Leaders in Law: Interview with Ronnie Luo

Today, we are happy to have Ronnie Luo, Senior VP/General Counsel, Government Affairs & Sustainability of Covestro, to join us to share with us her rocky career path and tips for young lawyers, as well as her insights about the changing legal landscape in China. As Bayer’s former Head of Corporate Legal, Ronnie was the first foreign lawyer selected to the headquarters for systematic on-job development and spent three years working in Leverkusen groomed for the leadership pipeline. However, the plan did not realize due to timing issues and changes to the organizational structure. However, as one door closes, another one opens! Now, Ronnie is the SVP/ General Counsel of Covestro, bearing broad responsibilities to head up its China, India, and Thai legal and compliance teams and cover intellectual property, government affairs, and sustainability.

SX: Sherry Xu (Director, Hughes-Castell)

Ronnie: Ronnie Luo(Senior VP/General Counsel, Government Affairs & Sustainability, Covestro)

SX: You were the first foreign lawyer Bayer sent to the headquarters for on-job development and have worked there for 3 years as part of the General Counsel’s succession plan. But the plan was not fulfilled in the end. Would you share with us how you managed the disappointment?

Ronnie: We often see candidates who want to look externally for opportunities as their indicated promotions do not materialize due to company strategy or business environment changes. I understand the loss and frustration of unfulfilled hope. Still, I always ask myself — aside from being disappointed or losing self-esteem, did I actually lose anything or would it be worse than it is now? How can I be sure if another path does not even suit me better for the future? There is a time for everything. Chance always favors those who are well-prepared no matter whether it comes from outside or within this organization where solid performance track records have been aggregated for a long time. Internal promotion is more likely to be a safer “shortcut” on one’s overall development path compared with external development as you don’t have to experience any pressures of stress from any job change. When you are eventually settled in a different development path and all the confidence and recognition are back again, that disappointment period would no longer read as a “regret”; instead, it is “delayed gratification.”

SX: Ronnie, I know your work is not limited to legal and compliance but also covers intellectual property, government affairs, and sustainability. Can you tell us more about the expanding in-house legal function to cover government affairs responsibilities?

Ronnie: There are two main aspects to sum up government affairs (GA) responsibilities: proactive and coordinative. First, the GA team will take a proactive approach to research government policies’ orientations through engaging with the government; and the second is to assist in resolving any sudden administrative enforcement issues involving the enterprise. Since the macroeconomic environment highly influences our industry, the GA team needs to pay attention to any related macro governmental plans. Hence, the former is the more dominant part of the work. For example, if the government has policy concessions for technological innovation and related investments; therefore, our GA team must study and communicate with the relevant authorities concerning the specific criteria and try to enroll us in the scheme by advocating for our projects. Another example is the Free Trading Zone (FTZ) planning; we had to thoroughly study the planning and advise the business units where opportunities might arise, is relevant to our business presence and model. Let us also look at the NDRC’s planning. It will significantly impact the chemical industry’s development for the next 5 to 10 years, including environmental protection thresholds, industrial distribution, and industrial upgrading level requirements that require our GA team to take the initiative to interpret the latest policy information.

Second, the GA team also needs to collaborate with other departments to identify where policy and our company’s business are related and direct the company to make well assessed and calculated investment and operational decisions. GA is a department that is not easy to develop systematically compared with Legal and their professionals’ know-how knowledge is harder to transfer and acquire through traditional career training and development tools. They also tend to have a different mindset compared to Legal. When GA professionals encounter a particular topic, they tend to interpret policies and regulations on a case-by-case basis, relying on communications with specific authority or officials.  Sometimes it works. In contrast, legal professionals believe if we can operate under clear law and regulations, many issues shall be principally predicted in advance, excluding any contradicting interpretations made by any single authority or individual official. Because of the differences and grey areas of law and policies, effective communications and balance between GA and legal teams are necessary. In addition to this, cross-departmental cooperation and know-how sharing with other peer functions, such as Finance, Tax can enrich GA colleagues’ knowledge base and provide the company with the most comprehensive considerations to enable strategic business planning and modeling.

SX: Ronnie, you have a proven track record of cross-departmental/multicultural management.  What are your tips for young lawyers who want to work/develop their career in a cross-departmental/multicultural environment? How do they start to prepare themselves?

Ronnie: First of all, we must understand ourselves, not everyone is suitable to “step up”, and personal growth is not a “given”. Aside from those promotions where there is a title change but no substantive changes to job-scope, a real promotion and expansion of leadership functions will come with uncertainties and challenges. Especially at management level, you will still face various organizational issues and politics. China’s legal market has developed over the last two decades and we’ve observed rapid growth and personal development. Looking at the mature Western legal markets which have long gone through a similar development stage, their markets are now relatively stable and saturated. The majority of in-house lawyers and companies are mentally prepared, with flexible and accommodating mindsets, to accept that some team members will continuously work in ‘subject matter’ roles.  As long as the individual’s work ability, salary and team communication meet the requirements of the role and are reasonable, because after all, the higher the level, the less likelihood of mobility. I believe the Chinese legal market will gradually move in this direction. It is common for in-house counsels to remain in the same companies’ teams over decades without promotion, but not because of their performance or lack of self-motivation. . Therefore, it must be pointed out that not getting promoted is not a “sin”; finding a role that suits oneself in the market is more important. If a promotion is your ultimate goal, then I think you need to have a very strong curiosity and commitment to expand your knowledge and network. Having an interest and the potential to do or cope with things other than legal is necessary.

Critical thinking is also essential. You need to understand what and why people do the work, understand the content of their job responsibilities, and then provide legal advice to different departments accordingly. In doing this, you can thoroughly understand the circularity of an enterprise. Let’s take the sales department as an example: what is their driving force? What is the relationship between the sales department and the supply chain? Where is the conflict among the supply chain, production, and customers? When the HR team does internal restructure, how will they determine the reasons, drives, and restructuring issues? 

On personal career development, curiosity and follow-thorough are more important than attending any courses or finding a mentor. It is more practical if you can enrich your knowledge base through daily life. In my early years at Bayer, many colleagues invited me to join their projects because of my curiosity and commitment. I often took the initiative to ask. Over time I understood how the company operates. To sum up, my advice is to be curious, understand the business environment, network, and put yourself in your customers shoes. That way, your analytical, structured, and solution drive lawyers’ traits can best you to develop to the next level.

Full original interview (in Chinese): https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/_eARNwfsLp8bO80kJkSIcA

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