Women in Law - leading the way

As a legal recruiter, I feel privileged to meet women who are achieving great success and climbing the corporate ladder as an in-house legal counsel. I recently had the honour of interviewing one such woman on her career at a global investment bank.

Su-Ling Voon is a Managing Director and Company Counsel at Morgan Stanley, where she is responsible for corporate governance in Asia Pacific. During her nearly 20 years with Morgan Stanley, Su-Ling has headed the legal team for the Firm’s International Private Wealth Management Division, among others.

She is an active supporter of the Firm’s diversity efforts; Co-Chair of the Women’s Business Alliance in Hong Kong and Chairs the Diversity Committee for Asia Pacific Legal and Compliance Division. She is an Alumni of the Women’s Foundations Mentoring Scheme, where she was a mentor for two years.

Su-Ling is based in Hong Kong where she lives with her husband and two children.

You have been with Morgan Stanley for nearly 20 years. Any observations for women about a career in-house with a global investment bank?

People sometimes ask what has kept me working in this industry and in the same firm for this length of time. A strong factor has been the opportunity to work in an environment where the culture and values are aligned with mine. Equally important is that I have been fortunate to have opportunities to switch roles in the organization, and this has kept me challenged and motivated. So, one of my key observations is that it’s definitely worth thinking about what you want to get out of your career, and whether the firm supports its employees in a way that is consistent with your goals. Companies that realize the benefits of having women in their leadership team will recognize the importance of supporting them as they move through the organization and eventually into leadership positions. For example, Morgan Stanley’s Women’s Business Alliance (which I co-chair) is a Firm sponsored employee network whose initiatives are designed to help employees meet their potential including advancing the careers of women.

Strong professional ethics and integrity are critical to establishing credibility within your peer group, your managers and other stakeholders alike. They need to know they can rely on you to do the right thing even when no one is looking. This should be integral to your personal brand, and as such, it needs attention. Have a clear idea of the ethical principles that are expected of you, and apply them in everything you do.

What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?

Invest in your relationships within your organization. These are best built out of shared successes through collaboration on business projects and problem solving. Relationships can also be developed from participation in other initiatives where you have common interests, such as diversity or pro bono. These people form your network of allies within the organization who can provide you with support as you deal with new challenges and at different times act as your sponsors and mentors.

Seek out sponsors who are supportive of your work and let them know your goals. A sponsor is someone in a position of influence, who is enthusiastic about your accomplishments and talents, and believes in your potential. Importantly, a sponsor is willing to advocate for you and help you identify opportunities that accelerate your career. Chemistry and respect are important principles in a sponsor relationship.

Cultivate mentor relationships. A mentor is someone with professional experience (not necessarily the same as your own) whom you can confide in, is supportive of you, and who provides perspectives and encouragement that help you navigate more confidently through your career. Mentor relationships can sometimes develop organically from other types of professional relationships, although some firms, like mine, run mentoring schemes for employees. Having had mentors over my career, I consider it important to mentor others, and use insights from my career to support them.

Develop a clear and confident communication style. People are naturally drawn to those who can express themselves well, and will have more trust in what they say. Conversely, you can have all your facts and arguments perfectly lined up but people will have doubts if you cannot explain them clearly. Invest in some training if necessary.

What advice would you offer to other women who want both career and family?

Do not undercut your career. Put as much effort as you can into building your credentials and take your career as far as you can before and after you start a family. After you have started a family and return to work, re-establish your professional goals and make it clear to your manager and others that you are committed to your career. It’s important to ‘set the stage’ quickly after you return to work and focus on having impact through performance.

In the meantime, have a clear idea of your highest personal priorities and stay close to them, whilst finding a way of delegating or letting go of other low priority, low value activities. In doing so, be prepared for trade-offs that will free up time for things that really matter to you. Recognize also that there will be times where you may need to give more time to your work than at other times, and that conversely, you may be able to give more time to your family than at other times.

What career would you have chosen, if you were not a lawyer?

I would like to have been making a difference doing something entrepreneurial, or working in criminal law, may be as a prosecutor!