Thinking of tomorrow

Speak to Dan Marjanovic, Partner of Simmons & Simmons law firm in Singapore, and words like “strategy”, “planning” and “prioritising” stand out. He tells HRM Asia how these concepts have become the bedrock of his career to date, as well as the way he charts the organisation’s course.

Tell me about yourself. How would you describe your talent journey to where you are now?

I’ll start by borrowing a quote from Bill Clinton in a recent speech, where he said that at this stage of his career, “there are more yesterdays than tomorrows”. That’s the way I feel about my time in the law. But I’ve enjoyed most of those yesterdays and I’m still looking forward to a few more tomorrows.

I studied economics and law in Sydney, and as part of my economics degree, I did a paper on the economic development of Singapore, which piqued my interest in Singapore and in Southeast Asia generally.

Fortunately for me, shortly after starting my legal career in one of the major law firms in Sydney, I was offered a secondment to Singapore. I was here for a couple of years for that secondment, and found Southeast Asia’s dynamism and diversity of work and culture to be an incredible draw for me. It drew me back, most recently to Simmons & Simmons and the opportunity to set up the Singapore office with my colleagues.

What is your leadership style?

Private practice has become a business over the years and as a result, partners of law firms are all business leaders. They are both managers and leaders. The emphasis on one or the other, or a combination of the two, will vary depending on the role.

I see leadership largely as a situational environment. So, flexibility is necessary to deal with matters as they emerge, and it’s important for leaders to be seen to have integrity and conviction. You need to gain the trust of your teams.

Personally, I don’t think I’ve got a single style. Others will probably beg to differ, but if pushed, I’ll suggest it’s predominantly an open and collegial style with a hint of an authoritative aspect.

How would your employees describe you?

We have a 360-degree feedback process for partners and managers, all the way through to the chief executive partner and our senior partner. Hence, that process is very helpful for us to raise awareness of what we’re doing right, and where we can improve. We get a look through the window from the feedback we are getting both from colleagues and employees. I believe our team, particularly in Singapore, would describe me as driven, perhaps to a fault, as well as strategic, decisive, and collegial. I hope the word “fair” would also be thrown into the mix.

It’s been well-documented that Singapore has a surplus of lawyers. How has this affected staffing levels since the branch’s opening in 2013?

Whether there’s a surplus or otherwise, it’s a market phenomenon, and markets will always ebb and flow. Because of our strategy on developing the business here, we tend to focus our attention on particular types of lawyers with particular skillsets. Since opening the office three years ago, we’ve seen a period of growth and we now have 30 lawyers.

That growth has been focused on areas in which our firm has a leading reputation internationally, and by and large in the sectors which Simmons & Simmons has been traditionally strong: Financial Institutions, Asset Management and Investment Funds.

Our recruitment policy concentrates on identifying lawyers with the right skills, attitude, and personality for our business to ensure that they are as good a cultural fit as possible. It’s not just about having the number of lawyers, but it’s about having the right types of lawyers.

The market for lawyers doesn’t necessarily influence our decisions. We don’t mind if the process to find those lawyers in a particular market takes a litter longer than it might otherwise take. We may not get it right all the time, but we’d like to think we get it right most of the time.

Law is regarded as one of the most stressful professions. What is the turnover rate like?

There are different ways of answering that.

Markets differ but what is consistent, whether it be in the US, the UK, Australia or Singapore, is that the profession is a demanding one and requires a lot of time. As a result of that, it can be stressful.

However, that has been the case in many aspects of life. Demands in the working environment and in life have increased over the years. I don’t know whether it’s more stressful in law than it is in medicine, investment banking, nursing, or education.

With technological advancements, globalisation of competition, and relative increases in wealth, there have been increases in stress levels. We have been fortunate in Singapore because we’ve been in developmental mode for the first three years and we’ve had very little turnover in our office. It’s largely been negligible and we’re pleased with that.

The bigger legal markets have seen a significant change in the way lawyers perceive their roles, and the way expectations have evolved to a point where young lawyers are now more open to a less direct career path. They are also open about their desires to achieve work-life balance and seeing the time they spend in private practice as a learning experience or a stepping stone to something slightly different. For example, they could be looking to move into an in-house position in corporates, banks or other industries that may offer them that balance they’re aspiring to. It’s not uncommon to see them jump at around the three-to-five-year level.

And, that’s a market segment that sees higher turnover and that’s not a purely Singapore phenomenon.

How do you balance your regular day-to-day work and management duties alongside your personal life?

On a typical day, I spend 12 to 14 hours at the office. “Planning” and “prioritising” are two words that come to mind. Doing this for daily and weekly commitments helps with allocating time across the clients’ and managerial functions and needs, and helps also find time for personal commitments.

We spend a huge amount of our working hours focusing on clients and the business. It’s important to also find time for one’s self.

However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s always the need for a degree of flexibility in your day and week, and that’s where being able to rely on colleagues helps quite a lot. However, for family and for certain personal events in my life, I’ll move heaven and earth in order to make sure I have time for them. Our business is a global one so it doesn’t necessarily stop. Fortunately or unfortunately, technology allows one to be a little bit more flexible about where you execute your work. It might be later in the evening at home after spending time with family, or perhaps over the weekend rather than in the office.

Can you describe the culture at Simmons & Simmons?

As a substantial international business, our ability to collaborate and focus on our strength will ultimately drive our success. I believe that behaviours are the connective tissue that help shapes an organisation’s culture – and an organisation’s culture is its soul. It’s that soul that helps to attract and retain talent.

Values are part of that process. Having values is important because they’re guiding principles to behaviour. We have evolved a set of values that we aspire to as partners, and would like our staff to aspire to similarly. They are “ambition”, “(to) challenge”, “commitment”, “innovation”, “responsibility”, and “collegiality”. We undertook a long and consultative process to identify the values that would create the connective tissue that was necessary for us to achieve the behaviours that we’d like. It is a living, breathing process.

How do you keep your staff energised and motivated?

It’s not going to come as a surprise that generally, lawyers are high-achieving individuals, and naturally driven. So, motivation tends to be less of a concern.

But, it is important to maintain that motivation, and individuals’ particular needs and motivations are necessarily subjective. It’s really important to have a clearly-directed and consistent objective that is articulated to the team. So, we’re working towards the same goals and celebrating those successes, whether they’re large or small.

Keeping teams fresh and energised is really the key. We’ve created an environment that is more relaxed and holistic. As part of that approach, we hopefully refresh and motivate our staff by providing them with interesting and quality work. We also champion a culture of collaboration; we very much focus on working as teams, not only in Singapore but across the Asia-Pacific region and other offices.

We have a serious commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility through diversity and environmental initiatives, as well as pro-bono work. These allow our staff, and not just the lawyers, to be involved in other aspects of our society.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?

There are many challenges, and on a daily basis. But if I had to choose one, I think it would be striking a workable balance between short-term objectives and longer-term ones. The reason why that’s a challenge is because they’re not always compatible. In fact, in some cases, they’re completely incompatible.

Like many businesses, we have shorter-term targets. But, as an office that is still relatively new in the market, we are always looking out for the longer-term strategic objectives.

What is your top tip for aspiring leaders?

One of my law tutors once said, and it still resonates with me even today, that “thinking is hard work”.

I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what he meant until I started in private practice and saw all the demands that come with it. Those demands make it a challenge to find the time necessary to think; and thinking is the bedrock of what we do as lawyers. It’s the value that we add to the business and to clients.

We consider difficult issues, devise complex structures to fulfil our client’s objectives, and we solve increasingly intricate problems on a daily basis. All that requires thinking, and thinking requires time

Playing by the rules

Dan Marjanovic’s passion for law has also seen him venture into the Singapore sports scene.

The Partner of Simmons & Simmons in Singapore was previously a member of the Football Association of Singapore’s disciplinary subcommittee member and also the part of the Singapore Cricket Club’s Rules and Membership Subcommittee.

The disciplinary committee considers player- related incidents arising from S-League matches.

“It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to contribute to institutions such as the FAS or Singapore Cricket Club,” he says. “It was a privilege to be asked to be part of a committee of highly-capable individuals.”

Having been a member of the Singapore Cricket Club for over 25 years now, Marjanovic was asked to join the committee about 15 years ago, spending seven “enjoyable” years in it.

Marjanovic, who is also a huge football fan, says the chance to contribute to local sports as a lawyer is particularly rare.

“Those two committees were avenues where I could contribute to institutions that were important to me,” he says.

 

Bio Brief

Dan Marjanovic is a banking and projects partner in Simmons & Simmons’ Asia Financial Markets practice, and heads the firm’s Singapore office. He is qualified in both England & Wales and New South Wales and has lived and worked in Singapore for over 16 years.

His experience is considerable and included acting for banks, corporate borrowers and international project parties on major Energy and Natural Resources-based corporate and financing transactions in the Asia Pacific region and extends to transactions across Asia countries, Australia, the UK, Europe and the Americas.

 

Me-Myself-I

I love: Enjoying life’s little pleasures with close family and friends

I dislike: Duplicity

My inspiration is: Art – it replenishes my soul

My biggest weakness is: Being a little too direct at times

In five years’ time, I’d like to be: Still brave enough to be open to change

Favourite quote: “If we only had our second thoughts first”

 

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