For Denise Skingle, there’s no single answer for what makes a good leader. Everybody’s different, after all, and descriptions that might sound odd to those on the outside are compliments in the right context. To be an “enabler,” for example, has a certain connotation in everyday life, but it’s different in the business world.
“I was at a gallery walk for our operations team and complimenting them on the great work they did and the changes that they’d accomplished. They said they could do it because they were enabled to do so, so we joked that I’m an enabler,” Skingle says with a laugh. “But that’s actually a great word for a leader, to be an enabler: you encourage your team but also trust that they have the ability to do what you need them to do.”
Now, Skingle serves as a senior vice president and corporate legal counsel at Nationwide Insurance, a Fortune 500 company that currently sits at number fifty-four on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.” It’s a role she stepped into less than a year ago, having served as vice president and associate general counsel before that. Though her leadership style has evolved considerably over that time, she’s quick to point out that some of the most important lessons she learned came early in her career.
Fresh out of law school, Skingle worked in corporate mergers and acquisitions and securities for international law firm Jones Day. “What I remember most about Jones Day were the great teachers and mentors I developed there,” she says. “I was very lucky to be part of a collaborative group that really taught me how important collaboration was to transactional work. That was the beginning for me, and I really learned how to get a deal done.”
During her nine years with the firm, Skingle says the collaborative atmosphere made her a better communicator and negotiator. Among many other things, she says Nationwide’s culture of collaboration helped her click naturally with the company. In her leadership role, she seeks to implement the lessons she’s learned from the firm. And while collaboration is a major part of it, so too is an emphasis on the individual.
“Denise’s focus extends beyond the bottom line and achieving great results,” says Aneca Lasley, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs. “She cares deeply about the company and her colleagues and invests in those around her, be it as a mentor or coaching someone on the finer points of an issue. “
For Skingle, the patience it takes to connect with each and every member of your team on a personal level is integral to forming a positive working relationship. “You have to meet the other person where they are, not where you are,” she says. “What was always important to me was having someone who was willing to train me but also willing to listen. I think that piece is forgotten sometimes when trying to develop or train someone.”
As a mentor, Skingle describes her method as informal. “I’d say my style generally is really conversational,” she says. “I try to meet regularly, talk regularly, and try to understand what people are working on and then give advice or assistance.”
But there’s a difference, she notes, between being a mentor and being a coach. A shift in strategy within Nationwide’s legal department has necessitated a need for a more formal approach. “Adding process and structure can help maximize efficiency,” she says. “Right now, I’m trying to be a little bit more formal in terms of objectives, goals, and expectations for our lawyers, where in the past we’ve dealt in more art than science.”
This offers Skingle a chance to hone the personal, individualized approach she takes with her team members and elevate the experience by introducing a clear, more defined set of goals. This is necessary as, in an effort to better manage costs, her team is adopting what Skingle calls a “flex-staffing” model, which means that everybody is tasked with being more flexible in the work they take on. The focus is on taking the skills that the team members already have but broadening them to meet other needs.
For Skingle, the chance to take on a variety of work is exciting. She cites how important her early work at Jones Day was, when she worked with clients using a myriad of different strategies and styles, and she’s embraced many changes during her career at Nationwide, as well as welcomed opportunities. That’s not the case, however, for every lawyer.
“Sometimes lawyers want to be an expert in a particular field and aren’t interested in broader work,” she says. “But to be successful in this new environment, everyone needs to adapt and branch out a little bit and pick up different types of work. The core skills they’ve developed can be flexed and used where the work is but resources are low.”
Getting her team motivated about this flex-staffing model has become an important part of Skingle’s job. As such, she’s spent time recalling the ways in which she was motivated throughout her career. What a lot of it boiled down to, she says, is the idea that the ability to broaden one’s palette can be an opportunity, not a burden. Besides, Skingle says, the current legal landscape is one in which all lawyers are better off with a bag of tricks to supplement their specialization.
A diverse slate also encourages and elevates the culture of collaboration that is central to Nationwide’s values. It also promotes a culture of change, one where no one says, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
“That to me is really exciting, when I get to strategize about the structure of the organization and the ways in which we can continually improve. That resonates with me,” Skingle says. It also goes back to one of her keys for strong leadership.
“Be an enabler,” she continues with a laugh. “That’s my goal now.”
Photo: Laura Sauer