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Putting people first: Ivan Fong on corporate legal leadership

Insights on legal leadership, inclusion, and technology’s impact on law

What are the five imperatives for legal leadership? And how is technology changing the practice of law? Ivan Fong, general counsel at the 3M Company, shares his perspectives on everything from leadership mentality to inclusion, to technology’s impact on legal teams.

Editor’s note: Ivan Fong has become the general counsel at Medtronic since this episode was released.

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Selfless leadership comes with a people-first mentality

The child of Chinese immigrants, Ivan credits his parents and grandmother for instilling the values that have shaped his career and life.


My grandmother had a very favorite saying in Chinese, which roughly translates to ‘people are the most important, whatever the situation.’ That has stuck with me, and I think it explains a bit of how my mind-set today of service, generosity, and hospitality remain important to me, because people are most important.

Resiliency-driving lessons on inclusion and belonging

Growing up as an Asian-American in Maryland, and then attending a boarding school in Hong Kong for junior high, Ivan learned the importance of inclusion.

I remember, vividly, a pickup basketball game in which, at the end, the tradition was for everyone to make one last basket before going. We were playing and the dinner bell rang, and everybody started making their last basket and leaving to go to dinner. And for some reason, my shots would not go in. I remember one of the boys yelling ‘go home to America to make your last basket.’ And I was really perplexed because, of course in the United States, I was used to regularly being taunted by others saying, ‘go home, you don't belong,’ and worse. I reflected and realized that if I’m not home in Hong Kong, which I wasn't, and if I wasn't truly American, then nowhere was I at home. And since then, I’ve just felt very strongly about fostering a sense of inclusion, and welcoming and belonging.


What is the thing that you are being called to do to make the world a better place? How can you use your talent, your skills, and your abilities to serve, whether it’s your country or your client or some other cause that is bigger than yourself?


Technology’s impact on the practice of law

Technology influences our lives and all we do. Ivan understands the great implications for the legal practice and how it’s transforming what it means to be a lawyer.

People now take for granted the ability to do legal research online, to be able to communicate online, to be able to analyze the data that we are able to collect and draw insights and inferences from. I think the primary change will come in the form of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics. I think we are just starting to understand and see the potential. I think it changes the way in which we think about practicing law and puts a premium, not so much on the information gathering and analysis part of being a lawyer, but on the application and the strategic thinking behind what lawyers ultimately do when they counsel and give advice to clients.

Five leadership imperatives to consider

Over the course of his career, Ivan has identified five imperatives in his leadership playbook: begin with the end in mind; go slow to go fast; focus on the critical few and not the urgent many; delegate and empower your team; and overcommunicate.

[In a marathon] the first runners will cross the finish line before the runners at the end of the line have even started the race. When you are a leader, you have lived with this idea or project or initiative, and you are sick and tired of it. And you’re at the finish line. You must remember that there are people in the organization, in fact, most people in the organization, who have not even crossed the starting line. So, put yourself in their shoes and communicate to them, over and over again, as if they knew nothing and they were at the starting line—which is where they are. Don’t just assume you can announce some big initiative or decision and just that’s the end of it.

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