Honda SVP Catherine M. McEvilly: “Learn the business you are in as completely as you can; With knowledge comes competence and with competence comes confidence”

Learn the business you are in as completely as you can. With knowledge comes competence and with competence comes confidence. Each time I started a new position, I devoted myself to learning everything I could about how to be most successful in that position. This required acquiring new knowledge and skills, which I enjoyed. I […]

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Learn the business you are in as completely as you can. With knowledge comes competence and with competence comes confidence. Each time I started a new position, I devoted myself to learning everything I could about how to be most successful in that position. This required acquiring new knowledge and skills, which I enjoyed. I would be very bored if I had to do the same thing over and over again.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine M. McEvilly. Catherine M. McEvilly is the Senior Vice President & General Counsel of Honda North America, Inc. She is responsible for overseeing the legal affairs and audit reviews for all of Honda’s U.S. entities, including its offices in California, Ohio, Alabama, Indiana and South Carolina. Her responsibilities include providing legal advice and counsel at the senior management level and providing legal vision and strategy to support the Company’s business objectives. Cathy joined Honda North America, Inc. (“HNA”) in 1994. She spent her early years working primarily with the Auto Sales and Operations Divisions of American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (AHM). Throughout her years at Honda, she has handled a wide variety of matters ranging from complex litigation, class actions, dealer relations, antitrust issues, consumer finance, employment matters, compliance, and corporate governance issues. Cathy became Vice President & General Counsel in 2009 and Senior Vice President in 2016. From 2008 to 2012, Cathy served as Vice President & General Counsel of Honda Patents & Technologies North America, LLC, (“HPT”), where she was responsible for supervision of legal matters involving the creation and protection of Honda’s intellectual property assets and the defense of Honda companies in intellectual property litigation. Cathy serves as the Compliance Officer for Honda’s North American Region, as well as for HNA, and American Honda Finance Corporation. She also serves as secretary for HPT’s Steering Committee. She is the Co-Chair of HNA’s Diversity Steering Committee as well as a member of HNA’s Company Operating Committee and American Honda Motor Co., Inc.’s Ethics Committee. Cathy also serves on the National Urban League’s Board of Trustees. Cathy graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and received her Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School. Prior to working at Honda, she was a Los Angeles County Public Defender and worked at several mid¬sized Los Angeles law firms handling complex litigation matters.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I did not know any lawyers growing up. My parents were immigrants from Ireland and my father was a factory worker. So I was not exposed to many careers. I was a history major in college and I did not want to have what I thought of as a “traditional” career for a woman. Being a lawyer sounded glamorous and I thought it would allow me to have a career where I could help people and have an impact.

The only lawyers I knew of were the ones on television. I started out as a public defender practicing criminal law. While I loved being a public defender for the first two years, I realized I did not see myself in the job for my entire career. I left and worked at several law firms but something was missing. One thing I really enjoyed about being a public defender was having a client who relied on me for legal advice. I thought that an in-house job would allow me to help clients who needed legal advice and better allow me to have an impact.

Some years ago, Honda had a problem that involved both civil and criminal law and I was asked to help support the legal activity two days a week. Two days a week turned into full time almost immediately and I never looked back. I feel very lucky to work at Honda. I have a wonderful career where I work with great people both internally and externally. I have worked on challenging and demanding legal issues. As I celebrate my 25th anniversary with the company, I am thankful for the opportunity to work closely with top management and to work for a company where I believe I have the ability to make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the interesting things that has happened since I began working at Honda is the amount of trust our executive management has placed in me. I came to Honda to help lead a team that was working on a number of civil litigation cases, including class actions cases, that stemmed from illegal conduct of 20 former Honda employees.

I had prior legal experience, but had never dealt with a problem of this magnitude. Despite that, I worked with a team of outside lawyers, most of whom had far more specialized legal experience than me, as well as an internal business team that had industry experience that I did not have. At the time, it all seemed perfectly normal. Looking back, I realize that I was so fortunate that leadership trusted me and gave me the opportunity to help lead the team that resolved this significant problem.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After I had worked at Honda for some time, a big matter that was taking all my time started to wind down. My then manager asked me to start working with a new business group who was perceived as being difficult and not as prestigious as the business group I had been working with. My first reaction was that I must have done something wrong. I felt like the new position was a demotion. I spoke to my manager and strongly expressed my feelings. I even asked if the reason for the change in client was that he wanted me to quit. My manager was puzzled by my reaction and could not understand why I was upset.

Instead of quitting, I started to work with the new business group. I learned so much from them and it gave me a much broader view of the company’s business. I eventually realized that my manager wanted me to be successful, and knew I needed to work with other business units to truly understand the business. I was given a wonderful opportunity that in the beginning I was unable to see. I learned the importance of saying “yes” and not jumping to conclusions. I view that opportunity as a key to my success.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Many things make Honda stand out. First, it is an innovative company that makes terrific products. Whenever I tell someone I work at Honda, they always have a story to tell about their family owning Hondas or their first Honda or Acura. There is always a strong sense of personal connection with their Honda or Acura that is reflected in the stories they share.

Honda also does amazing work in the community. Previously, I was on the Board of the American Honda Education Foundation that supports the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado. Eagle Rock is a boarding school for teenagers at risk of not finishing high school. Honda pays 100% for the school, which is life changing for both the students and the teachers who work there. Honda has supported Eagle Rock for over 25 years but rarely talks about that initiative.

Honda is a very egalitarian environment. Everyone, including the president and executives sit in cubes/open office environment. There are not multiple layers of management so there is the opportunity for associates to have contact with executives.

Finally, Honda executives care about Honda associates. I remember traveling on a plane with our then president and a number of other employees. Our president was sitting in the front of the plane while the various associates were sitting throughout the plane. After the plane landed, our president waited outside the gate until every Honda associate was off the plane. He made every employee on that plane feel that they mattered and were important. I cannot think of too many people in his position who would do that. It reinforced my belief that Honda is a special place to work.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My team is providing legal support on a variety of projects that will enhance mobility in the future. Honda, like all auto companies, is engaged in a wide array of projects that will change the way that customers experience mobility. One example of a forward-looking matter that we recently worked on is a partnership with Amazon called Key by Amazon In-Car Delivery, which is a delivery program that allows certain Honda and Acura models to receive in-trunk package deliveries by Amazon. This permits customers to receive packages at work rather than delivery to their home porch. This feature can bring customers peace of mind if they are expecting something expensive or need the package right away. This service is included in the HondaLink and AcuraLink Remote package, which enables subscribers to control a number of vehicle functions remotely from their smartphone. This subscription model of service is a newer tool that allows Honda and Acura customers to participate in special features that appeal to certain customers.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Female (and male) leaders should model the behavior and the values they want to see from their team. For example, at Honda we share core values like passion, joy, dreams, respect and challenging spirit. If a leader believes a challenging spirit is important for their team, the leader should exhibit that value by embracing tough goals and pursuing them despite adversarial conditions. The leader should create an environment where the team is inspired to make things better. This leader will show her belief in this value by demonstrating it is okay to fail when trying hard to succeed and use the lessons of failure to succeed going forward. A leader may exhibit passion by openly sharing her passion so others will want to follow her lead. This leader will make it possible for her team to succeed by providing an environment that is a balance of challenge and support.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I would give the same advice to men and women. One of the most important things is to ensure you have capable leadership next to you and behind you. You cannot do everything yourself. You have to trust your leadership team to make good decisions. Excellent communication and accountability are key. I try to be clear on my expectations and desired outcomes. I always tell my team that I want to hear about problems from them first so we can work on fixing the problems. It is important to create an environment of honesty and trust. Be clear on what you can and cannot do. Make sure that your leadership team knows that you support them and they will support you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful for my mother who was an extraordinary role model who emphasized the importance of education, hard work and kindness. My mother was unable to attend college but she always stressed education was the key to success to all eight of her children (yes, I am one of eight kids!) I am a single parent who has raised my daughter on my own. My mother took care of my daughter when she was little which allowed me to focus on work knowing that my daughter could not be in better hands. I am also extremely grateful to my daughter who was flexible and understanding that I could not be the mom in the carpool line picking her up from school every day. While I tried to never miss anything really important, I know that it was tough on my daughter when I worked late or traveled for work. My daughter has also challenged preconceived ideas I have had and my view of the world has been greatly changed for the better because of her big heart and strong intellect.

On the career front, while I do not have one specific mentor, there are a number of people I have learned from and who have helped me through the years. Some have exemplified the qualities of leadership that I admire, some have always been willing to help talk through a difficult issue or have been a sounding board for a variety of problems. I have always felt lucky to be surrounded by smart and caring people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have tried to be kind and supportive to the people I work with. I try to help them reach their potential and progress in their careers. I am particularly interested in advancing diversity and inclusion. I co-chair Honda’s Diversity Steering Committee where we work towards enhancing inclusion in all aspects of Honda’s business. I have served as a mentor for a number of people and a sponsor as well.

I have also recently been appointed to the Board of Trustees for the National Urban League, one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations that focuses on racial equality and economic advancement. I am very excited about this opportunity to make a difference.

Finally, for a number of years, I have worked with high school girls to help them with their college admission essays. The girls attend a parochial school and are all on scholarship. Most of the girls are first generation applicants, just as I was. They may not have anyone at home to talk to about their essays or the college process. I am so gratified that I am able to contribute by helping them express themselves in ways that make their college application process a little bit easier.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, don’t worry so much. I never would have imagined when I graduated from either college or law school that I would have had the career I had. Many times, we think our careers will occur in a straight line. I will do this one thing, which will lead to this other thing. However, reality steps in and most of us get knocked off our paths along the way. At one point, I was so unhappy working in a law firm; I did not think I wanted to be a lawyer any more. I started exploring other careers and was seriously trying to figure out what else I could do. But the Honda opportunity came along and I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I just didn’t want to be a lawyer at a law firm.

Next, be authentic. You have to embrace who you are. When I tried my first case, I went against a lawyer who had 14 years of experience, a deep voice and wore a three-piece suit. I had been a lawyer for 6 months, was soft spoken and had a penchant for floral print dresses. By any measure, when we started, I thought for sure he would win. I was so worried that the jury would know it was my first trial and that they would hold it against me because he fit the perception of what a lawyer was supposed to be like and I didn’t. However, I won the case and learned that I could be successful just the way I was. I did not have to be like anyone else to win at trial … or to be promoted … or to be successful.

Third, learn the business you are in as completely as you can. With knowledge comes competence and with competence comes confidence. Each time I started a new position, I devoted myself to learning everything I could about how to be most successful in that position. This required acquiring new knowledge and skills, which I enjoyed. I would be very bored if I had to do the same thing over and over again.

Fourth, you will gain inspiration from many sources. I remember when I was first starting out, I would see different leadership styles and think I want to be like this person or that person. Or I would read about different people and admire certain qualities they possessed. What I realized over time is that you have to find your own style that fits you. You can take threads of inspiration from different sources but you must weave them into someone who is uniquely you.

Finally, be flexible and open to new opportunities. It is difficult to predict the doors that may open for you. I believe that all of my experiences led me to Honda. My experience in criminal law and civil litigation made me the right candidate for the Honda position. I was ready to be a leader at Honda in part because I had leadership roles at the other places I worked. I have always been open to new opportunities even when I am not sure of where they will lead.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are so many ways I could answer this question, as there are so many problems that need solutions. But if I could wave my magic wand today, I would wish for a world with racial equality and economic advancement for all. Everyone deserves to be fairly treated and not judged based on their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. There is so much division in the world but at our core is our common humanity. If we can see each other’s humanity and treat each other like we would want to be treated or as we would like one of our loved ones to be treated, the world would be a far better place.

All people deserve to have work that pays well enough to allow them to support their families and have economic security. If people had economic security, then perhaps they would not be so fearful and worried about people who are different from them. Finally, economic security would hopefully lead to better educational opportunities and stable families as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One quote that touches me is by Soichirio Honda, the founder of Honda and a visionary man who suffered many failures before he finally found success. The quote is in Honda’s cafeteria and each time I see it, I am reminded that success does not come easy for most of us. Mr. Honda said, “Success can only be achieved with a kind of pioneer spirit and the repeated use of three tools: failure, introspection and courage.”

I, like most people, have had many roadblocks and failures along the way. Failure can feel very lonely. But we have to remind ourselves that failure is part of life and everyone fails sometimes. Instead, when we fail, we have to critically look at what happened. Then we need the courage to pick ourselves up and try again or sometimes, not try the same thing again but try something different.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have breakfast or lunch with Serena Williams. She is such a strong, tough competitor. She grew up poor, with humble beginnings in Compton. She had a big dream and I am sure she could never have imagined when she was little, the life she would have. Her life has far exceeded the expectations she could have imagined. I am awed by her strength and the poetry of the way she moves as she plays tennis. I am also so impressed that Serena won a major tournament while pregnant, had a baby and is right back playing world class tennis again. She is a wonderful role model.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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