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Kate Duchene: The GC Who Became the Decision Maker

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A lot has changed for Kate Duchene since she was honored by the Business Journal in our inaugural General Counsel Awards event in 2010.

In 2016, she became chief executive of Resources Connection Inc. (Nasdaq: RGP), an Irvine-based global consulting firm whose clients include 89 of the Fortune 100 members.

The company, which also operates under the Resources Global Professionals (RGP) name, employs 3,600 and generated $703.4 million in revenue for fiscal 2020. It counts a market value approaching $400 million.

What are the biggest differences between the roles of a CEO and a general counsel?

“The responsibility for enterprise decision making and the fact that the buck stops with you,” Duchene told the Business Journal.

“You’re not advising a decision maker. You have to do it. You are also responsible for the culture of an organization. You have to change your mentality from a doer into an influencer, strategist and learner. I spend a lot of time reading what’s around the corner,” she said.

After taking over the top role, Duchene implemented a strategy to modernize the company, shifting from a project-based model to offering more ongoing advisory services, particularly in data integration and mergers and acquisitions. In 2019, she announced a new area of modernization to “become a more digital business.”

The Beginning

RGP, which was founded in 1996, grew out of Deloitte with a decentralized, branch office-based model to help finance executives with operational needs and special projects created by workforce gaps.

Duchene, a graduate of Stanford University and New York University School of Law, spent almost a decade in the 1990s as a trial lawyer negotiating labor and employment disputes at O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles.

Then in 1999, she joined RGP where initially she managed the human resources department and then added the titles of chief legal officer and corporate secretary. After helping to take RGP public in 2000, Duchene oversaw the expansion of the company’s human resources department, including developing and managing compensation and benefits, and designing client professional services agreements for the company. She also became involved in acquisitions and advising the board of directors.

She became the company’s fourth chief executive in 2016 following the retirement of Anthony Cherbak due to health reasons.

“After thorough consideration and discussion, and recognizing Ms. Duchene’s strong performance during her term as Interim CEO, the Board unanimously agreed Ms. Duchene brings the leadership, integrity and innovative thinking necessary for the Company’s continued success and growth,” A. Robert Pisano, the lead independent director on the board, said in a statement at the time.

She’s won multiple honors from the Business Journal.

In 2017, she was one of five honorees at the Business Journal’s 23rd Annual Women in Business Awards ceremony.

It was not only business success for her in the past decade, noting that her two children went to college and now have successful careers.

“I’m proud of my children’s accomplishments,” she said. Success “is not always on the business side.”

Similarities

After being CEO for almost four years, she sees the similarities between her job and that of general counsel.

“General counsels have to be persuaders too,” Duchene said. “There are many things about my legal training that have been very helpful.”

She also sees the differences, such as lawyers being able to concentrate on one issue and problem solving.

“In the CEO role, you’re going to have a lot of plates spinning at one time and you have to prioritize, reprioritize and adapt to change,” she said. “Lawyers have to get better at having a mindset to address change. The pace of change is increasing every single day.”

For example, during a conference call earlier this month with analysts and investors, she had to explain that revenue for fiscal first quarter ended Aug. 29 declined 14% year over year to $147.3 million because of the pandemic.

She also touched on a variety of subjects like restructuring in Europe, exiting the Nordic markets, pricing discipline on gross margin and launching a new digital platform.

GC Advice

If an attorney wants to become a CEO, she advises they get exposure to operational roles and if not, attend business meetings or work on task forces or initiatives. They must learn the tools of business and how to talk the same language as an executive. She said a general counsel who wants to move into strategic advisory role should invest in relationships that create trust.

“Help a CEO understand risks, the shades of gray,” Duchene said. “There is so much gray in the world.”

Duchene herself hired a new general counsel—Lauren Elkerson, who was an associate general at RGP and who replaced Alice Washington, who retired.

“I promoted her because of her passion for the business and the relationships she had in the company,” Duchene said.

Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.

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