‘Diversity of thought is crucial’: Why NAV CANADA’s CLO Leigh Ann Kirby is flying high in 2024

Kirby says the shift from finance to aviation took her out of her comfort zone but helped her career evolve
‘Diversity of thought is crucial’: Why NAV CANADA’s CLO Leigh Ann Kirby is flying high in 2024

In the corporate sphere, there are few roles as multifaceted as that of the chief legal officer. For Leigh Ann Kirby, the vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at NAV CANADA, donning different hats is all in a day’s work. And while the nature of the business and the overarching legal mandate often differ, they intersect in more ways than one. 

"I don't see balancing the demands of guiding the company’s legal strategy with the responsibilities of being a corporate leader as discrete areas,” says Kirby. “I think they merge, and every day we're doing all those things in the role as chief counsel for a company.”

Kirby doesn't merely lead the legal function – she’s also intrinsic in overseeing several other departments. Her approach challenges the traditional notion of lawyers staying within their lanes, a philosophy she finds stifling.  

"I've always felt free to speak my mind and encourage my lawyers for NAV CANADA to speak their minds,” she tells Lexpert. “Because I think, at the end of the day, diversity of thought is crucial.”

In her experience, Kirby notes that some companies prefer a more rigid approach, confining lawyers to their lanes. However, she firmly believes that encouraging diverse perspectives, regardless of background, contributes to better decision-making.

"Often, that will be escalated and the CEO will end up hearing the legal perspective as well as the other non-legal perspective,” she says. “And then they will decide on what is the most appropriate decision for the company overall. I've struggled with those two pieces together, certainly, sitting at the executive table – there’s an expectation that I'm a strategic thinker and supportive of the strategic plan overall.

“Here at NAV CANADA, we have a very interesting strategic plan ahead of us that’s really going to set the company up for success from a technology perspective. And so there are legal aspects to that in terms of the RFP process and the contracting process – but [regarding] the overall strategy and where the company is going, I have as equal a vote as all of the executive management team around the table.”

The trajectory of Kirby's career, however, hasn't followed a traditional, linear path. Reflecting on her journey, she dismisses the idea of a career as a ladder and instead likens it to a jungle gym.

“You need to be able to move in different directions and be okay with lateral moves while you're looking and planning out your career.,” she tells Lexpert .

And while Kirby's transition from banking to aviation might seem unconventional, she draws parallels between the two sectors - particularly in the regulatory environment and the paramount importance of safety.

“It almost goes without saying in the aviation industry that safety is paramount. And so, in the Canadian context, I think both our banking regime and NAV CANADA’s air traffic control have been a source of pride for Canadians internationally. The other driver for me is that I grew up around the aviation industry – my father was a commercial pilot, and my mother was a private pilot. I grew up in airports and had a real passion for planes, so it was natural for me to make the move” to NAV CANADA.

But what’s natural isn’t always easy. While Kirby had a grounding in the aviation industry and is even working on getting her private pilot license, making that leap from comfort zone of finance was still jarring.

"It was not easy to go from a world you're very comfortable in taking that chance,” she says. “But I would encourage anyone to take that chance because it opens up a world of opportunity and, in my case, a world that I was fascinated with and continue to love.” 

In her day-to-day role at NAV CANADA, Kirby collaborates with external counsel, particularly in matters involving class actions and cases related to damage to aircraft and personal injury. However, she underscores the importance of internal legal expertise, describing her team as experts on the business.

“I think what internal counsel brings is that technical training,” says Kirby. “I have insisted that my team all do technical training so that they’re experts in our systems – the day-to-day environment of our employees. So, while we rely on firms to give us an external view, the internal lawyers are the experts on our business. We work hand in hand – and that's a great partnership.”

For those looking to fly to the dizzying legal heights that Kirby’s achieved, she advises not shutting yourself off. While the old path of moving up in the same law firm is still popular, she says it not the only option out there for hungry, new lawyers.

“My advice for the development and career growth of younger professionals is to be open to different opportunities. That historic track of joining a firm as an associate, moving up into partnership… keep your mind open to other opportunities that might exist. And even if it's uncomfortable, work through that discomfort. Because I think there’s a whole world of opportunity outside of your comfort zone that you miss out on if you're not prepared to take a chance.”