Maddocks CEO on taking the leap from practitioner to the helm of one of Australia’s leading law firms

Michelle Dixon is CEO of Maddocks, one of Australia’s leading law firms. Taking the leap from litigation practitioner to head of the firm was a career changing transition. Michelle has navigated the challenges and thrived, with a leadership style which has seen her named as Lawyer’s Weekly Executive of the Year, as one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence and receive the Victorian Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership. During her term as CEO, Maddocks has also been recognised as Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the Workplace Gender Equity Agency.

In this week’s Success Story, she speaks with Catherine Robson about how she ‘accidentally’ became the CEO and her experience as one of only a handful of women leading large professional services firms.

Joining Maddocks in 1996 as a second-year lawyer, it was never Michelle’s plan to move into the management side of the business, even after initial encouragement from senior partners.

“I was very firmly of the view that a) I didn’t want to be in management and b) I really wanted to keep being a litigator because it was really what I loved doing. I’m a lawyer who is very passionate about practicing law and I don’t get to do that at all anymore.” she says.

Michelle landed the top role almost accidentally, as she puts it, after Maddocks’s previous CEO resigned and the board asked her to step into the role until a new head was appointed. During this time, she had a change of heart about stepping into senior management and, thriving in the new role, she accepted position of CEO in 2014 and is now into her second 3-year term.

It’s one thing to learn on the job but it’s another to do so on such a public stage. Michelle’s huge leap from practitioner to CEO, was made easier thanks to a Harvard course on running professional services firms and a supportive peer network. Being a female CEO planted the spotlight on Michelle but she feels opportunities of being a high-profile female leader, such as key speaking roles and engagement in forums, have outweighed any impediments.

“I don’t think people have been looking for me to fail because I’m a woman, nor do I think there was any nervousness internally about appointing a woman. Although, it might be because I’m a litigator and everyone is too scared to tell me!” she laughs.

Michelle does agree the industry traditionally doesn’t have a good record when it comes to women in senior leadership positions and is making the most of her time at the helm of Maddocks to foster diversity in the workplace. This included rolling out unconscious bias training which was compulsory to complete, even for senior practitioners.

“I think everyone got something out of it because it wasn’t about just gender, it was about all of the unconscious bias that we carry” says Michelle.

“We do need to think about those things. It’s no different if we’re going to a tender interview for a big job and we only take a group of all white, middle-aged men. It doesn’t send a message that we’ve got a diverse team that is addressing your issues as a client.”

“Quite apart from the equality issues surrounding gender and diversity in the firms, there are a vast number of studies that show if you can bring diversity to the table, you’ll get better results.”

Michelle also introduced a board quota. Controversial at first, it flushed out any unspoken reluctance about creating a diverse board and saw a leap in the number of women applying for board positions. The Maddocks quota is a minimum of 1 elected woman in a board of 4 elected positions. Michelle points out it was the discussion about the quota, rather than the number itself, that proved most beneficial.

“We had the quota introduced and then suddenly a lot of women started running for board positions and the very fact of having the discussion made it clear that no one in the business thought it should be a limited role, that there was only 1 spot for 1 woman, that we always wanted the best person to get onto the board” explains Michelle.

A mum with school age kids, CEO and a member of The Nature Conservancy Australia advisory board Michelle says she’s ruthlessly efficient with her time, has an amazing EA and outsources some domestic chores to help her keep on top of it all. Snatching time for herself is during a hectic week, particularly for exercise, is important.

“I think things just like going to a Pilates class on a Saturday on my own, even though I tend to run up there do the class and run home, it’s just such wonderful time that I have for me.” she says.

Referenced in the interview:

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