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INSIGHT: What Nick Saban Taught Me in My Legal Ops Journey From Walmart to Asurion

Nov. 6, 2019, 9:01 AM

During my tenure as the Louisiana State University Athletic Foundation Chapter president, I had the fortune of meeting and getting to know some of the greatest football coaches of our time. One coach I was lucky enough to meet was Nick Saban.

Saban is widely known for his leadership abilities both on and off the field and he is often asked about his keys to success. He repeatedly gives a similar answer. The two foundational blocks he relies on are the two “O’s”—organization and ownership. Unfortunately, during this period of my legal career I thought it was great for sports but never considered how it may be of value to me personally.

Walmart and FCPA Allegations

Fast forward to 10 years ago, when I left the active legal practice and went in-house for Fortune 1, Walmart. While at Walmart, I worked in several areas including global investigations, health and wellness privacy compliance and international continuous improvement compliance. During this time in my career I learned what Saban was describing and saw it come to life in a professional corporate governance setting.

Walmart is a global operation, but in 2011 the enterprise business was very fragmented. The international entities operated like a portfolio of business and were largely independent from U.S. operations, legal and compliance. Shortly after joining Walmart, the company came under investigation for Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations resulting in structural changes in how the enterprise viewed risk and security.

Prior to the FCPA charges, legal had little oversight to various investigative teams spread across the different business functions. After the FCPA allegations broke, the company drastically changed its course. All investigative units were consolidated under one umbrella which included: ethics, legal, and global investigations.

After consolidation, ethics, a small function prior to the FCPA case, took a more active role in the initial assessment of any allegations and was a critical player on final decisions of completed investigations. Additionally, legal gained oversight into final investigative findings and had sign off on the final report before it was given to leadership.

All three teams united in presenting findings and providing recommendations to the business. These once fragmented groups came together in an organized manner. The result was investigations were completed faster, new technology added, and the results from the investigations were robust.

Building International Compliance From the Ground Up

Three years later, I joined international compliance at the time still in its infancy. Prior to the FCPA allegations there was no central international compliance team. In three short years, the company created a new team with an award-winning playbook for managing a compliance program.

In this role, I learned how to build a program from the ground up. It all began with laying a solid foundation, having an end goal in mind, discovering obstacles, and then resolving them. It was a hectic and disruptive environment, but the change management of building a compliance standard in some countries with zero government compliance standards was immense.

Some keys to success were hiring the right people, empowering them to take ownership, trust in the process, organization, and attention to detail to create a program sustainable in 28 countries of varied socioeconomic states.

A New Role: Transforming Legal Operations

Last year, I left Walmart and joined Asurion, a large privately-owned company in Nashville, Tenn. As the first hire of a newly formed legal operations department, I was a part of a small team tasked with transforming the way the legal team was working. Immediately, I recalled conversations with Saban and remembered how my colleagues at Walmart methodically built a process and executed on it.

These experiences allowed me to act quickly. First, we had to get the foundation in place and build out a team with clarity of role and ownership. Lastly, we had to organize by setting a strategy, communicating the vision, and adhering to the process.

A year and a half later we have delivered new front-end and back-end technology solutions for the legal department. We have added nearly a dozen new tools for process improvement, financial management and knowledge management.

Following the process has allowed us to make incredible strides in a short period of time. While there is still much work to be done on our transformational journey, I can now understand what Nick Saban meant by “It is all about the process.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Beau Sylvester was the first hire for the legal operations team at Asurion, a privately owned technology solutions company. Prior to joining Asurion in May 2018, he spent more than six years at Walmart working in global investigation and compliance roles. Sylvester was a successful litigator for 16 years before entering the corporate world.