Maria Hemberg is Senior Vice President Group Legal and General Counsel at Volvo Cars. Maria has more than 25 years of experience from practicing business law both in private practice and as in-house counsel. Last week she sat down with Lisa Owens and Julian Adamson as part of our latest LeadershIP piece.

Good morning Maria. By way of introduction, tell us a little about your background and the business.

I started my career at Mannheimer Swartling, one of the top corporate law firms in Sweden where I spent almost 10 years as a transactional M&A lawyer. I was fortunate enough to have a broad training and then to enjoy high quality transactional work. I enjoyed several client relationships where I worked as their single point of contact, which gave me my first experience of working in-house and which led ultimately to my choice to be a commercial leader rather than a law firm partner.

I moved in-house in 2000 when I was approached by SKF to lead their M&A activities, at a time when the company was pursuing an aggressive growth strategy. Alongside my legal role, I had the opportunity to attend several executive leadership programs and I was actively engaged in supporting the GC with strategy and the development of the Legal team. Many of the acquisitions were linked to SKF’s automotive business so around 2005/2006 I became an informal member of the Automotive management team. After turning down a few GC jobs, Volvo Cars approached me to become GC in 2012 and this seemed like it was the ideal next step. To have the opportunity to lead and develop a team was attractive, but most compelling was the chance to be part of the overall transformation of Volvo Cars and this was extremely exciting. At the time, Volvo Cars was barely 18 months into the Geely acquisition, so I came in to be a part of the new management, new strategy and work under a new CEO.

Your title refers to Group Legal & Corporate Governance. What is the scope of your role and responsibilities?

Quickly I realised that the GC role was far more than simply a legal leadership position. My role evolved to cover not only Legal and IP, but also Compliance & Ethics, Governance, Sustainability and Corporate Strategy. I sit on the Group Executive Management team and attend the board as Company Secretary. When I joined, I inherited a team of 20-25 and I have been able to double the headcount in the last six years alongside growth of the business. During the last six years, Volvo Cars has grown from 21,000 to almost 40,000 employees.

What are the core competencies that you require in your role?

The GC role has evolved from being a traditional legal professional role to a strategic leadership position. It has not been enough to simply be a good lawyer and my M&A background has helped me adapt to these challenges. On a personal level, I have had to tackle a huge variety of projects that have crossed my desk and also to work out how I can develop my role and my units to add most value to the business. The competencies that have been most important are to have a broad approach, an interest in people, good communication skills, business acumen and to have a high level of integrity has been an ongoing commitment.

Being a good communicator is an essential quality of all in-house lawyers but at my level that has been fundamentally important. I need to communicate well with my direct reports, the wider team, my peers and upwards to the CEO and the Board. Much of my credibility relies on being able to translate legal advice and regulation into everyday language and to give commercial advice and practical solutions to all key stakeholders. If you can do that as a lawyer then the organisation will listen.

Let’s move now towards team and culture. Given the global nature of your legal team, how has culture influenced the organisational structure you have?

This is very important. Sharing values and understanding how to interact and work together is critical when establishing a global team. The lawyers chosen for the country and or regionally based roles come from each region originally and have cultural ties, but they also all have international experience. I have found that regardless of background, international lawyers have a great deal in common and find shared values when you allow them to interact.

Volvo has a strong culture and set of values. We have worked hard to translate this into tangible and relevant goals applicable for my global team. For instance, passion for customers means something different for a support function rather than a sales function, but at the end of the day, it is about developing relationships and supporting internal stakeholders so the value and commitment is the same across the business.

I am committed to encouraging my global team to meet on a regular basis in person. Getting to know one another, socialising and understanding each individual personally has been key to being able to communicate and work as a remote team.

I am a strong believer in walking the talk and leading by example. I work hard and with a smile. I am dedicated to engaging team members in interesting work and empowering my team to allow them to take risks and develop their own roles. A system of job rotation, through short-term international secondments has worked well and this has allowed the team to mix, to learn from each other, and to share best practice.

I have a diverse legal leadership team with a mix of male and female individuals and representatives from Sweden, France and US. All of that has really helped us to become one global team.

How do you measure how successfully your team engages with the business?

The measurement part is always tricky. Our strong mission is to be a support function, which adds significant value to the business. We have made that very clear to the team – they are not here to be a roadblock but to provide solutions. Consequently, we have spent a lot of time determining what is important and the team has a very strong commercial mind-set. We have worked a great deal on how to prioritise, what to focus on and how to let go of work that does not add value.

In order to measure results and improve, we conduct post-project ‘Lessons Learned’ feedback sessions. The Compliance & Ethics team use surveys after training sessions to find out what could be done better and improved. Overall, when you talk to the organisation, they refer to my team members as colleagues who are seen as highly proficient and appreciated internally. The recognition has been there, even if we do not measure directly with KPIs. All of the regional lawyers have a reporting line to the local management team and that has helps to create a strong engagement.

Think of your most valuable employees: What are the attributes that make them so?

I always look for people with strong integrity, a broad experience base and a global mind-set. Irrespective of where you are, if you are too local in approach you will struggle in a global company such as Volvo Cars. I often choose to hire from international law firms, as I recognise those lawyers have been well trained and have a very solid foundation to build upon. I believe that I should have the smartest and best people in every vacancy. I do not micro-manage but try to empower my team, so I cannot afford to bring someone on board who is not already a star.

Drive and passion for the business is also critical. We are a culturally and ethically driven company, thus we look for employees who want to do good, rather than those for whom these values have to be taught.

You mention ethics. Volvo Cars was recently named as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies in 2018. What contribution has your team made in defining and implementing those responsible practices?

We have a strong commitment from the management team and the CEO that ethical culture is to be set from the top down. The fact that we have been acknowledged is largely due to many of the activities which have been driven by my Compliance & Ethics team, but would have not been possible without the buy in from the organisation. There is a Swedish word ‘omtanke’ that means ‘caring’, ‘considerate’ and importantly ‘to think again’ and it summarises our way of protecting what’s important to us, to our customers and to society. Consequently, it is the name we gave our programme of sustainability commitments. I encourage all of my team members to be strong role models in all aspects of their work and to be champions for compliance and ethics.

Corporate strategy of the business has a number of facets and one of the key pillars is Sustainability. There has been investments across the business in Sustainability, which runs from responsible business practices, to supporting compliance and governance, a very forward thinking compliance & ethics program, and it has shaped product strategy. The Compliance team has been at the forefront of this change process as far as ethical business conduct is concerned and have driven many of the policies and frameworks, which led to the award.

We are living through an age of disruption, in which the automotive sector is re-shaping the future of mobility and energy. How are these changes influencing your role as GC?

A GC needs to be open-minded and be able to translate the new ways of working and operating, into strategies and plans.

Our support functions need to be relevant to the disruptive business environment. This also means that new competences need to be developed and added to the teams. The approach to risk management has changed and sharing knowledge and best practice amongst the teams has become even more important. There is an increasing need for a strong link between regulation and business and this means the role of compliance is increasingly pro-active and strategic.

There is a common goal and clear strategy in the business but as GC it is important to show leadership and to be an ambassador within the business.

Let’s turn now towards the current global legal landscape. Amid increasingly complex legal issues, what are the key challenges facing you and your team in the coming years?

I think that GDPR is and will continue to be a main challenge for the industry. This is just one of a number of huge regulatory changes, which have been introduced and now need to be embedded into the day-to-day business. There is a lot of uncertainty in the overall regulatory arena and this presents a huge challenge to balance what is legally required and what is possible from a business perspective, especially here in the EU.

There are regulatory roadblocks at every junction and my fear is that we will end up with such complex business regulation that the role of an in-house lawyer will immeasurably change. If this continues, it may adversely affect the flow of talent to in-house roles.

Another major challenge is that technology is developing faster than some areas of regulation. For example, driverless cars. This means that our IP and legal teams need to be at the forefront of the market, pushing the boundaries of regulation and risk management. Electrification is also very challenging from a sustainability point of view, particularly in relation to supply chain risks involved in battery sourcing and battery lifetime management. These are new risks which will need to be addressed to stay ahead in the industry.

Are these challenges regional?

When you are a global company, you almost always have to deal with these challenges on a global basis. Each region presents different challenges but our policies and procedures and compliance framework need to be global, as does our Legal and IP risk management.

You haven’t mentioned Brexit. To what extent does it affect you?

It certainly affects us from a currency and results point of view. It will not affect us in terms of what we do in the UK, as we do not have any large manufacturing there, but it will impact everything from loan agreements through to possible structural changes. I am still among the circle of people who hopes the UK wakes up and reverses the decision.

We hear a lot about disruptive technologies in the legal technology space. How have these evolved over the past several years and which do you think have the most potential to change the game?

I would expect certain standardised tasks to be outsourced and handled partly through new technical solutions. Trademark and patent searches is one area where the working methods will and has already changed. Due diligence work will, I expect, increasingly be handled by new technological solutions at some point. However, within most part of the work within Legal and Compliance respectively, there are very few quick gains from AI and I do not foresee things changing overnight. Ultimately, AI will never take away the need for hands on lawyers.

Lastly, if you were starting over — let’s say that you were just graduating law school — how would you focus the development of your skillset in today’s market?

I would not really change so much. Getting a good foundation at a law firm is as relevant today as it has always been. M&A is the best experience to get a broad experience base as it forces you to develop a broad skillset covering essentially all legal areas. If I were starting again I would ensure I understood technology, developed practical skills such as typing and I would ensure that I did not get too specialised so that I can continually adapt.

I would advise anyone considering becoming a GC to get commercial experience and to go a business school to undertake a management program which is not just for lawyers which is an excellent investment.

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Lisa Owens