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Fireside Chat with Debra Sabatini Hennelly

July 30, 2023

Debra Sabatini Hennelly

“Never forget who you are” were the wise words from my criminal law professor on our first day of class in the very first week of my law school journey. That was more than a decade ago – before I was called to the Bar and long before I became a mom of two. Time seems to be ticking away differently when you are a working parent with young kids.

When my kids were toddlers, time was often a blur and the days were blended into a binary system: work, family, work, family… Rinse and repeat. It felt almost impossible to take a breath to remember who I was before this phase of life.

Perhaps, we could all use a gentle reminder…

Our next most spectacular Fireside Chat guest, Debra Sabatini Hennelly, has a brilliant idea: display a photo of your childhood self on your workstation as a reminder to always be yourself and to remember what makes you happy! The concept of “self” or self-care is often overlooked as working parents. Perhaps a simple motto says it all: “happy parents, happy kids”!

In addition to Debbie’s transparent and heartwarming sharing, she has provided many pragmatic tips for working parents including important things to consider as you are figuring out your career path, the importance of love and teamwork with your spouse/partner, and developing a mindfulness practice and self-care routine to avoid burnout.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

P.S. Debbie frequently posts short video clips of the beautiful ocean. You can hear the soothing sound of the waves and can almost feel the ocean breeze – giving you a moment of peace and serenity!

Part 1 - Introduction

Hi, my name is... Debra Sabatini Hennelly (Debbie Hennelly).

  • Year of call to the Bar: 1988.

  • Type of practice, your role, and where: I own a small consulting and coaching firm.

  • How many children do you have? 3 daughters: 36; and twins, 31.

  • What do you do for self-care or stress relief? I meditate every morning using the 10% Happier app (from Dan Harris’ great book by the same name) and I walk—usually at sunrise on the beach or boardwalk (we live about a mile from the ocean at the Jersey Shore).

  • What would you do for work if you weren’t in the legal profession? I’d be a teacher… or a travel agent (do people still use them?)… or I’d own a bed & breakfast.

Part 2 - The first “Dual 10” Challenge: within the first 10 years post-license

Equilawbrium: Did you have a master plan for your career path? What was the driving force behind your career decisions? What are the important things to consider as you are figuring out your career path?

Debbie: Not one that I followed! I went to college thinking I would be a doctor… I transferred to the Engineering School after my freshman year. I worked as a civil/environmental engineer for 3 years, supervising construction, then decided to go to law school (I realized that lawyers were driving so many of the decisions in my work, so I wanted to know what they knew!) I practiced environmental law in firms for 5 years (DC and then NJ), and I moved in-house to AT&T as an environmental lawyer after my twins were a year old—to “get a life” (which was possible in the early ‘90s in a corporate law department…). I moved into broader compliance & ethics after the spinoff of Lucent Technologies (and then Avaya) when my general counsel saw that what I was doing could engage the business beyond just environmental and safety… I created the first global, web-based compliance & ethics program. That became my profession—and the focus of my consulting firm, which I started in 2004 (although I did take on some part-time GC/chief compliance officer roles later on).

Looking back, I’d say the important things to consider in making my decisions were: (1) doing what is best for my family; (2) working for an organization with a purpose that resonates for me; (3) and where I am respected by my colleagues (at all levels) for what I can contribute to that purpose; and (4) where I can share ideas—and raise concerns—without fearing disrespect or retribution.

Equilawbrium: Please list one soft skill that contributed to where are you now and suggestions on how to cultivate it.

Debbie: Making complicated legal concepts simple and practical for non-lawyers… that usually means explaining the “why” and the “what” of the advice without naming or reciting a law or regulation, and always seeing the issues and the advice from the perspective of the client or colleague. (“Why should I care?” and “what does this mean for the decision or proposal I am considering?")

Equilawbrium: Please list one hard skill that contributed to where are you now and suggestions on how to cultivate it.

Debbie: If speaking in front of a room of people is a hard skill, I’d say that’s it… Knowing my content well enough to speak extemporaneously about it—not reading my slides—and being able to take questions. That means courage and confidence – even when it’s a scary room or intimidating audience—which sounds like a soft skill, but it’s not—it's about being prepared and then not showing any fear (on the outside). That also means having the humility to say, “good question… I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you…” because our credibility—and trust—is totally wrapped up in that kind of answer.

Part 3 - The second “Dual 10” Challenge: have kids in their first 10 formative years

Equilawbrium: How do you juggle work/life responsibilities? Is it possible to have a family life and a work life simultaneously and harmoniously?

Debbie: For starters, I married the right guy. It all starts there—if you love and respect and support each other, you can get through anything. For some days (or months or years), one of our work demands had to take precedence over the other’s. But that was sort of negotiated along the way. When we found out we were having twins, we knew we needed to create a way for all 5 of us to get what we needed, but that it wasn’t possible for us to do it with outside help. So my husband (a journalist) figured out how to work from home and became the primary caregiver—a total ego death for him at first, and total resentment for me… we would have loved for it to be the other way around, but my salary vs his salary just didn’t make that possible. And then, when we sorted out the who-does-what-when, things started to run more smoothly. I stopped micromanaging things from my office, and he stepped up his game beyond “no one is bleeding, everyone is fed and clean…” Ultimately, looking back, those first 10 years were so good for all 5 of us—the girls definitely had the more fun, more patient parent at home (which coincidentally, is the way I grew up…). And then when we switched places in the pre-teen/teen years, they had Mom working from home—who knew what they were dealing with and could help.

It is possible to have both a work and family life, but it takes focus, planning, and lots of compromises. We really did try to talk through things in those early years, because we knew we were creating something that wasn’t typical. (Add to that, my oldest daughter was technically my step-daughter—we got married when she was 3, we won primary custody, and she had visitation with her birth mother until she was 11—so that added some complication to the choreography for a while…) We tried to approach each week with a plan for what had to happen when and by whom—but that also meant we had to anticipate what could go wrong and have contingency plans and backup from family and friends. We also made sure to have time away together a few times a year—like an overnight in NYC or a weekend away somewhere, with my parents or one of my sisters taking the kids. And a bedroom door with a lock. Keeping the love alive takes a lot more than coordinating the day-to-day stuff.

One of the best bits of advice I’ve heard recently about the marriage-partnership, from Brené Brown, is to understand that marriage is never an even 50/50… someone always has to pull more than their 50%, but that it has to shift back-and-forth, from day-to-day. (Look for her interview with Tim Ferriss on YouTube.) We are in this together, acting with love and kindness, even when it’s really hard. (And this all includes having disagreements privately—not in front of the kids—and then having a united front, not letting the kids play one against the other…)

Equilawbrium: Having walked the walk, what is the one parenting tip or trick that you wish you’d known?

Debbie: We were terrible about keeping to a strict bedtime when they were little, because so often, I would be coming home late. Our friends who did have strict bedtimes had much better weeknights with their spouses! They just made sure that they devoted their weekend time to their kids—which we were also doing—but we weren’t saving enough time for each other on a regular basis—we were only really having occasional date nights and those weekends away. (And their kids were probably more rested than ours…) I was always so guilty about “missing out”—but talking to my daughters later on, they said they felt like I never missed the important things—games, dance recitals, teacher conferences, and I made the best birthday parties (even better than the stay-at-home moms!)

Also, raising girls, there is just SO much of my own “stuff” that got mixed up in how I handled them as teenagers, but that isn’t what you asked!

Equilawbrium: What is your fondest memory of your kids at that age?

Debbie: Getting them ready for the new school year… then watching them walk into the school yard with their friends…

Part 4 - Achieving Equilawbrium: how to survive & rise from the “Dual 10” Challenges

"I now really understand the preciousness of time. I wasted a lot of it worrying about things that were outside my control... And the other thing that age gives us is the wisdom to know that many things—like emotions or disagreements or ridiculous bosses—will pass eventually, like the weather. So don’t waste your time worrying... Take a few really deep, slow breaths, and face the day."
Debra Sabatini Hennelly

Equilawbrium: What was your biggest challenge going through the Dual 10 phase? Any advice for our readers who are living and breathing this phase and trying to survive and excel?

Debbie: Trying to be everything to everyone. At home and at work. My advice: understand that is impossible—so be the best of yourself wherever you are—and try not to work through the running to-do list in your head all the time. One thing at a time. That’s all we can do. And that’s how we can do our best at each one. Regardless of what we think about multi-tasking, we are not built to do it well. Not our brains, not our bodies. I have suffered 3 times from severe burnout—once in my 30s, once in my 40s, once in my 50s. I finally learned my lesson. And it’s pretty simple—if we put everyone and everything before self-care, we will ultimately be no good for anyone or anything. So “put on your own oxygen mask first”—by taking care of yourself first, you can be your best, most present self for everyone else. Being present in one place at one time. That’s the way to stay healthy and happy and be our best selves.

Equilawbrium: What is your take-home message for our readers who are trying to find their “equilawbrium”?

Debbie: At 63, I now really understand the preciousness of time… I wasted a lot of it worrying about things that were outside my control. Like wanting other people to like me or respect me. Trying to fix those things or even just worrying about those things wasted time that I could have used to focus on my family or myself… And the other thing that age gives us is the wisdom to know that many things—like emotions or disagreements or ridiculous bosses—will pass eventually, like the weather. So don’t waste your time worrying.

And develop a mindfulness practice—get up early enough to give yourself the first 30 minutes of your day (or 5 or 10, if that’s all you can handle at first) to take care of yourself. I meditate with the 10% Happier app, but do something that grounds you. Walk, or run, or do yoga (also something I love), but no email or news or anyone else’s “stuff” until after your 5 or 10 or 30 minutes. Then take a few really deep, slow breaths, and face the day.

Equilawbrium: What is the one-word encouragement/support that you would want us to remember?

Debbie: Presence.


<<End of Fireside Chat with Debra Sabatini Hennelly>>


<<Debbie's Biography>>

Debra Sabatini Hennelly advises executives and boards on enhancing organizational resilience by creating cultures of candor, inclusion, integrity, and innovation. She engages stakeholders directly to identify ethical, compliance, and environmental/social/governance (ESG) risks and opportunities, integrating those insights into operations and culture. Debbie helps leaders and teams address obstacles to ethical decision-making and psychological safety, increasing collaboration, wellbeing, and productivity.

Debbie is an adjunct professor in Fordham University Law School’s Program on Corporate Ethics & Compliance, a Master of Studies in Law (M.S.L.) program for non-lawyers. She frequently speaks at conferences, has been interviewed on several podcasts, and writes on several platforms. Most recently, she co-authored two articles for Harvard Business Review: “Resilient Organizations Make Psychological Safety a Strategic Priority” and “Bridging Generational Divides in Your Workplace.” She is also the author of the book, "Presence in Chaos - 365 Mindful Moments."

Debbie is the founder and president of Resiliti (originally in 2004, as Compliance & Ethics Solutions), providing advisory services and experiential learning, focusing on culture, ethical leadership, and holistic risk management. She also advises and coaches ethics and compliance professionals, helping them lead effectively and develop strategies for personal resilience.

For more than 25 years, Debbie has been creating innovative approaches to fostering ethical leadership and cultures of candor—from boardrooms to break rooms—with organizations ranging from small entities to some of the largest multinationals. Her pragmatic approach is informed by her engineering and legal background and decades of corporate leadership, C-suite, and advisory roles in compliance and ethics, legal, environment and safety, and strategic management. Her passions for learning, teaching, and "connecting the dots" fuel her ability to inspire authenticity, engagement, and accountability.

Prior to her corporate experience, Debbie practiced environmental law with firms in Washington, DC, and New Jersey. Before practicing law, she was a civil/environmental engineer and supervised construction in the oil and gas industry.

She earned her B.S.E. In Civil/Environmental Engineering from Duke University and her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.

Disclaimer: Any views, information, and personal opinions expressed by the authors or guests are entirely their own and do not reflect or represent those of their employers or clients.

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