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UPFRONT & PERSONAL: “Leadership begins with integrity,” says Damien Atkins, GC of the Hershey Company

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 7 minute read

Rose D. Ors  CEO of ClientSmart

· 7 minute read

We continue our monthly feature, Upfront & Personal, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community

Damien Atkins, general counsel of the Hershey Company, spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about the joy of traveling, mixing personal passions and professional contributions, and the relationship between leadership and integrity.

Rose Ors: What is a childhood memory that brings you joy?

Damien Atkins: As the child of a diplomat, I have done a lot of traveling and have loved every minute of it. The joyous memory that immediately comes to mind was the trip to Quito, Ecuador, that I took with my family when I was 10 years old. It was my father’s first overseas posting after he joined the State Department.

The reason this memory brings me joy is it triggered my lifelong love for adventure, exploration, and cultures. I will never forget when we got off the plane in Ecuador and were immediately enveloped by new smells, new sounds, and new people. It was magic.

Rose Ors: What is your leadership philosophy?

Damien Atkins: My leadership philosophy begins with integrity. It is the platform supporting three tenets: commitment, collaboration, and communication. These are the three power values that I focus on for myself and my legal team.

By commitment, I mean the attitudes and actions that demonstrate a sustained focus on making a positive impact on your organization. By collaboration, I mean the attitudes and behaviors that demonstrate a respect for the individual, together with respect for the team. By communication, I mean the ability to effectively convey and receive information in a manner that forges strong relationships.

Rose Ors: What role does communication play in how you are leading your department through the COVID-19 crisis?

Damien Atkins: Communicating is perhaps the most important role I have right now. To that end, every week we get together as a group for a 15-minute video “huddle” where we go over what’s going on that week. Every day I try to speak to at least two members of the team individually.

My goal on these calls is to have the type of water-cooler conversations I would have when we are all in the office. I also think it’s important to have some fun. To that end, the team has held informal video happy hours. We’ve even had a costume contest that sparked a lot of individual creativity and was terrific fun.

Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work?

Damien Atkins: I find it very rewarding when my personal passions and my professional contributions meet on the job. So, for me, working on complex M&A deals, high-stakes government investigations, or global public affairs, is hugely rewarding because these are areas I enjoy, and I know are critically important to my company.

Upfront & PersonalI also find great satisfaction in helping people on my team reach their fullest potential. Whether it’s helping someone ascend to a general counsel role, or pursue a judicial appointment, if I can coach and mentor them into getting closer to achieving those aspirations, I am delighted. As the Rev. Martin Luther King so wisely noted: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Rose Ors: How do you help unlock someone’s potential?

Damien Atkins: There is no one-size-fits-all formula. But what I’ve learned from personal experience and from reading books by legendary college football coach, John Wooden and others, is that you start by finding out what really motivates a person. Some people are motivated by prestige. Others are motivated by money. Still others by praise. Once you figure out what someone truly values, you can move on to how best to communicate and reach that person. You have to ask them lots of questions, and then listen to what they say and how they say it.

Rose Ors: Who are some of your mentors and coaches?

Damien Atkins: Chris Reynolds, the general counsel of Toyota, is an invaluable and constant source of insight and advice. I give him a call or send him an email, and he responds right away. In each instance I walk away learning something new and valuable.

A number of my former bosses are mentors. There is Dennis Friedman, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. I met him when I was a law student, and he’s remained someone I go to get great advice. I also count as a mentor Joe Taylor. Joe was the CEO of Panasonic when I was at the company. Then there is Werten Bellamy and Kellye Walker, a couple who are — informally — my personal coaches.

Each one for different reasons, but who have been tremendous mentors for me.

Rose Ors: You have an impressive personal board of directors. What makes each of them invaluable to you?

Damien Atkins: Each provide guidance and insight from their unique set of experiences, but the common thread is their candor. They are not afraid to tell me things about myself that may make me uncomfortable. It has been their honest talk that has helped me grow personally and professionally. As Ray Dalio’s book, Principles posits: “Pain plus reflection equals progress.”

Rose Ors: Who inspires you and why?

Damien Atkins: I am inspired by people with high integrity and who have a clear vision of what they want to do, and then go do it. I am inspired by people that take big bets like Tim Armstrong, my former boss and CEO at AOL. He took over AOL when it was pretty much dead in the water, and through a series of huge bets, transformed the company and led it to a successful exit.

Another example of someone who took big bets was Frederick Douglas. I just finished reading his biography and was awestruck by how this man, at great personal risk to himself and his family, spoke out against slavery.

Rose Ors: If you were a fly on the wall, what conversation would you want to listen to?

Damien Atkins: Rather than a fly on the wall, I would love to somehow get into the mind of Marcus Aurelius. I read his book, Meditations, a couple times a year. I find it an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance.

Here was an individual who had all the power in the world, and he chose to write this book about the struggle within himself. He wanted to know how he could be a good person. He wanted to learn how to lead. Even with all the power he possessed he wanted to be more. To listen to his internal dialogue would be fascinating.

Rose Ors: Finally, aside from legal acumen, how can outside law firms add value to their corporate clients?

Damien Atkins: Law firms, indeed all professional service firms, need to ask the question: “What value can we provide our clients that they can’t get from an algorithm?” Why? Because in the next 20 years or so, most of the things that you do, a software program will be able to do better, faster, and at much larger scale.

Future lawyers need to focus on the areas that artificial intelligence can’t replicate such as leveraging relationships, sharing insights, making introductions, and showing empathy. These skills hold great value now and not having them is not the end of lawyers; but in the not-so-distant future, these skills are what will determine our professional value.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.

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