Best of the best: constructive dialogue

Feb 01, 2009
<p>Corporate Secretary Magazine Awards 2008 'Rising star' winner Laura Lonsdale of Tyco International</p>

One of the two rising stars identified by our judges in the first Corporate Secretary Magazine Awards is an ombudsman. She is Laura Lonsdale, a lawyer by training who rose through several audit and governance positions at Tyco International before taking on her current role. Our panelists tapped her together with Douglas Chia, senior counsel and assistant corporate secretary of Johnson & Johnson, whom we profiled in January, as best newcomers in a governance or compliance role, an award sponsored by CSC. Other nominees included Alan Srulowitz from CA, Larry Parsons from Freescale and Julia Farr Connolly from MHI Hospitality.

Lonsdale is just one of a few people who have held the ombudsman title at Tyco since the position was created in 2002. It’s a very visible role in the 110,000-employee company that often has Lonsdale hosting town hall-style meetings focused on ethics and compliance across the widespread global firm.

At ease
Tyco describes the corporate ombudsman as an impartial dispute resolution professional who provides independent confidential assistance to Tyco employees. That person also handles concerns offered by Tyco customers, suppliers and shareholders, as well as the general public. The position was created as part of a broad governance overhaul following the ousting of former CEO Dennis Kozlowski and other senior managers in a fraud and self-dealing scandal.

Tyco’s new governance leaders are clear on why they wanted Lonsdale in the role. ‘She has a welcoming personality that puts everyone around her at ease, allowing her to engage in a constructive dialogue with all levels of employees around the world. Laura is equally comfortable speaking with a shop-floor manager as with one of our senior directors, which makes her well-suited to her ombudsman role,’ says Matthew Tanzer, Tyco’s vice president and chief compliance counsel. ‘She gets unanimously high praise from everyone she interacts with for her collegial and friendly style. She is truly a pleasure to work with, both in her demeanor and her ability to get things done.’

Lonsdale, who had risen from senior corporate auditor to a corporate governance management role, was at first a bit hesitant about taking the post. ‘I thought it would be me listening to people’s problems all day, which potentially could be really depressing,’ she says. ‘But it is a great position and one in which I help people solve problems.’

Among her responsibilities is analyzing Tyco’s whistleblower hotline for data trends which she then takes to the audit committee and management team. At any one time she is working with human resources, legal, compliance, forensic audit and security on over 100 open cases. She is also a leader in forming Tyco’s ethical business strategies and author of the company’s quarterly ‘Integrity Bulletin’.

‘Laura is noted for having taken our ombudsman office to the next level of sophistication, with much more direct contact and interaction with our employees around the world, improved analysis of case trends and other data, innovative use of electronic polling technology to obtain input on sensitive subjects while preserving anonymity of employees and improved outreach to our business leaders,’ Tanzer says. ‘She is recognized as a rising star in our organization as well.’

In motion
Tyco’s varied, far-flung operations keep Lonsdale moving: ‘I have had the opportunity to visit sites all over the world to do trainings and conduct focus groups with employees at all levels. This proactive approach really helps to put a face on, and raise awareness of, the somewhat intimidating title of ombudsman.’

In what Lonsdale says is a rarity for a public company, the ombudsman reports directly to Tyco’s three-person audit committee at board meetings held six times a year in Bermuda. Lonsdale presents to the full audit committee, plus the CFO, general counsel and others, but can also ask for private sessions with the directors. ‘In the old Tyco, nobody reported directly to the board except for the CEO,’ she says. ‘Our new board said we need to fix this and put in direct reporting lines.’

After graduating from Boston University School of Law, Lonsdale was hired by the Lexington, Massachusetts office of the Silicon Valley-founded law firm Gunderson Dettmer in the dotcom boom and then laid off in the dotcom bust. In her subsequent job search, she met Tyco’s head of internal audit, who was casting a wide net for a large team of in-house auditors from business, accounting and legal backgrounds. Lonsdale says she was unsure about joining a company that had been in such turmoil, but she could see that its problems were isolated and Tyco still had a strong business model. ‘During my interview, they really sold me,’ she says.

Tyco’s former senior vice president for corporate governance, Eric Pillmore, says when he hired Lonsdale to join his governance group, he was extremely impressed that she had been working as a financial auditor without a financial background. ‘Audit took a chance on me and there were some very good people to learn from there,’ Lonsdale says. ‘I still consider myself a lawyer, but I can work my way through a balance sheet.’

After 15 months on Pillmore’s governance team, he recommended Lonsdale to the head of Tyco’s audit committee for ombudsman. ‘She is bright, has outstanding analytical skills, has superb interpersonal skills, is articulate, self-confident and very effective in dealing with senior leaders and board members, as well as employees that contact Tyco on the ombudsman line,’ Pillmore explains. ‘She reacts very well under pressure and is committed to do what it takes to get the job done, and with the highest quality.’

Lonsdale says she feels lucky to have landed at Tyco, particularly given the mentors she found. ‘Eric Pillmore gave me a tremendous opportunity when he hired me to work for him. I learned so much from him about governance and the business world in general. He also opened a lot of doors for me by inviting me along to senior management meetings and board meetings,’ she says. ‘I also greatly admire Tyco’s general counsel, Judy Reinsdorf. She is down to earth and approachable, yet even with her mild disposition, commands the respect of everyone in the room.’

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