Nancy Laben, general counsel of Booz Allen Hamilton
Only a few of Nancy Laben’s Columbia law school class took non-law firm jobs or clerkships straight out of law school; she knew she wanted an in-house career where she could really get to know one client and its business, so she took the path less travelled and joined IBM. After a few years, Nancy joined Arthur Andersen Worldwide and spent the next 20-plus years building teams for the Andersen and Accenture organizations. After three years as general counsel at AECOM, Nancy joined Booz Allen Hamilton in the fall of 2013 as general counsel. Laben is proud to be a part of the Booz Allen team providing critical services and support to our government and the nation.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
Building teams. I love to provide people with opportunities to do great work and to create great careers. In 1994, the opportunity arose to open Andersen Worldwide’s Asia Pacific legal practice, and I jumped on it. I spent five years in Hong Kong hiring and training each member of the new Asia Pacific legal team. I am really proud of building such a high functioning and cohesive team that was doing great work and creating opportunities not only for the organization, but also for themselves to advance their individual careers.
Can you talk about taking risks to advance your career?
You must be willing to take risks to achieve your ultimate career goal. Each risk is an opportunity to learn or do something new, regardless of how it turns out. Serendipity is also a great thing, but you need to recognize the opportunity when it comes around and be willing to take a chance on it.
I always wanted to work internationally, as I had spent my formative years in Tokyo, Japan. In fact, I spent my 2L summer clerkship in Tokyo working for IBM. So when the opportunity arose to move to Hong Kong, I jumped on it. There were many who told me not to do it, though: It would be too hard; it wasn’t right for a woman; there wouldn’t be a position for me to return to... To top it all off, I had a two-year-old and a six-month-old and a husband who had his own thriving career. But, I wanted international experience—so I took the risk, moved to Hong Kong and never looked back. My five years in Hong Kong led to another three years in London to reorganize and rebuild the Accenture EMEA legal team following the split from Andersen. My international experience was exactly what I wanted to do at the time and really prepared me for what I am doing today, leading the worldwide legal team of an international organization.
How has mentoring helped you during your career?
Mentoring is no longer limited to developing someone that reminds you of you.
I have had, and currently have, a number of great mentors, but I actually get more out of mentoring others than being mentored. It allows me to step back and self-assess: How does this advice I am giving to others apply to me? Mentoring others also helps me to fight the disconnect of being in senior leadership. My mentoring relationships help me to stay plugged in and know what is going on outside of my office.
What role does networking play for in-house counsel?
Relationship building has become much more important, and I believe this is a direct result of having in the workplace more women, who are generally more collaborative in their approach to problem solving. Networking is not just for law firms and rainmaking. Networking builds relationships, and relationships are crucial. When I first took on the general counsel role of a publicly traded company, I called on those in my network to educate me about the things I didn’t already know or didn’t have experience with. It was invaluable. Now, connecting with other GCs involved in the government sector helps me resolve issues in my business. Law firms can do a better job at figuring out the concentric circles of relationships and facilitate networking among the in-house crowd.
What does “success” in your career mean to you?
Long-term success is having a legacy of leaving a place further advanced than when you got there. I’m really proud of the teams I built while at Andersen and Accenture and the opportunities that created for others to advance. Diversity and inclusion are extremely important to me, and key to building high functioning teams. Right now at Booz Allen, I am focused on relationship building between the law department and the business to develop one collaborative business team with diverse skillsets, experiences and points of view.
What advice do you have for other women to achieve success and advance within their organizations?
Start with the end in mind. Have a view of what you want to be and what you want to do and then come up with a plan to get there. It is important to understand what skillsets you bring to the table and what you need to work on. What you don’t know, you must be willing to learn. Don’t be afraid to take risks and build your network along the way: both will create opportunities to get there.
In addition, you have to be a leader, even if you don’t have a team of direct reports to lead: you need to be able to lead by influence. True leadership is the ability to lead clients to the right place with your substantive knowledge and your communication skills, rather than using the authority of your position to mandate action. Leading by influence is the most challenging, but also the most effective, form of leadership. Effective leadership must also fit your own personal style. If you’re not authentic, don’t even start — it won’t work.