Susan Alexander is Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary of Biogen Idec, Inc. Prior to that, she had served as the Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of PAREXEL International Corp., as the General Counsel of IONA Technologies, and as Counsel at Cabot Corp. Prior to that, she was a partner at the law firms of Hinckley, Allen & Snyder and Fine & Ambrogne. At the BBA, Susan is a member of the Council and the Chair of the Beacon Award Selection Committee.
1. As Chair of the Beacon Award Selection Committee, you guided the group in choosing an award honoree. How can a leader do this most effectively, knowing what is in the balance?
In situations like this, it starts with the committee. We were very fortunate to have a great mix of talented and committed people – some who were thinking about this process for first time and some who had been on the committee before. The BBA staff also did a really nice job of helping us to leverage the experience of prior committees. We spent time initially getting grounded in what we thought made for a good recipient, and we quickly determined that impact – particularly a sustained impact – was a major factor in who we would select; that really helped us to focus our thoughts.
In the end, my job as the Chair was to step back, be an honest broker, and let the conversation happen in a way that assured all opinions were put in the mix and the strength of the committee members could come through. People really took on the responsibility to think about all of the nominees and did a terrific job of recognizing that some were great examples but did not fit the exact criteria that we had determined.
Paul Lee rose to the forefront quite naturally. I was particularly impressed by the number of people who said, “He doesn’t know me, but…” and went on to tell a special story of how he impacted them personally. The Committee members were quite thoughtful about the fact that this was the first time an individual was selected, but it was clear that the broad and sustained impact he has had over several decades more than qualified him to be the first individual recipient.
2. You have served as an in-house counsel for much of your career. What has each new experience gradually taught you about leadership? How has it developed your leadership style?
Every career is a serpentine path of one sort or another. I had no idea when I started out that I would end up doing the work I’m doing now. One of the great things about being in-house is having had the chance to do so many different things. I’ve been able to use the great skills I learned in law school in multiple ways. Stepping out of the firm and into the business side takes on a whole different dimension. For me to practice law in such a holistic way, where I’m part of the business team but also bring my own particular set of skills, is very satisfying. It allows me, and the legal organization, to guide and direct our clients’ thinking proactively.
At Biogen, we’re working on important things that make a big difference to people’s lives, and my team and I find that gratifying and motivating. You’re always doing that in some form or fashion as a lawyer, and I think that is what drives us all.
My goal as a person and leader has always been to learn and share as much as I can and to seek out engaging roles that leave me enhanced in some way. If you love what you do, that comes across. Your energy and enthusiasm makes people want to follow you. If you really commit, and can help others see the possibilities you see, they will naturally want to work hard alongside you.
3. What advice would you give to an attorney hoping to be selected to lead or be part of a BBA Committee – such as the Council or the Beacon Award Selection Committee – that might seem unusual or unexpected?
The first thing I’d say is to make sure people know you want to do these kinds of things. There is nothing that makes you more successful than passion and putting yourself out there. The other thing, which may be more unexpected, is that you may look at a group and think, “Those aren’t people like me – they have different experience and fit a certain profile that I don’t” – but that difference may be exactly what makes you and your perspective the most interesting and valuable. The BBA, like most forward-thinking organizations, is looking to be inclusive, and it understands that bringing people with varied backgrounds and perspectives to the BBA results in the best thinking. If you think, “My practice doesn’t fit into the Council,” for example – mine doesn’t either! In-house counsel like myself and several other Council members are practicing in a different environment but are important members of the bar. Young lawyers, diverse lawyers, in-house counsel, those with a particular specialty – that kind of mix can be very interesting and important.
4. Is there anything else you would like to add?
It’s important to realize that everybody is a leader: no matter what your role, you have the opportunity to contribute a leader’s perspective. The more we take that into account, the more we make the legal community and the world a better place.