General counsel perspectives: Leadership skills needed to navigate a new role during the pandemic | Insights | Heidrick & Struggles (2022)

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Victoria Reese speaks to Rhonda Ferguson, executive vice president, chief legal officer, general counsel, and secretary at Allstate about the leadership skills needed to navigate onboarding into a position in a new organization during the pandemic and the important role that inclusive diversity plays as both a core value and strategy. Ferguson expresses the important of effective listening, her views on navigating risk, and shares how her organization is building on the lessons learned in 2020.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:22) What was it like joining a new organization remotely?
  • (4:18) Some people think lawyers are risk-averse, yet in a year of uncertainties and turmoil, you chose to change jobs and industries. What does that say about you and what propelled you forward?
  • (7:26) What leadership skills have you leveraged as you navigate a new organization?
  • (9:10) Inclusive diversity is a core value and strategy at Allstate. How did this core value impact your decision to join Allstate and what are your plans as a general counsel and leader to help further this mission?
  • (12:18) As you reflect on the past year and think about the future, what is the most important way your organization is building on the lessons of the past year?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Victoria Reese: Hi, I'm Victoria Reese, partner at Heidrick and Struggles and the global managing partner of the General Counsel and Corporate Officers practices. In today’s podcast, I'm talking to Rhonda Ferguson, executive vice president, chief legal officer, general counsel, and secretary at Allstate, an insurance company headquartered in the United States. Rhonda joined Allstate in September 2020 from Union Pacific Railroad where she served as executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, and was responsible for all legal, regulatory, and corporate governance initiatives.

Rhonda, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Rhonda Ferguson: Thank you, Victoria, it's a pleasure to speak with you as well.

Victoria Reese: Rhonda, what a year to take a new role. What was it like joining a new organization remotely? Were there any positive surprises? Or challenges you found harder than expected?

Rhonda Ferguson: Actually, Victoria, I get that question a lot and I’ve had a chance to really reflect on it. It was at the start of the pandemic when I received the call from you regarding Allstate—it was a time when we were all hunkered down in our homes in Silvern, Ohio. Everybody was working remotely, and it was actually the first time my husband and I had spent time in close quarters with our adult children in a very long time. We were in our home and literally divided it into quadrants because they were home from college working remotely, and it gave me a chance to really kind of step back and reflect because, as you will recall, initially, I was not particularly interested in looking for a new role during the pandemic because it was a time of mass uncertainty for everyone. I was on daily crisis management calls at my prior role (which I absolutely loved, as you know) but then my husband and I talked about it and we started to reflect more about the opportunity and, since we were at home, we thought it wouldn't hurt to learn more about the opportunity. And the more I learned about Allstate, the more I fell in love with the prospect of making a change.

So, from a positive perspective, I think the pandemic led me to do some more introspective thinking about my career. I absolutely loved what I was doing at Union Pacific and it was the best job I've ever had, and I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities, as you know, Victoria. But I had the opportunity to learn more about Allstate and it was everything that I loved about Union Pacific and it added an extra piece that I hadn't experienced in my career, which was the consumer piece. I had primarily worked in business to business, as you know. I've been in four different industries: chemical manufacturing, energy, logistics, and transportation. So this was an opportunity to also transition from industrial to financial services, which I found quite appealing.

Victoria Reese: Some people think lawyers are risk-averse, yet in a year of uncertainties and turmoil, you chose to change jobs and industries. What does that say about you and what propelled you forward?

Rhonda Ferguson: I think, intrinsically at my core, I am a student for life. I don’t just enjoy it, I really thrive in learning new things and fully immersing myself in a new industry. I like new challenges. But, at the core (and I know a lot of people might bristle when I say this), most companies are very similar—you have the dynamic of people and you have the dynamic of managing those people through different challenges with limited resources. They all have the same or similar types of regulatory challenges; you just deal with different agencies or different constituents. You have the people management issues; you have the customer piece, whether it's business customers or a consumer base. You have issues that come up around taxes or the FDC or board governance issues. So, a framework is the same. But what is really exciting about each different industry is that it brings out different nuances and a different spirit and cadence. That's really enticing to me.

You actually started the conversation about being risk averse. I always tell my team that, at the end of the day, we are really not risk mitigators; the best lawyers are facilitators. We make the magic happen. It is our role to find the legal, ethical, and most feasible way to accomplish the goals of the organization—the financial, operational goals of the company. So, we are enablers. I actually tell my team that we want to really partner with the business and meet with the business objectives first. So, on that risk continuum, as far as risk aversion, I guess it’s very low for me.

Victoria Reese: I love that: “We make the magic happen.” Expanding on that, what leadership skills have you leveraged as you navigate a new organization?

Rhonda Ferguson: The art of listening. Listening and learning is, to me, paramount for any leader. And then there is empathy and being able to see things through someone else’s eyes and see what someone else’s experience is. And, as someone who has transitioned into different industries, subject-matter expertise and institutional knowledge is also so critical for me, for my onboarding, and to be able to help my team achieve the goals that are set by the corporation. I have to rely on a wealth of knowledge from people who know the business and have known it for decades—multiple decades. I spend a lot of time listening, observing, and absorbing. And then I take a step back, take in input from different stakeholders, internal and external, from within the industry and outside of the industry. And then I bring all of that to bear, add in my collective external experience, and bring it to my new role, to my new team. That's sort of my leadership in a nutshell.

Victoria Reese: Rhonda, I know we both are passionate about diversity. Inclusive diversity is a core value and strategy at Allstate. How did this core value impact your decision to join Allstate and what are your plans as a general counsel and leader to help further this mission?

Rhonda Ferguson: I’ll go back to your original question. When I had that time to reflect, part of that was during the time that we witnessed George Floyd’s murder and the social unrest that followed. It really struck me to my core, and we were also grappling with it at my prior company, ways that we can really move the needle forward. Allstate has been a leader in that space and it was very cathartic for me to actually go through the interview process with that conversation as the backdrop. I'm always my authentic self, that's part of who I am, but it really allowed me to share my personal passion about what we as leaders can do and what we should do and probably can continue to do in this space.

I am pleased to join a company like Allstate because they were leaders in the space. But they also recognized, even though they were leaders in the space, that there's so much more that we all have to do. And part of my role and my team’s role is—you know, charity starts in the home—we make sure that our department or my teams are reflective of the communities in which we serve. We want to continue to push that, and Allstate has very clear objectives both internally and externally as we build with our outside legal counsel as well as our supplier diversity program. We want to increase the level we’re at across the board.

At the time, Allstate had made headlines by doing a bond deal that was exclusively sourced by, and the book runners were, minority- and women-owned firms on Wall Street. So, we want to just continue that momentum and be very intentional and deliberate about it, and it starts with our board of directors, which is extremely passionate about this, as are our chairman and CEO and the entire leadership team. And that cascades throughout the organization.

Victoria Reese: Rhonda, as we bring this conversation to a close, I wanted to ask one final question. As you reflect on the past year and think about the future, what is the most important way your organization is building on the lessons of the past year?

Rhonda Ferguson: From my perspective, I think the most important thing that we're doing is really leaning into every single aspect of ESG, from being at the forefront for the climate change discussion to being at the forefront of inclusive diversity and inclusion and equity—adding in that pillar and being intentional about it and making sure that we are the gold standard for other corporations and are being a truly purpose-driven organization, for all stakeholders.

Victoria Reese: Rhonda, always a pleasure and thank you so much for making time to speak with us today.

Rhonda Ferguson: The pleasure is mine. Thank you so much, Victoria, I appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And, if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

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