Monica Howard Douglas took the call to arrange an interview with Stanford Lawyer from her car while driving to her daughter’s soccer game.
The ability to balance career and family is just one aspect of her success. She also attributes her steady rise in The Coca-Cola Company, and her appointment as senior vice president and general counsel in 2021, to good mentorship, a willingness to seek out advice, challenge herself, and take calculated risks—and a talent for reading the room.
“I often say EQ is just as important as IQ, using those soft skills to identify the issues you need to be thinking about,” says Howard Douglas. “Being able to read the room and figure out what’s needed in the moment to get you to resolution are really important. Because you need those muscles to be developed so you’re prepared when the issue strikes.”
She joined The Coca-Cola Company in 2004 as marketing and supply chain counsel for North America, where she focused much of her time on sports and entertainment contracts. Then a unique opportunity came her way in 2007, when she was offered a role to move into Coca-Cola’s warehouse juice business. But she hesitated.
“I was getting pulled out of the main business to move into business that was managed and operated separate and apart from the core,” she recalls. “One of my mentors at the time pulled me aside and said, ‘You need to take this role because you’re going to learn skills that no one else will have. You’re going to learn how to support an end-to-end business, and even if you don’t land another job at Coke, these are skills that you’ll need wherever you go next.’ So, I took the job, and she was absolutely right.”
That success led to her appointment in 2013 as legal director for the Southern and East Africa business unit, which included 24 countries in Southern, East, and Central Africa. After four years in South Africa, she returned to the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, where she served as general counsel of North America until April 2021 when she assumed her SVP and general counsel position.
While family and career balance are important to Howard Douglas, public service is another vital part of the equation. At Stanford Law School, she helped launch the Stanford chapter of Street Law, where she actively promoted the rights of incarcerated juveniles. She has served on multiple boards, including Child Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Cool Girls, volunteered as a Big Sister for the Big Brothers Big Sisters network, and oversaw Coca-Cola’s Pro Bono Committee, a program with over 150 projects running throughout the year. “Public service is why I became a lawyer, and it’s been in the background of everything that I’ve done,” she says.
In the interview that follows, Howard Douglas discusses her career with Colleen Honigsberg, professor of law and Bernard Bergreen Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School, whose research focuses on the empirical study of corporate and securities law.
—by Sharon Driscoll
Colleen Honigsberg: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
Monica Howard Douglas: The easy answer is that my father’s an attorney, and I grew up in a household where there were really only two career options for my siblings and myself: either go to law school or medical school. I chose the law, but I also think that was influenced by
people in my father’s circle and my seeing how they’ve used the law to effect change.
Honigsberg: Did you enter law school knowing you wanted to do business law?
Howard Douglas: I didn’t. I actually started out thinking that I wanted to go into public interest law or criminal defense.
Honigsberg: Really? So, how did you end up where you are?
Howard Douglas: I was open to seeking input and direction from those who had been down this path. While I knew my passion was to use the law to impact whatever environment I was in, I wasn’t sure what the end result might look like. I thought when I finished my clerkship I would work for a public defender, but it was actually the judge I clerked for, Damon Keith, and my father who encouraged me to get training at a law firm. And so that set me on the course that eventually landed me here.
Honigsberg: You were active in community service at university and law school—and still are. Why is it important to you?
Howard Douglas: I think without the ability to impact the communities where I live and where I work, I would really be an ineffective lawyer. And I’ve realized that is my purpose, and it shapes everything I do. It’s also why I’ve stayed at The Coca-Cola Company for so long because my values are aligned with the company’s values and it allows me to have a platform to impact and effect change, whether it’s inside Coca-Cola or outside. It’s why I became a lawyer, and it’s been in the background of everything that I’ve done.
Honigsberg: Can you talk a little bit more about that in terms of your personal values and how you found a job that aligns with them?
Howard Douglas: It’s very hard to assess before you join a company or firm, but being clear in your mind about what’s important to you so you can test the culture I think helps. Early in my career, I landed in a couple places where the environment was not right for me. And through trial and error, I eventually found Coke. I started out in sports and entertainment law here, and I thought there couldn’t be anything better—drafting contracts for sports teams and celebrities and entertainers. I really loved the culture. It’s focused on serving our communities, connecting with consumers and is highly ethical—all the things that I find important. And when they moved me out of sports and entertainment and into supply chain, I was disappointed at first. But I found just as much fulfillment because those core values were still there, and I was still able to grow my interests and passions while developing and learning.
Honigsberg: Can you give an example of when you got more involved in the strategic side of the business?
Howard Douglas: The most recent and exciting example is the announcement that we made about our relationship with OpenAI’s ChatGPT for a marketing campaign. So, the business unit came to legal with a proposition that seemed like it was going to create nothing but risk for the company. They wanted to be the first to experiment with ChatGPT in a very public-facing way, with very few guardrails. They just wanted to go for it and interact with our consumers and let them use our trademarks and our intellectual property to create advertising.
The old lawyer in me would have thought about all the reasons why this was not a great idea. But instead I asked: Is it possible to put filters on so that we can protect ourselves and our consumers? So, we problem-solved alongside the business and eventually found a way to bring an innovative idea to life. Coke is one of the first of many big companies experimenting in this space. It’s a fun example of how we enter the conversation differently.
Honigsberg: Can you talk more about the role lawyers play in problem-solving generally and your role at Coca-Cola? We hear from some students that they want to go to small companies because they think they’ll be more engaged with strategy—they want to be involved in all aspects of the company rather than siloed into legal issues.
Howard Douglas: Someone asked me recently about my role at Coke, and I said that the very last thing I do is give legal advice. One of the best parts of our job is that we’re actually businesspeople with legal degrees. People come to us to help solve very hard business problems. And if you enter the conversation with your legal hat on, citing case law and regulations, it immediately shuts down the conversation. You enter the conversation with your own creative ideas about how to achieve the business objective or even how to rethink the objective in a way that mitigates risk.
Honigsberg: Can you talk about taking risks and how that has helped or hurt your career?
Howard Douglas: I mentioned that one of the biggest decisions I made in my career was early on when Coke wanted to move me from sports and entertainment into supply chain to support our juice business. It was very risky because at the time we were a soft drink company that just happened to have a juice business. I was getting pulled out of the main business to move into a side business. And it was not based in Atlanta, but in Texas where it had its own leadership team. And so, I was taking a big risk in that if the juice business were to fail, there wouldn’t necessarily be a landing spot for me. However, one of my mentors at the time pulled me aside and said, “You need to take this role because you’re going to learn skills that no one else will have. You’re going to learn how to support an end-to-end business, and even if you don’t land another job at Coke, these are skills that you’ll need wherever you go next.” So, I took the job, and she was absolutely right. The next time we had a restructure, we had someone from the outside come in, and she was looking for a leader to run a major bottling operation of ours. She said my name kept coming up even though I was too junior and didn’t have management experience, but I had the skill set. And so she gave me the chance to run this big team because she didn’t have anybody else. It wasn’t a strong endorsement, but it opened the door.
This also happened when I was offered the role of running the legal operations in South Africa. I wasn’t looking for that opportunity, but it was presented to me. My first instinct is always, “No.” And that’s when I know that I need to dig in and take a serious look at it and figure out how I can leverage it to help me develop and expand my capabilities.
Honigsberg: How did you address your prior lack of management experience?
Howard Douglas: It was daunting. I went from never managing a team to managing nine direct reports. But I have never been shy about asking for help. So, I asked for a coach, I networked across the organization to see who was willing to mentor and guide me, I connected closely with HR, and then slowly I built a team that was more experienced in critical areas than I was, but completely supportive and aligned on where we were and where we were headed. That was the key to my success. And I just poured myself into the job—learning about leading teams, attending every seminar, and using every resource available to me. I’m still on a learning journey. Leading a team is the hardest but most important part of my job.
Honigsberg: I’d like to hear more about your position running the legal operations in South Africa. Can you discuss some of the challenges you had, including relocating your family, uprooting your children and husband, and navigating a different social and corporate culture?
Howard Douglas: Yeah, it’s funny because my husband and I look back on our time there with rose-colored glasses. It was amazing. I think as a family we grew. My children became little global citizens, and there were all of these wonderful experiences and relationships. But it was really hard in the beginning. I thought because I was moving to an English-speaking country and because quite frankly a lot of the people would look like me that there would be an automatic acceptance. But that wasn’t the case. I was an outsider who knew the least about everything, not just the culture. I knew the least about the system of laws, I knew the least about how the company operated, I knew the least about how to navigate the school systems. Everything was difficult and complex. I think that’s where that growth mindset comes in, and you just have to figure out where to dig in and where to sit back.
I got really comfortable very early on with being the person in the room who knew the least and leaning on those who knew the most. I thought I was going in to provide my expertise. But what I realized soon after arriving was that wasn’t my role at all. My role was to figure out how to build relationships so I could leverage everyone’s expertise and bring it all together. And again, exercising different muscles of leadership and figuring out how to gain confidence from a group of people who see you as an outsider is so important. It is what has prepared me the most for positions that came after.
Honigsberg: What does Coca-Cola do to support women and people of color in terms of making those types of riskier career moves?
Howard Douglas: Leadership matters. When I moved to South Africa, the business unit president was an American woman, also on an expat assignment. And what I immediately appreciated was the example she set—it’s why people told me that I was going to a place where I was going to be supported. At 4:00 every afternoon, she left the office to be home when her children came home because she was in a foreign country and she wanted to make sure she was there. And she would start every conversation with a statement or a story about her family. She just changed the whole culture of the office by making it OK for people to seek balance, and that made all the difference in the world for me and my family. There is a supportive culture here. We have a very strong Women’s Leadership Council. It’s a global women’s organization that has evolved over time but has really focused on helping women to be comfortable in taking these types of opportunities through sponsorship and mentorship.
Honigsberg: Since you’ve been GC, the company has faced some big challenges. I think you were general counsel of North America in 2020 when COVID hit and then soon took on GC of the whole company.
Can you talk about the challenges you faced during the pandemic, particularly at the beginning?
Howard Douglas: Yeah, it was a heavy two years for a lot of reasons. But what was strange for us was that we did not have a general counsel at the time. Our former general counsel had left and there was a search for a new general counsel. So, for about 10 months of COVID, we had to come together as a leadership team to figure out how to ground the legal function in the midst of all of the chaos. I think the best of us came out. We completely pivoted, putting our people first and dealing with different issues in different parts of the world. We had some colleagues in China sleeping in our facilities. We had people who were experiencing loss, and we connected as a global team weekly. We sent out constant communications, focused on making sure our well-being was a priority. But we still had a company to support and a lot of legal work that needed to be done—looking at big issues like how to shut down an office, how to reopen, health protocols, testing requirements, what to do if someone’s family member or an employee dies from COVID. Those were all questions that the legal team was leading in.
Honigsberg: Companies faced another big challenge with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Coca-Cola suspended business in Russia soon after it invaded Ukraine. Can you talk about the challenges involved in that decision?
Howard Douglas: It’s another example where legal is at the table through all of the really complex decisions. We have a unique component to our business, which is our bottling system. Our bottlers are very local in nature, so they are the ones who distribute our product. We are really the marketing arm that provides the concentrate and does the marketing. We had a bottling partner in Russia, we had an office in Russia, and we had a couple of joint ventures doing business there. Making the decision to withdraw was the easy part. But navigating the complexities of actually pulling the business out of a country where we have been for many years was very difficult. We have wound down our relationship and are no longer doing business in Russia, but there are employees who had to work on that for a while and who have now left our organization. There’s a human element and a business element to think about, and they’re so intertwined that you have to be able to see the whole picture to be able to navigate it. And I think it takes a different type of leader to be able to manage through the issues of today.
Honigsberg: What characteristics of that leader are most important?
Howard Douglas: I often say EQ is just as important as IQ. Using those soft skills to identify the issues you need to be thinking about and being able to read the room and figure out what’s needed in the moment to get you to resolution are really important. Because you need those muscles to be developed so you’re prepared when the issue strikes.
Honigsberg: In terms of ESG [environmental, social, and governance], Coca-Cola has been on the forefront of some environmental issues—particularly with water rights—since before we even called it ESG. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced with ESG and how you navigate those challenges in each country?
Howard Douglas: I think you just hit the nail on the head. The challenges are local in nature, and we are a global company, so trying to come up with a strategy that works in all areas has been difficult. We may not have it all figured out, but we are taking steps in the areas that are critical to our business to become better. We’re engaging our stakeholders to get ideas from them. We’re trying to evolve quickly to figure out what that means for The Coca-Cola Company. And we’ve made some major shifts, as you said, when it comes to water and the broader environmental issues. I think our biggest challenge is that our system is very complex and it involves all the downstream suppliers—our bottlers and everyone who touches our business. How we get our arms around our entire complex system to effect the change we want is what we’re focused on now. We have put a lot of resources into sustainability, we’ve hired a lot of people, and we have experts helping us think this through in a way that makes sense but also rapidly effects change. But I would say it’s a journey for us.
Honigsberg: I believe you were the first woman to hold the position of GC at Coca-Cola and the third Black person. Can you talk about carrying the mantle of being the first woman, the first Black woman, and how you feel about that role?
Howard Douglas: You know, every time someone says it, I realize that I don’t think about it. I really don’t focus on it, but I do think a lot about leaving a legacy so that it’s easier for the next. I think a lot about the next generations to come and whether I am making enough of an impact so that it’s just not an issue to select another female general counsel or a Black general counsel.
Honigsberg: Can you talk about some of the steps you have taken to make it so the next time it isn’t even something we think about?
Howard Douglas: My goal is to be the best leader, the best business partner, and the best partner to our CEO, so that people don’t think about my gender or my color and they’re saying that I was the best general counsel we ever had. I think I’ve always had a standard of excellence for myself. I’m not going to get it right all of the time, but I am going to put the right energy and the right effort into it. I surround myself with an amazing team. I think being a great leader is putting yourself in a position where people are smarter and more capable than you and aligned with your cultural vision. The focus is not on me. I want our legal function to be the best in the industry and for talented attorneys to want to work for us because of the values we have, the culture we drive, and how fun it is to be a lawyer at The Coca-Cola Company. So, with those as my goals and holding myself accountable for them, I hope that it will no longer be about gender or color. We’ll have too many excellent Black and women leaders to count.
Honigsberg: Can you offer advice to law students and people who are midcareer?
Howard Douglas: Make sure you’re working on your soft skills and not just your IQ. If you’re not able to navigate circumstances where you’re uncomfortable, then you’re probably not learning. Try to seek out those opportunities to get as uncomfortable as you can so you can build those muscles and be ready for what you’re sure to face. And then find your purpose and have that guide you into making your career decisions. And seek out the balance that you need. It’s possible to be a lawyer and to have a phenomenal life. The law does not have to be your life. SL