Verona Dorch, Chief Legal Officer, Peabody Energy

Dorch discusses her approach to building diversity pathways – both inside and outside the legal team.

The legal department serves the business and other functions, so it’s a great opportunity to put diversity in front of them. Our clients may get very comfortable with one lawyer, or one type of lawyer, but we are really pushing – for example, ‘This person is the expert on this topic’, or ‘This is someone that we’d like you to work with’ – and making sure that we are providing our lawyers with good exposure.

At the end of the day, decisions are not only made by me – I don’t get to pick the next GC on my way out; it’s a decision the CEO is going to make, so they will need adequate exposure to a number of people. It will be a decision the rest of the executive team and board is going to weigh in on – so how am I ensuring that folks I think could be candidates, no matter what their developmental path, are getting the attention that they need?

We didn’t have much of a pipeline when I joined Peabody in 2015, so I began to work with recruiting firms that I know focus on diversity. I’ve always made sure I’m given a diverse and representative set of attorneys for an open position – women, men, diversity from an ethnic standpoint, international, LBGTQ, war veterans. I then make sure that whoever is interviewing candidates understands this is an important element of our recruiting.

We’ve got a good mentoring program that we’re building through our HR department, and I’ve made sure that several individuals on my team – both men and women, but with a focus on women – have been part of that, so they are developing the right skills for the next level. Sometimes they’re not even thinking about moving up, so it’s really getting them to think about and own their careers, and nurture them, alongside me.

Some level of sponsorship is important. There are unconscious biases that can come into play, like the halo effect – someone looks like you, so you may be more willing to sponsor them or almost overlook deficiencies. It’s important to me that everybody is given that level of sponsorship and I’m there advocating for people who others may not be advocating for. I want to make sure people are giving folks that may not fit their definition of someone that should be developed that opportunity too. It really is, I think, taking that broader chance on people, including those who may look and think different from you, but do deserve a seat at the table.

If you don’t measure something, how do you know it’s actually happening? We create data and measure it with our in-house lawyers and external law firms in terms of who they are putting up front for us to work with. We don’t yet tie metrics to people’s goals, and that is where I think it would be most effective. The companies where I’ve seen it take hold are the ones that start to tie it to individual goals and commitments, which then moves the company’s commitment. I also think it’s important that not only the management team hold each other accountable; it’s about holding peers and direct reports accountable too. ‘I see what you’re doing for person X, what about person Y?’ And if they don’t have a particular skill, ‘What are you doing to help them develop it?’

Furthermore, there have to be clear-cut development plans in writing that you can hold people accountable to. I’ve seen too many people recall discussions they’ve had regarding development, and three or four years later nothing has happened because no plan was put together. I have strongly pushed to get plans in writing, work with HR, and then have quarterly check-ins to make sure movement is happening. I think it’s like anything else in developing a business – it has to be a process where people are held accountable, all the way up to the CEO.

There are a lot of people coming at diversity with the best of intentions – including me – and I think that we’re now stepping back and focusing more on data, and looking at what works for other companies and other industries. There’s a lot more partnering going on to make sure that we’re sharing strategies and efforts that work – and maybe discarding, a little faster, things that really aren’t moving the needle. For a long time, there was a lot of talk about mentoring and now we’re realizing it’s really about sponsorship.

You can’t do things the same way as in the past. For example, when trying to get women on the board, you can’t insist that people have a CEO background, because you’re going to find maybe five women who fit that. You have to be willingly flexible on requirements. And then you need to have the answers to individuals who say, ‘You’re just setting quotas and lowering standards.’ You’ve got to be able to play back to the data that shows it works. Sometimes we do have to take a chance if we think people have got the innate skills and there are maybe just some other things we need to work through to build that.

When we put out the RFPs for our convergence panel, to get our 100+ firms down to 13, diversity was very much one of the criteria we used to measure the firms. And it wasn’t just a soft criteria, we made it clear that we were going to reach out every month and ask for data, and have a monthly call with the relationship partner to talk through what’s working and what isn’t working – including diversity and inclusion.

We’re also going out to firms individually to talk about the relationship, meet with their affinity groups and associates, and ask ‘What can my team do differently?’ What we’ve heard is: ‘We need work on the biggest matters, but we also want mentoring and the sponsorship.’ One of the things we heard from those associates was that they need us to send the message back to the firm, so the firm is hearing about their work.

As a result, we’ve stepped back and really thought through what can be done differently so people can get noticed at their firm. We do surveys and rate associates we have worked with on a one-to-five scale. If they get a five, we send a letter back to the committees that are making decisions about who gets promoted to partner. That direct, one-to-one dialogue with the very individuals we’re trying hard to impact is very important.

The vast majority of firms on our convergence panel have been supportive and understood what we’re trying to achieve. There have been one or two who have said, ‘Well, we’re in a location where it’s very hard to hire diversely’, and I’ve challenged them: ‘Is it really? You may need to change your outreach or approach, there are likely ways to attract people and reach in earlier, through colleges or otherwise, in order to identify those students.’

We’re not kicking people out of our convergence, we are working with them to challenge such approaches. We’re also recognizing it will take more time with some firms depending on location or sophistication and their journey on this diversity pathway. We’re here to influence, not criticize.

To me, the next success is getting this built into goals: setting clear metrics and pathways over multiple years. I think people are already seeing the business benefit, but there are ways for them to see even more clearly. I’m not going to feel successful until folks are truly on board in a way that we can measure and demonstrate change.