Why we do the things we do
It occurred to me that I should share more detail about my career journey to date. I have written so far about discrete experiences and ideas I have drawn from those. But context is always relevant to any conclusion.
Raised by tiger parents who sought refuge in Australia from Cambodia over thirty years ago, I have always had it drilled into me the importance of having a good education and working hard in a chosen profession (and by chosen profession I mean one of the following options: doctor or lawyer). I went to law school and like every other Melbourne University law student, for one reason or another felt that the chosen path would obviously be to practice as a lawyer in a large law firm and become Harvey Specter (actually I lie, Suits wasn’t even in production back then).
I semi-defied the law firm norm and instead, worked at one of the Big 4 accounting/professional services firms, practicing in international transactional tax. During this period I also dabbled in indirect taxes which I perversely found quite interesting with all its technical nuances, however knew that tax law wasn’t in my heart. I asked for and was afforded the opportunity to move into the internal legal team. It was the work I did in this team that incidentally exposed me to property law and conveyancing. Around about this point, I decided I needed a change and wanted to make the move to a law firm after all. I remember the day I resigned. I was on the phone with my husband having a general chat about what I wanted to do and it ended with “just do it”. That was perhaps my most millennial-esque behaviour of all time – I got off the phone, immediately booked an afternoon meeting with my manager and resigned. I hadn’t found another job to go to which all recruiters will tell you is a massive no-go. But I felt ecstatic, like an enormous boulder had been lifted from my shoulders.
I spent the next 6 months job hunting and jumping from excitement, being terrified of not finding something I wanted to do to downright depressed. However, knowing how valuable it is to have a block of uninterrupted time, I wanted to be as productive as humanly possible (likely the result of tiger parenting) rather than wallow in despair while I waited for the post-interview call-backs. So I started a conveyancing business. Why not? It made sense – I knew how the process worked; my father in law happened to be a successful mortgage broker so I would already have a channel through which I could build clients; and I had the time to put the business structures in place, hire someone and train them up so that when I (hopefully) found the job I wanted, the business could run itself with only limited involvement from me.
Fortunately, I did find a role in 6 months at a large law firm, and spent many of the following years working in private practice in various areas of corporate and commercial law. During this time I also learnt a lot about balancing work with running a small business, managing my mental headspace, and how to be resilient. And I learnt how to manage employees effectively – I had observed over time both positive and negative behaviours in people I had worked with and took from those observations a very simple concept I wanted to abide by, “treat your employees how you would want to be treated by your manager”. Elementary I know, but too often not observed in the workplace. This speaks to the notions of emotional intelligence and having the self-awareness to understand the effect of your behaviour on those people you manage. For me, this means being supportive, generous and trusting whilst ensuring a person feels accountable.
The next big change came when I felt the desire for something more than advising clients on their discrete legal issues. And the realisation that I did not want to chase the law firm partner path. I just wasn’t sure what the alternative was. On a whim and again on the nudging of my husband, who I’ll credit as being a great career coach to me, I applied for an in-house junior compliance role. At the time it was a backwards step, but sometimes you have to take a calculated risk to move forward. And it was in this role that I was able to go forward in leaps and bounds. This was another why-not-just-do-it moment for me – I think in hindsight, the older you get the more you think you have to lose and therefore the more risk averse you become with respect to making career moves. I don’t know that I would be as brazen now as I have been in the past.
I have progressed over the years to being a leader in my organisation and this has also set me on the directorship path. What I enjoy the most is the diversity of the work I am responsible for, which I think I knew deep down while working in private practice that I wasn’t quite getting in the same way. In private practice you build depth of technical experience in a chosen area of expertise and advise clients on varied issues that arise in that area. Working within an organisation in-house gives you incredible breadth of experience, jack of all but master of none – or rather, master of being a business adviser that has depth of understanding of the organisation itself. The value in this type of skill and expertise is that it opens up doors to joining the board tables of organisations. Directorships I liken to being a player of a board game. You set strategies, make decisions based on those strategies, and then measure the outcomes and successes of those strategies – if you don’t execute the strategy well or it was a lousy one to start with, you lose the game. Needless to say, I am a board game dork – those who have played Acquire will really appreciate my analogy.
I like to think I have varied experiences under my belt, and am continuing to build upon and collect those. I am motivated to write about these experiences by the notion that a person’s success in life should not be defined by the title or status they hold in their profession, but also the other things they contribute to, the knowledge they share with others, and the attitude in which they carry themselves. Your title and status can easily be stripped away. You can plan and plot the steps you want to take in your career, but you can’t know where you’ll end up because there are things you can’t control. If you take some educated risks you might end up somewhere in the same direction as you’d planned, but even better than the destination you had anticipated.