We catch up with Sonya Harris, MinterEllison alumni and current Lendlease General Counsel, Property Australia.
Sonya talks to us about her current role, her time at MinterEllison and shares with us the best piece of career advice she has been given.
In my current role, I manage a team of around 35 lawyers, partnering with the Property Australia business at Lendlease. Property Australia covers our Urban Regeneration business (large scale projects like Barangaroo in NSW, Victoria Harbour in Victoria, Darling Harbour Live in NSW, RNA in Queensland and Waterbank in WA), our Residential Business (apartments and communities projects), our Retirement Living business (with over 75 retirement villages) and our Funds Management and Asset Management businesses (with over $34bn in funds under management). As well as managing the team, I do large negotiation and transactional work– for example I worked with Stuart Johnson, Stephen Knight and Robin Lyons to sell 25% of our retirement living portfolio to APG – a deal we closed within 15 days of final bids – so not a lot of sleep on that one. I essentially triage what’s happening in the business and work closely with the CEO and COO of the Property business, as well as the MDs of the relevant business units and our Group General Counsel to ensure we take a “one Lendlease” view.
I can’t believe you’re asking me this in the run up to 30 June! The thing I like the best is the variety of the work and the incredible intellectual challenges in a company like Lendlease – it’s full of seriously smart people who are passionate about property and really make you bring your A game to work every day. I have a low boredom threshold so the variety keeps me interested – although it is frustrating sometimes when I go home having not achieved a single thing I intended to on any given day because something hit me from left field. My most rewarding achievement is building a fantastic team of lawyers and non-lawyers who all love what they do and get great job satisfaction. Sometimes I have to step in to support people who are really having a tough time and I feel enormously proud when I see them regroup, recover and go on to have fabulous careers. I’m also really proud of the fact that a number of my lawyers have been pinched by the business units – it’s a huge compliment and an indication that we have commercially-minded lawyers in the team. On the non-people side, I love helping to change the skyline of cities – it’s really cool to have such a huge impact on where people live, work and play.
I was really young when I was at MinterEllison and I was made a partner in 1999 just before my son was born and when I was only 29 years old. My son finished school in 2017 and is now at university, so now it seems a really long time ago! While I was at MinterEllison I learned the importance of great relationships – both with clients and with peers – and I have taken that through my career and still have strong relationships with many people from that era in my life. At the time, MinterEllison’s great differentiator was being “easy to work with” and I still think that is true of the firm. I often say that I like to work with lawyers who will crack a joke at 3am (because really who wants to be at work at 3am??). I definitely think there is a general lack of ego in the firm which makes it a relaxing environment when you’re working on challenging projects.
Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em (Kenny Rogers).
That’s a really hard question for me to answer because so many people have given me so much great advice over the years. Probably the best advice was to make sure I managed my career, that I saw it as an asset to be managed – I think women in particular can tend to sit back and just ride along without being pro-active at managing their careers. The person who made the biggest pivotal change in my career path was Karen Pedersen when we worked at another company in the early 2000s and she encouraged me to work full time but flexibly so that I could manage being a single mum with two very young kids. Karen was really ahead of the curve in embracing flexible working and my career would not have followed the path it did if she hadn’t offered me that opportunity. So now I spend as much time as I can mentoring and coaching women and helping them to manage their careers. Men too, but I tend to find they don’t need as much help!
I hate the term work-life balance because it implies that work is somehow not part of life and I love what I do and get an enormous amount of personal satisfaction from working. There is no getting away from the fact that I work a lot of hours and I have a big job which takes a lot of time and is certainly not 8am – 6pm. And in the lead up to 30 June (or 31 December) it is often impossible to have much of a life outside of work. So much has changed in the time I’ve been working – when I started there were no mobile phones, no email and no internet (gasps of horror). The great thing about that was that when you left the office, no-one could bother you. The appalling thing was that if you were working late or on the weekend, you were generally in the office. Now of course, we have flexibility to work anywhere, but the huge challenge is switching off from the 24-7 availability which technology has created. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at knowing when I need to take time out and re-charge. I have two phones – one work and one personal – so that I do not stay in touch with the office when I am on leave, but I can be contacted in an absolute emergency. If I’m at the office, but feel I should be at home, or if I’m at home, but feel I should be at the office, I know I’m out of balance. And I try to keep my head where my feet are, so that I’m present wherever I am. But it’s difficult and I don’t profess to have the answers.