Hilary Dinkelspiel Dona – NFP
Emotional intelligence is learned through self-reflection and experience. So emphasizes Hilary Dinkelspiel Dona, who considers it among her strengths as she oversees employment law at NFP, an insurance broker and consultant with 8,000 employees and growing in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“Emotional intelligence allows me to embrace the empathetic side of interacting with individuals,” Dona tells Vanguard in August from Austin, Texas. “I always do my best to take all perspectives into consideration to find resolutions and solutions. The role can be quite creative as well; simply listening to people’s concerns and acknowledging that a problem exists goes a long way toward figuring out a solution.”
Such was the case when a background check revealed an issue about an otherwise attractive applicant. How easy it would have been for NFP to rescind the job offer, but the firm took a more enlightened approach after speaking with the individual.
“It turned out this was a challenging circumstance when the individual was very young,” Dona says. “It was yet another reminder of how important it is to consider the entire situation and all perspectives before making a decision.”
So that person was hired, as have others who have committed to overcoming their imperfect pasts.
In her day-to-day discussions, Dona encourages colleagues to speak candidly about whatever employee issue they are addressing as it allows the team to focus on the heart of the problem.
“For example,” she says, “it may be the case that an employee’s personal situation is impacting their performance at work. However, without some understanding of this, it is hard to address the root of the issue and ultimately resolve the performance concern presented to me.”
Again, it’s addressing employment issues through emotional intelligence.
Winning the talent race
Dona has her own challenges doing her part to make NFP an employer of choice in an industry where talent is at a premium. As the firm grows organically and through acquisitions, she tries to streamline the hiring process so her part of the legal department aligns with business goals.
“As part of our hiring process, we strive to create processes that can be implemented efficiently while also incorporating necessary protections for our business,” she says. “Continuous improvement and agility are important areas of focus for our company, and they are critical to our hiring processes as NFP’s headcount continues to increase.”
As is the case for other organizations, reductions in force are unfortunate realities NFP has had to face. Here too, she says, business needs must be balanced by doing what’s right.
“When we have to make a challenging decision to separate with an employee, we try to do what is right given the circumstances,” she says. “We have worked hard at NFP to build a people-first culture, and I believe that extends to departing employees.
“If it’s a matter of what’s in a contract versus the right thing to do, we generally go with what’s right. You’ve got to treat good employees right even when they leave.”
Dona is also a firm believer that you never know when you may cross paths with individuals in the future.
“It benefits everyone involved when former employees look back at their time at NFP favorably and feel like they were treated well,” she says.
She’s got game
Dona has been focusing exclusively on employment law for the past 13 years, the last five with NFP and the previous eight with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith in San Francisco and New York City, and Goldberg Segalla in New York City. Earlier, the 2008 University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law graduate immersed in a broader scope that included general litigation and transactional matters. While the diverse background was beneficial, it didn’t appeal to her long-term.
Too much of private law, she laments, is about mitigating a client’s crisis that already occurred whereas her in-house role enables her to initiate or collaborate on projects that strengthen a company and establish preventive measures to preempt issues. Employment law, with its human element, proved much more to her liking.
However, Dona’s competitive zeal is always present. As a Cornell University undergrad, she played fullback and wing on the women’s rugby club—“as fullback, I was the last defensive person, and as a winger, I was constantly in a foot race,” she says.
Nowadays, she opts for the arguably more grueling pastime of long-distance running. She’s run more than a dozen marathons, met her husband while training for ironman triathlons, and is currently prepping for 50-kilometer and 50-mile races.
This training takes another level of commitment and fitness in her part of Texas where summer temperatures consistently exceed 100 degrees. To beat the heat, Dona has to lace up her running shoes no later than 5:30 a.m. That’s in addition to caring for a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
But she comes from impressive physical and intellectual stock, Dona’s father being Robert L. Dinkelspiel, a prominent Memphis lawyer who’s completed marathons in many locales, including Anchorage, Alaska. Early on, she says, her parents encouraged Dona and her siblings to spread their wings.
These wings have helped Dona create a diverse and fulfilling career that includes time honing her skills in private law and now, serving in-house as NFP’s first-ever employment counsel, a role she prefers. And does she have any advice for others who might be ready for a life beyond chasing billable hours?
“Learn the business as quickly as you can,” she says. “If you don’t understand it, you can’t advise. For me, it’s been a continuous learning process at NFP, but that’s what’s made it so interesting.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall III 2023 Edition here.
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