Sharon Barner is the (Em)powerhouse

Sharon Barner champions diverse thinking within her legal team and around the business table to inspire new opportunities for growth at Cummins

This year marks the centennial for service engine innovator Cummins, thanks to a century of guardians protecting and cultivating its technologies. Now a billion-dollar enterprise, the Fortune 500 global power leader is looking ahead through the leadership of intellectual property (IP) maven Sharon Barner. And as vice president and general counsel, Barner is proving that diversity of thought at the leadership table is just as essential to strengthening Cummins as the variety of services that generated Cummins’ legacy.

Sharon Barner, Cummins
Sharon Barner, Cummins Courtesy of Cummins Inc.

Founded in 1919 in Columbus, Indiana, the designer, manufacturer, and distributor of diesel and natural gas engines today serves customers around the world at more than seven thousand locations in 190 countries and territories. A juggernaut in the heavy equipment industry, Cummins also empowers its teams to set new standards in efficiency and performance—validated by its $20.4 billion sales in 2017. With more than 55,000 employees across six continents, Barner knows that creating opportunities for talent to thrive at Cummins is crucial to its high-achieving track record, and she’s leading by example.

“I spent thirty years in large law firms and then Cummins came and plucked me away, not because I was unhappy, but because it presented a great opportunity for me,” said Barner in an interview with Bloomberg’s Big Law Business. “When you look at in-house departments and find more women and more minorities in-house, it’s because we can offer great careers, great practice, great legal opportunities, and more lawyers are finding those things attractive.”

Prior to joining Cummins, Barner served as deputy undersecretary of commerce for the IP and deputy director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. She spearheaded fifteen foreign missions in two years, meeting with leaders in government and academia about the impact of IP on business innovation. Yet Barner spent most of her legal career in private practice. In fact, she recently led more than two hundred IP lawyers at Chicago firm Foley & Lardner LLP.

So when Barner arrived at Cummins in 2012, she continued to prioritize a strong team based on a crucial blend of high expertise and diversity. With that in mind, she initially hired thirty people, practically doubling the legal team from twenty-six to fifty-six attorneys, and in doing so, Barner reshaped the legal department. She increased her team demographics from less than 50 percent who were minorities and women to 67 percent.

Barner also reduced the number of outside law firms that Cummins held on retainer from 150 to twenty-two, and she guided her decisions based on the value of diversity. As a result, the number of minority leadership partners that Cummins works with as liaisons with its outside counsel has increased from zero to four, while the number of women leadership partners has also increased from one to three.

“As a law firm, you can decide whether you want to help me focus on diversity as one of my issues or not,” Barner said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Big Law Business. “I don’t make you stay on the preferred list, but if you’re going to be on it, here are the things that we value, both from the legal function and as a company as a whole.”

To do so, Barner also tracks the number of hours and consistency that diverse lawyers are spending on Cummins’ projects and evaluates the metrics every six months—ensuring 50 percent of hours are clocked by diverse lawyers.

“That is also our effort to ensure that law firms are not only hiring but retaining the best talent by giving them opportunity and visibility on the client’s work,” she added in the interview. “This is an area where I’m partnering with the law firm, where there’s a lot of discussion where they can hire diverse and women lawyers but they cannot retain them, and this is a critical part of the tension.”

Barner’s own track record of success is clear. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Syracuse University and a juris doctor at the University of Michigan, her ensuing legal career garnered attention. The National Law Journal named her as one of the “50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America” in 2008, and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois championed her work with the 2011 Women of Vision award. In 2013, she received the 2013 American Inns of Court Professionalism award for the 7th Circuit, and Law & Politics Media Inc. named her an Illinois “Super Lawyer” for her IP litigation work.

Now at Cummins, Barner continues to focus on developing the ways her team—both internal and external—can excel as business partners. In addition to managing risk and compliance effectively and efficiently, Barner encourages each legal executive to partake in strategic business meetings. She believes that creates a deeper understanding of the business and legal’s role among the different functions—from HR to IT to finance—as they interact and operate relevant to their departmental roles as legal counsel.

Barner’s emphasis on knowing the business inside and out has propelled the business trajectory forward. As a global operation, her legal expertise is an integral part of joint ventures on a massive scale for the global company. She champions legal’s involvement at every phase of the process, especially when legal can transform the initials steps into major leaps toward success. For example, Cummins acquired low-voltage battery packs producer Brammo in 2017 and Johnson Matthey’s automotive battery systems business in 2018 to expand its energy storage options for customers.

While the products that Cummins produces include many literal moving parts—fuel systems, controls, air handling, filtration, emission control, and electrical power generation systems—Barner and her legal team manage the many aspects of its business strategy as well. Her approach revolves around promoting diverse ways of thinking within her teams, and she believes that it’s that cross-pollination of ideas from different backgrounds that empowers companies such as Cummins to grow and thrive.