“When you’ve had the task of opening up a legal practice in Hong Kong, you develop a confidence in yourself and in your skills.”

At just 12 years old, Nancy Laben knew what she wanted to do when she grew up. After giving some thought to what exactly it was that she was better at than all her peers, Laben decided she was a good talker, just like her grandmother, who was one of the first female lawyers on the East Coast. In the years since that adolescent epiphany, Laben has had her own illustrious law career, which has spanned the globe. Two years ago she became vice president and general counsel for AECOM, a global provider of diverse architectural, engineering, and construction-management support services. She earned the posting in large part because of her worldly experience—and her no-nonsense take on leadership, which she breaks down here.

Nancy Laben

Before law school, I worked for IBM, and I realized that I really enjoyed and excelled at problem solving. After law school—and once I made peace with the fact that I would not be nominated to the Supreme Court—I really wanted a position in the corporate legal structure. What they don’t teach you in school is that in-house lawyers need to understand their company’s strategy. An in-house attorney needs to understand how the company makes money and had better understand how to keep it inside the company.

Nancy Laben: Career

1983: Graduates from Smith College
1986: Graduates from Columbia Law School
1989: Joins Arthur Andersen Worldwide (now Accenture)
1994: Moves to Hong Kong to open up an Asia-based legal practice for Arthur Andersen Worldwide
1999: Moves to London to lead the Accenture EMEIA practice
2002: Becomes deputy general counsel at Accenture
2010: Becomes general counsel at AECOM

I was a basic technology lawyer when I was hired by Arthur Andersen Worldwide [now Accenture] in 1989, and I quickly discovered that I like taking on challenges and developing new skills. Thankfully, Andersen encouraged me to expand my skills. The company was in need of HR and employment law, so I learned that area. I was offered a leadership role, so I took it and took on hiring and mentoring responsibilities. It’s about identifying gaps and then filling them to the best of your ability.

I never intentionally focused my career on compliance in the architecture and engineering industries. AECOM’s culture requires me to spend time on compliance because we put our ethics out there 100 percent of the time. Until two years ago, I’d never even considered working in architecture or engineering. I’ve always focused on technology, and this position has created ways for me to add on additional skills. I’ve also worked internationally my whole career, so understanding the global marketplace is a key element.

I love working with the leadership team members, but that’s also the most challenging aspect of working with a growing company. I often refer to us as a 25-year-old startup because we’re just now becoming a mature company. It’s challenging for me because, as a lawyer, I want things to be crystal clear at all times, but they can’t be during these types of transitions.

I think I’ve been successful thus far because of the global aspect of my life and career. I grew up in Japan and worked professionally in the United States, Asia Pacific, and Europe. The different roles I’ve taken on in different countries have allowed me to take on new challenges and excel. When you’ve had the task of opening up a legal practice in Hong Kong, you develop a confidence in yourself and in your skills.

In order to be successful, a general counsel must do a number of things successfully. You advise the board, manage the legal department, act as the legal spokesperson, and make sure you bring your full experience to the table. You have a seat at the table; you have to make the most of it.

I believe everyone has leadership capacity. For some people it comes more naturally while others have to spend some time developing that muscle. The key is being authentic. If you’re not trying to conform, but you’re being authentic, you will be respected as a leader. I’ve been successful in leadership roles because I truly love working with people and I’m genuinely interested in them. It brings me great pleasure to create career paths for individuals. I like to challenge people, and if you asked anyone on my team, they’d tell you I’m a straight shooter. I try to think strategically; I like to see the big picture. ABQ