When Gregory S. Nixon was courted away from DynCorp International Inc. to be the chief legal officer (CLO) of global engineering company CH2M Hill Companies Ltd, Nixon had no reason to believe that he would be recruited to work for the private equity firm that owns DynCorp International (Cerberus Capital Management) ten months later. He already had blazed an impressive career path as a lawyer, having served in senior roles at McKinsey and Company, Booz Allen Hamilton, the Cerberus Operations and Advisory Company Board of Directors, and other leading firms. But the skills he honed along the way would be put to the test when Cerberus asked that he help transform DynCorp International—utilizing not only his legal prowess, but also his business and operational acumen.
When Nixon joined Cerberus in 2014, his business, management, and legal skills from his prior experiences were perfectly suited for his new mission: to serve as the senior vice president and chief administrative officer (CAO) of DynCorp International and lead the strategic transformation of several key functions and commercial ventures around the world. DynCorp International is a global integrated service solutions provider focused on aviation, intelligence, logistics, consulting, construction, and operations. It operates in thirty-three countries, has forty-five legal entities, and has thousands of employees around the world.
Because of the work it performs for the US government and private sector clients, DynCorp International often operates in the riskiest and most austere environments in the world. The company is highly regulated and involved in many complex legal and regulatory matters. It is the largest US contractor in Afghanistan and one of the largest aviation maintenance companies in the world. “The global footprint and sophistication of the business and legal matters at DynCorp International are very intellectually stimulating,” Nixon says. “Few companies do what we do or operate in the jurisdictions that we operate in, including conflict zones and areas with recent or impending natural disasters.”
Throughout his legal career, Nixon had steered his corporate clients through a variety of legal and business complexities. Acquisitions, government investigations, media storms, and virtually anything that might come across a general counsel’s desk on a bad day, Nixon probably has seen more than once. So, it was no wonder that DynCorp International, facing dramatic reductions in its revenue, increased competition, and a long list of legal issues, needed Nixon’s legal skills and business acumen to bring the company back to the strong footing it is on today.
In his current business executive role, which grew to include chief legal officer and corporate secretary, Nixon oversees a team of 175 employees and leads all aspects of legal, contracts, compliance, human resources, supply chain, security, export controls, and crisis management. Nixon manages a complex set of legal issues across the globe, while maintaining focus on the business realities of a highly regulated company fraught with global complexity. The company employs a global workforce and deals with complex litigation and government investigations, congressional interest, government funding, shifting political sands, geopolitical risk, and massive government oversight. It is also both owned by private equity investors, yet answers to the public through SEC filings. In the time he has been back, Nixon has steered the company through a minefield of potential problems, including high-stakes litigation, investigations, substantial organizational restructure, a successful debt-refinancing, better credit ratings, streamlined corporate structure, and strategic growth. During his tenure, Nixon has served as chief legal officer and advisor to three CEOs.
But in order to successfully navigate these issues, Nixon had to leverage his business experience. He identifies transformational leadership and effectiveness as focused on three areas: accurate assessment of organizational state and culture, portfolio management and growth strategy, and effective organizational decision-making that fosters innovation and sound business decisions at the right levels. “Central to organizational and business success is proper syndication and sharing of information to facilitate sound and timely business decisions. Nixon says. “One of the lessons I’ve learned from my previous experiences is the adverse effect of silos. They impede the ability to make holistic, integrated decisions, particularly when the problem is complicated.”
To break down these silos and streamline communication at DynCorp International, Nixon holds weekly meetings that include the leaders of each of the functions he oversees, allowing the leaders to brief each other on developments in their respective departments. He also requires his teams to be embedded with the business leaders and to be business partners. “Everybody must have situational awareness of what is important to the business, globally,” Nixon says. “By being inclusive, the situational awareness is enhanced across the entire organization and the staff learns in the process. It improves judgment and operational agility.”
Indeed, Nixon himself, with his dual-hatted role, exemplifies the blending of the business and legal solutions that have brought DynCorp International to its present state of profitability and growth.
Organizational integration is also critical because Nixon’s teams are spread across multiple continents where the cultural norms can differ dramatically. It’s his job to get his teams on the same page regarding company protocols and to make sure that employees working in different cultural climates still adhere to the US-based business’ rules, regulations, and policies.
“We have operations in Saudi Arabia, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Egypt, for example,” Nixon explains. “We must diligently work to ensure that our policies are followed and US law is adhered to, especially with respect to anti-corruption and export controls.”
In addition to integrating his teams, Nixon embraces hands-on leadership as another tactic to manage his vast array of responsibilities. As a retired lieutenant colonel and judge advocate general in the US Air Force, Nixon has experience operating in austere environments and geographic areas where the safety conditions could change at a moment’s notice.
“If you are sitting in New York or Washington, DC, it’s difficult to understand the dynamic on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he says. “It is helpful for a CAO or CLO to visit where the business operations and clients are, regardless of jurisdiction. This improves your ability to provide counsel.”
Despite the potential risks of going to areas of instability around the world, Nixon says the practice greatly enhances his ability to lead his teams.
Nixon wants to utilize his influence to continue to promote diversity within the company. In fact, he has already spearheaded creating a summer legal internship position that focuses on giving candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds exposure to DynCorp International’s in-house legal function. It’s this type of hands-on leadership that is transforming how people within the organization and beyond perceive the role of chief legal officer.
Today, Nixon is as much a business executive as he is a chief legal officer. And even as DynCorp International moves systematically toward profit and growth while maintaining excellent customer relations and rigorous compliance, the impact of Nixon’s leadership is evident throughout the company.
“There is a big difference between a CLO being a legal technician and a legal tactician,” Nixon says. “I strive to be an integral part of how this company operates every day at a strategic level.”
A Birds-Eye View of Business
Sometimes, inhabiting the C-suite isn’t enough to be an effective leader, says Gregory S. Nixon. He is a vocal advocate for business leaders to serve on boards of directors whenever possible because he says that the experience gives them a unique view of business that they don’t get from their other roles.
Nixon served on the board of directors of BlueLinx Holdings Inc., where he served on the Compensation Committee and Governance Committee. Currently, he serves on the board of the University of Maryland University College Ventures, where he is focusing on fundraising for the organization, which aims to make a positive economic impact by helping entrepreneurs commercialize their discoveries. Previously, he has been on boards for the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“Being on a board enhances your strategic view and governance experience, and it also informs your ability to understand business challenges, whether those challenges are in the public or private sector,” Nixon says.
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