” she says.

With wisdom and humility common to great teachers, Ackermann emphasizes that she learns from her protégés. She thanks them for helping her improve as a listener, be a better mother, and a stronger leader. One of her most important realizations she had was that the role of a mentor was to provide direction, not answers.

“I learned not to hear the issue and then immediately find the solution,” Ackermann says. “You guide them to the solution. You shouldn’t give solutions to people.”

Her two children, ages eighteen and twenty-three, know this lesson well. “I used to do that to my kids all the time,” Ackermann laughs.

With her guidance, they’ve inherited her fortitude and determination.

Taking Charge

Ackermann also assembles some of that energy to advocate for women in law and leadership. Ackermann helped launch Sandoz and Alcon’s Diversity & Inclusion Council, which remains in place to this day, and has participated in extracurricular organizations such as the European Women in Manufacturing and Development Association and the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in Europe and Texas. She draws from and continues developing her broad global network, speaking at conferences in the United States, and abroad. Since her move to New York City in November 2016, Ackermann is now looking for new ways to continue that work.

While a younger Ackermann was prone to give quick solutions, she’s come to value empathy and listening more. She recalls that she wasn’t always so temperate: “I was young and eager, and I wanted everybody to know how much I knew—that I was an expert and a force to be reckoned with.”

Though some executives cultivate that bearing, she would advise herself to take her time listening and weighing her options. That behavior, she says, also denies colleagues the chance to develop unfavorable perceptions. She notes that at the executive level, subtle inequities can have serious resonances.

“Women get judged differently when they’re firm,” she says. “I’m very rigorous in my decision-making, and I hold people to high expectations. People misread that.” Through observation and experience, she’s learned to disrupt these gendered perceptions of her decisions.

Ackermann says that she can sense changing attitudes, though, particularly among younger associates and executives. Younger men (“And by this I mean forty and younger,” she says with a laugh) are much more comfortable with decisive, empowered female colleagues. This is an encouraging but slow-moving development.

At last, she reflects on how she might mentor her younger self. “I would say listen and be more empathetic, younger,” she says.

Thanks to Ackermann’s guidance, many young associates already are.

Greenberg Traurig, LLP:

Christina is a force of nature—brilliant, strategic, forward-thinking, truly a trend-setter. She makes her companies a better place and her legal teams more effective. She is also dedicated to diversity and becomes true partners with her outside counsel.

—Lori Cohen, Shareholder