Women in business: Meet the new CEO of Cooney Lees Morgan

Meet the woman at the helm of Tauranga law firm Cooney Lees Morgan. 

Cecilia Burgess was appointed in the role at the end of 2021, making Cooney Lees Morgan (CLM) the first law firm in the region to appoint a CEO. This was an unusual move because partners still run most New Zealand law firms, and the rare few that do have a CEO usually have legal backgrounds or are a partner themselves.

CLM has opted for Cecilia’s unique experience within the professional services sector to help the firm grow and evolve in the coming years.

She specialises in business development and leading high-performing teams, and she has an impressive track record. She’s been Chief Operating Officer at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Bell Gully over the past decade.

We welcomed Cecilia to our business community with a few quick-fire questions.

Where have you moved from? How are you enjoying living in the Bay so far?

I moved to Waihi Beach permanently at the beginning of lockdown last year. My family spent most of our holidays at Waihi Beach when we were growing up and when I returned from London I built a beach house there.

The plan was to retire to the Bay, but I had this great opportunity to work here too, so my partner and I sold the central city apartment in Auckland, bought a puppy and moved in. We are literally “living the dream”.

How did the role of CLM CEO come about and why was it something that interested you?

The CLM team has grown a lot in recent years. Our partners were finding that they were spending less time with their clients as they were drawn more and more into running the business. They decided that the time was ideal to bring in a CEO to run the business and allow them to focus more on their clients’ needs. Having worked in legal firms before, I was aware of CLM and their reputation as a leading regional firm so I was very interested when the role came up.

During the recruitment process I came to know the partners and their values and their vision for the firm was very aligned with my own values. It seemed like a natural fit.

What are some of your areas of focus for the company – what do you want to achieve in your role?

The firm has been an integral part of the Bay of Plenty business community for over 100 years. It has continued to grow and strengthen and we are all proud of the legacy we have inherited.

The partners and I see our roles as ensuring that legacy continues and that he firm maintains the unique culture that has made it such a successful firm. So, I see my role as one of enhancing rather than revolutionising. The immediate challenges for us are around recruiting, growing and retaining great staff, building our sustainability approach, continuing to evolve our technology platform and ensuring smooth running of the firm day to day whilst we live through the next phase of the COVID pandemic.

You’ve been in several C-suite roles for some large corporates – how do you feel this role with compare to the work you have done previously?

I think all companies are facing into some of the same challenges. The war for talent is very real. Attracting and retaining talented people has been a high priority in every firm I have worked in. Other challenges facing all firms are the need to keep pace with technology, ensuring you are constantly innovating around your clients’ needs and being mindful to build a sustainable future.

What were some of your career goals and ambitions, and how did you set out to achieve them?

I’m not someone who has had their career mapped out since they finished school. I have been focussed more on the quality of work and challenges within the work than the title of what I do. I tend to set six-month goals and then reassess how I’ve gone. I have been lucky to have had some great mentors along the way who have encouraged me not to self-limit and be open to opportunities.

I’m someone who needs to feel like they are learning constantly. My other goal is to always be enjoying what I am doing, I have seen too many people in really important roles who are miserable and would rather be doing something else.

Cecilia Burgess

What have been some of your career highlights?

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to learn about different cultures and corporate models in my career. Working in Asia was such a great experience and the very marked differences between the business cultures in places like Japan, China and Singapore.

I also really enjoyed working and living in Australia in leadership roles. I know it’s a cliché but you often see that kiwis in a company stand out for their work ethic and can-do attitude.

If I think of my career highlights there is a common thread through them. That thread is developing high-performing teams and watching them thrive. I realised a long time ago that my personal satisfaction is gained more from helping others achieve their potential than delivering individual pieces of great work.

What are your views on women in leadership roles – what qualities do they bring to the Board room or C-suite?

I subscribe to the models which see leadership defined more through the lens of collective achievement versus the old command and control models.

I am someone who wants to bring good ideas to the table but who also listens to the ideas of others to refine a solution. I think the days of autocratic micro-management are fading fast. Staff need to feel empowered in order to do their best.

How can we make leadership roles more accessible to women, or encourage more women to take up senior positions?

That’s a huge question and I don’t think there’s a magic bullet answer. I have seen some excellent women leaders who are capable of being both analytical and empathetic. We are resilient and don’t have a one size fits all approach.

Over my career I have seen women become more accepted and respected in the work force and I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling anymore. I do however think that as women we tend to be our own harshest critics. Every woman I know in leadership has to battle their imposter syndrome inner critic.

As a business community we are getting better at understanding the competing pressures people have on their time. One of the more positive outcomes from the COVID pandemic is a changing attitude to flexible working and working from home. We have all had to adapt and have seen that we can still be productive when not in the office. I think this change in attitude will be the prod some women need to put themselves forward for more leadership roles.

What’s the one piece of business advice that has stuck with you?

I remember the first time I had to manage out a poor performing staff member. It’s never an easy thing to do and it becomes all consuming in your thought processes. A great piece of advice a partner gave me was “Think of your rear vision mirror in a car, right now this is all you can see, but as time moves on it will become smaller and smaller in the mirror”. I think that advice has stuck with me as the partner wasn’t discounting my feelings of being overwhelmed, in fact he was acknowledging them and then moving me forward. It’s advice I’ve passed on in a number of situations and it resonates with people.

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