Kathryn Cameron Atkinson of ‘Miller & Chevalier’: “Have a plan, but be prepared to pivot”

Have a plan, but be prepared to pivot. Miller & Chevalier is a Washington-based firm focused on practicing where business and the federal government meet, and we sit on Black Lives Matter Plaza. In 12 months, we have faced the impeachment of the president, the public health and economic crises of the pandemic, social upheaval […]

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Have a plan, but be prepared to pivot. Miller & Chevalier is a Washington-based firm focused on practicing where business and the federal government meet, and we sit on Black Lives Matter Plaza. In 12 months, we have faced the impeachment of the president, the public health and economic crises of the pandemic, social upheaval and surging demand for and discourse on race equity, a tumultuous transition of power, and now a second impeachment. I am thankful we articulated our strategy and pillars for action just prior to this series of challenges. It helped us stay the course and know where and how we could pivot along the way.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Cameron Atkinson.

Kathryn Cameron Atkinson is the Chair of Miller & Chevalier. Her practice focuses on international corporate compliance, including, in particular, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), as well as economic sanctions and export controls, and anti-money laundering laws. She advises clients on corruption issues around the world. This advice has included compliance with the FCPA and related laws and international treaties in a wide variety of contexts, including transactional counseling, formal opinions, internal investigations, enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and resulting monitorships, as well as commercial litigation raising improper payment issues. Ms. Atkinson has twice been appointed as an Independent Compliance Monitor by the DOJ and SEC. She was a member of the original Transparency International task force that developed a compliance toolkit for small and medium-sized entities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My father’s international business career and a public-school German language program taught by emigrés who had lived through the disruption of World War II sparked my interest in international studies. I spent time living with German families in the 1980s and then worked for a German law firm the summer after the Berlin wall was toppled. I had a front-row seat to the early days of German reintegration and found the challenge of navigating the practical, cultural, and legal issues involved fascinating. While in law school, I discovered Miller & Chevalier, a Washington-based law firm with a global practice that focused on the intersections between business and federal law and policy. The firm’s commitment to professional excellence, thought leadership, and advancing the rule of law attracted me then and sustains me 30 years later.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In late February 2020, we issued a Business Continuity Plan to govern how we would handle a catastrophic event that might keep us from accessing the office. We planned a test run of the plan for Friday, March 13, to identify any gaps. On March 11, D.C. announced the COVID-19 public health emergency and signaled the shutdown that was coming the following week. We haven’t been back in the office since. So much for a test run.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When lawyers make mistakes they usually are not funny! One early mistake sticks with me. As a first-year lawyer, I went on a business trip with a senior partner. When we climbed into the taxi at the destination airport, she looked at me, assuming I had the address to give to the driver. (This is unspoken Associate 101 training.) I didn’t. She was not pleased. We didn’t have cell phones or GPS back then. Lessons learned: Plan ahead, write it down, don’t assume others know where you are headed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In my leadership role, it has to be my Dad, who was first an accountant, then an executive, and finally a business owner. He taught me that an organization’s success depends on empowering its people to do their best, holding them accountable for doing so, and valuing them not just as employees but as people with interests, responsibilities, and stresses outside of work.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I focus on articulating the themes of my message as cleanly and crisply as I can, including sounding them out with teammates. The first thing I did as Chair was organize the action plan for the Executive Committee’s first year under five strategic pillars derived from our strategic statement. That structure helps me stay focused and provides a shared foundation. Nothing works like a long walk to clear the noise. When stress winds me up, my go-to release is a long walk outside, but yoga does the trick too.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity enriches the deliberative process and improves decision-making. Race and gender, as well as less visible aspects of personal backgrounds, affect our life experience and, in turn, the lens through which we view issues and decisions. There’s no substitute for having that diversity at the table. Internally and externally, it is important for people to see diversity in management.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Achieving inclusion, representation, and equity requires awareness, intention, and perseverance. Law firms suffer from structural hierarchy and segmentation, which can make people feel excluded and undervalued. Once we focused our attention on that issue, we noted our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee was comprised almost entirely of lawyers, so we added professional staff to the committee to involve them in planning and execution. We added lines of communication — more frequent and detailed communications from management, town halls, and suggestion boxes. The effort moved to another level last summer. Our office is on what is now Black Lives Matter Plaza — so the urgency of the need for more action to achieve racial justice and equity literally was on display in our front yard. We publicly articulated our commitment to racial justice, convened internal community discussions on race, and enhanced our involvement in racial justice and equity efforts through the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance and support of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. These efforts need to continue — perseverance is essential for us to make progress.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Loses the most sleep, I think. A leader takes responsibility for the organization’s performance. That means ensuring that the strategy is clear and clearly communicated, that action plans align with the strategy, that everyone has the tools they need to execute on their respective roles, that they feel accountable for their performance, and that they feel valued for their contributions. The Chair needs to understand the moving parts and make sure they are working properly while also thinking about how to improve them.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One is that we know absolutely everything that happens in an organization. We don’t. Even in a relatively small organization, people have to be empowered to make decisions day to day. The executive needs to try to anticipate how strategies or action plans might be misinterpreted, but it will still happen, and the executive will also make mistakes. A second myth is that you can’t go directly to the executive with a question or a concern (because, see myth #1). Although you should have multiple channels available to you, if you are not comfortable using them, the executive needs to know that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The leadership archetype in our society was defined by males, so really just about anything that a woman may be inclined to do differently is likely to be questioned simply because it is different. Although it occurs less frequently than early in my career, I still come across assumptions that women executives are prone to inappropriate emotion in decision-making and communications, are afraid of making unpopular decisions, or can be bullied. If the woman executive is also a mother, add the assumption that we are less committed. I am aware of the assumptions, but I don’t let them steal my time. As with all diversity issues, the more women we have in leadership roles, the more we can shift the paradigm.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think every executive is surprised by how granular the job is. There’s a myth that executives just make big decisions. In fact, we make or facilitate an endless number of small decisions. Once the organizational strategy is defined, the work of ensuring the organization executes on it is what takes time and attention, and that is made up of all manner of activities and communications.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A successful executive should care about the long-term success of the organization and its people. If you’re in it for the resume building or the money, better for all if you skip it. It requires a capacity to think strategically, to communicate strategy and expectations clearly to the stakeholders, and to understand how the culture of the organization affects the performance of its employees. A leader should be direct, decisive, honest, and empathetic. Do what you say you are going to do.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be clear and consistent in communicating what you need and expect from each team member. Invest time in understanding what motivates your team and make sure incentives align with the organization’s strategy and needs — remembering that intrinsic motivation typically produces better performance over time than extrinsic motivation.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My practice focus is on disrupting and defeating corruption as it arises in international business. Corruption is relentless and facilitates so much of the conduct that endangers all of us. My work can at least provide some pressure of progress against it.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust yourself. You get advice from all directions. In the end, you have to believe you were asked to lead for a reason and trust yourself.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I knew we needed more internal communication, but I continue to be surprised by how much feedback it generates.
  3. Question assumptions. We’re a storied 100-year-old firm, and there are traditions and a legacy that come with that. And lawyers tend to be risk averse. It took some time to get comfortable questioning why we did things a certain way, but that combined with the communication effort revealed opportunities for us to improve.
  4. Don’t always lead from the front. Organizations work best when everyone embraces the strategy and then executes on it. The Chair sets the tone but has to keep the strategy as the focus so that success is seen as a result of everyone’s effective execution, not just the executive’s. Otherwise, what happens when the leadership changes?
  5. Have a plan, but be prepared to pivot. Miller & Chevalier is a Washington-based firm focused on practicing where business and the federal government meet, and we sit on Black Lives Matter Plaza. In 12 months, we have faced the impeachment of the president, the public health and economic crises of the pandemic, social upheaval and surging demand for and discourse on race equity, a tumultuous transition of power, and now a second impeachment. I am thankful we articulated our strategy and pillars for action just prior to this series of challenges. It helped us stay the course and know where and how we could pivot along the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would enlist every person in the effort to fight public corruption, which directly affects the quality of life of every one of the world’s citizens. Every citizen has the right to competent, transparent, accountable government, so I would ask that people demand it, support organizations that fight it, and not accept corruption as the norm.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.” That principle underlies not only my law practice but also my approach to leadership and to my own life. The statement silently acknowledges that we make mistakes and sometimes choose the wrong thing. Doing the right thing requires self-reflection and humility, can be uncomfortable, and can even lead to harsh consequences, but it is worth doing.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I recently read “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” by David Brooks. It captures the essence of the wholeness we seek but often lack and delves into the ways our society has developed to make it harder — but not impossible — to find. A private lunch with him to discuss it would be fantastic.

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