Listening for Understanding
January 06, 2020
- Southwestern University
When she muses on her original career plans, Amanda McMillian ’95 can’t help but laugh.
“It’s funny because early in our lives, we get these ideas about things, and we come to those with, quite obviously, far less experience than when we’re, say, 46,” she says.
McMillian arrived at Southwestern planning a career in politics but “quickly cooled” on that idea. She majored in political science, minoring in philosophy and communication studies, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Not two weeks after graduating from SU, she began an accelerated joint-degree program at Duke University, where she earned her master’s in political science and a juris doctorate in a scant three years.
The Southwestern alum then spent over six years specializing in corporate and securities law at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, an international firm. Corporate law, she explains, is a wide-ranging practice, but a significant portion of her work entailed buying and selling companies or company assets. Securities law, meanwhile, involves helping client companies comply with the laws and regulations designed to protect investors.
McMillian admits that she did not initially think she’d be interested in these fields, but she discovered that she loved the inherent challenge of negotiating transactions. “In litigation, theoretically, you’ve got two sides arguing to a neutral third party who then makes a decision about the dispute,” she explains. “But in a transaction, you have to convince a biased other side that you’re right…. It’s a lot of fun.”
In 2004, McMillian began her 15-year tenure with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, an oil and natural-gas company based in The Woodlands, Texas. In part because of her ability to communicate effectively, connect with people, and see things from other perspectives—a lesson hammered home during her “hugely transformative” experience with SU’s London Semester—McMillian quickly rose through the ranks, eventually serving on the company’s executive management team as the chief legal officer. For McMillian, leadership includes being able to demonstrate empathy, to show that “you’re listening for understanding and engaging in a constructive manner.” She says that skill of empathetic listening is key to productive dialogue in both personal situations and professional environments.
That mantra helped the SU alumna achieve her position as Anadarko’s top legal executive at the intersection of two male-dominated fields: the energy industry and the law. In 2015, an Ernst & Young study revealed that women represented only 5% of board executives and only 13% of senior management positions (e.g., chief executive officers, chief financial officers, and other C-suite roles) across the power and utilities sector. Similarly, in 2006, women accounted for only 15% of equity partnerships, the top leadership positions in law firms, across the U.S.; by 2018, that percentage had increased by a mere 5%. So McMillian is something of a rare bird.
For McMillian, leadership includes being able to demonstrate empathy, to show that “you’re listening for understanding and engaging in a constructive manner.”
However, positive change is being ushered in by business leaders who recognize that “diversity of experience, background, and thought is valuable” and improves decision-making. Achieving a diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone has a greater sense of belonging, she says, also requires courageous individuals to engage in conversations with those whose actions may reflect their unconscious biases and to bring those biases to light. For her, “creat[ing] a space where people felt comfortable bringing their ideas and perspectives” was particularly important. “Doing that creates a better environment for decision-making in any setting,” she remarks. “If we could do that—and I do think we’re making progress—that’s going to make us a better society at the end of the day.”
Amid these larger cultural shifts, McMillian is now considering how her own life is again transforming. Earlier this year, she helped negotiate the $38 billion acquisition of Anadarko by Occidental Petroleum, which leaves the Southwestern alum reflecting on what’s next. Part of that agenda will be serving as the chair of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, which is assisting in identifying Southwestern’s 16th president (see “President Burger’s Paideia Moment” in this issue).
Otherwise, she’s “taking a break” over the next several months so she can spend some extra time with her family, dust off some old hobbies, and continue her nonprofit work. She currently serves on the boards of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and since 2016, she has been a member of the Southwestern Board of Trustees. Her interim retirement, she says, will allow her to “think deeply and expansively about what I want to do with the rest of my life,” including how she can best serve the broader community. She compares this time of reflection to her college days, when Southwestern provided an environment “to really explore not just who I was as a person but who I wanted to be.” McMillian says that such exploration continues, even 25 years after graduation: “Having the opportunity to do that in a meaningful way at this point in my life is a gift, and I want to make sure I take advantage of it.”