When There’s No Rule Book, Make Your Own

When there is no rule book make your own CC Australia Executive Director Ingrid Segota | lainibennett.com

As Executive Director of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Australia, Ingrid Segota believes women shouldn’t have to separate their work and personal lives. Here, she shares her leadership journey and explains how her workplace-integration philosophy helped during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work-life integration has been central to Ingrid Segota’s working philosophy throughout her career. It was even more integral when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and her team were locked down for months with their young families.

As Executive Director of the Association of Corporate Counsel  (ACC) Australia, Segota was worried about meeting member needs during the pandemic. The organisation relied heavily on face-to-face events to provide education and networking opportunities for its more than 4,000 professional members.

Due to COVID, this suddenly wasn’t an option any more. With the team head-quartered in Melbourne, experiencing some of the strictest lockdown conditions globally, the logistical challenges appeared daunting. Additionally, some of her team were struggling with working from home while home-schooling young children.

What to do when there is no rule book? Make up your own… and turn what could have been a devastating organisational blow into an opportunity for growth and learning.

In this Women in Leadership column, Segota shares:

  • her work-life integration philosophy;
  • how she transformed her organisation during the pandemic; and
  • what she regards as key leadership skills.

Integrating life and work

It was Segota’s mentor who taught her that you could integrate, rather than separate, work and family life. Geoff Dobbs was Segota’s manager at legal publisher CCH Australia (part of Wolters Kluwer).

With his blessing, Segota worked from her home office in Melbourne so she could be present for her then two young children throughout their primary and teen years. This was an opportunity Segota did not take for granted. She has since paid it forward with her employees.

Segota said family has always played a role at ACC Australia, with her team members bringing their children into work during holidays or when childcare is an issue, and her own (now young adult) kids help out with events.

However, when COVID hit, work-life integration seemed less a privilege than a burden for those trying to cram a full workday around home-schooling their children. She could sense their stress and discomfort when children would interrupt during virtual team meetings. “To make it easier for them, I suggested they let their kids join in, at least at the beginning,” she said.

Segota established a buddy system, so everyone had someone in the team they could ‘download’ to, especially as the second Melbourne lockdown dragged on. If someone was struggling, she encouraged them to acknowledge it and down tools for the day. “They just had to let us know and we’d all chip in,” she said. “At times like this, family comes first. There is no rule book here – we can only do our best.”

Organisational transformation during a crisis

Segota says that there are three key reasons why in-house counsel become ACC members. To access and share quality, in-house specific:

  1. resources;
  2. education; and
  3. networking opportunities.

With face-to-face events and conferences no longer an option, decisions needed to be made quickly. Dozens of live events across the country were in train, including the flagship national conference scheduled in November 2020. Segota didn’t want to let members down; there were also their corporate partners to consider.

Segota and team began a research mission to better understand how long the pandemic would endure and to identify their options. She surveyed members and corporate partners and reached out to health and tourism industry contacts. She also studied what was happening overseas, particularly with Asian industry bodies that had previously faced down SARS and Bird Flu.

The team produced numerous reports and recommended options for the Board, to ensure it had all the information necessary to make a prudent decision. Segota was convinced there was a high risk of a second pandemic wave in Australia. She recommended to the board that they cancel all their live events, including their flagship 2.5 day In-house Legal National Conference, and go virtual.

It was not a decision made lightly, but the Board agreed.

From May, all events went online, and the national conference in November was extended to a full week, virtual event.

Pivoting quickly towards change

The team had to pivot quickly to transform their organisation. New approaches and technology were required; Segota took a strengths-based approach, empowering two team members to learn and embed the technology, then educate the team, speakers and sponsors on using it.

“Teamwork was critical. Everyone needed to know who was doing what, when. We met daily to flesh out challenges. The workload was so intense, it was like drinking through a fire hydrant,” Segota recalled.

The hard work has paid off, with the virtual events proving popular. ACC Australia membership retention remains healthy across the country. Attendance rates for the forthcoming In-house Legal Virtual Conference are even higher than their face-to-face event, with members benefitting from savings on travel and accommodation.

Segota is both pleased and relieved. She anticipates that post-pandemic, ACC Australia will offer a mixture of virtual and live events. “Our members and corporate partners are missing the face-to-face connection,” Segota said.

Managing During the Pandemic: Ingrid Segota’s Lessons Learned

  • Avoid having preconceived ideas about what will and won’t work.
  • Study how similar organisations have responded and learn from their wins and their mistakes.
  • Talk to all stakeholders – internal and external, to understand their concerns, needs and priorities.
  • Don’t underestimate the crisis’ duration and intensity – plan for the worst.
  • Communicate your plan clearly and repeatedly.
  • Protect your team’s mental wellbeing.
  • Be prepared for change. Not everything will go according to plan.

Changing career direction

Long before the ACC and COVID-19, Segota was working in sales and marketing at CCH Australia. She spent many years there, ultimately working as National Sales and Marketing Director – Education.

When CCH sold its academic books business to another publisher, Segota’s role was made redundant. Needing to regroup and rethink her career, Segota spent six months in a contract role with a boutique publishing house while considering her options.

“I’ve never regarded myself as an overly ambitious person,” Segota said. “My primary aim is to enjoy what I do and do it well.” So she made a list of what she wanted in a new role: to work in the professional services sector, preferably in an association, in a position that incorporates education and some publishing.

Segota hadn’t envisaged herself stepping into a executive director role at ACC Australia, but soon realised she had the skills; she just needed to build her self-confidence.

Overcoming self-doubt

When Segota joined ACC Australia, she went from having an abundance of support at CCH from the likes of HR, finance and marketing, to mostly performing those roles herself. It was also her first time reporting into a board. She wasn’t sure if what she was doing was, as she put it, “cutting the mustard”.

Segota sought out another industry association leader, who advised her: “Consider what you need, seize it, and seek mentors who can assist you across the areas where you are experiencing imposter syndrome.”

Segota enrolled in a mentoring program for executives, finding a mentor who works in an industry association. With the right support, Segota’s confidence grew, and she thrived in her new role. “Imposter syndrome is self-doubt; that voice that says ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’. Ultimately, we all go through it,” Segota said.

She recommends finding a mentor from your industry, someone who can give objective advice based on their own experience.

Looking to the future

As the year rapidly, and thankfully, comes to an end, Segota and team remain in lockdown in Melbourne. Yet she is optimistic about 2021 and has the future in hand. Having averted an organisational crisis, Segota is feeling confident. After all, she knows that if there’s no rule book, she can make her own… and take her team on the journey with her.

Ingrid Segota’s 6 Key Leadership Skills

  1. Transparency: Provide honest and robust communication.
  2. Authenticity: Be your true self.
  3. Ability to manage up and down the line.
  4. Ensure your team knows what you expect from them.
  5. Build loyalty by engendering a culture of trust and support.
  6. Understand each team member’s capabilities and put them in a role that speaks to their strengths.

© This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA

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