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Success Story Series:

From Aussie Accountant to Global HR Chief — How One Executive Switched Paths to Find Success

To celebrate our firm’s 35-year history, The Alexander Group is talking to several of the outstanding executives we have recruited to ask about their lessons learned, leadership style, and the legacy they hope to leave behind.

This month, we feature Peter May who joined leading global law firm Baker McKenzie as Global Chief People Officer five years ago. Throughout the course of his 25 years in business, Peter has established a reputation as a leader and trusted advisor to executive management in top-tier professional services organizations. A native of Australia, Peter has worked in the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific, bringing a unique global experience and perspective to his role. He spoke to us from his offices in New York.

You began your career as a chartered accountant and moved into human resources more than 20 years ago. What influenced this career path?

Baker McKenzie's Global Chief People Officer Peter May
Peter May

There were two pivotal moments that set me on my current path: After graduating from Sydney University in Australia, I joined Price Waterhouse (PW), later PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and became an auditor. And while I was good at that, a mentor who suggested I would do well in the learning and development department at PW.

On the back of that recommendation, I joined the technical learning department and found my calling. I was never more happy than in a classroom of adult learners. I had the opportunity to study how adults learn and the most effective way of facilitating and working with a group of people. That set me on the path to becoming a human resources professional.

I worked in learning and development for a number of years; then I heard through a connection that Deloitte Australia was interesting in a human resources director who had significant Asia Pacific experience, which I had through my role with PwC. This was the second pivotal moment in my career: Through that network connection, and with the encouragement of others, I took on an HR Director role in 2000, and I’ve been in HR generalist roles since then.

What did your mentor see in you that led him to guide you toward HR?

My joke is that clearly I wasn't well suited to being an auditor. In truth, my mentor was always on the lookout for strengths and potential in others. He saw in me a reasonably high EQ — which every job requires but HR jobs in particular. He also saw in me an ability to lead and manage other people, to work in teams, and to have open and transparent conversations with people about their lives and their careers.

What makes you successful in your current role?

  1. Stakeholder management is important in professional services. It’s important to have strong collaborative relationships throughout the organization and at the most senior levels. It’s a core competency.
  2. Having a consistent leadership style is another factor that contributes to my success. I strive to be the same person whether I’m talking to the CEO or to an entry-level associate. You hear of people who manage up well, but who are bad at managing their own team. For me, a consistent leadership style is critical.
  3. A third thing that drives my success is a foundation in values. In the HR space, you balance the interests of the individual with the interests of the firm or organization. Sometimes, these interests are aligned; sometimes they are not. You have to balance out those interests and work towards a middle ground. That requires a strong values base; the firm’s values are important, but you also need strong personal values.

You joined Baker McKenzie from Deloitte in 2014. How was the transition?

One of my primary challenges was moving industries. I’d worked in professional services before, but I’d never worked for a law firm. There are some similarities: Baker & McKenzie is a partnership like Deloitte. Baker & McKenzie also has a broad geographical footprint like Deloitte. But I had not worked directly with lawyers in the way that lawyers like to work: Lawyers like to understand the details of the issues and manage risks around those issues.

The level of consultation around decision making is much higher than it was in my previous role. Lawyers and law firms tend to have a lower risk tolerance around decision making; the movement to action takes longer. I had to learn to adapt the way I consult to accommodate that environment.

What were the organizational challenges you faced when you assumed the role?

The firm has 77 offices in 42 countries, and many of the HR practitioners, the HR practices and the policies were very independent. I needed to weave what I call “a golden thread” between the different things happening around the organization to unite us in a meaningful way. What were we doing in common, what needed to be done globally, and what needed to be held locally?

One of the big things we did was conduct a global engagement survey in 2015. That gave us real data on what our people thought of the firm, its human resources practices, its leadership and other issues. We knew what was on people's minds and what was important as opposed to guessing about it. On the back of that survey, I was able to develop a global human resources agenda that allowed us to establish our priorities and unite the HR teams around the world.

Looking into the future, what legacy do you hope to leave behind?

This may sound cliché, but truly what I want is a human resources team that is the best in the industry, a leading light. I want others to look to us as a point of reference for how to do human resources really, really well.

I think it’s also important that my successor, and my successor’s successor, all come from within. I strive to have strong, internal succession for all senior roles in all the functions, so that it becomes sustainable.

As a mentor and leader, what is your favorite piece of advice?

When you're asked to do something, always say yes. And then ask, what more can I do, how can I contribute, where can I add value? Be open to possibilities. Have an openness and willingness to participate in the life of the firm in relationship with other people, and participate fully in your own career, in your own deportment. That's so, so important.

Describe your interview style when meeting with a prospective employee?

My interview style is always to put people at ease. I think if people are anxious and nervous, then you're not going to see their full potential. You want people to be relaxed. You want them to be open. You want them to be fully themselves. If you can help them to relax into the interview, you then get much more from the person.

Near the end of the interview process, my style shifts. After we’ve had a few conversations, they know the position description, they know about the organization. Now I'm interested in what they make of the role themselves. I'm interested in hearing them play back to me what they believe a role's about — what might be the challenges, what are the issues, and what they would do with that?

I'm often testing the interviewee for their understanding of the role and the organization. That tells me a lot about the person, as to whether they really understand what they're potentially stepping into.

How do you recharge? What do you do to take care of yourself?

I enjoy exercise, and I try to run, if I can, most days. Wherever I go in the world, I always pack my running shoes. I also try to read extensively, particularly about the various schools of psychology. I find that interesting and helpful for my job. And finally, living in New York, I make sure I stay engaged in the life of the city as well — music, theater, events. Because of my travel and my work schedule, I don't always have time.

It’s a struggle to maintain that balance. That's the truth.

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