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Waqas Durrani has charted unknown territory for as long as he can remember. Sometimes, it was because he had to—like when he was three years old, and his family emigrated from Pakistan to the US in search of freedom of speech. And other times, it was by choice—such as when he earned his master’s degree in journalism after graduating law school. But no matter what, his purpose was clear: he wanted to shed light on the truth.
“It was very clear when I was growing up that journalists were restrained by the Pakistani government, and having a government control over media results in one story being put out,” Durrani says. “When you’re a close society like that, you don’t have access to information, so you want to have that one source of truth.”
Durrani figured out an important lesson early in his career: the journey to success is not a linear path. While his law school classmates became attorneys and launched legal careers, he was working to get his foot in the door at the New York Times and Washington Post as a journalist.
He joined an office supplies start-up as a contract attorney to pay the bills and ended up being immersed into the world of M&A. Then the dot-com bubble hit. And after the start-up went public, it filed for bankruptcy.
So, Durrani returned home to Chicago to join Allstate as assistant counsel. “To be honest, I didn’t know much about insurance at the time, but I got the opportunity to work for great leaders,” he remembers.
Once Durrani landed this opportunity, he continued his dynamic career journey. From serving as an enterprise antitrust attorney handling government affairs to managing the legal affairs of every Allstate product as chief product attorney, he wore a number of hats in his sixteen years at the Fortune 500 insurance juggernaut. And some of the opportunities pushed him outside of his comfort zone.
“I’m naturally an introvert,” Durrani says. “So being responsible for walking into a room of strangers and building relationships is probably one of the scariest things anyone asked me to do.”
Durrani may be quiet by nature. However, his performance is anything but. The zigzags in his career helped him excel as a lawyer and a leader.
Just consider what he’s accomplished since joining USAA, a Fortune 500 organization that serves the military community as one of the nation’s leading financial services and insurance companies.
After he started in 2017 as an assistant vice president and managing attorney who focused on insurance, USAA tapped Durrani to oversee major M&A transactions, including a $1 billion deal with Victory Capital and a $1.8 billion deal with Charles Schwab. To accomplish this, he had to build an M&A legal team internally and lead USAA through uncharted territory. He already knew from stepping outside of his comfort zone in past roles how to turn challenges into opportunities.
What’s more impressive than Durrani’s résumé chops is that he’s the antithesis to the classic corporate lawyer stereotype. Sure, he can nerd out over a few technicalities and dives deep into the terms and conditions before parties sign on the dotted line. However, he fosters relationships across departments and emphasizes the importance of partnership and a solutions-oriented approach in the deal-making process.
“One of the things I used to joke with a partner I had is sometimes the legal department gets known as the department of no,” Durrani says. “My direction to my team is they’re not allowed to say no unless someone is looking to do something that’s a violation of the law. After that, we can’t say no. Our goal is to then be creative and figure out how to achieve the business’s goal while also managing any legal or compliance risk.”
His leadership and partnership expertise led to his recent promotion to senior vice president, leading USAA’s shared services team, which includes including technology and transactions, privacy and data security, labor and employment, and CFO counsel.
If you need more evidence that Durrani is more than just a legal gatekeeper, look no further than how he leads his team. When he encourages his employees to be themselves at work, he means it. Communication between him and his staff members is such an open two-way street that it gives a whole new meaning to servant leadership.
“There’s a lot of talk now about psychological safety. That’s something I’ve been talking for years,” Durrani says. “As leaders, we have challenges. Sometimes I’m very open about my own personal challenges.
“I think that was particularly important during the pandemic, and we were all kinds of in uncharted territory,” he continues. “We have our own personal struggles, and I encourage everyone to share those with each other and with the team. I think that’s really created a great dynamic.”