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Barner: Cummins’ centennial presents challenges, opportunities for general counsel

May 15, 2019
Barner Barner

By Sharon Barner

In today’s fast-paced, competitive environment, few companies reach their centennial anniversary, and even fewer do so with the rich legacy of values-driven leadership that Cummins enjoys. That is why I am honored to lead the in-house legal function as we celebrate this remarkable milestone.

Cummins’ five core values — excellence, integrity, caring, teamwork and diversity and inclusion — have been a part of the fabric of the company for 100 years. As the general counsel for Cummins, it is my duty to see these values are preserved in all transactions and integrated into our day-to-day legal functions. I have an obligation to help manage the company and its risk in a way that ensures Cummins is around for the next 100 years.

Maturity is both a benefit and a burden. Our entire Cummins leadership team stands on the shoulders of giants with an incredible history and a rich leadership legacy. We invest significantly in leadership and employee development to continually reinforce that what we do is every bit as important as how we do it. Our stakeholders expect us to behave in a manner that is consistent with our legacy, and frankly, we expect it of ourselves.

With age also comes potentially arduous legacy policies, systems and mindsets that can be difficult to navigate. Implementing new procedures and being mindful of the new innovations we support is imperative to our future successes. Cybersecurity, increased trade complexities and fast-moving global regulations are a few examples of the rapidly developing, complex legal issues facing the company, and we have to be agile in our response.

Another challenge facing lawyers at Cummins is our global scale. Our products are produced, distributed or used in 194 countries, and we continue to explore new markets and countries with varying levels of legal complexity. As our global impact grows over the next 100 years, it is important that our worldwide team of lawyers stays connected and that we nurture a culture of teamwork. While we are headquartered in Indiana with many key business leadership roles here, I rely on the team to understand the company holistically and to provide us with a global perspective. It’s more difficult to manage a virtual team with members spread across continents and time zones, but Cummins provides tools and capabilities to collaborate better and instill the company values that are critical in our roles.

Regardless of the tools used, leading a global legal function means I need to travel. There is no substitute for building personal relationships and no better way of showing how we live our company values and connecting them to our work. Through personal engagement, there are fewer doubts about what we all stand for. This, in turn, creates a sense of security and empowerment, so our global team feels confident about selecting the right approach when key decisions must be made.

It’s also important to recognize that “legal” is only a portion of what we do. Our team provides vital skills and guidance throughout the company and helps set a tone in our transactions. We also model our leadership culture throughout the company and in the community. For example, we work with our corporate responsibility team to incorporate our corporate value of caring through partnerships with nonprofits in need. We worked with Kids’ Voice of Indiana and one of our external partner law firms to create a “Guide for Homeless Youth.” The guide included advice and resources for issues that are especially helpful for homeless youth who don’t know what their rights are or where to access their social needs without an adult. We also created a similar guide for transgender people that includes advice and support on how to navigate court proceedings for gender or name changes, among other issues. Through these kinds of projects, our team demonstrates Cummins’ value of caring and provides our lawyers with an opportunity to connect their skills with a purpose.

The legacy I want to leave for Cummins is simply to leave it better than I found it. We’re already an employer of choice. Our most recent job opening in our legal team had almost 100 applications after just a week of being posted. I’m proud of that. But I’m even prouder to create a diverse and inclusive workforce, which we know is better for business and just the right thing to do. As general counsel, I also work to ensure we are continuously examining and possibly redefining the definition of diversity. It has become much more expansive over the past 30 years and will continue to evolve. I’m excited to take that into the next 100 years at Cummins.•

Sharon Barner is vice president and general counsel of Cummins Inc. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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