Heidrick & Struggles' chief legal officer and corporate secretary on strategic growth and ESG
Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs

Heidrick & Struggles' chief legal officer and corporate secretary on strategic growth and ESG

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to Tracey Heaton, Heidrick’s chief legal officer and corporate secretary, about the evolving role of the legal function.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to Tracey Heaton, Heidrick’s chief legal officer and corporate secretary, about the evolving role of the legal function. Heaton joined the firm in 2021 and is responsible for the company's global legal and compliance function. Prior to that, she was the senior vice president and chief corporate counsel for Visa Inc. Heaton discusses the way her differentiated experiences have helped her develop as a leader and offers advice to other leaders who may be considering a cross-industry move. She also shares her perspective on the evolution of the chief legal officer role, what specific leadership skills and capabilities she believes will be most important to help Heidrick to meet its strategic goals, and the role she played in helping form the firm’s broader ESG initiatives.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:15) What leadership skills and experiences have you found to be essential or have you leveraged to navigate this new role and company, and in leading your team?
  • (3:22) We increasingly see executives changing industries and functions. Given that you have switched industries a few times, how would you say having these differentiated experiences has helped you develop as a leader?
  • (5:06) Are there any specific lessons you learned that you think would be good to share with other leaders who may be considering a cross-industry move?
  • (6:50) We continue to see chief legal officers being asked to take a greater ownership role in the enterprise and be strategic business partners. Can you share your experience navigating the evolution of the role? One area in which many chief legal officers are becoming particularly involved in is their company's broad ESG initiatives. Maybe you can touch on your role with Heidrick's initiatives?
  • (9:48) How would you say executive search fit into your career strategy?

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: Hi, I'm Victoria Reese, partner at Heidrick & Struggles and the global managing partner of the Corporate Officers Practice. In today's podcast, I'm talking to Tracey Heaton, Heidrick's chief legal officer and corporate secretary. Tracey joined the firm in 2021 and is responsible for the company's global legal and compliance function.

Prior to joining Heidrick & Struggles. Tracey was the senior vice president and chief corporate counsel for Visa Inc. Prior to Visa, Tracey was the executive vice president and deputy general counsel at the New York Stock Exchange and associate general counsel at United Technologies Corporation. 

Tracey, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Tracey Heaton: Thank you, Victoria. It's great to be here. 

Victoria Reese: Tracey, you started a new role at a new company during a time of remote and hybrid working environments. What leadership skills and experiences have you found to be essential or have you leveraged to navigate this new role and company, and in leading your team? 

Tracey Heaton: You know, it's interesting. I’ve read plenty of articles and listened to numerous panelists talk about how challenging it is for people to join a new company during a time of remote work. And you know what? They are so right. I find that I really enjoy interacting with people face to face, which means that during these important initial months at Heidrick, I have found the bulk of my interactions less than satisfying on a personal level because they were over Zoom.

And, you know, you have to work so much harder to make those video interactions meaningful and engaging for both sides. And so, to counter that, I've really doubled down on trying to be authentic and very thoughtful about how I show up. For example, I tend to lean heavily on humor and having a down-to-earth approach to connecting with people, since I find that video feels somewhat removed as a medium for communication.

I've also invested a lot of my time into having regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with my direct reports and periodic meetings with skip levels, as well as a weekly meeting with my leadership team. It's a huge investment of time, but it's really important to me to build a very solid foundation for those critical relationships, right from the beginning.

And it's important to me that I set a tone from the top around communication, to encourage my team to have an open and constructive line of communication—not just with me but also amongst themselves and their other Heidrick colleagues. And, I guess, on a more meta-level, I'd say that I fall squarely in the servant leadership camp; I tend to have a very people-first mentality, which I believe has really helped me foster stronger relationships and trust here in these early days.

Victoria Reese: Thank you, Tracey. Humor is key. You know I feel that as well.

Tracey Heaton: Absolutely.

Victoria Reese: We increasingly see executives changing industries and functions. Given that you have switched industries a few times, how would you say having these differentiated experiences has helped you develop as a leader?

Tracey Heaton: A couple of thoughts on that. I think that switching in the story allows you to come into your new organization with, I guess I'd say, a fresh perspective—and without the burden of having a lot of ingrained assumptions. I mean, there’s a huge learning curve, of course, which is both exciting and intimidating, but there’s also the opportunity through that learning process to broaden your perspective and to take things in with a refreshed growth mindset. And so, sometimes I think that if you stay in an industry for a really long time you can tend to have a bit of tunnel vision, even if it's just on the subconscious level. And I'd also say that, in my experience, the traditional negative reaction in some companies to candidates who switched industries has kind of dissipated over the years. I mean, sure. There are always going to be companies that have a preference for candidates with relevant industry experience. But as I'm sure you're saying Victoria, there are an increasing number of companies who have realized that leaders who've been exposed to a variety of organizational cultures and management styles and market dynamics is really a good thing and that it's basically another element of diverse thinking that can be brought to the table. Personally, over the years, I've found that people often reach out to me for my perspective on things because of the fact that I've worked in various industries, not in spite of it.

Victoria Reese: Following up on that, are there any specific lessons you learned that you think would be good to share with other leaders who may be considering a cross-industry move?

Tracey Heaton: Sure. I'd say a few lessons come to mind. The first one I’ll call indulging your curiosity and checking your ego at the door. And what I mean by that is that sometimes, people, especially senior leaders, are concerned with admitting that they don't know something about a topic. And when you start a new role in a new company in a new industry, you have this wonderful opportunity to dig in and learn, to ask a ton of questions, and absorb information from all parts of the organization. So I’d tell people not to get wrapped up in how you think people might perceive you. Seize that window of opportunity to learn, and people will appreciate your interest and your curiosity.

Second, on a completely different wavelength, if you're considering switching industries, pay attention to the regulatory profile of the company. A company in a heavily regulated industry, like the New York Stock Exchange, or even in a lightly regulated industry, like Visa, can it require a lot of time and internal resources, and attention to satisfy the expectations of the regulators. Now, that might seem obvious, but in my experience, it can also have a more consequential impact on the company—things like the ability of the company to move quickly and to be as creative in its strategic growth as it would like to be, or as its competitors can be. And, to add to all of that, you've got the pressure of being under constant regulatory scrutiny. So it's a heady mix that you should just be cognizant of when considering the role in order to go into it with your eyes open.

Victoria Reese: We continue to see chief legal officers being asked to take a greater ownership role in the enterprise and be strategic business partners. Can you share your experience navigating the evolution of the role? One area in which many chief legal officers are becoming particularly involved in is their company's broad ESG initiatives. Maybe you can touch on your role with Heidrick's initiatives?

Tracey Heaton: Over the past 15 years that I've been in-house, I've seen such an interesting evolution of the general counsel role. I think CEOs are increasingly seeing their GCs as strategic thought partners and trusted competence. I've personally observed that first-hand. I know general counsels who have taken on a variety of areas: enterprise risk, information, security, government relations— you name it. And I think that's a reflection of the compelling mix of skills that a really good senior lawyer can bring to the C-suite to solve complex issues and serve as that connective tissue across the organization. And, personally, I felt that the role that I've played as in-house counsel on M&A deals over the years has developed my strategic counselor muscles, if you will, and has driven me to basically serve as a mini general counsel in my deals where I get to partner with the business to drive growth and help protect the company. I feel like it's been a good training ground for evolving into the general counsel role.

As you mentioned, one of the really exciting areas that is starting to come under the general counsel umbrella more these days is ESG, particularly in companies that don't have the luxury of having a chief sustainability or ESG officer. I think that wearing the ESG hat is a natural fit for GCs, given that those programs are cross-functional by nature and have many different elements and owners, which is, in my perspective, really a sweet spot for general counsels.

And, as you know, ESG is a topic of increased focus at the board and with shareholders, which are two stakeholder groups that the GCs are laser-focused on already, and, here at Heidrick, bring it close to home. My deputy general counsel and I coordinate our overall ESG efforts across a number of departments. And we work to get buy-in for ideas on how we can evolve the program and keep trying to move the needle. And we also take the lead on liaising with the board and the governance committee on our ESG programs and ESG external reporting, and we try to keep them abreast on what's rapidly evolving in the ESG space.

And what's really amazing about Heidrick, unlike many places, is that we have this market-facing group that works with clients on key ESG areas such as DE&I and sustainability. And so, selfishly, we get to tap into that expertise and that thought leadership for our own internal benefit and our own ESG.

Victoria Reese: On a more personal note, I've known you, Tracey, for a long time and fostered a great relationship that resulted in you coming to Heidrick, having been a Heidrick candidate and client. How would you say executive search fit into your career strategy?

Tracey Heaton: We have known each other for a long time. Right? I mean, we go way back. It's gotta be more than 10 years.

Victoria Reese: I think it's almost 14 years.

Tracey Heaton: You may not know this, but you were a really influential voice for me over the years, regarding my career path and what strengths I had, and what areas I needed to focus on for growth. You gave me sound advice that I really took to heart.

But, you know, honestly, I think that that is the role that a great executive search professional can play. They can be a career mentor and a sounding board and source of truth about an opportunity and the broader marketplace. And my experience is that really good search professionals know that you and they are both committed to having a frank conversation and doing the work. It's just a win-win for the candidate and the client and the search professional, which is why I've always turned to executive search professionals during my career pivots as one of the three legs of my stool alongside my own research and my own network.

That being said, I mean, I recognize that some search firms are more transactional in nature, and some are more relationship-based, like Heidrick, but they each serve, I think, an important purpose and be a useful leg in the proverbial stool. But, if you don't mind, Victoria, I would like to turn the tables and ask you a question. What was it like finding a general counsel for your own company? 
Victoria Reese: Honestly, I feel very fortunate to have done some incredible searches for some incredible clients in my career. I feel so strongly about how a good general counsel can impact the business, the day-to-day health of an organization. Having been at Heidrick & Struggles for more than 20 years, this search was of course, very, very meaningful.

We were very fortunate to be able to attract you, Tracey, with your stellar background. Our executive team is very tight-knit and finding someone who both had the securities governance expertise combined with the commercial sensitivity and acumen, as well as someone who could lead and develop a talented team and have an appreciation for a professional services environment was very fortunate indeed.

It’s hard to find someone with all those attributes. Like most of my candidates, I have known you, Tracey, for many years, so I felt confident you would be a great addition to the team. What has been very fun and unique and what I've not experienced in the past is seeing my placement in action in their first few months. It’s been great to witness first-hand a candidate onboard and be successful.

Tracey Heaton: You had me at hello, Victoria.

Victoria Reese: Tracey, as we bring this conversation to a close, I want to ask one final question. Looking ahead, which specific leadership skills and capabilities do you believe will be most important for you to help Heidrick to meet its strategic goals?

Tracey Heaton: You know, I think that the number one skill is empathy—empathy combined with compassion is the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in my mind because chocolate and peanut butter put together is even more amazing.

I think that in an environment like we're operating in, with the uncertainty of coming back to offices, the uncertainty in the marketplace in terms of the war in Ukraine, and the economic fallout that might come from it, as well as the rapidly evolving nature of the workplace and the future of work, all of these things create a fair amount of uncertainty and static. I think that being empathetic in how we're interacting with each other, how we're listening to each other, how we're showing up for each other, supporting each other, and finding that common ground, can bring us together so that we all understand where we're coming from and where we're heading to. That collective purpose and compassionate way is going to be critical in the coming year or two. And so, to me, it's that double whammy impact of empathy and compassion combined that really is going to, I think, make the biggest difference.

Victoria Reese: Tracey, thank you for making the time to speak with us today. And most importantly, thank you for coming to Heidrick.

Tracey Heaton: Thank you. It's been wonderful.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.


About the participants

Tracey Heaton (theaton@heidrick.com) is Heidrick & Struggles’ chief legal officer and corporate secretary and is a member of the firm’s global management committee; she is based in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office.

Victoria Reese (vreese@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of the Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs and Corporate Officers practices; she is based in the New York office.

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