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Sue Kench, Global Chief Executive of KWM talks about her career path and why lawyers should be more deliberate about their career plans

Sue Kench, Global Chief Executive of KWM, humbly describes herself as the Steven Bradbury of law firm management and encourages lawyers to be more deliberate about their career plans. 

Here she offers her insights on the changing attributes of successful lawyers, flexible working, technology and more.

Crowd & Co: 2017 seems to have been a wonderful year for you – you were appointed to your current position and won the Women in Law Executive of the Year award. Can you tell us what’s been critical in reaching this career high point?

Sue Kench: None of this was planned. You look at it from the outside and you think, "Oh my God. Well, there was a plan that's come about." I did always have a desire, though, to be the best at what I do in a broad sense. I always had a habit of looking out and seeing who did things well and taking bits and pieces from those people. I was very conscious of how I could continue to improve. 

I describe myself as the Steven Bradbury of law firm management. I say that in relation to taking on the position of chief executive in Australia, that was not in the plan for me, although I had many years of experience in the firm through Board positions and industry and leadership roles. It came about because basically the position had been vacated and it was offered to me and so I took it. I was very lucky in that respect. And likewise, really, in relation to this global role. 

It is fantastic that I've got those opportunities. But the lesson, or the thing I do say to others including women, is that the crime is that it was not in my plan and that it happened by chance. 

In relation to the management of law firms, there’s this mystique. You're just not exposed to it when you’re in the trenches running a practise. I'd say to people a couple of things. One, there is no magic. You've just got to get in and do it. If it interests you, get the experience and have a go. And don’t be afraid of saying you want to. But, importantly, put it down as a plan, don’t leave it to chance, and build the experience that will help you get there. If it happens by chance more women won't get there – chance doesn't always play in favour of women.

C&Co: There was quite a fuss when you were appointed the first female managing partner at King & Wood Mallesons in Australia. How did you feel about that?

SK: These days, and these are broad generalisations, the sort of skills that are needed do play in favour of women. But that was not really known to be the case so much five years ago or more. It's become more and more apparent now and there's much more conversation around that now. 

And the reason I was selected was not because I was male or female, it was none of that at all. We're very lucky in the firm that there's been a very strong history and legacy of women. The fact that I was a woman, it wasn't a big thing. After I was appointed as the first managing partner of a big eight law firm, it was like “Oh my God. It's a woman.” I say, “And…?” 

It is very true, though, that visibility in these positions is important. I think in the early years, I underestimated that. The struggle now is that the roles are big roles. They're very time consuming, they've got a lot of responsibility with them. Do I spend enough time talking about this and sort of being visible? Not at the moment, probably, because I've just got so much work to do to get the position and the work itself done. You certainly can't underestimate the power of some visibility in these roles.

C&Co: What do you think will define successful lawyers in the next five or ten years?

SK: It's a question that will come up more and more often, particularly with the whole A.I conversation that goes on, as well. Computers can give you knowledge and facts instantly. What you do with it then is the key – it's the problem solving, it's the how do you stand in the shoes of others, it's the bigger picture and complex thinking. 

Lawyers who drill down into the minutia – yes that’s important, yes you must get into the technical issues, yes there must be deep thinking. But it's the big thinking around problem solving, that’s important now. 

The problems that people grapple with are really very difficult problems. I'm a firm believer that no one person can solve the difficult problems that are out there. So, how do you identify and form up the best people who can help you solve those problems and manage deep and critically important relationships with our clients? 

Also, there's no point being the smartest person in the room if you're so difficult to work with no one will actually invite you into the room. 

It's the combination. You’ve got to know what you're talking about, you do need credibility. You can't be flaky when it comes to matters of law. It's a very hard profession. You've got to spend the time getting that knowledge and wisdom and building your commercial acumen, networks and relationships. That doesn't happen overnight. That's years of learning. Then once you've got that platform, it's then a case of “How do I use that in a different way to solve problems and actually understand?” The problem is not necessarily a legal problem, you actually have to understand the broader issues and problems at play instead of trying to be the answer. 

Buzz words get a bit annoying, but what do they really mean when we say, “Be creative about problem solving”. The word “creativity” is used often. Lawyers have been creative for a long, long time. That's what we do. We solve problems. 

I'm a big fan of design thinking. In design thinking, they talk about T people. T people are, if you go down the vertical, people with deep expertise. Then you've got the top of the T, the horizontal. That's people who are very good at relationships. It's the combination of those two things that makes the T person. And I think that plays to a lot of what women are good at.

C&Co: Is there one piece of technology that you use in your job every day, something you can't live without?

SK: The iPhone makes the outside world so accessible to everyone. I make sure I'm linked in to articles or magazines, the thought leadership pieces that I can access at any time. I read beyond law, about what's going on in different industries, or different parts of the world. It's a world without borders these days, so you do need to know what's going on everywhere.

C&Co: Which sources do you prefer for reading online articles?

SK: It is hard these days. Sorry to go into fake news, but this is the whole issue, I think, in society more broadly. If you think of the Edelman Trust Surveys that were released only in the last few days, there's that broader sense of how organisations can restore trust and help society come back to trust. It's the same thing when you ask this question. 

Harvard Business Review is a really good starting point. It has really good links. A magazine called Fast Company is excellent from an innovation perspective. The McKinsey site has really good articles, as well. I've got a bookshelf of different sites that I go to quite regularly just to check in and see what's happening and refresh my thinking. The Economist magazine, I think, is pretty credible. I read the Australian Press, the Financial Times, and some of the US Press, as well. Then, obviously I'm here in Hong Kong, so the China Daily and some of the press out of here, as well. I try to go to briefings, as well, that are put on by credible organisations. 

More generally, there's so much knowledge and information out there. How do you nail it down into something that is not too overwhelming?

C&Co: You have three children and your job obviously requires immense commitment and dedication. It’s the question women are always asked – how do you do it?

SK: How do I balance it all? Badly. It is really hard. 

This is a lesson I’d like young women to listen to. I was so driven, when I was younger I thought, "I need to make partner, I need to get that experience." I was the first female real estate partner at the firm, right. Then it was like, “I'm going to do this, head down, serious time commitment, serious work commitment.” And as we all know, part of the struggle for women is that as you're starting to ramp up the career and get all of that knowledge and everything else, the biological clock's ticking at the same time. 

Having been made partner, I felt I needed to get my practice sorted. I spent four or five years making sure that my practise was solid, that I had really great client relationships and I had the experience, and I had the network. That worked brilliantly well. Then one day I woke up and went, "Oh my God. The children. I've got to have the children." I was incredibly lucky that I had three children. I had them late. Others are not always so lucky. It's the same thing as management, right? My message is, “Don't leave it to random planning.” 

Back in my day, we did have a few who were brave enough to have children before or shortly after they made partner. In my circumstances at that time, that would have just been impossible. I needed the experience and to build my relationships and networks, and the pressure would have been too great. Maybe things will change, but you just can't have everything at the same time. You need to stagger it. Now, hopefully that will change, but it wasn't the case when I had children. 

I had my children. Luckily, I had been a partner for long enough that I had sabbatical, too, at the time. But of course, you can't just can't check out. I was also able to sort of keep the practice going from home, even though I was on sabbatical. 

I had children in quick succession, so I had my first son, then second, a daughter. Then I had a third which was a wonderful surprise, he's the most beautiful boy. Until I had our third, I’d always been an early starter at work. I lived on the north side, and so you had to be on the bridge by quarter past seven or traffic was a nightmare. Then, when I had my third child, I was crumbling and thinking, "Oh my God. I've got three little babies, and I'm supposed to be on the bridge at quarter past seven. This is not working." Then one day, I woke up and I went, "I wonder what would happen if I wasn't on that bridge at quarter past seven?" It took me three children to ask that question. I thought, "Hmmm. Actually, the world won't come to an end. The clients will know where to find me. They understand my circumstances. I've got a team in the office.” Phone technology was more widely adopted by then and I could answer the phone from home or in a car. It was this sense of, I'm going to take control. 

Also, having a husband who did the school buffer for me for those morning transition periods. I didn't need to do afternoon pickup. He was able to help there. We had a good nanny. You just need good support and a foundation behind you. You know the old Sunday School song, you can't build a house on sand – you have to build it on a rock. You really need that solid foundation and I've got that.

C&Co: You mentioned taking control and working more flexibly helped. What are your thoughts on where the legal profession is at in terms of flexible working?

SKAttitudes really haven't changed to the extent they should have by now. You still have this sense, particularly in law, that it's time behind the desk. Again, it comes down to, as a profession, and particularly with our lawyers, trust them more. Give them the responsibility. They don't have to be sitting at their desk. They're mature adults who are great at what they do. They don't need to be sitting at the desk outside you. They can be elsewhere. 

It's a continuing conversation. A couple of years ago, we had this policy that you can apply to work flexibly. I flipped that in the firm and said that the default position is that you can work flexibly. Needless to say, if you're full-time, you should be able to spend some of that time in an environment of your choosing. If it's easier for you to work from home a day, a week, or whatever it is, then start to plan that. But, there's got to be a client override. If a client needs you in the office, you have to be flexible and adjust. 

Now that does mean that you need to have proper conversations. The iPhone wasn't developed in one day. What happened was things gradually came together, which enabled its development. It's like flexible working and where we're going. Things need to have happened beforehand. It requires time and changes in behaviours and understanding and trust to form. It’s a bit of a journey. I think if we continue, it will continue to happen. 

C&Co: You mentioned earlier that you encourage women to be more deliberate about their career choices and planning. Can you tell me more about that?

SKThe struggle, I think, for many women is, day to day it's quite a challenge to get through what you have to get through at home, and then you come into the office. It can be exhausting. You don't always think about what lies beyond. It's really a case of reflecting on what you've done, where you're going, what you enjoy and then starting to craft something. I didn't do that because I got caught up in just delivering from a practice perspective. 

Think forward. What is it that you enjoy? I'm not saying that 100% of your day will be that, but you must always in a day, in a week, in a month, at least say, "What gives me energy? What do I really enjoy at work?" There’ll be things in the day which sap energy. If something gives you energy, how can you do more of that? If you really enjoy being with people rather than sending emails and working remotely, then see how in a day or over a week you can do more of that. 

It sounds a bit unrealistic, and it is, but I'm conscious of these things. I'm conscious about what it is that gives me energy and what doesn't. I try to make it a bit more fun sometimes. Take the time to plan and step back and see if you’re growing in certain areas. You might not be able to change it in a month or two, but at least if something is on your radar, you're checking in on it, and working out where there are gaps. You need to have that approach across the board, too, since parts of our lives tend to overlap at times.


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