Alumni Interrogatory: Cherée Johnson ’03
Johnson is senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary, and chief ethics and compliance officer for W.R. Grace
When Cherée Johnson ’03 joined W.R. Grace, it was baptism by fire. The publicly traded company was considering (and ultimately accepted) a buyout offer to go private. While dealing with a vast amount of legal activity of a major M&A, she also has been overseeing the day-to-day legal work and taking the helm of the legal department at a time when much of the workforce is remote. Corporate Counsel magazine recently named Johnson “General Counsel of the Year—In-House” in its Women, Influence & Power in Law Awards.
What inspired you to take on the challenge of this leadership position at W.R. Grace?
The inspiration for my move was the significant opportunity of being the general counsel of a large, publicly traded company. It got me back to the manufacturing roots that I had at 3M—that type of company.
You came to W.R. Grace at an interesting time with a buyout offer on the table and a global pandemic underway. What was it like starting at such a time?
The company had its M&A activity in addition to its normal litigation work, so we had a lot going on. Things picked up significantly around the time I joined—which had nothing to do with me—and were starting to snowball. My first day, I probably had 9 to 10 minutes of orientation— it was scheduled for three and a half hours—but I got in, sat down, and very soon after got a call from the CEO’s assistant saying, “Hey we have an issue that you need to deal with.” I haven’t completed orientation since. It has been go, go, go, go, go.
You began your career as an engineer for 3M and then went to Minnesota Law. What motivated the switch from engineering to law?
Growing up I wanted to be on the Supreme Court—and it’s not too late! I have always been fascinated with tinkering with things. I got a full undergraduate scholarship to study chemical engineering, and what better company to do that with than 3M, one of the best in the world. When I was there, I talked to some people in the legal department and learned about intellectual property. Combining my love of engineering with law seemed like the perfect fit. So I applied to Minnesota Law and received a full scholarship, which made the decision much easier
Why do you feel diverse perspectives are important in the boardroom?
Sometimes regulations and issues are seen one way, but when you have another person that can add a perspective, it shines a light on things that might have otherwise been missed. Having different perspectives in the room in the form of diversity can only add to the richness of the conversation and the richness of the conclusion. You may get to the very same point, but those conversations and the journey that takes you there are invaluable.
What lessons would you offer to someone newer to the legal professional looking to get established or chart out a career course?
1. Make the call that you are afraid to make. 2. Give more than you get in return right away. 3. Lead when no one else is following you yet. 4. Invest in yourself, even though no one else may be. 5. Meet deadlines that are unreasonable and deliver results that are unparalleled. 6. Search for your own explanations, even when you are told to accept the facts. 7. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable and insecure when playing it safe seems smarter. 8. Run faster even though you are out of breath. 9. Be accountable for your actions, even when things go wrong. 10. Try and fail, and try again.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love traveling. I have visited 47 different countries. I love meeting new people and experiencing new cultures, ways of life, foods. My husband is trying to get me into golf. For right now, I am an amazing golf cart driver. I also enjoy having some time to myself to think and decompress.
What interesting decoration or item might we find in your office or on your desk?
When I travel, I try to bring home a small memento of the trip. My entire family went a couple of years ago on a safari in South Africa, and one of the activities my husband and I engaged in was great white shark underwater diving. A shark banged his head on the cage that protected us, and a little bit of his tooth chipped off. I have that sitting on my desk.