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. Okay, let's jump right into the conversation.Sumith:
From my perspective they extend themselves, so that they'll take a calculated risk, they'll try new things and stretch themselves. And I think that they have the potential to be really high performers.Tony:
High performers, they do take a lot on and they stretch themselves and whilst overdone, this can be limiting, I think that they kind of get shit done.
G'day everyone, well I am super excited today to introduce you to Tony and Sumith, otherwise known as Tony Macvean and Sumith Perera, who are respectively the managing partner and the chief operating officer of Hall and Wilcox, and they're talking about some of the traits of high performers. Key for me here is that like everything in life it's a balance. So they're both saying in different ways that high performers will extend themselves, as Tony says they get shit done, they take calculated risks which I think is a really interesting point from Sumith, without overdoing it. So without taking on everything and burning themselves out.Announcer:
This is the Engage, Coach, Grow podcast.Tony:
I've been running our firm with Sumith for the last twelve years. I grew up in Melbourne, went to law school at Melbourne Uni, did law and commerce and then ended up at Hall and Wilcox. And we were a much, much smaller firm there, around about 70 people, just in Melbourne and not particularly well known. And it was kind of a bit accidental that I ended up as a graduate at the firm. But it was really a very fortunate thing because the firm was about to embark on a period of growth and striving to become something bigger and better. So pretty early on in the piece I headed up the firm's corporate practice. After just a few years in 2000 I made a partner and was the partner in charge of ethical practice and then when we'd done that for seven years I became managing partner of the firm. Sumith joined at that time. Him and I had worked together on a transaction previously, he can tell his story, but he was at BDO, a good client of ours.Tony:
And when we went to market looking for a COO to work with me as the prospective managing partner, Sumith was the candidate that right from the start I hoped would get that role and that's the way that it turned out. And him and I have had the great honour and privilege of running our firm for the last twelve years. And that's been a really fun, rewarding time. We've grown in that time from being a Melbourne-only firm of maybe only 120, 130 people, to now we're an international firm, about 700 and something people. A substantial presence outside of Melbourne, actually in Sydney and Clive Palmer's as well and a really high quality client list including institutions, government and substantial private clients. And we've had a fabulous relationship, collaborative relationship as leaders of the firm, it's been really fun doing it with Sumith, the partnership is something we'll continue to enjoy.Tony:
I've always been someone who aspires to improve and continuously get better and has a real interest in people and helping people thrive and that's been the way that I've tried to run the firm. Everyday I try and improve and reflect on how I can get better and I think that's been an important aspect to our growth and processes.Alex:
So from a commerce law student at Melbourne uni to managing partner of Hall and Wilcox, Tony has taken the firm from 70 people when he started to over, I think it's 750 now. I just love how he talks about again, this recurring theme of this such a strong partnership with Sumith and the impact that's had on the firm, but he also talks about having fun and I think this is a really great lesson for all of us. You need to have fun and when you're doing something you love with people that you really respect and love working with and you're serving your higher purpose you can't help but have fun and Tony also talks about the things that he's always brought to his career is he always wants to get better, he always wants to evolve and learn. He wants to help people thrive, and I think that's really clear in the way he talks about his current role.Sumith:
My training is a little bit different, I'm an accountant by training. And I was lucky enough to land a cadet role at Deloitte. So straight out of high school and uncle of mine said to me "There's a firm called Deloitte, they're good at cricket statistics, and if you like accounting you might want to end up there." And so I landed there, I was there for about eight or 10 years in various roles, starting in audit and then graduating into management consulting and I had great opportunities, I had partners that gave me lots of free reign to develop and try new things and ended up working on large projects overseas as well as in Australia. And I was really loving that experience but it meant a lot of travel and wasn't really compatible with developing a long term relationship. Ended up leaving and working in the transport sector for a few years, in finance roles and then ultimately in an IT role.Alex:
Sumith's got a really varied and interesting background that he now brings to bear in his role as COO for Hall and Wilcox. But from accounting student through to working in transport and management consulting, there's a lot of really great experience that he's bringing to bear to his current role.Sumith:
And then ended up as COO at a chartered accounting firm at BDO, who happened to be a client of Hall and Wilcox. That firm in Melbourne, merged or were acquired by Deloitte and I didn't really want to go back to Deloitte, for a number of good reasons, I'd sort of done my time there. And there wasn't really a role for me there. So I was very lucky to be able to my hat in the ring, to be COO and get the role. And twelve years later here we are.Sumith:
My father's an engineer, so I grew up doing all sorts of mechanical things and building cars or rebuilding cars and engines and washing machines and all sorts of different things. So I thought I'd end up there but one day we were mucking around with an electric engine and I accidentally electrocuted my dad and he said "I don't there's a future here for you."Alex:
He said that to you after he'd recovered?Sumith:
Yeah, exactly. It was a tiny electrocution.Alex:
It was enough?
Yeah, it was enough. And so spreadsheets became my friend in the early days and I went on to do economics and accounting.Alex:
Now this is a really sad tale. A dream of becoming an engineer and following in the footsteps of his dad until all came crashing down when he electrocuted his father rebuilding an electric engine, not fatally I should say, quite small, but at this point Sumith thought, maybe I do need to pursue accounting after all.
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Yeah, very much so. I think we have just the utmost respect for each other's skills.Sumith:
We know what each other is good at and we can ask each other for help when we need it. And I think we also both work very hard to make sure that we don't embarrass each other.Tony:
When I reflect on my development as a leader, I think I always relied on Sumith to help us find the answers. However, I think I was slow to allow others to be given the opportunity to try things and to fail. I felt like perhaps in the past, I with Sumith had to have all of the answers, and I think that that's been part of my development and something that I've learnt in a way. There's a real tendency for someone in a COO type role to have to not feel like they need to know all the answers and to allow the others to, as I say, to take a lead and to try and fail and learn in doing so.Alex:
What we're talking about here is that these guys, they've got such a mutual trust and respect, but also they're describing it a different way but in my words, they are talking about zone of genius which you know I love! Because what they're really saying is "Hey, we know the roles that we play, we know respectively what each other is great at and we know where the other person compliments that skillset and together we can achieve great things."Tony:
So, I'm not sure if this was my design, although we were advised to bring on a COO who was a very senior COO who would work closely with the managing partner.Tony:
I suppose there was some strategy behind our structure. But absolutely it has been the most wonderful thing for Sumith and for me. I think to be in a partnership with Sumith is firstly, doing it with someone else means that we can achieve so much more and I think that we each feel so much more supported as a result. We seem to have a really wonderful understanding where we work together when we need to work together but at the same time we can also work quite separately on our own things when we need to.
We have a very similar view of the world and what's important in business and how to lead the organisation but at the same time compliment each other really well. Sumith's a fabulous business person, great with the numbers, great conversationally. My focus is more on strategy and client relations. And then also I think we both have great, different strengths which really compliment each other. Sumith is very calm and very soothing to be around, where as I'm a bit more high energy and can't get things done and every now and again I probably get a bit manic.Tony:
So when I reflect on our firm's journey I think it's just been the most fortunate thing for us to work together and it's hard to imagine how we would have done it without each other. And yeah, it's just such a great testament to that, that we still really enjoy working together everyday and we feel like we achieve a lot but also can have really open, robust conversations when we need to.Alex:
How cool is that. After so long working together, they, Sumith and Tony just have such, and you could see it when we were talking, such passion for working together and just really fill each other's, not gaps, but like I said before, zone of genius-ing. They're really complimenting. And these guys are setting the culture for the rest of the organisation by really having such a deep partnership and really balancing each other and coming in and out. And as Tony was saying, they work together on some things and other things they're quite independent.
But it's that understanding of whose in their corner and who they can tap into. And this is what you as a leader, or you as a senior leader especially, who is this person for you? All these people? Because if you don't have what you're hearing about here, you really, really need to get some people around you that you feel this level of trust and support from.Sumith:
Sure, so our hallmarks, which are really ... which encapsulate our values was a project that we run a number of years ago to try and capture and articulate our values in a way that was memorable. And so we do that with five hallmarks, evolve always, stay true, be remarkable, respect respect and better together. And so those hallmarks, there are underlying behaviours that people are expected to demonstrate in living those hallmarks. And they're not just on a wall in reception, in fact they don't appear in reception at all. But they're very much understood and referred to by people at the firm. So on firm social media, we use Yammer as a communication platform or if people are talking in an open forum you will hear people saying better together, or stay true or evolve always.Alex:
Here's a great reflection, you as a leader, are you confident that your team could really tell you, what these guys are saying, they call it their hallmarks which encapsulate their values, but could your crew actually talk in conversation about the values? Of both your team and your organisation? Do they come to life, do they ... can they actually live and breathe them everyday? And I think what Tony and Sumith have created here is something really special, because lots of businesses are still at the values on a poster on a wall that no one looks at or can tell you stage.Sumith:
Firstly, I think we recruit very carefully. So we recruit the right people, with the right attitude and with a good track record, with a strong track record. So if I think about areas where we're doing new work or development type work, or innovation type work, we hire really smart people. And then we make sure that they understand the overall strategy and direction and our objectives, and then really empower and trust them. And that's something that we both had to learn to let go and then to let them loose on clients and let them loose on the business and keep close to them, but then over time really release people into the business and see them thrive. And we've been the beneficiary of that, definitely.Alex:
How are you releasing your people into the business? To take a quote from Sumith. And the key here is these guys recruit carefully, are the words that we use. They spent a lot of time upfront really getting to know candidates and letting them get to know them and the firm and then they stay really close and support them and be part of that journey when they come in and then they learn to trust and empower their people, so they can release them into the wild. Are you doing this?Tony:
So, there's drastic equipment in a law form, quite a bit of outgrowth has been facilitated by us bringing on partners and teams of partners, especially outside of Victoria. One thing that we really focus on when bring people on, is really getting to know them well and understanding whether they have aligned values to our values and whether they'll be a good cultural fit. And that actually makes us quite different to many law firms, most law firms will have a strategy to grow in a particular area or market.
And they'll be keen on a partner or a team that has a good practice so the numbers work but they won't focus so much on whether it's a really good cultural fit. So one thing that we think we've really done well is invested time getting to know people before they join us and them getting to know us, and that means kind of multiple meetings, time spent together and socialising and all of that, which kind of drags the process out but we've been patient and taken our time. And then we also work really hard in insuring that once people join us their really well integrated into the firm and our competitor law firms that have grown quickly tend to not do that as well, rethink, they tend to bring people in, give them a desk, give them a computer, off they go. Where as we do everything we can to insure that the people that join us get to know the firm very well and are well integrated.Tony:
So that's only partly answering your question but what it hopefully demonstrates is why we think we've been able to grow substantially and successfully but really retain our culture and a strong sense of being one firm, not a divide firm with silos.Alex:
So a really important thing that Tony calls out here around how to approach recruiting, and it should seem obvious, but this is where leaders do not spend enough time. He really spends a lot of time getting to know a potential recruit and really getting underneath whether there's an alignment around culture and values and this investment upfront, even though it might take longer, pays absolute dividends.Tony:
Sometimes when people are really confused or struggling that's when I think it's important for a leader to not necessarily have all of the answers but to make some sense of it all. I do think it's not the job of the leader to have all of the answers but I really think it's the job of the leader to make sense of what's happening in a fast changing world, which is complex and where people don't always have full visibility of what's going on. So how do you do that? I mean I think just communication's so key. So consistent with what we were saying just now, what we communicate as regularly and as openly as we can. So whether that's with weekly posts or regular town halls, or webinars or emails or just business hoppers and chatting to people, whatever it is, in doing so hopefully explaining what we think is happening and what it all means to the business and to them.Sumith:
I mean I had a great example yesterday where trying to simplify a concept into a way that anyone in the organisation can understand I think is the role of a leader, to make it understandable.Sumith:
To put it in terms that that person is likely to be able to relate to.Sumith:
And so that I think is really important. And kind of stability is also really important.Alex:
Tony makes a really critical distinction here. So we've talked quite a bit, don't we, about leaders getting overwhelmed with, trying to have all the answers, roll the sleeves up, be in the trenches and there's a time and a place as Tony says but the really key thing he pulls out here is he says "Yes, I agree that the leader's role is not to have all the answers, but in times of crisis or where something ... or confusion, the leader's role is absolutely to step in," and I love his phase "to try and make sense of it all." Because the fact is, everyone's looking to you for guidance so don't confuse having all the answers with your role as leader being to step up and lead, and that's making sense of everything that's going on around and then communicating that to all your team.Tony:
Well I think it's certainly a massive challenge in law firms, for law firm leaders and employers, employers are trained to be specialists in their area. The first however many years of their career is spent doing that specialist expertise and servicing clients really well and that's what they pride themselves on and they also pride themselves on being correct and never being wrong, because there's very low tolerance for error. Senior lawyers, if they're going to move into leadership roles, they need to firstly understand the importance of working with others and of leverage, and initially for lawyers that will be involving others in their transactions or their matters to help get work done but right at the beginning for many lawyers it will just be how can I get an extra pair of arms and legs to kind of help get some stuff done.Tony:
There's a real challenge that lawyers face and an evolution that they need to go through where they start to understand in order to be successful in their roles, to build a practice and to truly become leaders in the firm, they need to be able to build a team, to coach people in that team and as a result their role needs to chain being a doer or a grinder, to being a leader of people, a leader of leaders. And as I say, it's a massive challenge in law firms, because lawyers are trained to be people specialists and that's what they pride themselves on.Tony:
I just came from a development program that we were running at our firm, and talking to our prospective partner cohort and saying this is the transition that you're going to have to go through. You've got to start to understand yourself, you've got to start to empathise with others and develop emotional intelligence. You need to start to develop business acumen for you to be successful as partners and leaders in our business, it's going to be more about those things rather than how good a corporate lawyer of tax lawyer or finance lawyer you are. So yeah, it's a massive challenge in law firms generally and I think that some lawyers don't really get there.Sumith:
I think that as we've grown I've reprioritised building relationships and empowering others. So probably when we started, my role was still pretty hands-on, so preparing information, preparing financials to a large extent, or doing the final review. Where as now, I'm a recipient of lots of information, need to digest it, need to then be able to communicate that information in a way that's meaningful to others.Sumith:
The role has definitely changed in that regard. But probably the other thing the role has become is the person that can connect the dots, or join the dots.Tony:
And I think that that needs to continue to be a focus, because you can get caught up in the day to day sort of transactional stuff, even reviewing the sort of transactional stuff, to really helping people, having great people doing that, and then helping others by joining the dots for them.
We talk often, don't we, about that transition from being a team member to being a leader. And I think you have in your career, you've got lots of points where you go to one level and then you go to the next level, and at each stage you've got a different transition. And what Tony and Sumith are really talking about here, there are a couple of really interesting points, is that you can't just assume that you slip in to a leadership role and you know what you have to do as being a leader.
There's actually ... you've got to reframe and get new skills or evolved skills that take you from off the tools to actually stepping into a leadership role, where as Sumith's talking about, he says, I went from having to do the do which is you know preparing the financial statements and the like and then I progressed from actually going well I'm now a recipient of a massive amount of information and I have to make sense of all of that.Alex:
But he also says there you know, my role is also as the leader, is being able to connect the dots. So this is, it's an evolution, so if you have specialists in your team or new leaders, don't forget that their going to need some help and support and some development to step into a leadership role and actually transition from being the doer to the leader.Sumith:
One of the best tips we got on leadership, was to be great leaders we need to have great followers. People who trust you, and respect you and feel respected by you. And I think that's really resonated for me. You can't be a great leader unless you have great followers.Tony:
Especially in a law firm where you'll have partners and so effectively you're not really the first among equals, partners. So really you need to be trusted and you need to use influencing skills to kind of get anything done. Or it's just never ever going to work in a law firm. Unless it's a disaster and just has to happen, or something, otherwise to get things done it's just by influence and trust, and explanation and communication.Alex:
How's this for a quote, "to be great leaders you need to have great followers and that's people that trust and respect you." So, this is not about title guys. Great leaders and if you have people that want to follow you, that trust you and respect your lead, it's got nothing at all to do with title and that authoritative power.Tony:
Yeah sure, so for anyone whose seen that wield, at the beginning schedule regular catch ups with a cohort of people that's likely Sumith or me, our director of people and culture, the practice leader that the person is in, other relevant people. Just check in and talk about how things are going. So that's something that's probably a little bit more personal and real then the usual kind of induction that people would participate in.Tony:
Sumith and I spend a lot of time with our people, which kind of makes sense, that's our job. So talking about the firm's purpose and the firm's values, and what the firm stands for and or strategy and what we're trying to achieve. So again I think that that really helps integrate people, I'll spend time with clients and helping their clients become integrated into the firm, because generally speaking the person who joins us will be looking to bring clients with him or her. And then there are other little things as well, we communicate really regularly and actively about what's going on in the business, that's a way of helping people feel integrated, they know what's going on.
We run regular town halls and firm updates and webinars and stuff, which again gives an opportunity to talk about whose joined the firm and what they do and how people should involve themselves with them. Heaps of that sort of stuff, there's just a real focus on people working together, and getting to know each other and collaborating and people who are new to the firm very much feeling part of the firm.Alex:
Here's yet another, I guess underlying of the role of the leader. So Tony's talking about, well Sumith and I spend a heap of time with our people, which makes sense because that's our job. So if you're a leader and you are literally running out of time to spend with your people to onboard new team members, than this is where you need to really take stock of what you're focusing on, where you're spending your time. Because this is kind of the kernel of being a great leader and the other question I'd ask you is how much time and how structured is your program and process for bringing new team members on? Do you just chuck them out there and let them sink or swim? Or do you have a really careful and supportive program, that brings them on and makes them feel part of your business?Tony:
The story's out. That's true, from our perspective, doing a weekly post is absolutely a high priority. So its on a Friday, it's either my McWrap or Sumith's smoothie, just his smooth or Mark out here had a pretty modern day or week in Sydney and he rang me at 6:30 and said "I need to do a smoothie aren't I?" And I said "Yeah you were." And sure enough he hunted out, and it was a beautiful smoothie because what we try and do is really personalise our experience, talk about the clients and stats and we try and talk about our reflections and last Friday Sumith was really vulnerable and spoke about how he had a rough week and at times he felt that perhaps he could have handle situations better, and I think he was being really unfair on himself, but got it out at seven o'clock and it got a fabulous response from our people because people love that vulnerability and sharing.Alex:
And yeah I guess it prioritised that it's a discipline for us that we think is important even though it's Wednesday tonight I'm anxious about having to prepare a McWrap for Friday.Alex:
There is so much gold. But all I'm going to say is, Tony McWrap and Sumith Smooth, but jokes aside these guys are just ... I was sitting here thinking gosh I want to work with you because you can just see how seriously they take their role as leaders, around communication, around really being consistent with communication and serving their staff and their team and I think this is incredibly important. This is one of the things that's so easy to drop off your list when your busy, because it's not one of the big deadlines, but this is at the heart, I think, of great leadership and creating a great culture.
One thing I continue to learn, is to invest in your development. It's easy to get caught in the day to day. So to realise that it's a long game to have ... Make sure you make time for a breadth of experience, and to really find opportunities to keep developing. The guy sitting next to me really keeps me in check in that regard, that's something that Tony really emphasises that people need to continue to develop.Tony:
So if I was advising my 30 or 35 year old self, I would say it's not all about how much you can get done and how quickly you can tick things off your list. And I think I still have that tendency a bit, but for me that really was the game, that I need to do as much as I can and that means working as hard as I can to get it all done, so I think that understanding that it's not all about that would be absolutely advice I would give to my younger self and I guess related to that is really, really developing emotional intelligence. I feel like I'm naturally a person who gets along with other people, but I feel like I've really had to develop my self control, my prioritising of having empathy with people, the way in which I cope with situations, those sorts of things, so I feel like I've become a much better leader in these years because I've really prioritised that over getting as many things done and kind of winning the race because I can do the most stuff.
The other advice I would give is kind of related to emotional intelligence, is to not catastrophise, to manage adversity better. So I reckon when I became managing partner, when I was in my mid-30s, if something went wrong there was a risk that I would think that it was the end of the world and that would show and that would impact upon others and I think I'm much better now in not catastrophising and coping and I remember that one of my mentors explained to me that you will look back on this and you will realise it wasn't such a big thing, and I think that that was really good advice that I now share with others.Alex:
So, what's the advice that Tony and Sumith give to their younger selves? There is so much wisdom here, so for anyone whose listening, I don't care if you're a newbie leader or a really senior leader and everything in between, it always serves us to listen to other people who are sharing their wisdom and I think what these guys are sharing ...
They're almost, their fundamentals but it's something that we all need to go back to. One, never forget how important is is to develop yourself and constantly be learning and investing in your on self and as Sumith talks about that breadth of experience, because it just, it's as is he says, it's a long game. And from Tony's perspective, similar themes, I think we've all been there, we talk about this cursive busyness, trying to do it all, have all the answers, the pressure of being a leader, and as Tony talks about he says well, I still almost have to manage myself around that tendency to have a list and tick off as many boxes and push through and work harder.Alex:
And I have to keep bringing myself back to again, it's a long game it's not just about the amount of tasks you get through. But he also talks about ... Which I think is, it's a hard to do, and it's something I believe that you have to work at everyday, is this whole piece about self awareness and I don't think you ever stop getting better at that. It's that bit as a great leader when you're aware of your reaction, of the trigger, of the impact that you might be having on the rest of your crew, because they're all looking to you. So that is some amazing advice from two very, very experienced leaders.Announcer:
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