Strivin & Thrivin – Ep.23 – Anita Thompson

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This week on Strivin & Thrivin, we speak with Anita Thomson, Head Of Marketing & Communications at LOD, an alternative legal service provider. 

A career spanning a number of different roles has brought Anita Thomson to where she is today. She has been leading the marketing and communications for LOD since 2016 but has a wealth of stories to share from her career journey to date.

“Seize any opportunity so that you can make an informed decision.” 

Anita got her foot in the door while still at university, with an eight-week indigenous cadetship at Deloitte. This solidified her interest in the human side of business and led her to take on the first HR graduate position in Deloitte in Australia. Starting internally, she later moved onto graduate recruitment. This was a great opportunity involving big budgets and the opportunity to work closely with partners, and it set her up with the skills she would need for managing client expectations later in her career. 

Anita then moved into an HR role. She made a smooth transition from being a consultant to a manager, and established herself within the generalist HR field.. She attributes her success to date, to the people she has met and worked with along the way, seeing many of them as “champions” rather than “mentors”:

“It’s more about having champions as opposed to mentors…It’s about surrounding yourself with people and having those people who have got your back and who are active supporters of you.”

After having her son, Anita moved to London and took on the role of Senior HR Manager at Ashurst, which offered the opportunity to put her HR skills into practise at scale. She describes many of her professional experiences as ‘fun’ and is a strong advocate for the advice that you must,  “Listen to your gut”. Following this mindset, she found herself at a start-up legal services company, and she hasn’t looked back. 

At LOD, Anita decided to take the leap from HR to Marketing after seeing synergies between the two, from the communications side of things, to selling the employer brand and being challenged with the perception of being an internal support function. 

While she’s incredibly proud of her career story, Anita stresses the importance of stepping up and acknowledging that you deserve a position at the table and admits that she should have asked more questions during her early career. 

To hear more from Anita, including her views on the similarities between HR and marketing and how she made her career transitions so smooth, listen to the latest episode of Strivin and Thrivin now!

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Anita Thompson. 

To get us started. Can you tell us a little bit about your career background and your current role?

Anita: Sure, so my career has been in professional services, my entire career, I suppose I got the foot in the door via a Indigenous Cadetship into Deloitte a very long time ago now, but that was certainly… More so, I was still studying university. I was doing my business degree at the time. Got the Indigenous Cadetship into Deloitte. And luckily I was then, offered a graduate position when I completed my degree. And it was actually the first HR graduate position for Deloitte in Australia, because primarily, their grad program was Accountants and Finance and Tax and Consulting and that thing. So, it was very much a privilege to start my career with Deloitte. I started in the internal recruitment team, so I was recruiting business support and secretaries, that thing. And then, moved into graduate recruitment, which was fun. I mean, when I was there doing grad recruitment, it was at the time where the budgets were huge.

So, the big four accounting firms just had so much money to spend on these grad recruitment programs. And literally my role was schmoozing students in Sydney to come and work for Deloitte. So, you can imagine how much fun that was. And so, I did that for a few years, but after four and a half years at Deloitte, it was time to move on. So, I moved to Deacons, which is now Norton Rose, and our friend, Steve Grace actually recruited me from Deloitte into Deacons. And that also was a graduate recruitment role. So, I was recruiting for Sydney and Canberra, but then soon took on the National Graduate Recruitment role there at Deacons. And again, that was a lot of fun, but then I’d had my time in grad recruitment. A HR generalist role came up while I was still at Deacons.

And so, was fortunate enough to move into a generalist HR. And in my time there, from HR Consultant to HR Manager, I looked after a bunch of different service lines from the corporate group, property, construction. So, that was a really nice way to start my generalist career, because I’d already known those people from my grad recruitment role. So, it was a nice, easy transition. Then of course, as many Aussies do, I’ve decided to move to London and ended up taking a role with Ashurst over there again, as a Senior HR Manager. So, a generalist role, but very different in terms of scale. I mean the scale of Ashurst in terms of their size compared to Deacons, and the HR function was HR on steroids, what I was used to. So, it was really, really fun. It was great being in a different region and learning about employment relations, very different to Australia, in terms of their employment relations.

So, spent three years doing that, had my little boy over there, who is now 11, not a little boy anymore. And then, moved back to Australia and started, through a contact of mine. They said, “Look, there’s this new law firm that’s just started. They’re at start-up phase. They need an HR person to come on board. Why don’t you throw your hat in the ring?”. So, my son was about 11 months at the time, met with them. They were advent lawyers. So, a predecessor firm of LOD, where I am now. Met with them and haven’t looked back. Now, I’m coming up to my 11th anniversary with LOD, but I started in that Greenfield’s HR role, which was fantastic, really working with a start-up to build the HR function from scratch was fantastic. And then, built that team up across Australia and Asia.

And then, we had a few mergers and acquisitions along the way. In 2016, we merged with LOD in the UK and it was apparent that we really needed someone in marketing to be on the ground. And there were a lot of synergies between the comm side that I was doing for HR and Marketing and Comms. And I was personally done with HR. I felt as though I had grown that function and done everything that I could have there, but I didn’t necessarily want to leave the organisation. So, I spoke with the CEO and we mapped out what that marketing role could look like. And I had a very big decision to make, it was a to stay within that HR space, or take that leap into Marketing. And I suppose I thought to myself, how would I feel if there was an external person coming in to this marketing role? And that didn’t sit right with me.

So, I thought, yeah, that’s the yes I need to take on that role. So, I’ve been doing that since 2016. I now Head up Marketing and Comms for Australia, Asia and the Middle East. But, I’m reporting to the UK, so I still have a lot to do with the UK function. And yeah, it’s a fantastic role and very varied. Yeah, so that’s it in a nutshell.

Laura: I love that. I’ve got so many questions and I really want to dive into HR to marketing, because I think there’s… I’m marketing, i work in HR Tech, but I always feel there’s so many similarities and so much-

Anita: Yeah.

Laura: That if the two really started communicating, there’s so much benefit there. So, we’d have to talk about that more, but I guess, going back to the beginning, what made you want to take the HR graduate role in the first place? What sparked your interest from that? And then, I want to talk about grad recruitment lessons as well.

Anita: Yeah, sure. When I was studying business, I wasn’t quite sure what I liked and potentially what I was good at, but I knew what I wasn’t going to be good at. And that was the finance and accounting side of things. So, I did a few people humanities subjects during that time, interestingly, I didn’t actually study the cool marketing ones, but more of the HR ones and that cadetship I think, what sparked my interest was really getting the right experience. It was only eight weeks, but I put myself out there and said, “Okay, can I try internal recruitment? Can I work alongside one of your HR managers?”. And I think for me, that solidified wanting to take that HR career to the next level and take that next step as a graduate.

And I suppose that’s, I guess what I would say to people starting out their career is that, “Seize any opportunity, so you can make an informed decision”. Because, you don’t know what you don’t know. And I had no idea and it wasn’t until I explored that as best I could within that eight week period, then I was ready to go, “Hey, okay. Yeah, I think I like HR. Let’s give this a crack”.

Laura: I think that’s brilliant. And then, I guess grad recruitments, grad recruitments, notoriously tough. Everyone always talks about, because it’s just this huge volume, a couple of times a year, and you’ve got such KPIs and it’s this make, or break twice a year, isn’t it? Where it’s just, “Let’s go”. What do you think are the big lessons from that, that you’ve learned, that have set you up for, I guess HR, and then what you’re doing now in marketing?

Anita: Planning ahead probably is the first one that comes to mind. Starting off in recruitment and grad recruitment, it’s very cyclical and it’s very process-driven and it’s extremely busy in the two hectic periods of clerkship and grad recruitment, HE. So, it really set me up, regardless of what role I’ve got and I’ve had since then, to really plan and map out what the year ahead is going to look like. And look, the caveat to that is, stuff happens and you’ve got to be prepared and be adaptable, but it really set me up to plan for the year ahead.

So, that was definitely a lesson. The role itself was fantastic as well, because I got to work very closely with the partners of the firms, when I was very early on in my career. And that was intimidating, absolutely. But again, that sort of role really set me up for managing client expectations, because the client at the end of the day were the partners, it was the business that we were recruiting graduates into. So, I think it was a really good foundation for HR generally. And obviously, marketing, yeah.

Laura: Yeah, awesome. And then, I guess finally, HR to marketing. I think there’s so many similarities, but no one wants to hear from me. So, what do you think are the big things that you’ve taken across? And I guess not just what you’ve taken across, but what you think everyone else could learn? Those two departments could learn, or I guess help each other better with?

Anita: Yeah. Gosh, where do I start? From a HR perspective, I was doing a lot of the internal comms, which is what you do in HR and a lot of writing and those things. And so, there’s a direct synergy between that, and obviously the comms work that I do now. Again, another synergy is the employer brand and selling that. So, at the moment at LOD, we’re alternative legal service providers, so an alternative law firm, if you like. So, we provide the best people, services and tech to help in-house legal and compliance teams succeed. So, our business is very, put simply, it’s very simple.

We’ve got our clients and we’ve got our lawyers, that we provide to our clients. So, I have to work very, very closely with the HR and recruitment teams to make sure that what our employee value propositions are, I can align that to our overall business strategy, and then push that out to market and sell that to market. Now, me understanding the challenges and nuances of recruitment and of HR and just people management in general, and the culture of an organisation, has made it a lot easier for me to be able to take that, and then market that and push that out, I suppose.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of synergies. The other one is obviously, you can be perceived as an internal support function when you’re in HR, or marketing and you are constantly challenged to either trying to sell the value of the function that you’re working for. And it hasn’t mattered whether I was doing that in HR, or marketing. Again, there are synergies there. You’ve got to step up and know that there is a valuable seat at the table for HR and likewise for marketing as well.

Laura: I think, I say, I felt no matter what marketing role I’ve had, I spent about a third of my life just telling people the value of marketing, and trying to convince people it isn’t admin. Because, it’s about business growth. It’s growth, right? Let’s talk about those things. I am wrong that, no, I don’t want to edit your PowerPoint slides. There’s actually already a deck for you to do that yourself, but thank you.

Anita: Exactly, I was having the exact same conversation with somebody in my team the other day, we’re not for, “Oh, can you just make this nice, shiny piece of collateral?” And yes, we can do that, but let’s dig a little bit deeper into why we need this. What are we selling? And have those conversations. It’s not just about the nice, shiny product at the end of it. It’s about the process to get there and the conversations you need to have with the stakeholders along the way. So yes, completely agree.

Laura:  But, we could probably do a whole different session just on the employee value proposition and employee branding as well. It’s my passion project at the moment. Anyway, okay. Going back questions.

Obviously, you’ve had quite a few different roles, corporate, startup, marketing, HR. What do you think is the biggest lessons that you’ve learned along the way?

Anita: Yeah, it’s going to sound really cliched, but it’s okay to fail and make mistakes. And I know everybody says that, but it’s true, it’s true. I think irrespective of the size of the organizational function that I’ve worked in and everything’s better in hindsight, again, coming back to that human element that we just spoke about before. We’re human and you can make mistakes. And I think, we’ve all made mistakes as long as you own it and learn from it and you can move on.

I think also, I don’t know, a lesson, don’t be afraid to ask questions, or speak up is a big one for me. And I think early on in my career, I was literally the only female sitting around a boardroom table full of males. And that was extremely intimidating, because I was quite young. And in hindsight, I probably didn’t ask questions, or speak up enough back then. So, that’s definitely a lesson. Although, in saying that, I think it’s also important to know when to listen as well.

I think that’s a learned skill, right? That balance between asking questions and speaking up, but knowing, just when to shush and listen and take everything in. So, that’s definitely a lesson I’ve learned along the way as well, trying to strike that balance. And I think the other lesson, is run your own race, don’t compare yourself to other people. Again, early on in my career, I tended to do that. And that just deflates your confidence a bit, I think. And I think now, at the stage I am in my career, I just focus on me and where I’m at and running my race and not comparing myself to others.

Laura: I love all that, I think that’s great. I was reading something, I think it was probably a couple of years ago now. It’s about somebody who was a leader and said that the thing that he does in meetings, is he always asked the most basic questions and he tries to go back to when he would have been a graduate, because he realises there’s a bunch of grads in that room that don’t want to put their hand up, because they don’t want it to be the ones that look like it. So, he always, as the leader, asks the most basic questions and that’s always really stuck with me. Because, I think sometimes…

Anita: Yeah.

Laura: We can get really into this habit of using acronyms, or just assume that people have knowledge and things get lost when you’re at a big meeting. And I think it’s just about creating that inclusive environment.

Anita: Yeah, I completely agree.

Laura: Okay. So, lesson’s up. What about the best and worst career advice you’ve had along the way?

Anita: I don’t know if I’ve had set, bad and good career advice along the way. I suppose, it’s more around taking those leaps of faith, I suppose. So, not necessarily getting career advice, it’s been more, seeing what the leaders in my business do, or those mentors have done and I’ve experienced them taking those leaps of faith and that’s certainly what I’ve done as well. Actually, someone did say to me once, “Listen to your gut”. And that is absolutely true.

That was some very good career advice, I think. I’ve gone for obviously many interviews and you walk into an organisation, or a firm and you know straight away whether it’s going to be a fit for you, or not. And you need to learn, yeah, just to listen to your gut. We do it on a personal level, I think. But, to take that into a professional context is really important.

So, that was a really nice piece of career advice that I had as well. I haven’t had any bad career advice, I don’t think. I’ve just watched and learned from people above me in organisations, rather than seek out that career advice, I suppose.

Laura: I actually had a friend phone me just before this and was talking me through a new role. And he was like, “My gut says, I should take it, but my head says, I shouldn’t”. And I was like, “So, what are you going to do?”. He’s like, “I’m going to go with my gut.” And I was like, “Good. Good, I’m so happy”. I was like, “I’m about to launch into a full speech about listening to your gut, if not. So, I’m really pleased that you got there”.

Anita: Yeah, yeah. Good, exactly, yeah.

Laura: So, obviously you’ve had quite a varied career and it’s always been global by the sounds of it, over the last few years, at least. So, it’s obviously pretty hectic. How are you keeping across new trends? Or, what’s happening in marketing? Or, what’s happening in professional services that you need to know about?

Anita: Hmm. I guess there’s two ways that I do that. Obviously, latest industry news. And when I talk about industry news, it’s that combination of what’s going on in the legal industry, but also what’s going on in marketing. So, making sure that I sign up to all the newsletters and those things and get my head around the profession, the legal profession, but also what the latest trends are in marketing.

But, for me, I guess even more importantly, it’s just talking to people, talking to our LOD clients, talking to our LOD lawyers, understanding from them, what is happening in their worlds and their industry, talking to our internal salespeople, who are having conversations with our clients all the time. They’re at the coalface of knowing and understanding from an in-house legal perspective, what are their pain points? What are their challenges? What are the hot topics for them at the moment? And I think that, that is how you get your head around and keep your finger on the pulse, I suppose, what’s happening.

Laura: Yeah, I love that.

Anita: Yeah.

Laura: So, earlier you touched on mentoring a little bit. Have you had mentors? Do you do mentoring?

Anita: Yeah, I had a fantastic mentor early on in my career actually, when I was at Deacons. My manager there, she’s an absolute legend of a human and HR practitioner. She really helped me build the confidence I needed early on in my career. And I think, when you are early on, that mentorship relationship is really important. Although, now where I’m at, it’s more around champions, having champions as opposed to mentors.

I think that is really important. It’s about surrounding yourself with people and having those people who have got your back and who are active supporters of you. And usually, I mean, the difference really is mentors can be in your organisation, but also outside of your organisation. Whereas, champions within your business and sit at a higher level to you. And I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a couple of those where I am at the moment who, yeah really, are inspirational, but are your active supporters in the business. I think that’s really important as you progress through in your career.

Laura: That’s awesome. I guess, what do you think is the best way, or the best advice that you could give someone before they go to a mentor session to make sure they get the most out of it?

Anita: Having an idea of what you want to get out of it, I suppose. What you want to get out of the mentoring relationship and what you want to achieve from it. Being open and honest, it’s not going to work if you’re not open and honest about your challenges and the goals that you want to achieve as well, but also be prepared to be challenged. I think it’s really important to have an open mind when you go into a mentoring relationship as the mentee.

That your mentor is probably going to push you out of your comfort zone, to allow you to develop the skills that you want to develop. So, just have an open mind and be prepared to be challenged and pushed a bit. And lastly, ask questions. I think the mentor is there for you to really tap into their knowledge and experience. So, ensure that you really make the most of that as well.

Laura: I think that’s awesome advice. That’s great, thank you. And I guess, with everything that you’ve got going on, what do you do to unpack, or switch off?

Anita: Meditate. I meditate every day, every morning. That’s my morning ritual, meditate, go for a run. I drink nice wine. I go out and have nice dinners when we’re not in lockdown and spend time with friends and family. I’m very fortunate that I live quite close to the beach and the ocean. So, I just surround myself with the ocean and that makes it very easy to switch off and read. I read a lot of Chiclet. It’s nothing business at all, that’s how I read, yeah, fiction and Chiclet. That’s it, yeah.

Laura: And I guess then as well, last question. When it comes to advice, or people that you’d like to hear their career journeys, who else would you like us to interview on The Strivin and Thriving podcast?

Anita: I was talking before about my mentor at Deacons. But, she is fantastic. In terms of HR career, she has just come back from a two year stint in France, actually, with a major pharmaceutical company. She is English born and bred, but has spent the majority of her career here in Australia in so many different industries and has led so many different teams. And I think for someone who didn’t speak French, to have their organisation say, “Yeah, we’re going to post you over there for two years”. And then, she obviously had to do an intensive French course, says a lot about her ability, credibility, that thing. She’s a very, very inspirational woman. And Steve Grace knows her quite well as well. So yeah, I think you’d have a great chat with her actually.

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