Telum Talks To... Lisa Foley, Asia Managing Partner, Brunswick

“COVID has exposed vulnerabilities, it's also accelerated existing trends. Trends that were already there and that we had to leap into quite quickly”

Telum’s Tim Williamson spoke to Lisa Foley, Asia Managing Partner at Brunswick, who oversees Brunswick Asia operations in five offices around the region, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Prior to Brunswick Lisa was Chief Operating Officer, Asia at two law firms, Clyde & Co and Ashurst. Lisa talks about the transition from law firm to strategic advisory firm, responding to the pandemic and Brunswick’s expansion in Japan.

How was the transition from law firm to a communications advisory firm like Brunswick. What are the common challenges? What are the differences?
Commonalities: there are quite a lot actually between the professional services firms of law firms and strategic advisory firms. The commonalities are our people: developing our people and making sure that we give them the right attributes to be able to develop the skills with our people.

It's also around developing relationships with our clients - trusted relationships, and also around the quality of advice which has been provided to those clients. So the commonalities, as I said, are quite similar just in a different industry which is a much more fast-paced, exciting and very up-to-date industry in which we operate.

We're settling into our second year of COVID-19. We have gone from the initial crisis response to a sustained shift in the operating environment. What does that mean for communications agencies and strategic advisory firms?
Businesses have had to navigate the associated financial and operational challenges that it has brought. We've also had to address the needs of talent, and our clients. As leaders we’ve all entered uncharted waters. We've shifted from rapid and reactive responses to business resilience. We have been required to reassess our assumptions. We’ve re-evaluated scenarios as we've gone along. We've also looked at changing to the environment that's been around us.

One of the greatest things that we have all done is really looking at our business continuity. We've prioritised where we've had to prioritise, particularly on our people, looking after our people and caring for people has become a number one within the industry. We also taken that same approach with our clients who have been asking a lot of us in terms of helping them navigate through some enormous decisions and strategic challenges which they've had to face over the last 12 months and these will continue.

You mentioned that it's uncharted territory for everybody, what are the opportunities and the risks of a situation like COVID?
COVID has exposed vulnerabilities, it's also accelerated existing trends. Trends that were already there and that we had to leap into quite quickly. So the rapid digitalisation of how we operate and how we work, that's definitely been an opportunity, and it's an opportunity which everybody just jumped into. Technology has transformed the way we have worked, and it will transform the way we work going forward. It’s enabled unprecedented levels of collaboration across the globe. Previously, we found that quite difficult. Now we find that quite easy.
But it hasn't been without its challenges as well with people working from home, there is an increased risk of diluting an organisational culture, as well as blurring the lines between work and home that we have to be incredibly conscious about.

In terms of our people, it's also developing our talents. We're continually investing in the development of our people. And in some ways, COVID has given us huge opportunities with that because we've been able to bring people together across specialisations and geographies so much easier that we've been able to therefore share that knowledge, much more openly with our teams and there's been a thirst for that we have found. So whilst we've had to take on a huge amount of operational agility and flexibility in the short-term, this is going to set us up I think much stronger in the medium- and longer- terms.

Brunswick works with very senior business leaders on business-critical issues. How has COVID changed the way that you as advisors, engage with leaders, and the advice that's been given to them?
COVID has meant that businesses are continually adapting to new and uncertain market conditions. Throughout this period clients have needed us more than ever, to be honest. The world has changed rapidly, and the need for steady, on-point, quality advice to allow clients to then navigate the complex worlds, in which we live in between financial, political and social spheres has been enormous.

We've found that clients have been very open towards taking that advice and needing that advice, and realising that having quality advisory around you at that really strategic level. There's something about bringing the outside world into the client’s and allowing them then to have information to be able to make crucial decisions about how they are going to navigate and move through COVID and beyond.

As a firm, you're expanding your Asia presence. You opened a new office in Tokyo in October. How is COVID impacting your plans for the region? What are you looking to achieve the rest of this year?
So we are very excited about opening Tokyo in October. It's the 24th office in our global network. And it's the fifth in Asia Pacific alongside our other offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. And to be honest, we've been advising Japanese clients and Japanese companies for many years already for over some 15 years. So it became natural for us then to really moving in, in a very strong way, into Tokyo this year. We've got a fantastic team in Tokyo, they are dealing with some very complex international matters, on behalf of our Japanese clients. It also underlines our ambitions for Asia, and not only Japan - Asia as a whole. We are very bullish on Asia, we see a huge opportunity. We've been asked by our clients for a significant amount of interaction with them and growth with them and that's where we also see a lot of opportunity for us moving forward.

We alluded to it earlier in terms of how you manage teams through this kind of environment. We just completed a survey of communications leaders across Asia and the big concerns were issues like burnout, mental health, culture, team working, how people learn. Are those issues that you're worried about as a firm? How are you navigating that aspect of the operating environment?

COVID has placed an immense amount of pressure on people and that's not just within our industry, it's across the business environment as a whole.

We have been very open to this and very open to having conversations around this within the organisation. Part of our ethos is about supporting our people. And we have a very healthy culture around that we have a very open environment around that. Teamwork is very important for us, and mental health and burnout came into that quite strongly with the evolution of COVID. And we have focused on that for each and every person, everything from a single individual level, to a group level, to an office level.

We are putting programmes around that, where we have specifically focused on giving people tools to be able to help them through and navigate through that balance between work and life, which I think we all admit has gotten a little bit gray over the last year. It's also important for us to enable people to be able to speak up and tell us where the challenges they're facing are, what they're facing so then we're able to help them, talk to them, get them the assistance they need, be able to manage their work around that work style, what's required of them, as well as capacity to be able to give them room to be able to then balance everything else that's going on in life.

And we're very open to informal exchanges about this, and we're open to formal exchanges about this. It's something that we've been working on every day within our culture is to have that openly placed on the table and say it's okay to speak about these things to us we understand and we're here to help you navigate through.

What are the key skillsets needed coming into a firm like Brunswick, and what would your advice be to young people interested in this kind of work?
So that’s a really interesting question, because we have a very wide gambit of skillsets within Brunswick, we don't look for specific. It can be skillsets for us, which are in relation to geopolitics, it can be government affairs, it can also be energy and resources – so sectorial expertise that we go looking for.

We look for a very very broad range of skills that complement our broad advisory experience. Some of the things that are really important to us and for young people particularly is curiosity and learning mindset. It's that ability to have an open mind, have a lot of emotional intelligence, have empathy, be curious enough to be able to really hunker in and solve problems and at the same time, have open minds around a strategic ability to be able to advise.

So, I wouldn't say there any key skill sets, because we are actually looking for a very broad range of people to complement within Brunswick. What we're really looking for is that curiosity and learning mindset that openness that strong strategic skills, deep connections in the industries in which we operate.

And also, to be honest, just a very large interest in business issues. As the world continues to evolve, so do opportunities and challenges that our clients will face. And so, there is a need for people to have that understanding that you need to bring the outside in.

When you're not running advisory firms, what do you do to unwind and to switch off?
My greatest thing to unwind and switch off is to go into the hills of Hong Kong and go hiking with friends. There's nothing better than leaving your doorstep, leaving the rat race behind and within 10-15 minutes in Hong Kong you can be up in the greenery and in the country parks and it's just magnificent.

And what are you watching reading, listening to? Any tips you'd like to leave?
Watching: it was the Australian Open. I'm a very big tennis fan. 
Reading: I'm actually between two books I like to always have two different types of books going on. For the casual reading side it's a book called The Hunting Party by my niece, Lucy Foley. The other one, then, is The 21 Lessons of Life. I’m very much enjoying reading that.

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