A Work/Life Balance of International Proportions

International counsel Maria Leggett on the importance of workplace mentors and finding a work-life balance

Most would consider themselves fortunate to find an ideal workplace just once in their career. Even more fortunate are those that find it three times. Maria Leggett is among these few.

Maria Leggett,VP, Assistant General Counsel, & Assistant Secretary, Customer Satisfaction, Autozone

After graduating from law school, Leggett started working with logistics and transportation giant Ryder System and spent five years immersed in global logistics and supply-chain management. Her next career move came in 1999 with McDonald’s, where she spent 15 years as general counsel for Latin America and Canada.

Both organizations provided Leggett with terrific role models, mentors, and life-long friends. “Ryder, for example, was instrumental in teaching me the basics of domestic and international mergers and acquisitions and gave me a soup-to-nuts education as a transactional attorney and business counselor,” she says. “My role models and mentors at McDonald’s encouraged me to build my leadership competencies by encouraging a global mind-set and self-awareness. This coaching, along with specific ethical, legal, and fiscal responsibilities, helped me find my voice and gave me the courage to stand up for what’s right and not just popular.”

Maria’s third opportunity came in 2014 with leading auto-parts retailer AutoZone, where she now serves as VP, assistant general counsel, and assistant secretary, for customer satisfaction. Her responsibilities range from employee relations, to regulatory and compliance, to litigation, and mergers and acquisitions.

“It’s important to take ownership of what matters; to talk to your boss and be honest about finding your balance and standing up for it, even with competing deadlines. You need to have courage and be willing to make choices that work for your life on all fronts.”

Unnatural as it might seem, the transition from food retail to auto parts wasn’t a difficult one for Leggett. “At McDonald’s, I was passionate about driving values-based, practical solutions to the legal challenges that came across my desk,” she says. “The people, culture, and commitment to customer and community service deeply resonated with me. I knew AutoZone was a great fit and complemented the experiences I gained at Ryder and McDonald’s.

“Both my previous employers and my current one are values-based organizations that are focused on excellence, customer service, and the communities they serve,” she says. “AutoZone is a leader in its industry and a true champion for philanthropy … I’m proud and privileged to be a part of and lead a team of highly talented and hard-working people providing great service.”

Born and raised in South Florida by Cuban-born parents, Leggett and her older sister were instilled with a love for education that carried Leggett through law school and beyond. But her love of family gave her something just as important: a fierce determination to find balance as her own family grew.

“Often, there are pivotal moments where work and life clash. We have to find that resilience, that extra energy to shift gears and press forward,” says Leggett, who has three children with her husband of 15 years, James. “Some days my focus may be all family, other days all work, but you figure out how to strike the right balance and adjust as situations evolve.”

Leggett finds fulfillment in helping fellow employees (“AutoZoners,” as they refer to each other) with their ever-changing balance issues as well. “It’s important to take ownership of what matters,” she says, “to talk to your boss and be honest about finding your balance and standing up for it, even with competing deadlines. You need to have courage and be willing to make choices that work for your life on all fronts.”

In Leggett’s case, the need for balance is compounded by the fact that she also serves AutoZone in an international capacity. Many of the areas that she covers must also be handled as they apply to AutoZone in North and South America, Asia, and certain parts of Europe. “I always keep our global possibilities in mind,” she says. “If we’re handling a regulatory issue, we must think about the effects and risks of our decisions across multiple functional areas and other locations. We have to routinely apply a global lens to each situation.”

Thinking globally is nothing new for Leggett. As general counsel for Latin America and Canada at McDonald’s, she amassed a number of significant experiences that now benefit her at AutoZone. “Navigating through multijurisdictional challenges, socioeconomic strife, numerous devaluations, political crises, labor conflicts, supply-chain complexities,” she says, “were rich and diverse experiences that helped prepare me to address areas of interest and activity for AutoZone.”

AutoZone’s community involvement appeals to her on a personal level as well. Just last year, the company launched the AutoZone Women’s Initiative (AZ WIN), a collection of resources to help women grow and succeed in their careers at AutoZone. “That participation, leadership, and engagement at all levels is rewarding and satisfying,” says Leggett, who is one of the officers on the sponsoring committee for AZ WIN. “It’s something that’s personally important to me and has long-term benefits across the organization.”

Initiatives like AZ WIN remind Leggett why AutoZone is the right place for her to do what she does. Whether mentoring AutoZoners and new friends or energizing her legal team toward solutions and success, she internalizes AutoZone’s culture and values as easily as she does walking or talking. “It’s because AutoZone’s values are my values, and were, long before I became an AutoZoner,” she explains.

“Being an AutoZoner is a uniquely gratifying experience, and I’m fortunate we found each other.”