Performance Leaders Podcast S2 Ep 4: Michelle Dixon

Ray D'Cruz
Performance Leader

My guest for our special International Women's Day episode of the Performance Leader's podcast is Michelle Dixon. Michelle is the former CEO of the Australian law firm, Maddocks. In this episode we discuss:

  • the opportunities and challenges of leading a law firm
  • the pathway into and out of the CEO role for Michelle
  • if gender influences leadership style
  • the scrutiny that comes from being a woman in leadership
  • advice to other women seeking leadership roles in law

About our Guest

Michelle Dixon is a partner of national law firm Maddocks.  She was previously the firm's CEO until September 2020.

During her time as CEO, Maddocks was recognised as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the Workplace Gender Equity Agency (WGEA).  Michelle was named one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in 2015.  She was the 2016 recipient of the Victorian Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership and received the award for Executive of the Year in the 2016 Lawyer's Weekly Women in Law Awards.  In 2019 she was named as NSW Women Lawyers’ Change Champion of the Year.

Michelle is a member of the Advisory Board of The Nature Conservancy Australia and of the National Advisory Board of Women & Leadership Australia.  She is also a director of Global Sisters Limited and InLife Independent Living Limited and a Member of the Legal Practitioners Liability Committee.

About Performance Leader

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Interview Transcript

Ray: [00:03:35] Michelle, welcome and thank you for being part of the series.

Michelle: [00:03:37] Thanks, Ray. Good to be here.

Ray: [00:03:40] You were managing partner of Maddocks for seven years until a few months ago. What do you miss most about the role?

Michelle: [00:03:48] I know it sounds terrible, but nothing and that's not to say I didn't love the role. But I was a bit of a reluctant CEO because, you know, I'm one of those guys who loves being a lawyer. I can't tell you how much I am loving doing legal work again. And the other thing that's really nice about it is being part of a team, again, a CEO, a managing partner. You're in a slightly different role and you're not in the team that you've grown up in and being working in for so long. So it's just lovely to be back in that team. It's changed a lot. Lots of new people who've never known me as a working partner in that team. But it's really nice.

Ray: [00:04:26] And probably you haven't had the full experience of even having them around you because of Covid.

Michelle: [00:04:31] Well, yeah. So I, I did sit in that team still while I was CEO because I felt it was important

Ray: [00:04:40] Physically you were there?

Michelle: [00:04:41] Physically I remained in the dispute's team. I really wanted to make sure that I didn't lose that connection with what it meant to be a partner of a law firm and how demanding that role is. And the managing partner role was very, very different when you're not practicing law. So I really wanted to stay in amongst the lawyers. And I know that's not the conventional way to set up an executive team, but it worked for me. So it means that I also coming back into the team, I knew everyone in it because I'd still chat to them and say hello to them and be involved in those conversations, which was nice. Not that I was around a lot because I was in so many meetings here,

Ray: [00:05:19] But it makes it makes sense, I guess, because one of the assets of being a managing partner from within is that you have empathy. Having been a lawyer, you have empathy. And so I guess sitting in that environment just keeps you really grounded in the experience of the people who you're working with.

Michelle: [00:05:34] Yeah, and I think that's really important, particularly when one of the least desirable aspects of the role of managing partner is having to manage the performance of your peers. And if you've forgotten the pressures of being a partner of a law firm and you know that pressure to bring in work and get work done and manage people and be all things to everyone, I think it can be hard to do that empathetically.

Michelle: [00:06:08]  There were bits about the role that I loved. Yeah. I did love the role. I loved the fact that I got to influence the direction of the firm and nudge the partnership in the direction that I thought we should head in. I loved - took me a while - but I loved the responsibility of looking after everyone employed by the firm. And you never feel that responsibility more keenly than when something like Covid comes along. And I was supposed to finish on 30 June last year and the board asked me to stay a bit longer just to see the firm - help the firm through that period. The responsibility you feel at a time like that is enormous, but it's also a great privilege to have that responsibility and be able to do what you can to support your people. It's not to say I did it perfectly. And of course, a lot of the decisions we had to make were right at the start before we knew how Covid would unfold. And I think most firms did far better than we were expecting that. You know, it was a good time to be CEO.

Ray: [00:07:39] What don't you miss?

Michelle: [00:07:47] Yes, certainly don't miss the travel. And I don't miss being away from my family all the time. I don't miss commercial conflict decisions within the business and particularly where you have, you know, partners whose practices are built around a sector or client and commercial conflicts arise they're really hard decisions to make. And you make them in what you see as the best interests of the firm as a whole. But that can have significant consequences for individuals and sometimes the clients who have a long standing relationship with the firm and expect you to be able to assist them in that circumstance. So those decisions were always tough. The single hardest thing is assessing the performance of your peers and friends and having to have very difficult conversations about that performance.

Ray: [00:08:48] And  you were heavily involved in all the performance reviews, weren't you? You weren't delegating that out across others?

Michelle: [00:08:58] No. So I felt it was important, as did our board, to do the performance reviews for every partner in the business, we've got a little over 80. And look, that was a great way to connect with people. It was a great way to understand how people were tracking in their practices. It was a great way to connect different people within the business as well. So I learnt a lot through that process. I really enjoyed it. And, you know, by and large, our partners are doing very well. So, you know, there weren't many of those difficult conversations to have. Fortunately, they're not the norm. And, you know, they have to be managed empathetically directly.

Ray: [00:09:50] And when you say you're able to connect partners, is that in relation to, say, objectives that they had or clients that they were aspiring to work with? You're able to put people together who you could see had a common interest.

Michelle: [00:10:01] Yeah, those sorts of things. But also, you know, support for different partners, depending on what they are experiencing in their practice or even their home life. And, you know, we have to keep in mind that, you know, everyone who's here is a person and has a life outside of the firm. And those things will sometimes affect people enormously. High rates of depression, as we know in the legal industry. And I think firms generally do very well looking after their people with those sorts of things. But sometimes the partners are forgotten because, you know, we're peers and we expect partners to be all things to all people. So I think we've you know, I think we've learnt as a firm that we need to do more to look after our partners.

Ray: [00:11:54] Going back to taking on the job of managing partner, what were your initial motivations for taking on the role?

Michelle: [00:12:03] I sometimes say standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time - wasn't fast enough to step back I never envisaged myself in the role. So it just wasn't on my radar. I also didn't see myself as a leader, I think, and I didn't think I had the skill set to do the role. I've always being very much a sort of a technical black letter lawyer. So it took quite a shift in my thinking and you know, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders when I first took it on. And the firm was having to make a few difficult decisions at that time about what direction we wanted to go in, not because the firm was in a bad spot. But, you know, those are not easy conversations to have always in a partnership.

Ray: [00:13:09] Big strategic choices?

Michelle: [00:13:11] Big, big choices. And this was at the time when a lot of firms were moving to become international firms. And we had to have that discussion like every firm. And that wasn't necessarily an easy one to have. But I think once I was in the role,I realized after doing it for a while that it was a role that I probably could do with the support that was provided between the executive team and the board. And I had a fabulous chair, in Mark Hayes, at the time, who was an enormous support. But there was one key thing, I think, that really pushed me over the edge. I was at Managing Partners Conference while I was in the interim role, and we had a discussion at that conference around diversity. And at that point there were very few female managing partners. And clearly women weren't in partnership or leadership positions in law firms to the extent that they should have been. It didn't reflect the length of time that women had been coming through into law. And I had a conversation with a managing partner who was leading a large firm at that time and he said to me, 'look, I can see you're very passionate about this. You should really think about becoming managing partner and taking on that role because you can do so much more in that role to influence diversity than as a line partner in the business.' So that, really, I think influenced my decision. And I guess the corollary of that was we've never had a female partner in the firm and there were very few in the industry. And I was conscious that perhaps one of the reasons I'd never thought about the role was because I'd never seen a woman in the role. So I -

Ray: [00:15:08] Because you'd been practice group leader, you'd been on the board, so you already had quite a few leadership credentials.

Michelle: [00:15:15] I had, and I hadn't really thought about how it ended up in those roles or that it necessarily had to do with the skill set so much as just how these things evolve naturally in a law firm, but I thought it was important, there was an element of it being symbolically important, for women in the business to see a woman in the role and in the broader profession and also that leadership could be done differently and different to what we've seen in the past, I've never tried to model the style of leadership based on what I'm seen the men before me do or what I've seen any other woman do. I've always just tried to be authentic, and I think that's a really important aspect of leadership.

Ray: [00:16:10] Do you think that women bring something different to the leadership role or is it essentially a person-centred issue?

Michelle: [00:16:21] I do think it's a person-centred issue, but by and large, women come with different upbringings to most of the men who come into the roles and generally women come into the role with about an expectation that it's a right or a privilege that comes by reason of their upbringing and education and status in society. So I think women come with, perhaps a slightly different perspective. But ultimately you'll see men who are in the role who've got vastly different styles. So I think there's an element of the personality of the person and provided people are authentic coming into the role.

Ray: [00:18:07] Was there was there anything about your interaction with your peers at other firms that, you sort of thought: well, this needs to change!

Michelle: [00:18:20]  I mean, certainly it was on the agenda of, I think, all managing partners at the time that they needed to be a focus on diversity and that clearly things went where they should be in the profession. I guess an advantage of being a woman in the role is that a lot of other managing partners would actually seek out my opinion. And I was also given a platform that a man in the role wouldn't have been given. I was invited to speak at all sorts of things that, I couldn't believe I'd been invited to speak at. I remember, when I was still in, I think I was interim CEO and I was asked to speak with a government minister and a Reserve Bank board member at the Palladium and a huge audience. I kept saying to the organizers, 'I think you've got the wrong person. You sure you want me?  I've only been a CEO for a few months.' Those experiences, as terrifying as that one was at the time, you certainly become used to those things, really gave me an opportunity to pursue a personal passion. Not that that was my only passion for the role, but it was one that was important to me and important in the profession.

Ray: [00:20:10] Was there also, though, a different level of scrutiny that came with being a female managing partner?

Michelle: [00:20:20] I think so, it's hard to answer that because, of course, I'm not going to view that objectively. I did get some very odd comments that I don't think men would receive along the way, and my self-imposed concern was that if the firm didn't do well while I was in the role, that that would be attributed to my gender, not just my general lack of skill  or the market conditions or whatever it was at the time. So I was really very focused on the financial performance of the firm, on the brand of the firm, on our position in the market. And I was determined that we would do really well so that there was no risk that down the track people would say, 'oh, we tried a female managing partner and women aren't good. Now, that was a terribly unfair assumption to make in terms of how the partnership might view a woman in the role. And I don't think it actually reflects the view that the partnership would have taken had we done badly. That said, I'm delighted that we did really well. So, you know, it just won't be an issue.

Ray: [00:21:44] But it does seem to be a common reflection of people who've come into leadership roles from backgrounds that have not traditionally been in those leadership roles, that they do feel pressure to get things perfectly right. That, a mistake might be viewed more critically because of that background. And so that just adds to the pressure, I guess.

Michelle: [00:22:07] It does. So I suspect internally that wasn't that, you know, amplified focus, by reason of being a woman. There is no doubt that there were bizarre things that happened externally. And I swear there's a good book in this one day. And I don't think that's me being unduly sensitive. And a classic example of that was sitting around a dinner table with a consultant and a small group of my partners and, that consultant talking to me in what I thought was an extraordinarily patronising way. And sort of tapping me on the shoulder as I left saying, I hope you weren't offended by that. And the other woman in the room and the gay man in the room calling me straight away after that occurred to say, oh, my gosh, I cannot believe that behaviour. But the straight men and white men in the room couldn't see it. It was a really interesting

Michelle: [00:23:52]  case study in how different people perceive those sorts of behaviours, and I guess the need to educate people in the normative culture about those behaviours. Because if you can't see them, you can't change them,

Ray: [00:24:15] What's the best way to do that?

Michelle: [00:24:19] Undoubtedly storytelling. Because it is about it's ultimately about cultural change and within an organization and within society, and if you can't see those behaviours, you can't change them, no matter how much you truly believe in diversity being the right thing. So I think storytelling is compelling, not necessarily your own stories, but I would often say now you think about this person in this circumstance and how do you think they're going to react to that, the Socratic method of education? But that helps sometimes, but I think it's easy for people in the norm to say to write it off and say, no, no, no, that's not right. No, that won't be bothered by that. I think there are a number of aspects you have to tackle it from. One is that storytelling to generate the sense of empathy because it's not about people doing the wrong thing, not about white men, white women, whoever it is in the privileged group doing the wrong thing. It's about understanding. I think the other way to tackle it is really to focus on why diversity is so important to have a high functioning society, a high functioning business. Everyone understands the theory. There isn't a study in the world that doesn't say, if you have diverse thinking at the table, you don't get the best result. And problems are becoming more complex in society. So that diversity of thought is really important and that tends to only come from a group of people with very different upbringings, be it cultural, religious, financial, sexuality, whatever it is. So people understand the theory of that, but we're still stuck this myopic view that when it comes to appointing a person to a role, we just look at that one person in that role, not the broader context of the team that they sit in. And you see this most particularly, I think, with boards or it's perhaps the easiest example. And you hear that comment from the board members, what we don't want to sacrifice merit. So I won't go into the merit argument today, because that's another conversation that will take me about 20 hours to vent my views around merit and that concept of merit. But if you are truly focused on getting the best decision making happening around that table, then you've got to look at what is the makeup of the group as a whole. And so you stop looking at just that one role you're filling and who seems most meritorious on paper for that one role, you look at what is the best outcome for the group as a whole.

Ray: [00:32:14] Michelle, I'm keen to explore some of the policies that you initiated in your time as managing partner or perhaps even that you championed before being managing partner in the areas of. Pay and promotion and these sorts of areas. Are there particular policies that you think make a big difference to women in the workplace in particular?

Michelle: [00:32:42] Look, I think that there are but I think that ultimately what you're trying to achieve is an inclusive workforce. You know, we hear that expression, you know, people bringing their whole selves to work. And while I understand the theory of that, you can't just say we want people to bring their whole selves to work, you have to actually create an environment where people are comfortable to do that. Around gender diversity, specifically, there were a lot of policies that we rolled out, but I like to think we're well beyond the policies you need. We certainly needed the policies seven or eight years ago to break down some of the structural barriers that were there, that people didn't necessarily see as barriers. Flexible working was a really important one to normalize. Covid was brilliant in terms of actually normalizing the fact that when you're working from home, you're actually working, and that most roles can be done from home. Whereas I think pre-Covid the idea of admin staff working from home was quite confronting that some partners, although my assistant had always worked a couple of days away from home. But normalizing it as something for men and women was really important, pre-Covid. So, you know, policies around things like paid parental leave for men and women as opposed to paid maternity leave

Michelle: [00:34:40] Pay equity was a really important thing to focus on, and the key there was not like for like of payment, that's easy, although even then it took a really keen focus to make sure there was no favouritism.  But the bigger piece around that was really ensuring rates of promotion were similar and that we weren't just looking at number of days spent in the office, number of years, but actually how skilled is this person and how they ready to move to the next role? The other aspect of pay equity, which became something that we had to focus on in the context of people working flexibly, was also that, well, let's not focus on three days in the office versus five, or out of the office or wherever people were working because, you know, you'd end up with - and we saw this particularly with part time partners - people working three days a week who actually had financial results that weren't dissimilar to people for working full time, but were being remunerated at three fifths of the full time per person. So he had to really adjust how we remunerate people and move far more to an output. Also recognizing not chargeable, not just legal, rather than just time on the tools.

Ray: [00:36:26] Yeah, that's a little bit harder, isn't it? Because you've got to really build a much clearer picture around the person's contribution. And there are some metrics that exist in these places, production related metrics, that can be a little bit misleading at times.

Michelle: [00:36:40] Absolutely. And you would know all about that, given that you work in that space. But it can be done. There'll always be a subjective element. but it can be done and it should be done. And I think firms have been slow to respond to some of those pay issues around flexible working. Unconscious bias training was a really important thing that we did early on, just as part of that storytelling exercise and making people realize where they sort of sat with their thinking. And it was really interesting getting people's perception of, you know, how they responded to things compared to how they actually do. I think we made that compulsory for everyone in the business and I think everyone got a lot out of it.

Michelle: [00:38:44] And I think there's still a lot of work for firms to do around cultural diversity, because if you look at a law firm today, it's not a lot of cultural diversity. So we might say we're welcoming and inclusive. But if I'm a graduate from a completely different background and I'm looking at the law firm, I'm going to be asking myself the question, am I going to fit in there, no matter what they're saying? Am I actually going to fit in? Is there anyone else who looks like me?

Ray: [00:40:03] That's so important in the professions, given the role that law firms, accounting firms, consulting firms play in the legal system, in government to have that kind of representation. In a place like this, it's got a much, much bigger implication than just what goes on in these four walls.

Michelle: [00:40:24] I absolutely agree. You know, as a law firm, you'll be a part of the Administration of Justice And so I think law firms need to reflect the society that they're working within. How else do you support the rule of law? And traditionally law firms haven't. We're getting better, but we still got a long way to go.

Ray: [00:40:56] What's your advice for women in professional firms considering leadership roles. I presume because of your visibility people do come to you and ask you for advice. What sort of things do you say to them?

Michelle: [00:41:09] So the first thing I generally say is to let it be known, so that people start looking at you as someone who is a leader, wants to be a leader and to put your hand up for those roles. Now, that's not always easy to do in a law firm. And one of the things we did very early on in the piece when we were looking to fill more leadership roles with women was actually put a positive obligation onto the board to actually go to women who the board thought would be good in the roles to encourage them to apply. So that encouragement is really important. If someone here says to me that they've got an aspiration for a leadership role, I'll start talking to other people in the business about them as a leader, so people to start to shift their thinking and start thinking of that person. So absolutely let it be known. Go and talk to your mentors about it. Go and talk to the people in the leadership positions about it. Again, not always easily done. And I always say, look to a leader whose leadership style you really think works and that is a natural one for you. And you still have to be authentic. You have to be authentically yourself, but try and work out what are the aspects of that leadership style that resonate and start to focus on some of those things.

Ray: [00:42:42] Michelle, as you contemplated stepping down from the role, I'm not sure how far out from the end of your tenure you started thinking about this -

Michelle: [00:42:50] Quite a while -

Ray: [00:42:52] Was it from the start?

Michelle: [00:42:56] Well, not because of the way my role evolved, so I was there on an interim basis for about seven months, and then I had my first three year term and it's a maximum of two, three year terms here. And once I've been in the role for three years, I was very keen to do the second term because I had so many things underway in the business that I wanted to see through and felt a sense of responsibility to see through. I think it's fantastic that we have capped terms, because you know it's a maximum of six years, although in my case slightly longer. That means you can make plans around leaving the role and the firm will do succession properly. For the person to come in and, you know, you get a good transition and those sorts of things.

Ray: [00:43:47] And you were quite young coming into the role, relatively speaking, compared to, say, some peers. And so I guess you were with the fixed terms and that relative youth, you probably had some different choices in terms of where you might go.

Michelle: [00:44:04] Yes. And certainly as I was coming out of the role I had, as anyone does, a lot of approaches about other similar roles. But I think because of my age, I'm still in my 40s, it comes as a shock to some of my partners, but I am still in my 40s,And because I'd always loved being a lawyer, I didn't want to. Make a decision that meant I could never go back to being a lawyer. I went into another management role now that would be giving my legal career away. So I was very keen to come back into practice to see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would. And certainly sitting here today, I can't tell you how much I am enjoying the legal work, but also the interaction with clients.

Michelle: [00:45:41] It's not to say down the track, I don't want to do something different. But the other thing is I see it on quite a few boards. So I have you know, I've still got that business focus and slightly different lens, which I think is a really nice balance to the legal work.

Ray: [00:45:57]  Reflecting on your legacy as managing partner, and conscious also from our previous conversations that you don't like to single yourself out, if you were to look back over those seven years and what the firm has achieved, the key markers of progress, what would they be?

Michelle: [00:46:42] And you're right. I don't like that that concept of personal legacy in the context of a partnership. I think there are a number of things that we did really well as a partnership.  I can remember relatively early in the piece going into the partnership and saying we need to completely overhaul our technology. And that meant saying to that ownership, I want to spend a huge amount of money to go and overhaul our technology. And every single partner was on board with that. And I'm really proud of us as a partnership that we were prepared to invest at that point in time. We were probably a bit behind other law firms and we moved from that position to being the first law firm in the country to move our data to the cloud We completely changed the way we worked the devices we worked with, and a lot of that was actually directed at diversity and the flexibility piece and making sure people could work from anywhere. And that actually paid off, paid enormous dividends. So we got rid of a Citrix network and just went straight onto our systems. So that also stood us really well when it came to Covid last year we were in a very good position. So I think that, you know, with the internal focus, that dramatic shift in technology was one.

Michelle: [00:48:14] As a business. We also became, I think, much more externally focused and lifted our brand. I don't think we were very good as a partnership talking about what we were doing. And what we were doing really well, all the great work that we were doing. So we were a firm that was really known as a nice place to work, that had a focus on diversity, but not necessarily known for some of the extraordinary work that we do. In our Canberra office and the whole of government work they're doing really is nation building work. It's fabulous. So we got much better at that. We grew significantly as a business. And you know, of course, my favourite personal topic, diversity, but I'd hate to think we were just known through that era for what we did around diversity, because we grew our clients, we grew our market share. We really evolved, I think, as a firm in terms of our sophistication.

Ray: [00:49:23] Michelle, thank you for taking the time.

Michelle: [00:49:25] Pleasure. Nice to see you.

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