Women in Business Q&A: Shanti Atkins, Founder and Executive Chairman of NAVEX Global

Women in Business Q&A: Shanti Atkins, Founder and Executive Chairman of NAVEX Global
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Shanti Atkins is the Founder and Executive Chairman of NAVEX Global, an international ethics and compliance consultancy. She has been an innovator in the governance, risk and compliance (GRC) space for more than fifteen years and was the driving force behind the creation of NAVEX Global, now one of the largest ethics and compliance companies in the world. A former attorney, Shanti regularly advises clients regarding strategic risk management initiatives and workplace compliance.

Shanti received her Masters of Law (LL.M.) from Harvard University, specializing in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and corporate risk management.. Shanti received her J.D. from Queen's University (Canada) and her B.A. (Film) from Queen's University (Canada) where she was a Queen's National Scholar.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My parents 100% believed in me. My mum and dad always told me I could do anything, supported me 100% but never got over involved in anything. It was up to me to self-motivate and choose what I was passionate about. I also have a spouse who, if possible, is an even bigger fan than my parents. Without my husband, I would never have achieved what I have achieved. His support makes me feel empowered every day.

Having a daughter, and wanting to be her hero and mentor has had quite an effect on me. I want to give her options - whether they be career, family or both. That would be the greatest accomplishment for me. If in 20 years, Sammy is doing an interview like this, and says that I inspired her to change the world, gave her courage nd strength, made her believe in herself, made her believe that she could do anything - then I have succeeded - especially if she is inspired to pass that message down to other girls.

I have been raised in a family culture committed to excellence and a genuine love and curiosity around learning; my motto has become that demanding excellence of someone is the utmost compliment - it demonstrates that you truly believe in them. Early on, I had the acute realization that getting behind people and having them feel your total and authentic support is intoxicatingly powerful.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Navex Global?
I was aware early on that while the traditional practice of law was prestigious and lucrative, it was not me; I had a strong desire to be supremely passionate about my work and have it reflect the true me. I got some pretty negative feedback and doubt when I left traditional law practice, including being told by more than one influential or senior person that I was "committing career suicide." Pushing on in spite of that doubt, and risking failure "broke the seal" for me early on. You can't be distracted by what other people think you should do.

Another key moment was being put in charge when I was the youngest person in the room and a business was in crisis (ELT). People constantly questioned (both openly, and quietly) my authority and role - it was humbling and grounding. Early on, I was constantly underestimated. I have never been surrounded by "yes" people--that has made me always want to earn respect and loyalty through undeniable results and hard work.

I was also able to take on a failing business and turned it around - you will never learn more than with that kind of experience. It gave me a crucial realization that failure teaches you far more than success. Fearing failure is paralyzing. You can't allow it. I don't know anyone truly successful who has not worked through failure - perhaps even a series of failures.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
First, I don't really think there is such a thing as "work life/balance." Bottom line, if you work full time, you spend most of your waking hours working. So you have to love it, be passionate about it. Work is part of "life." It's about integrating the two, and recognizing, candidly, that when you are going all out in one, the other is going to suffer. No amount of multitasking, no special technology, in my opinion, can change that. The critical piece is trading off when work gets your "extra all," and when family does. And if you look at many studies about work productivity, most people actually do better with this "peak / trough" approach. So it sounds over simplified, but I try to make my peak work times line up with trough family time, and vice versa. I think families need to constantly assess their balance, and see where they may be able to make adjustments.

I prioritize my husband and daughter above all else whenever I can. They matter more to me than anything. Being truly engaged with my family puts work in perspective. Weekends are sacred. We also have a rule against dual travel - Doug and I will never travel for work at the same time, unless it is a true emergency. When we both travel, our entire system falls apart, especially without any of our family nearby.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at NAVEX Global?
Probably my biggest highlight would be building something unique and amazing out of a vision that began as scribbles on my white board. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing a vision come to life.

Also, I have the incredible experience of working with amazingly talented people, who are all in it for the right reasons. The Exec Team at NAVEX is stellar, across the board. I have learned so much, from every single one of my colleagues which I can't even place a value on.

I also value the opportunity to define an industry from its very beginning that fundamentally has a higher purpose - to protect people, reputations and bottom lines. What we do matters - every day. We touch millions of employees around the globe. We give people avenues to speak up about wrongdoing. We provide training, workflow products and other solutions on issues that go to the heart of fundamental civil rights, democracy, fairness and good governance. That is a privilege - truly.

For me, being in a space / industry that is so fast moving and evolving at such an incredible pace is a great experience. My job has never been the same in any six month stretch. I have been blessed with an incredibly variety of experiences, and that has allowed me to develop a diverse skillset that I am so grateful for.

One of the hardest tasks was integrating 4 companies - and truly integrating the back-end of the business, when simply operating the individual companies under a single brand would have been so much easier. To do to it right, and put clients first, was amazingly tough and draining.

Managing remotely and managing the corresponding impact of constant travel on my family has also been a challenge. (NAVEX has 5 locations, and I travel pretty regularly for speaking engagements, client meetings etc.) I feel constantly stretched and often inadequate on this front.

Finally, my biggest hurdle has been pacing myself across what has truly been a 10+ year marathon.

What advice can you offer women hoping to be entrepreneurs?
Most successful entrepreneurs are focused in an area they are naturally passionate about and that they find interesting - it is something they have great instincts about and that they truly believe in.
Aspiring entrepreneurs should get comfortable early on with taking risk. REAL risk. That means putting your own dollars on the line. That means making decisions that could result in high profile failure.

You should be disciplined about carving out blocks of time to truly think / innovate / brainstorm. It is so easy to allow every minute of your day to be taken up with operational details. Big strategic shifts / leaps require a continued commitment to creative thinking.

Aspiring entrepreneurs should never stop learning. The more expert you think you are, the more you likely have to learn. Always pay attention to technology, even if your business is not grounded in technology. Technology is the most likely driver to fundamentally disrupt your space (both positively and negatively) and to offer a path to innovation.

You should surround yourself with a team that believes in your vision and is truly motivated by trying to do something extraordinary in a particular area vs. being entirely focused on advancement and monetary gain.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Balancing family care and work is the biggest issue for women. From my experience, even with the most involved spouse / partner, the bulk of childcare responsibility (especially during pregnancy and infancy) falls to the woman. Denying this biological reality is doing a disservice to women everywhere. As kids get older, there are pressures on both men and women and on any family - traditional and "non- traditional." Whatever advancements we have in technology, whatever apps you are using to multitask, you cannot stretch time - especially time that requires you to be FULLY engaged with your family, or your work.

Also, it's cliché, but strong, assertive male = definitive, admirable leader. Strong, assertive woman = bitch. We still have a long way to go on this front.

There is a lack of honest discussion in high school and college of the inevitable challenges women will face, b/c of undeniable gender differences - mostly around having children. We are doing women such a disservice by not talking about this openly in high school, in college. Women should be aware of the issues early, and thinking proactively about how to manage them and maximize the choices available to them.

There is also a lack of female leadership at the highest levels of the organization - especially the Board. We have made slow progress on that front, and more diverse Board membership I feel strongly is a key component to making businesses more family friendly (for women AND men) and more bottom line successful.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I like a good deal of Sandberg's book, and then parts of it give me real pause.
I most like the awareness it has brought to the issue of how many women doubt themselves - to a damaging extreme. Awareness is half the battle in trying to fix that. Women spend too much time and energy worrying and doubting themselves. It's exhausting and unproductive.

I am passionate about inspiring confidence in girls from a very young age - I think it has to start from the very beginning. I love Sandberg's quote "I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told she has great leadership skills." I think starting at this kind of foundational level is how we unwind the previously referenced bias, "strong woman = bitch."

I think the concept of "lean in" all the time has made a lot of women feel inadequate and exhausted and crazed. To some of my comments above, I actually think it is important to choose times that you lean out - that you choose to relax, to be lazy, to consider re-charging an "achievement."

I also feel the "lean in" movement is a heck of a lot easier if you have money, and can afford great help. For some families, no matter how much a woman may want to lean in, to do more - she cannot, because she can't afford the extra childcare or extra household care.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My parents have been incredible mentors to me in my personal life. They have always believed in me, and they have taught me the importance and power of "big" unconditional love. In my family, we make a point of saying we love each other - a lot. I have never spoken with my parents and not ended the conversation with "I love you." We also believe in complimenting each other a lot - really celebrating our successes. Doug and I have carried that through into our marriage -- and we have tried to pass that leadership / parenting style down to my daughter, Sammy.

The headmaster at my prep school, David Penaluna, was also a great mentor. He LOVED teaching and learning, and believed kids could pretty much do anything. He gave me so much pride in doing well at school and wanting to be the best academically - he made it cool. David's leadership style was to get so much excitement and engagement from his students, you feared disappointing him. He rarely had to raise his voice or play the heavy. He simply had to express some authentic disappointment when things went sideways, and kids responded.

Garry Mathiason - Chairman of the Board at ELT, and now a Board member at NAVEX Has also made a tremendous difference in my life. Garry believed that I was capable of doing things I didn't even believe at the time. He pushed me. He taught me the importance of risk taking. He inspired me to think big, and to not be afraid of an idea that everyone else said was crazy. As I have progressed in my career, I have more of an opportunity to be a mentor - and it has provided me with more joy and satisfaction than I could have ever imagined.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am drawn toward women who are trailblazers - people who have taken big risks, created new categories, and remained true to themselves - along with embracing the joy of being a woman. This list also reflects my deep love of fashion, entertainment, music and food - they are so much a part of who I am.

•Coco Chanel - for completely revolutionalizing women's fashion, and in a way that was both empowering (i.e. no more corsets!) but that completely embraced femininity. Chanel was also the first designer to redefine what "fashion" meant - branching into fragrance, handbags etc. Her vision and influence is still highly prominent today and embodies the integration of beauty and empowerment.

•Sandra Day O'Connor - first woman on the US Supreme Court, who could not get a job out of law school, despite graduating in the top 5 out of Stanford law. O'Connor was the crucial swing vote in so many seminal decisions about sexual harassment, abortion and the death penalty - just to name a few. Despite being appointed by a Republican president, she didn't always tow the party line and was fine being unpopular. She had conviction and confidence in her decisions and provided a much needed voice to the bench.

•Julia Child - A true trailblazer who invented the category of food tv and celebrity chef. She introduced an entire nation to a new cuisine and challenged the assumption that gourmet chefs had to be men. She also brought integrity, artistry and pride to the role of homemaker / home chef - empowering and inspiring women around the world. I also love how Child remained irreverent and full of humor, even when she was fully in the spotlight. She was wildly successful by investing completely in her passion, and always being her true, authentic self.

•Margaret Sanger - Sanger is not as well-known as the other names on this list, but has probably directly influenced more women than anyone. A devout nurse in her early career, she spent a great deal of time treating women who got sick from botched illegal abortions. Her vision and conviction was that control over contraception was seminal to providing women freedom - and a path from poverty. Her stance was of course wildly unpopular, but she successfully founded the predecessor organization to Planned Parenthood and was behind the research and funding behind the first FDA approached birth control pill. Sanger understood that giving women choices was the most important pillar of female empowerment.

What are your hopes for the future of Navex Global?
That NAVEX will continue to define the category of the "human side" of GRC (governance, risk and compliance.) With an unwavering commitment to innovation, and with the ability to tap into the insights and experience of the largest client community in the world, we are positioned to continue to evolve how organizations around the world define good corporate culture, mitigate risk, empower employees and drive bottom line business results. I want NAVEX to be at the leading edge of our space. We have the passion, resources and brainpower to do it. And given that, I think we have an obligation to do it.

Also, that Navex will provide all of our employees with an incredible environment to learn and develop their skills. We will live into the positive and empowering culture we try to help our clients develop.

We also plan to expand more globally. We have a strong presence in the US and the EU, but there are many other markets to penetrate - and we are well poised to do so.

On the biggest picture scale, I want Navex to positively influence workplace cultures around the world -- to impact the globe's workforce profoundly. If what we do makes people pause and really think about their behaviors and actions at work -- their biases, their weaknesses, their assumptions, their potential missteps - then NAVEX will have been truly successful.

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