Her path to leadership: lawyer Silvana Schenone

Global Women member Silvana Schenone is a corporate partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts. Silvana has a remarkable international background, having practiced law in New York, Chile and New Zealand, and holds a Master in Laws from Harvard University, with distinction in corporate law and governance. She is originally from Chile and came to New Zealand eight years ago with her Kiwi husband.

She spoke to our 2016 Breakthrough Leaders cohort last week about her path to leadership.

Adaptability is a key leadership trait

An early character building moment rested on a conversation she had with her father when she was six years old. She remembers asking him ‘Dad, who is your best friend’ – her Father scratched his head and said actually, there’s not one person. It depended on context – he had the best friend at work, the best friend to play golf with, the friends he and Silvana’s mother went out to dinner with.

“This little story was actually when I started thinking about flexibility and adaptability, which went on to shape my life. I have moved countries three times while working as a lawyer, which hasn’t been easy, but flexibility and adaptability helped me achieving my goals in this context. To be successful as a leader you need to be flexible and aware of your ecosystem and environment.

How do you be authentic as a leader?

“What type of leader you are depends on yourself, but you have to be authentic. This doesn’t mean that you ignore your environment, but you need to be comfortable in your own skin. I grew up in Chile, a very male-dominated law environment, very conservative – every successful M&A lawyer would wear a dark suit, and when I first graduated from law school women could only appear in front of the Supreme Court wearing skirt suits! No pants were allowed. I remember thinking “I’m not going to conform to this old-fashioned rule, I’m just going to wear what makes me comfortable.” But then I realised that such an ideal may not be the smartest move: I would wear what I was comfortable with, but to break the rule just for the sake of doing it would be distracting from what I was there to achieve. Sometimes you need to think unemotionally about things and keep focussed on your goal.”

Then again, she says, embrace what is inherently unique about yourself.

“People say I’m quite a flamboyant, extroverted person, but at first I felt nervous about being ‘different’ all over again in New Zealand – for example I was very self-conscious about my accent. It was my husband who gave me a push of confidence when he said, ‘actually, there are thousands of corporate lawyers in NZ, but people will remember you more because you are different’. So I took that uniqueness as a competitive advantage. And as a women in a male dominated sector you’re different anyway!

What’s your superpower, or kryptonite?

Silvana said she asked her team about this one, and one of the youngest team members told her she ‘had a short fuse’!

“But this is actually my superpower too! I know I’m not patient, I want things to happen fast, but that’s my superpower too: I’m very energetic, and I want people to act with that same passion.”

Key advice for up and coming leaders?

1. I don’t think you need exceptional talent to be an exceptional leader. It’s relentless effort instead that will get you there. We all have our unique talents, but really it’s effort that makes the biggest difference.

2. To get things done, think in terms of energy, not time. Often we justify being unable to get something done because there’s not enough time. For example, I never have enough time to go to the gym – but I have time to do other things I really enjoy! It’s the lack of energy or passion that is dictating that. Think about your energy – successful people in any domain are those that are energetic, so you need to find a way to feed that and to reenergize yourself often.

3. Find your passion first and then the path that leads to it. This is instead of life taking you on a route you don’t own. And enjoy the ride! For example, I always loved negotiation; I wanted to be an M&A lawyer, I didn’t just study law and then found myself promoted from lawyer through to partner. I fought for it, I had arguments to support my case, I knew where I wanted to go. Once you know what you want, you have arguments to support it and you get it. Shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, I started working at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts and I said from the beginning that I wanted to be Partner – which may have come across as over-ambitious and competitive – but I managed to achieve that, in a record time, through effort and determination. I think New Zealanders should be unashamed of aiming for success.

And how do you tell what you have a passion for? You’ll know. When I worked for the first time in a law firm when I was 20 years old, I was so excited about it, that I was completely stoked when I received my first pay check, thinking ‘wow I even get paid for this’.

4. Life is not easy. Turn challenges into opportunities for yourself and for your team. When I was 10 years old I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and was in a coma for three weeks. The main conversations I had with my parents after that were about me still having the choice to do whatever I wanted in my life, but that now when thinking about the consequences I should also consider my diabetes (eg eating sugar could be bad for me). I became very disciplined in order to manage my health condition while still living a normal life, but most importantly, I learnt that ALL your decisions bring a consequence, for good or for bad. And you need to share this philosophy, for example with your teams, because you can’t micromanage people – they will make their own decisions. This could be as simple as my young lawyers doing their time sheets: I can’t do them for them, I can’t actually force them to do them (and if they are compelled to do things, they may not do them properly), but instead, making them reflect on the fact that keeping on top of their time sheets will have an impact on their careers’ progress, is more powerful.

5. What you are doing now will come to fruition in ten years’ time. Or put differently, you need to start doing something now if you want it to become a reality in 5-10 years’ time. You must find the energy to plan for your goals, because the time to achieve things in 5-10 years’ time is now – even if you think you’re too busy!.

6. Remember, you are who you surround yourself with. I got a Masters degree from Harvard– and from that point onward, people assume I’m smart (unless I prove otherwise!). That’s part of my brand. It’s what you do, who you interact with.

Is tall poppy syndrome really that bad in New Zealand?

“It’s very characteristic of Kiwi and English culture I think. It is not encouraging in my view. You have to get rid of it as New Zealand globalises and interacts with other cultures, as otherwise New Zealand Kiwis will be left behind. But the answer is to think about it in a positive way. Sometimes ambition is seen as a negative concept in New Zealand, but actually it can be a positive ambition to achieve great goals for New Zealand or for an organisation, in a healthy team environment. Women sometimes are called “overly ambitious” whereas men would be seen as career driven. Likewise aggressive vs assertive. But we have to make the point that ambition and competitiveness are not harmful characteristics in themselves, they can be constructive and beneficial too.”

Obstacles in your career?

“Not having a network when I arrived in New Zealand. Since then, I’ve made sure I’ve always gone to networking functions even if I am busy. There is a lot of value in having a good group of contacts. And before attending an event, you can go through the list of people who you want to touch base with, network for half an hour, then you can go back to do other things. For me I had to make a big effort to build my network in New Zealand because I didn’t grow up here. My network in New Zealand is not made up of people I went to school or university with, nor family friends. Instead, they are all contacts I have made through my own efforts.”

What are your aspirations from here?

“I want to do more for New Zealand than New Zealand has done for me. I want to contribute as a leader of minorities, for example in helping integrate the Latin-American community fully into New Zealand, and as a lawyer. I loved the speech at my citizen ceremony in 2014, when we were told, as new Kiwis, that we were welcomed to New Zealand to absorb the New Zealand culture, to bring our culture in and to merge the best of both.”