The importance of sponsors and mentors: A conversation with Kimberly Susan Cuccia, the senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at NiSource
Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs

The importance of sponsors and mentors: A conversation with Kimberly Susan Cuccia, the senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at NiSource

Kimberly Susan Cuccia discusses her leadership development journey at NiSource and offers advice to young lawyers coming up in an in-house environment.
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In this episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to Kimberly Susan Cuccia, the senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at NiSource, a US utilities company based in Indiana. Cuccia, who has been at NiSource for more than 15 years, shares her leadership development journey at the company, including the ways in which NiSource’s leadership supported her, why her willingness to take lateral roles benefitted her in the long run, and what competencies and traits she believes made her the best fit for the general counsel role. She also notes the importance of mentorship and sponsorship to leadership development and offers advice to young lawyers coming up in an in-house environment. Cuccia also discusses the general counsel’s role in DE&I and ESG, sharing her philosophy and approach to navigating all of these complex topics with her executive team, board, and employees, and how she is navigating the evolving role of AI in organizations, sharing her perspective on balancing between innovation and managing risks both known and unknown.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Victoria Reese: Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Hi, I'm Victoria Reese, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and the global managing partner of the Corporate Officers Practice. Today I'm excited to be joined by Kim Cuccia, a senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at NiSource, an American utilities company.

Kim, thank you for joining us today. 

Kimberly Cuccia: Thank you, Victoria. It's good to be with you today. 

Victoria Reese: You have a great story in that you have been with NiSource for over 15 years, having served in various roles and became the GC and corporate secretary as an internal candidate. Share the competencies and traits that you think made you the best fit for the role. Are there any that you think were particularly relevant or critical? 

Kim Cuccia: Those are great questions, Victoria, and particularly as to competencies and characteristics. I think a lot of folks are interested in the answer because it's a question that I get a lot. So in terms of competencies, I think exceptional judgment, taking, accountability, being an effective communicator, and maybe, finally, a passion for learning the business and developing others are all important. But here's what I would say is that what is relevant and critical for a company at any given time can be situational. But what I would say is that judgment, practical solutioning, and agility are relevant in my mind. But as a candidate, it's your job to understand the situational needs of an organization in addition to these core needs. 

Victoria Reese: Kim, would love to know: What are some ways that NiSource's leadership supported you with your development and retention? 

Kim Cuccia: Sure. I have been blessed to work with some truly magnificent leaders, all of whom I have learned different things from. While at NiSource, the company has been led by three CEOs, and I also had two GCs before me. The reasons that I have stayed here so long have been because I've been able to experience incredibly challenging work and different work, both on the business side and on the legal side, and I think those opportunities were equally laterals as much as promotions.

And when I think about how it is that I ended up as the top lawyer for the company, it's not because I always got it right, but it was because I had people supporting me and letting me know that they believed I could do the job above, below, and alongside me. And if I got it right, it was the team. And if I got it wrong, it was fail fast, move on.

And that is the kind of environment that NiSource leadership has provided me along the way. And now it's the role in an environment that I commit to continuing to support for others. 

Victoria Reese: We've talked together about some of the steps you took and that I'm often approached by others about how do you get to that general counsel role, and one thing you talked about was your willingness to take lateral roles. What advice would you give to other in-house counsel who may not feel that making those lateral movements would be the right career trajectory if their goal is ultimately to become the general counsel? 

Kim Cuccia: Yeah, that's a great question. So for earlier-in-career in-house counsel, it really is the right trajectory. At least try on a couple of different hats, and do so in consultation with your leader or your GC and get feedback along the way. You have got to be tested, and to be GC, you really need that broad base of experiences that you simply cannot get by moving up in a silo within one niche area. 

For folks who may be longer tenured or at a more senior level in the organization, have that same open dialogue with your GC to align on your career aspirations. That would be my advice. And identify the competencies and traits that they think you need to work on. Those can be teased out on project work, a lateral, or at the senior level as well. It's just harder, and those opportunities are tighter and fewer.

We've all heard the saying that luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity, and I firmly believe that everybody gets opportunities. I think the question is, do you recognize them and are you prepared? And my personal belief, and it's what helped me succeed and get to this seat, is that laterals and stretch opportunities, and sometimes taking the job that nobody wants, is the great opportunity.

So how to recognize the right opportunities is a whole other discussion that I won't get into today.

Victoria Reese: I love that advice. When we first met, you were in the interim general counsel role prior to taking the general counsel position. Can you share what that experience was like? What were the lessons learned? Do you think that made a difference in getting the permanent role ultimately?

Kim Cuccia: Sure. I remember when we first met, and that is when it was, so it was pretty wild. The opportunity was entirely unexpected and was a stretch for me personally, not having interacted directly much with our board previously, but clearly, it was a calculated decision by our CEO at the time to put me in that interim seat.

And it was presented as: Fill the gap while we commence a search, and we will consider you in the candidate pool. And so the experience was incredible. It was the real deal. Anybody can call the plays on Monday morning, but standing on the sidelines with a headset on while the clock is counting down, that is what it's like.

It was a responsibility that I took very seriously, the responsibility of serving as interim general counsel, and in my interim role, we had a CEO retire and we also refreshed a quarter of the board. A great contributing factor to my success at that time was I have an incredible team who showed up for me that I knew really well because I came up through the ranks with them and showed up for the organization and for each other.

So lessons learned during that interim period were certainly plentiful, but what I would say is authentic and transparent communication is key with your team, with your CEO, and with the board. I also entered the role being myself. I did not put on airs trying to impress anyone. I was there to do that job, the job I was asked to do is interim, and as GC, you really have to have great compatibility and trust with your CEO, so there's no faking it. It's chemistry or it's not. And you can't be over-prepared enough. I was making sure that I understood the work that was being done by my department. There were limited areas that I had not touched very much before I got into that interim seat, and I was asking a ton of questions and I would probably venture to guess my team will say that I still am asking a ton of questions. I always will, but I try to be clear that I'm not second-guessing the team or an individual. I just really wanna make sure that I understand. 

And so maybe a big one, and the last one that I'll share is, when I came in as interim, I saw needs and opportunities in the organization and I began addressing them immediately because I wanted the org to be strong and to show up well for our new CEO and for the next leader that would take over the legal department, whether that was me or not. And I think handling a number of complicated leadership changes in partnership with a new CEO that allowed us to test chemistry and showing up as a leader that put the company first probably weighed in my favor, yes. 

Victoria Reese: Yes. You were certainly curious, and asking questions is always great advice. So switching to the responsibilities and the mandate of a general counsel, we continue to hear and write about the evolving nature of this role, from leading on D&I to managing the many issues of ESG and social justice–related issues to supporting the new ways of working that have resulted from the pandemic, just to name a few. What is your philosophy and approach to navigating all of these complex topics with your executive team, your board, and your employees? What new topics of leadership capabilities have you needed to learn yourself and add to your team? 

Kim Cuccia: Sure. It's a great question, Victoria, and complex, as you have noted. When it comes to issues that can be so deeply personal to our colleagues internally and our stakeholders externally, I tend to draw on a few cornerstones, one of which is a social issues matrix that can help clarify and direct who on a leadership team has responsibility in the subject matter knowledge, frankly, to weigh in strategically in certain topical areas.

You know, in terms of approach, I view the GC as the conscience of the organization. It's my role, it's a GC’s role to tease out the issue and bring objectivity to the topic. And this is a leadership capability that I am constantly honing amongst a dynamic leadership team and what I'm enjoying. But I do continue to learn in that space.

I firmly believe that leadership is what sets great companies apart from companies that are just good in terms of how you lead through these tough topics relating to people as people in a way where we're still preserving individuals’ right to have different thoughts and opinions on any given topic, but also maintaining a respectful and ethical workplace.

When it comes to DE&I, NiSource has set an economic inclusion goal of spending 25% with diverse suppliers by 2025. As general counsel, I have made an enhanced commitment with my leadership team here to help grow diversity within the legal profession. In 2022, our legal team had 30% of our spend placed with diverse timekeepers on our account. And in 2023, our goal is 37%. We're currently, I think at 40% through June. 

To aid in this, we're also currently reviewing our portfolio of legal work, and we are intending to carve out a portion of our portfolio that we outsource to the firms to leverage minority and women-owned firms. 

And I'd also flag that, as has been previously publicly announced, we're currently in the process of selling a minority interest in our Nipsco operating company in Indiana. And I'm proud to be able to share that we have a 100% female- and minority-led outside counsel team advising on that deal. So I mention these things because they're not by accident; it's by design and with great intention to be inclusive. It's about inviting more people to the table and not excluding any particular group or individual. And I think navigating these topics—social, DE&I, all of it—can be really tricky. But my personal belief is discussion and education and data with my team, with the profession goes a long way.

Victoria Reese: With all of the evolution in this role and the complexity and the matters you focus on, it's critical for general counsel to have strong collaboration and empathy abilities. What are your thoughts on this and how do you approach that responsibility in your day-to-day interaction? 

Kim Cuccia: Sure. As GC, you need to collaborate with all members of the executive management team because, well, you're supporting them in their organizations from a legal and a risk-based perspective. So I view it as part of my role and my team’s to understand the personalities of our C-suite members—the roles that they have, the priorities, and the strategy that they're driving within their teams. And I've aligned my team around our executive team to best support those individuals and priorities. I mentioned C-suite, which is traditionally thought of at times CFO, COO, CHRO, but it's really in my mind any role that reports to the CEO, which in my case also includes the chief commercial officer, head of risk, and head of innovation.

So to ensure value-added day-to-day interactions, my leadership team and I, we've designed a system where each of my leaders serves in a liaison role with each member of the C-suite, a liaison to the legal department so that we are ensuring tailored services to the business based on their specific needs, which I think also shows that the legal department really cares. And especially we found it to be effective in times of high execution and high innovation and change.

And I'd say more pointedly, it doesn't matter what the function is, if there's any role that's reporting to the CEO, it's a function within your organization and work is taking place. And I feel that it's my obligation as GC to understand it so that we can properly support and advise. And anyone that's worked closely with me and most people on my team have heard me say I will always get the lawyers a seat at the table with a business, but it's their job to keep it, to add value, to show up, to be practical, to really learn how to connect on a personal basis with their business partners. And you can only really do that if you, you're understanding their strategy and needs.

Victoria Reese: Both in your experiences growing your career at NiSource and also managing a team, you've talked about mentorship and sponsorship and support. What advice may you give your younger self or other lawyers coming up in an in-house environment? 

Kim Cuccia: Sure. Mentorship and sponsorship, so important. And both required for rising leaders and frankly anyone to get to this level.

But it's also such a bonus too, right? I mean, it's just as important to give it back as it is to receive it. And I've had a number of mentors continue to have several. Some of them have found me, some of them found me when I didn't think I needed them, and some I have found myself so—many for different purposes and at different times. And I'm grateful that I've had a few core of them stick around for the duration and actually become great friends.

But I think what's important is to be intentional about mentorship, extending it and receiving it, and to understand the purpose of the relationship and the need that it's filling. And I have found many people are incredibly open to forms of mentorship ’cause it's about sharing your experiences, it's about sharing skills and knowledge, and it helps to be clear about the expectations of the relationship and what you're asking of someone.

So that would be a piece of advice that I would give when it comes to sponsorship. I wouldn't be in this role today if it was not for sponsorship—for the people who have had trust and confidence in my capabilities at different points in my career and backed me for certain opportunities. A sponsor is putting their name, their reputation, their brand behind you. And there's a risk that you know, if you screw it up or you don't pan out, it's a reflection on them. So they need to know, and you need to have established credibility that you're worth their investment. It has been my experience that sponsorship often stems from mentorship, where trusts and confidence have been established.

It doesn't always need to happen that way, of course, but that's just been my experience. It's taking mentorship to the next level where the sponsor’s becoming personally invested in your advancement. Your sponsor in sponsoring others requires a certain level of influence. They're the ones who are in the room when you're not, have a voice at the table when you don't, and essentially are serving as an advocate on your behalf.

So you wanna know who your sponsors are. Seek out mentors and sponsors, be a mentor and sponsor to others. These are traits that I expect of my team, my leaders, and terminology that I think should be highly familiar in a team environment. 

And I have a lot of advice to give it to my younger self. But a piece of advice in this vein would be, I wish I understood earlier on the vast and versatile options that mentorships can provide. It is not a lifelong match. You can leverage them for all different types of purposes, and that's what I would share with my younger self. 

Victoria Reese: I too have a lot of advice to give my younger self. That's a whole different podcast. So one final question as we begin to bring this conversation to a close and it's what everyone's talking about. We can't leave the conversation without talking about AI. As a general counsel, how are you navigating this inflection point we're at? How do you balance between innovation and managing the risks inherent in AI, both known and really unknown to us? 

Kim Cuccia: It is the headline. It's the question everybody's asking. So I am navigating this inflection point with a lot of optimism and caution. That's how I'm navigating it. And with close collaboration with our information technology and cybersecurity teams, and more regularly talking to peers and our law firms about how they are leveraging it.

We talked a little bit earlier about collaborating with a business and complex issues. This is a perfect example of a substantive issue. So with respect to navigating AI, we are navigating it within our own in-house legal department and the legal work that we oversee and that I oversee. And there's also supporting the company as we navigate this issue.

So with AI, we're striking this balance between innovation. Managing the risks known and unknown, and there's all kinds of risks out there. And that's, to me, what is really catching the headlines. There's ethical risks. There's data privacy risks. There's systems and security risks. There's bias risks because generative AI is learning, but what is its source of learning?

But set those risks aside for a moment. The benefits are significant. Processing extremely large amounts of data and incredibly short amounts of time, potentially cutting time on low-value and uncomplicated work so that you can be more efficient. And I think if we set parameters to minimize risk and any judgment that is applied, that's the sweet spot.

And inherently as lawyers, we are slow to adopt change such as AI. And I read an article that talked about the legal profession's slow adoption of email because of concerns for breaking privilege and the like. And I mean, can you imagine in today's world if lawyers were not using email? So we're not going to be able to survive and compete unless we partner with the technology. 

And from a legal application perspective, we as lawyers, I think, will be best suited to work together to learn how to integrate AI in our profession. I truly do see it as eliminating that low-value, easy drafting work, and our work as people increasingly focusing on relationship-building with our clients, leveraging our judgments, applying it to AI-generated results or complex legal issues, and developing industry expertise and offering strategic guidance.

So, in my current space, I see the law firms being very much more ahead of in-house departments because I don't have the dollars in-house to really pursue any research in this space, and it's becoming increasingly the topic with the firms and with peers. As I mentioned a little bit earlier, I think the bottom line is that AI, even generative AI requires curation and professional insight as to what makes sense and what doesn't. Otherwise, it's basically like WebMD for legal advice. 

Victoria Reese: Kim, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and inspiring all the internal candidates that are out there. Great. Great advice. Thank you so much. 

Kim Cuccia: Thank you, Victoria. It was absolutely my pleasure.

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About the interviewer

Victoria Reese ( is the global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Corporate Officers Practice; she is based in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office.

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