Agent of Change

At the CIA, Lynne Puckett learned how to maintain grace under pressure, and now she’s applying her skills to Colfax Corporation’s legal team

There’s a lot Lynne Puckett can’t reveal about her five years in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but one thing she has been able to carry with her is a knack for crisis management. Since her time with the agency, the senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary for Colfax Corporation has transformed her ability to handle the unexpected as a clandestine government operative into a valuable corporate talent. It’s made her an important leader for the company as it interacts with partners in the increasingly complicated and volatile international manufacturing and trade sector. Here, in her second profile in Modern Counsel, she reveals how she has applied her particular set of skills to her legal team.

Agency Skills as a Framework

Puckett spent her years at the CIA moving from directorate to directorate, learning in a high-stakes environment how to read and analyze developing situations. Afterward, she enjoyed 16 years in private practice, using her agency-honed skills to help corporate clients (including Colfax) address unforeseen or complex situations. Over time, she articulated her approach to crisis management into a framework for managing virtually any business issue.

“The agency taught me to control emotions, gather and analyze the facts first, then decide where the data points us,” she says. It’s a formula that she’s found is effective even with less pressing issues.

Robin Cohen, a principal at McKool Smith who has worked with Puckett, has seen her mind in action. “Lynne is a highly strategic thinker,” Cohen says. “I’ve always been impressed by her ability to read the room and understand the emotions of others. We’ve been at trial together, and her accuracy in gauging the jury’s perceptions was instrumental in leading us to victory.”

Lynne Puckett, Colfax Corporation

Forming Teams at Colfax

When invited to join Colfax as its general counsel in 2010, Puckett identified the need to build out an entire team dedicated to ensuring the company’s compliance with the many complicated regulations governing the international trade and manufacturing industries. Known as the Global Trade Compliance Team, it has since grown to include ten non-lawyers, who are licensed and certified within specific industry spheres and located strategically around the world.

Additionally, Puckett manages a legal team of 24 lawyers (and their support network of paralegals), who operate at every level needed by the company. Five are assigned to the company headquarters, in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, another five administer industrial businesses in Europe, and the rest are dotted around the globe to support the various legal needs of any international enterprise. The team also includes many foreign workers, to ensure Colfax remains connected to the countries in which it does business. “We needed non-US people to handle non-US work by bringing their language and their cultural and professional proficiency to the table,” Puckett says.

“When I started searching for team members, I was cognizant of the activities of the lawyers with whom I’d worked in private practice,” she adds. “I looked for the attorneys who demonstrated not just outstanding legal and communications skills, but also excellent judgment, which I believe is the capacity that really elevates a good team member into a great one.” Puckett’s goal in assembling the Colfax legal team was to provide a network of support for all aspects of the multinational corporation at the local, regional, and state levels, including compliance, contracting, and various business and HR activities.

A Structure for Managing Crises

Of course, unexpected situations have arisen over time, and they’ve given Puckett the opportunity to hone her crisis-management approach into an actionable framework that can be applied to virtually any corporate concern. “The framework provides structure around how to approach any situation, with the goal to manage through the current crisis and end up in a place that is better for the whole company—its employees, shareholders, and customers,” Puckett says. “As circumstances evolve, the framework guides next and future steps, based on the facts that are revealed along the way.”

Essentially, as Puckett and her team uncover additional, relevant information pertaining to a particular situation, their continuing analysis of the situation evolves to incorporate the new data, and they take appropriate remedial action until the situation
is resolved.

This facts-analysis-action approach works anywhere in the world, too, because Puckett coaches her team members to ensure accurate communications across borders. “Our conversations with international colleagues take into account the fact that, most of the time, English is not their primary language,” Puckett says. “We try to eliminate jargon and colloquial phrasing; I use shorter sentences and give them time to translate my English into the operative phraseology in their native tongue. However, I am always impressed by my foreign colleagues and the quality of their English language skills and comprehension.”

Framing the Future

Crisis management was never the central focus of Puckett’s work, but the framework she developed to address it has proven to be quite useful in other areas. Looking ahead, she’s confident Colfax can weather any storm if it and its people adhere to her framework, now incorporated into the company’s formal policies and procedures. “We can’t predict the future,” she says, “but we can stay abreast of our own facts: where our operations are on any given day, the realities of the business partners in our supply chains and international regions, and the impact of various policy makers on what we do, based on their asserted intentions. After that, all we can do is monitor the situation and act, either proactively or reactively, based on what those facts tell us.” 

She acknowledges, though, that it’s also important to consider where the facts are coming from. “I think my biggest lesson about crisis management is to keep facts separate from analysis and opinion,” she says. “Some people cherry-pick facts to direct the opinion of others or muddle opinion with facts as if they are equally relevant. For a really good discussion, I ensure everyone is working from the same set of facts, then encourage the expression of alternative views and interpretations based on people’s knowledge and experience.”

Photos by Gillian Fry

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Allen & Overy LLP:

We are proud to be a trusted advisor to Lynne and her team on their strategic developments globally. Our relationship builds on mutual trust and the willingness to always go the extra mile as a team.

—Thomas Ubber, Senior Partner Germany

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Kelley Drye & Warren:

One of the most impressive things about the multi-talented Lynne Puckett is her impeccable judgment with regard to critical business, personnel, and compliance matters.

—Eric McClafferty, Partner