Leadership At The Intersection: Combining Business, Legal, And Technical Knowledge

Leaders who understand how different business functions intersect and are able to navigate intersectional pain points are best positioned to successfully support the overall goals of an organization.  Tom Bluth, former Senior Vice President at Caterpillar Inc., sat down with students in Northwestern’s Master of Science in Law (MSL) program to explore how interdisciplinary knowledge can propel employees on the road to becoming leaders.  Professionals who combine business, legal, and technical knowledge are uniquely prepared to solve complex programs and more holistically understand the product development lifecycle.

Product development involves many different functions, but too often those functions are siloed, causing issues when they intersect (sometimes, collide) with each other, which they invariably do.  It takes an intersectional thinker – often a person with multi-disciplinary training – to bring together and manage the many layers of a product’s development, including such functions as research & development, engineering, risk mitigation, intellectual property, business strategy, and legal issues. Here are some takeaways from Bluth’s talk how well-rounded leaders can make an impact:

  1. To be effective, a leader must understand and manage intersections.  Just like most traffic accidents happen at intersections, many product decisions go awry at the intersections between crucial functions.  One particularly fraught intersection is business and legal.  
  2. Leaders who understand how different functions work together are going to be more successful than those who don’t. Some leaders see different functions as barriers in the overall process, but those who see all the key functions as strategically related are more likely to thrive and avoid big setbacks.
  3. No matter how high up in the hierarchy you are, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. “Go and see” what is really going on in your organization.  Explore the different functions that are essential to developing your product.
  4. Use what you know, but also know enough (and be modest enough) to know what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the people who are experts in their area – this will help you learn and will also allow those around you to share what they have learned – all for the benefit of the project.
  5. The global market is complex – each customer and culture should be approached with an open mind and a willingness to be flexible. When entering a new market, take the time to learn about the culture and competitive environment of that market. Many business tactics do not translate well across borders; good leaders respect the local culture and attempt to understand where their customers are coming from.
  6. Customers should be partners. Companies should remain keenly cognizant of their customers during the product development cycle.

In short, leaders are more effective when they look at the product development lifecycle from all angles and understand the roles of each business function. Programs like Northwestern’s Master of Science in Law (MSL) equip future leaders to examine the big picture and explore the functional intersections (including legal) where processes can be improved and issues avoided. 


Interested in becoming an intersectional leader? Consider supplementing your business expertise with Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Law (MSL) degree to become a more well-rounded professional.

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