Alison Malin Zoellner’s career path was written in the stars, it seems. “The announcement of my birth was actually styled as the announcement of an initial public offering,” Zoellner says with a laugh. “So that probably presaged a long career facing Wall Street and being a securities lawyer.”
That said, her journey working in corporate law has been anything but straight forward. Over twenty-seven years, she’s found herself working with financial institutions and multinational corporations as an associate at New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell law firm. She’s also managed a diverse portfolio of media investments as the vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company.
Today, she serves as vice president and general counsel for the $2.5 billion Advanced Materials business within Honeywell, which manufactures high-performance products, including environmentally preferable refrigerants and materials used to manufacture products, such as bullet-resistant armor, computer chips, and more. Honeywell is a Fortune 100, global software-industrial company headquartered in Morris Plains, New Jersey, that delivers industry-specific solutions that include aerospace and automotive products and services; control technologies for buildings, homes, and industries; and performance materials.
“Looking across Honeywell, it’s probably one of the most disparate businesses in that it encompasses many smaller businesses within it,” she says. “So that’s made for a very complex portfolio of issues and challenges to get my head around.”
Zoellner stepped into this new role a little more than a year ago after having worked in Honeywell’s corporate department focusing on matters related to securities and corporate finance for more than four years. It was a daunting shift, but Zoellner is used to it, having taken on a variety of roles in her career. Everything she’s experienced in her career so far, she says, has helped prepare her for this new role.
“The nice thing about starting out in a big law firm is that you’re constantly becoming an expert on a new client or matter every day. You go from zero to sixty on a new client, a new industry, a new vertical all the time,” she says. “It trains your mind so that if you elect to step over and go work for a company, then you’re well-positioned to roll up your sleeves and learn about that company in an in-depth fashion.”
That training is especially helpful when moving into large businesses with a labyrinthine internal structure, such as Honeywell. It’s also helped her realize just how many threads connect across multiple industries. “No matter where you are, you expect your in-house lawyers to be experts,” she says. “You expect them to be completely independent and have their own articulation of legal advice and the issues at hand.”
Too often, there’s an expectation in major corporations that employees stay in their lane in terms of their prior expertise. What’s so special about Honeywell, Zoellner says, is how the company works to diversify its talent. Zoellner’s shift into Advanced Materials isn’t one she would’ve expected when she arrived at the company, but she describes Honeywell as a place that believes if someone’s successful at one thing, then they can be successful at something else.
That’s absolutely true of her shift from securities and corporate finance, where she’s invested a great deal of her career, to an area wholly specific to Honeywell itself in Advanced Materials. At Honeywell, Zoellner says, people have the option to leap between multiple verticals. “Here, you see people being extremely open to a variety of different outcomes,” she says. “That makes for a dynamic and exciting work environment.”
And Honeywell’s environment has only emboldened her own leadership style and the ways in which she interacts with employees. “When I interview people here, I truly say to them that the sky’s the limit,” she says. “You could start out as a lawyer, and you could end up running global M&A, as my colleague Anne Madden does for us today. The only constraints here are the ones you put on yourself.”
Not only is this approach representative of Zoellner’s own journey, but she says it’s also appealing to the more junior employees at Honeywell. “Employees at the beginning of their careers want constant feedback and a clear sense from you of how you’re going to help them optimize their opportunities,” she says. “I think there’s a big responsibility when you’re a manager to imprint upon them that you’re there to partner with them to drive their career forward.”
This sense of fostering growth and discovery also extends to Zoellner’s work recruiting outside counsel, whom she finds via a partnership with AdvanceLaw, a company that works to identify the best law firms and provide fee and performance information. AdvanceLaw’s careful vetting process and commitment to transparency works to ensure a level of certainty in those using its services, which is certainly the case for Zoellner and her crew at Honeywell. “We love partnering with AdvanceLaw because they have the same theory as us, which is that you need to get the best quality for the most competitive price,” she says. “But I also view them as an opportunity pipeline to discover excellent, diverse firms that are less known to those of us on the corporate pyramid.”
A year into her new role, Zoellner has completed building her team and is focused on providing the best possible support to Honeywell’s myriad of businesses.
“What makes my business so interesting is that there’s such a strong culture of innovation,” she says. Although she’s talking about the business’ intellectual property, it’s also easy to see how Zoellner and Honeywell are working to innovate the way individuals look at their career trajectories. For them, anything is possible.
“Alison and the rest of Honeywell’s legal team understand it’s possible to receive both quality and efficiency from outside counsel, and we are enjoying partnering with them to identify the best firms and lawyers for their needs. In our experience, there is no necessary trade-off—some of the best lawyers and teams are highly efficient.” Firoz Dattu, Founder & Chair, AdvanceLaw.
AdvanceLaw is a group of 180 general counsel, working together to identify firms and lawyers that deliver, especially strong innovation, expertise, efficiency, and quality. This is achieved through the sharing of in-house lawyer feedback on firm performance.