Celesti Harmse, General Counsel and Company Secretary of Australia’s leading footwear company, Accent Group, talks with Lee Ruddy about good leadership, legal puns, and being surrounded by lawyers all day.
Why in house?
I started my career at Minters as a baby lawyer, and after spending more than 10 years there, in the end I just couldn’t see myself never working anywhere else.
I went on a number of secondments and started realising that I enjoyed the environment of being in-house– being a much more commercial environment – more than I did the law firm environment.
That was for a number of reasons, but mostly because in-house, your role extends well beyond just giving good technical legal advice and perhaps doing some sort of risk assessment or various options. It really immerses you in the trenches within a business, in all aspects.
To be a little frank, one of the things I enjoy the most is not being surrounded just by lawyers all day! Some of my best friends are lawyers, I know some fantastic lawyers, but we are a bit of a special breed, and I think it’s good not to be surrounded by only other lawyers every day
What are you up to at the moment?
I am the General Counsel and Company Secretary at Accent Group. We’re a footwear group with lots of really great brands.
I started with the business about 2 and a half years ago and I was their first in-house legal counsel, so I’ve been spending the last couple of years building the in-house function, getting people used to having a lawyer in-house, and what that means and what I can do for them.
Most memorable moment in law?
I can think of many examples of really good work that I’ve been involved in that’s been very rewarding as a lawyer, but definitely, without a doubt, the most memorable moments to me in my career have always related to people and the experiences we’ve shared.
One funny anecdote from back in my Minters days: I was on a teleconference with a partner and we were talking to the other side about putting some documents in escrow, and the guy on the other side was calling it “escargot!”. We were in hysterics and found it really hard to recover that conversation because this guy just kept on referring to it as escargot!
And then of course there are the people I’ve worked with and learnt so much from. I had one manager – who wasn’t actually a legal manager, but on the commercial side of the business – who taught me so much about managing people and that showing vulnerability can be a great source of strength in a leader.
How has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
When the pandemic first broke out, it was really about ruthless prioritisation. We were scheduling board calls late at night across four different countries, multiple times a week. It was really just about the most critical things we had to do, straight away and keeping on top of the changing government directives and what that meant for our business.
Things have settled down now, but I’ve tried to hang on to those prioritisation habits and letting go of some things that are not as important as I once thought they were.
Working from home has meant, at times, that I am always “on” with no clear delineation between work time and home time. I’ve really had to learn to schedule some little rituals or activities in my day to break this cycle. For example, when my kids get home from school, I always have a little break and a snack with them and see how their day was. Sometimes it even turns into a bit of a dance party in the lounge!
Working from home yes or no?
For me, it’s mostly yes. I’ve realised just how much wasted time there is at the start and the end of each day when you’re commuting, and it’s been really good to be given that time back.
I also love having large blocks of uninterrupted time at home if I need it. I never close my door in the office, because I think being available to people is really important in my role, but it can be very disruptive.
On the other hand, I’m definitely a social person and miss that face to face interaction with my colleagues. Some sort of balance between the two would be ideal which is what I’m hearing most people say!
What’s the first thing you’re going to do after lockdown?
We recently launched a new brand called “PIVOT” and our second store opened at Highpoint on the first day after lockdown so I said I would pop in and see the team for the opening. I was there first thing in the morning, and the centre was really hectic and a bit stressful!
My first proper post lockdown activity was dinner with some friends last weekend. But what I’m looking forward to – hopefully – is spending Christmas with my interstate family!