After sixteen years at Kraft Foods (later Kraft-Heinz), Sylvia Stein opted to try something new. Having risen through the organization and steadily widened the scope of her duties, Stein was ready for a GC role. That meant leaving the food industry for a new climate, both geography and industry wise. As general counsel at the worldwide headquarters of Modine Manufacturing Company in Racine, Wisconsin, Stein is responsible for overseeing the legal, compliance, and intellectual property functions globally at the thermal management systems company, which includes employees on four continents.
The size of the challenge was not lost on the newly minted GC. At first, it didn’t appear that Stein’s decade and a half of institutional knowledge at Kraft would carry over into the legal issues she would be overseeing at Modine Manufacturing. But a year and a half into her role, the GC says she’s realized that many of the skills she acquired over the years have proven quite transferable. As for the rest, Stein has staked out a wide stable of resources at Modine to fill in any gaps.
Learning in a hurry isn’t a new challenge for Stein. She began her career clerking for the Honorable Ann C. Williams, then sitting on the Chicago-based US District Court. “That role probably shaped what I find most interesting about the law: learning about and working to address a variety of legal issues. You’re reading papers from opposing parties, witnessing the court proceedings, and helping decide significant legal matters,” Stein says. “And you realize that what you’ve learned in class or in a book tends to be quite a bit different from what the actual practice of law is,” she adds with a laugh. “That experience was exciting and a bit nerve-racking at times, and it contributed to my resisting becoming a specialist.”
During that clerkship, Stein became involved with Just the Beginning, an organization that began as a celebration of Judge James B. Parson’s historical integration of the federal judiciary. Today, it serves as a pipeline organization aimed at inspiring young students and increasing diversity in the legal profession and judiciary. Stein continues to serve the foundation to this day as a board member. “That has been a big part of my life as a lawyer and has also shaped how I view my role and responsibility as a black woman lawyer,” Stein says.
Stein says her preference for handling a variety of legal issues led her to roles where that would be more possible, and Kraft ultimately wound up offering a litany of increasing responsibilities that encouraged her ability to grow into roles and quickly shift focus as needed. “I was a lawyer but working on cross-functional teams,” Stein says. “It was really good exposure and preparation for what I do today, as the general counsel of a multinational company.”
Making the move to Modine offered challenges not only in terms of taking on an entirely new industry but a new location as well. It meant maintaining two different houses to avoid upsetting Stein’s high school–aged son in Oak Park, Illinois, while operating out of company headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. “It was an entirely new legal market, so I joined some of the local bar associations and worked to introduce myself to the community,” Stein says. “I’m lucky that people have also reached out and invited me to the Wisconsin General Counsel Forum and the Wisconsin African American Lawyers Association.” After a career steeped in a well-connected, Chicago-based market, Stein has embraced starting anew.
In coming to Modine, Stein says her predecessor’s lengthy tenure made her very conscious of getting to know her team and working to integrate her own work style as smoothly as possible. “Part of what I did was really learn and try to exemplify the Modine values and leadership behaviors, which have really good fundamentals at their core,” Stein says. “I focus on maintaining connections, coaching, ensuring alignment, and collaborating well as a team.”
Though Stein’s team is lean, they are global, and staying aligned can be a bit trickier than it sounds. “There are limits to email,” Stein says frankly. “Especially with our teams in Germany and Italy, I emphasized really talking person to person, and that has sometimes meant our Racine team meeting is held at 7 a.m. so our colleagues overseas can give their input at the same time as the rest of us.”
Maintaining effective communication may not always be the first quality lawyers would attribute to themselves, the GC observes. “I’m not sure lawyers are really raised to be team players, but developing that connection and alignment has really been a significant focus for me and my team,” Stein says. “It’s so important when working on behalf of a public company that, as lawyers, we not only work to do what’s best for shareholders, but to do it ethically and as trusted partners of the business.”