In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Tonia Lovell.
Tonia spent 21 years working at Unilever, including as their Chief Legal Officer. She now has a portfolio career in non-executive roles and as an Executive Coach to lawyers and company secretaries.
Tonia shares the three lessons she has learned in law including:
You can find out more about Tonia’s coaching at tlcuk.coach
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Scott Brown (0:03)
Hi and welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law, a podcast from Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment, where I, Scott Brown, founder of Heriot Brown, sit down and have honest and open conversations with people from across the legal community to understand what influences shape their careers that they have today, and of course, the lessons that they learned along the way. The hope is that this inspires others regardless of what stage you're at in your career, to enjoy the path that they're on and perhaps give some valuable guidance now, today I'm in an office of sorts, but still recording the session remotely lock downs lifted this week, I have managed to sidestep the pub so far, although it is only is only Tuesday, but I'm delighted to be joined today by Tonia Lovell. Hi Tonia
Tonia Lovell (0:56)
Hello Scott. Hi.
Scott Brown (0:57)
Hi, thank you for joining us. Tonia is a general counsel, independent non-executive, and executive coach and mentor. She has an impressive career in law having started life as a corporate lawyer at Linklaters before spending 21 years in roles in the consumer goods giant Unilever, she now has a portfolio career in non-executive roles and as an executive coach to lawyers and company secretaries. But I'm going to end the formal intros and move towards some things that you might not know about Tonia. And firstly, she was a competitive swimmer until she was 21. And she's actually a Cambridge blue. She played water polo for Cambridge uni. So a lot of a lot of water references and keen to chat about that competitive edge later. And she loves to travel and did a lot of backpacking across Europe, America and around the world, previously in her in her 20s, and teens. But today, she enjoys a bit more slightly luxurious travel, fingers crossed to get to do that at some point over the next over the next year. So a lot to explore there. But welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law, Tonia.
Tonia Lovell (2:13)
Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Scott Brown (2:14)
Great, great to have you. So on each episode, where we're learning more about your life and career via three lessons that you've learned in law. So if we could just jump straight in, if you could give us your first lesson,
Tonia Lovell (2:27)
it's been fabulous to have this chance to reflect upon the lessons I learned in my 30 year executive career. And the first one that really jumps out for me is lawyers, company secretaries and perfectionism, I can say that I have took some time to learn that you do not have to be perfect in a role as a lawyer, whether in house or in private practice. But I learned that lesson well into my career and my 30s. I wish I had learned it before. But perhaps if I just share how it came about. And this is quite humorous. Now given that one of my roles now is to be an executive coach to lawyers. In my early 30s. I had my one and only coaching session during my executive career. And we were all and I will say in inverted commas forced to go to a court coaching session. This was part of Unilever's career development. I felt I didn't have anything to learn, I probably thought I was perfect at that stage. And I made up a challenge or a question to solve in this coaching session, which was that as the only female in the boardroom that they then sat in, which was Unilever's UK boardroom that I sometimes felt intimidated, I was surrounded by men in suits. And in fact, that was a genuine feeling. I was young in the group, I was the only female and it was difficult. You know, it was a challenging role to have. What this coaching session teased out for me was that I and I was told like other lawyers really felt the needs to be perfect. In that role in that boardroom. I felt the expectation on me had to be that I had to answer any legal question that came my way that you know, that was actually as I delved into it true, I felt I had to be there with every answer. And if I didn't have the answer at my fingertips, then I wouldn't be the professional that I hoped to be on reflecting through that session on whether that was indeed true. The answer was very clear that the people around the table weren't looking to me to have the answer at my fingertips. They simply wanted me to take the problem away from them and to find the solution and whether I had the answer there, or whether I had to go away and find the answer. It really didn't matter to them. They were just passing the problem. Now it's quite a long, long winded explanation. There to come back to the root of this learning, which is as a lawyer, people want you to be part of their team, they want to share a problem with you, and they want you to solve it for them. And the more you can do that by being humourful, professional part of the team, take that problem and solve it however long it takes you but to solve it for them is what they are looking for.
Scott Brown (5:28)
Absolutely. It's a great lesson, a lot to touch on in that one, though, in terms of the perfectionism and those traits, obviously, very often levelled at lawyers. And also the part of I guess the lack of diversity on the board at Unilever, but obviously now as a coach, as an executive coach, what changed? Was it that coaching experience that changed your mindset on coaching?
Tonia Lovell (5:55)
So, that experience changed me, because I learned sitting in a boardroom or a meeting, I could let my guard down something I could bring my personality into the meetings, I didn't have to be a stiff corporate perfectionist lawyer. And that really was a really good learning for me. And it improved my practice for the next 20 years. In terms of now why I've entered into coaching, having been so cynical back in my 30s, I was lucky enough in my career at a certain point to have a meteoric rise, I went from being the General Counsel of Unilever's UK legal team with a team of 15, to actually taking on the two top jobs at Unilever, the chief legal officer with a team of 400 lawyers around the world, as well as being group secretary for Unilever. So, the lawyer to the board, and looking after the shares and the shareholders and so on. When I, eight years later, then retired from the law, to move into my portfolio career now I look back over my career. And I realised that I could actually have done at that point, and probably at other points as well, with the support of an executive coach, somebody from outside the organisation, somebody who wasn't my husband, you know, somebody neutral and objective, that could help me out that that was a difficult point. And in particular, stepping into those two huge roles. Somebody who could have helped me perhaps with dealing with the politics that came with the roles that came with maybe the lack of confidence in some of the areas where I wasn't experienced as I was in other areas, and so on. And so fast forward to now, I do feel like coaching in the right place, and at the right time in a career is a very, very powerful thing to help people and to become for those people to become more effective. And, frankly, to be happier in the job they're in.
Scott Brown (7:55)
Yeah, no, I think it's I think it's really important. And it's something that we've actively pursued Harriet Brown as well, and can definitely see the benefits both for our consultants and the lawyers that we place. But it's often looked at as a resource for the executives, do you think Junior and mid-level lawyers can also benefit from coaching? Or is there a time, a time particularly within one's career?
Tonia Lovell (8:20)
No, I think Junior mid-levels really are the meat of my executive coaching business. Now, if I'm honest, I mean, given I was in a general counsel role, the network of people that I've met and still have our general counsel's and so of course, I talk to them about coaching, but it's them putting forward to me, members of their team that I can help that really is now my bread and butter of coaching business. And it's people who are at a point in their career that they need a little bit of support to help them develop in areas that they are weaker. People that want to stop and think about where they see their career developing. Maybe they're at a crossroads. And they're unclear as to which way to go. People who are taking on a team for the first time or a leadership position who need help in trying to decide what type of leader they want to be, and maybe company secretaries who are being board facing or director facing for the first time again, what kind of impression do they want to give? And how can they step into that new role with grace and confidence?
Scott Brown (9:29)
Okay, sounds really broad, broad spread. Just to go back to the lesson and you touched on being the only female in the room in the on the board at Unilever. Was that something that changed during your time there.
Tonia Lovell (9:42)
So in my example, I was early 30s. And I was on the board of Unilever, UK. When I stepped up to the boards or the executive committee of Unilever itself, I was one of two females. And I think now I'm three years out of Unilever, but I would probably have the debates. But it's 50:50. Now. So I mean, the last 10 years, the change in diversity has been tremendous. So I think certainly you would know the statistics better than I do. But I know coming into the law now, trainee contracts and so on, I think more females do tend to come in. And if I look at the evening, Unilever in terms of the senior lawyers there, it was probably 50:50 By the time I left as well. So that's my example, was not so much about lack of diversity. Now, it was just in that moment in my 30s. When I was the only lawyer, that was quite a challenge for the only female that was the challenge for me.
Scott Brown (10:41)
Yeah. I understand. So how did you get into the law?
Tonia Lovell (10:45)
I fell into it really? I wonder how many of the other people you speak to say the same thing
Scott Brown (10:51)
Quite common, yeah.
Tonia Lovell (10:53)
What would I do at university, I had not a clue. In fact, my children, now my teenagers, are doing career questionnaires that tell them what type of career they should have. When I did it back in the 80s, I was told I should be a librarian or a probation officer. Well, neither of them really tickled my fancy,
Scott Brown (11:12)
trying to flatter you.
Tonia Lovell (11:14)
Yeah. So I loved geography, but I couldn't see how geography would at that point, you know, be a vocation for me. So I literally did fall into the law did a legal degree. And in the first week at Cambridge, as you mentioned earlier, of my law degree, I was told, I had to decide at that point did I want to be a solicitor or a barrister, because the time for signing up for law school or bar school was a three year waiting period. So I sort of cross my fingers and thought. I didn't think I was confident enough to be a barrister. If I'm, if I'm honest, you didn't like to, you know, too much of standing on my feet talking. So I would become a solicitor. And it literally was as simple as that I signed up for law school, then did a summer placement actually, at Linklaters, I can't remember when probably after my final and loved it, loved the buzz of being in the corporate world loved the people that were around me love the fact that it was, you know, 100 trainees coming in together, it was all terribly exciting. And really, the excitement of that corporate legal way of life never left me. For 30 years, it sort of was never a dull moment, surrounded by fabulous people. And you know, the intellectual challenge of all the different projects I did over the years was just brilliant.
Scott Brown (12:40)
Nice, good to hear. I love I love hearing people talk passionately about it, and the clearer to clear that they've had.
Scott Brown (12:53)
Just keen to move on to lesson number two.
Tonia Lovell (12:56)
Yes. So key lesson for number two is if you know where you want your career to go, or if you know what the next role is that you want, speak up, speak up about it. And that was this was a lesson learned by me in my again in my early 30s, where there was a reshuffle at Unilever. And I was presented with a very good next role by my boss who looked thrilled as he was telling me this, this was to be my next role. And then he looked absolutely dejected when he saw my face for and say that I don't want to do that. And I was very clear that the next role I wanted was a leadership role. I wanted to manage a team, I hadn't done that before. And I was ready for it and keen to do it. And the role he was giving me was not that. And the lesson I learned there, because he very clearly said it to me was how was I supposed to know, I'm not a mind reader? You know, you're clear that that's what you wanted. But you never told me? Had I known that I would have given you the other role that was on offer at that point. So I think the learning is, many people aren't clear. Many people don't know. And that's fine. You need to take some time, or you need to look at the opportunities and work out what's best for you to a certain point. But if you are clear, and you do know what you personally need next on your development journey, or your career ambitions are clear to you then do speak up to your bosses or whoever else is around, because they're not mind reader's
Scott Brown (14:39)
her in that moment, oh, did you gain your voice to vocalise that, that at that point in time,
Tonia Lovell (14:45)
because I was very clear that if I couldn't have that next position, that leadership role now then I would have to go looking for it. And actually, as I say it out loud now. I mean, it sounds so ludicrous that I was so clear what I needed next. First, that I hadn't vocalised it. Yeah, you know, it was the leadership moment was there for me now I was ripe for it. But so I couldn't completely understand now, you know, having lived through many career discussions after that with people that reported to me the frustration of my boss, but I could have it so clearly, in my own mind, what I wanted next, and I hadn't shared that with him
Scott Brown (15:23)
is about an hour just I guess, to negotiation where if there's an expectation, or there's the there's an assumption that someone understands the position that you're coming from, or the the you would like to take or get over the problem, then is a lot easier if you just if you are direct, and then communicate these things, I think it's a great a great lesson. How do you encourage junior lawyers to gain that voice and the confidence because I think a lot of the time, they may see it as being quite a challenge to their the hierarchy and their current business and potentially a bit of a threat to their manager or vote with my feet approach? What advice do you have for them?
Tonia Lovell (16:04)
My advice would be when you don't shy away from having a discussion about your career with your boss, but perhaps phrase it in a way that asks for support and help from your boss as to how you might develop yourself for that next career move. Nobody's ever perfect and ready for, you know, a step up or step into a leadership role. And so but if you know that, that's what you want, I would I would suggest that you sow the seeds in your boss's mind, but as I said, say, you know, what would I need to do to put myself in the best position to be promoted? Or to take on a leadership position, please, could you identify where I'd need to develop? You know, what experience I'd need to have and phrase it in that way, then you very clearly stated what you want. But you're not being presumptive that you can just take this or that it should be given to you.
Scott Brown (17:06)
Okay, and how did they end up for you? What was the result?
Tonia Lovell (17:10)
Hopefully, luckily, he was able to do a little bit of shifting around and I ended up getting the role that I wanted.
Scott Brown (17:18)
Yeah. Well, that's what you know, you're when you know, you're wanted and, and people, people looking out for you in that way, is also a great source of contentment and fulfilment in what you're doing. Do you think that's also something that's symptomatic of the legal industry, where there's a very definitive career track within professional services in a law firm in Unilever, I expect there were some other diagonal moves that you could have made.
Tonia Lovell (17:45)
Yes, that's true. And Unilever, of course, being an international multinational company, there were opportunities to go and live abroad and do a job from different parts of the world. Some people like that kind of opportunity, others don't. So there was also the chance to sort of change career lanes, if you like, very Unilever speak, but you know, there were some corporate roles of m&a, then they were rolled around marketing and intellectual property rolls around compliance. And so again, you know, in terms of trying out different areas of the law, there was the ability to flex sideways or diagonally or whatever, and have a just a different and varied career within one company.
Scott Brown (18:28)
And I guess that's what that's what you are you stuck around for 21 years, the variety of roles.
Tonia Lovell (18:33)
Partly, I mean, I was probably more surprised than anyone when it came to the end of 20 years. And I was still there. You know, the, for me leaving Linklaters was my first job change. And I that was difficult, difficult decision to take to leave private practice and move in house, the right one for me, but still difficult to make the move. But I assumed having been brave enough to make a move, then that my career would sort of zigzag upwards between different companies. So 21 years later, I was still in the same company, was an amusement to me. But it was very clear to me and to all probably why I was still there. I had a great career trajectory. As I said, I ended up doing the two top best, I think, legal roles in Unilever, which was a complete privilege. The people and the values at Unilever were I'm going to say second to none. But of course, I didn't know any other companies because I didn't work there. But you know, they were it was an environment where I fitted in and I felt comfortable and the quality of work the actual projects from I've mentioned some of them, but brilliant m&a, raising of billions of dollars in Treasury work competition investigations, sitting in front of the European Commission, takeover attempts, strategic reviews, you know, there was really never a dull moment. Yeah. intellectually
Scott Brown (20:01)
so little bit of a respite from the from the lessons and keen to learn a bit more about your earlier life in your outside of outside of work your swimming exploits. So for those of us not in the not in the No Water, Cambridge blues.
Tonia Lovell (20:15)
So Cambridge blue is like the sporting colour from Cambridge University. So in the case of swimming in order to get a Cambridge blue, you needed to have represented the university in the varsity match the swimming match between Oxford and Cambridge, which was one of the most highly competitive environments you can possibly be in. And so it was a badge of honour to get a blue in any sport at Cambridge.
Scott Brown (20:43)
Yeah, amazing. What was it? What was that like in the in the varsity competition?
Tonia Lovell (20:48)
Well, I was lucky enough to swim for in the varsity match each year of my three years. Yes, fiercely competitive. But in my third year, only I played water polo for Cambridge as well. And many people have never seen a water polo match. Maybe by watching the Olympics in 2012. They might have witnessed what goes on in the pool, but what you don't see is what goes on under the water. Yeah. is highly aggressive, and it's a fabulous sport. Really, really good sport. Yeah, yeah.
Scott Brown 21:24
And what do you keep? Do you keep active you still swimmer?
Tonia Lovell (21:28)
Do you know I do for fitness only I have often. Particularly when I gave up my executive career and had a little more time on my side, I started to think about whether I could get myself fit enough to swim in the Masters competitions that are out there. So I would fall in the 50 to 55 age group just makes me feel old even say it out loud. I haven't quite got myself to that level of fitness yet. But maybe by the time I'm in the 55 to 60 or 60. I might get myself back into peak fitness.
Scott Brown (22:00)
Yeah, well, it's good to have the drive still and the focus on the regularly Are you wrote about swimming?
Tonia Lovell (22:08)
Well, COVID has rather stopped things because the pools but before that, I was swimming twice a week. Yeah. Right. Twice a week.
Scott Brown (22:17)
Any open water or is it not your thing?
Tonia Lovell (22:20)
Not my thing. Always in a pool, yeah.
Scott Brown (22:23)
Yeah. Nice. And then tell us a bit more about your travels. What's the most interesting place you've travelled to or travelled through?
Tonia Lovell (22:31)
Ah, well, you know, I, the most interesting place I would probably say was Indonesia, and in particularly the island of Sumatra, where I went, This was way before tsunamis and so on, unfortunately, hit it hard. But it was the most fabulous island of villages where women were the matriarchs, and it went without saying that they ruled the roost to a Ranga Tang sanctuaries, fast flowing rivers for rafting and so on. It was a it was a fabulous place. Yeah. I actually saved my travelling around the world until after law school. So I was in my early 20s When I went and it was a fabulous experience, including doing a stint working in Sydney as a paralegal in a law firm there. So I managed to slots my legal my grid, adding legal career into my travels as well.
Scott Brown (23:28)
Yeah, and earn a bit of earn a bit of pocket money. Where it is, yeah. What did you think of Sydney? I live there
Tonia Lovell (23:35)
living? Yes, we lived on Bondi Beach as most of the backpackers did back then. Yes, I love the country. Actually. We took the train from Perth to Sydney, over the Nullarbor deserts, which was a three day train journey sitting straight up with no money to buy food, save for the crackers and apples we had brought with us so yeah, yes, it was a rather hungry three days.
Scott Brown (24:02)
So is amazing. Where would you go to post COVID? Where will be the first place on your on your list?
Tonia Lovell (24:10)
I'm desperate to get to a beach so if I could, I would probably go to the Maldives, I think and lie on a beach with some son. Equally though, having taken one of my other trips in my late teens was to take the Greyhound buses from Los Angeles on the West Coast of America to New York on the east. And my husband and I are keen when we retire to drive around America and do the trip the other way. Yeah, yeah.
Scott Brown (24:39)
Scott Brown (24:45)
Back to Lessons, what's your final lesson?
Tonia Lovell (24:49)
Oh, my final lesson is to take some time to make sure you know what your personal values are and ensure That way you are working, the company or the firm shares the same values that are that are true to you personally. I had the honour, I guess in my role as Chief Legal Officer at Unilever to help the CEO to actually articulate what Unilever's values were Unilever, you know, 100 year plus company had had a code of ethics for, you know, dozens of years. But this was us pulling out four words that we wanted to represent the values of Unilever, in a company with 170 odd 1000 employees around the world respects responsibility, and integrity, we're, we're clear as three of the four and interestingly, for the for the fourth one, we put it to the vote of a small section of the company, but a representative section of the company. And they came up with a fourth word, which was pioneering, which was a lovely word for a very old and, you know, heavily into r&d company. Absolutely. So of those four respect, responsibility, integrity and pioneering for me personally, I guess respect and integrity are two of my key personal values, and so fabulous that I worked at a company for so long that shared those. I love the phrase, and I like to share this when I can, but we used it in new levers ethics training, a quote by CS Lewis, which is integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. That, to me, I think, as a guiding principle for anyone and everyone is is fabulous. And particularly for lawyers, you know, in lawyers, you've got your black your white zones, and then there's the grey zone in the middle. And as a corporate lawyer, you're of course trying to push your company through the grey zone as far as you can go to make them as competitive as they can be. But always need to have that little thought in the back of your mind about doing the right thing. And then respect, I really value an environment where everyone is respected for what they bring to the table, we touched a little bit earlier on diversity. But whether it's race, or gender, or culture or religion, I truly am a believer. Now in this world of D and i, where i is about inclusion, training people if needs be if it doesn't come naturally for leaders to be inclusive of everyone. Because everyone has different qualities and powers to bring into a debate or an environment. Sometimes they're not brave enough or confident enough or culturally. It doesn't fit with them to project those ideas or those thoughts. And sometimes people need the help to be encouraged to, to voice their opinions. And once everyone is voicing their opinions around a table or a boardroom or whatever else, then you get really the richness that you need to make a brilliant decision.
Scott Brown (28:04)
Yeah, the interesting to know how that exercise of sitting down and working with the CEO to define those values. How do you go about starting that blank page.
Tonia Lovell (28:17)
I think given that we had had this code of ethics for so long, the page wasn't blank. Embedded in there were certainly words like respect and integrity. So those were the easier ones to, to pick out. Responsibility is such a lovely word. And Unilever was at the forefront of sustainability, almost way ahead of many of its competitors and other companies in terms of realising that for a business to be sustainable and long term. It needed to work with the environment and with all stakeholders in order to be sustainable as a business. So even looking at responsibility through that lens responsibility to other stakeholders into the planet was something that was integral at Unilever for many years.
Scott Brown (29:06)
Yeah. Sounds like an amazing career journey at Unilever that Yeah. And very aspirational for any young lawyers, I think, is quite, I think it's quite uncommon now for someone to be in that business for that length of time. So some amazing things to learn there. Just in terms of a signature, a signature question, just to tie us back. I'm keen to find out if you could go back and change anything, would there be anything that you would you would change about your career to date?
Tonia Lovell (29:37)
So I'm pondering and I think I can wholeheartedly say no. And the reason I can say that, as I mentioned earlier, my sort of meteoric promotion that happened in my early 40s. And the reason I can say no is because that was something that I took a great risk in terms of accepting that position both in terms of family life and professionally. And I pondered long and hard as to whether I would accept that position. But I've mentioned him before, I think but my lovely husband was the one that said you don't want to have any regrets in your life. You don't want to have had an opportunity come your way that perhaps you were too frightened or too risk averse to try. What is the harm in trying what can go wrong, and I needed him to say that to me to give me the confidence to think give it a go. Be the best you can be. Do it for as long as you know, it makes you happy and fulfilled and you're proud and you have pride in what you're doing. And if it's not right for you, then you can move on.
Scott Brown (30:49)
Very wise words. Thank you so much for chatting with me, Tonia, and great to hear more about your career and what you're up to at the moment. It's been a been a pleasure.
Tonia Lovell (30:58)
And a pleasure for me, Scott, thank you so much for asking me. Thanks for
Scott Brown (31:01)
joining us if someone was interested or if I was interested in getting in touch with you, either about your coaching or just to learn more, what's the best way for people to get in touch.
Tonia Lovell (31:12)
I go under the brand of Tonia Lovell Coaching for my Coaching TLC, which always gives me a little chuckle, tender loving care. My email address is tonialovell@TLCUK.coach and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone
Scott Brown (31:30)
Great, we’ll share those details along with the bio of the podcast, but a huge thank you, Tonia. If there's anything in particular that you would like to hear more about. From our own Lessons I Learned in Law, please get in touch. Just email us at email@example.com or connect with me on LinkedIn and send me a message. If you'd like to find out more about Heriot Brown, head over to heriotbrown.com. But until next time, I'm Scott Brown. Thanks for listening!