The Road to Career Success Is Not Usually Linear

Georgia Institute of Technology's General Counsel Ling-Ling Nie on the difficulties women can face in finding the right path to their individual success, and how others can help promote women in their goals.

CCBJ: You spent almost five years at the U.S. Treasury before going in-house. Tell us about your government service experience and what led you to move in-house instead of transitioning to a law firm.

Ling-Ling Nie: I’d recommend being a public servant at some point in your career because it provides insight into how our government works. For junior attorneys especially, it’s a great environment for learning the ropes because there are multiple levels of review and approvals, and one mistake isn’t generally going to bring the whole house down.

After about five years of the policy side, and working closely on Dodd-Frank, I was curious to see first-hand what it's like for companies who have to comply with these new government rules. So I started to explore private sector opportunities in-house.

You served as a division president of Panasonic's Women Connect. Tell us about this business impact group, and share any initiatives that are of interest to our readers.

The purpose of Panasonic's Women Connect organization is to shine a spotlight on women leaders through enhanced and innovative professional development programs. It's a valuable initiative particularly because women are underrepresented in senior leadership roles in both the technology industry and in Japanese companies.

The group is not exclusive to women, however. It requires the efforts of both men and women to underscore the value of women leaders, especially in an industry in which the leaders are predominantly men. Men are therefore invited and included in all the events so they can embrace a new perspective and help effect change.

As part of your role as global mentor for the Sport Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA), last year you spoke at the United Nations on the importance of diversity in leadership. Are you seeing a more conscious move towards gender and racial diversity in leadership roles?

Yes, definitely. You can see it in the ongoing discussions about the best way to make that happen. Some people focus on quotas and having a certain number or percentage of diverse leaders. At the same time, others talk about the dangers of quotas and how they can lead people to question a diverse leader's qualifications. There’s also another approach that focuses on diversifying the applicant pool by recruiting from professional associations or interest groups that are underrepresented in corporate America.

So there are definitely different approaches to trying to reach gender and racial parity in leadership roles, and I think we are moving in the right direction when we keep talking about it and making it a priority.

Who or what influences your leadership style?

When I was with Panasonic, Damien Atkins was the general counsel and he really embodied transformative leadership and the importance of impacting not only your employees' professional development, but also their personal growth. I try to be that type of leader too.

I’ve also found that many great sports coaches have leadership philosophies that are relevant to business. There's a very insightful book called “The Score Takes Care of Itself” by Bill Walsh, the coach for the San Francisco 49ers for many years. He talks about how consistent high performance on an everyday basis will naturally lead to good outcomes. That’s also something I try to infuse into my leadership philosophy.

What can we at CCBJ and other organizations do to help support women in the practice of law?

It’s important to recognize that there are different ways to achieve our career goals, and to highlight women who have successfully taken different routes. Sometimes women are made to believe there's only one or two paths, when really there are endless options. It's not always forward – sometimes it involves taking a step back or a step sideways – but there are multiple ways to reach your professional goals.

Another way to help support women is by encouraging employers to be proactive about the equal role that men should play in parenting. In all honesty, I think that women are still pressured to choose between being a good parent or being a good employee. So encouraging employers to do things like enhance their policies on paternity leave and flexible work schedules can help address that inequality.

I’ve employed many mothers, and I don't ever want any woman to feel like she can't bring her whole self to work, that she can't speak about her kids at work or take time off to parent. For employees to perform at a high level at work, they have to feel that their employer respects their life outside of work. Making sure that you're giving your employees the flexibility to be good parents and human beings outside of the office is critical.

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