Spotlight on… Carolann Edwards

Strategic thinking and a focus on excellence lie at the root of Carolann Edwards’ success. Here she tells TJ about what matters most to her

Carolann Edwards is global director of learning and organisational development at legal practice Norton Rose Fulbright. She joined the practice in 1999 and has been there ever since, apart from 21 months spent working at another law firm. She is responsible for setting the strategy and delivering all of the non-technical legal learning and development that takes place in the organisation across over 50 offices worldwide. As a global leader, she spends a minimum of 90 days a year working in other countries meeting with and advising partners, working with colleagues in HR, delivering training and conducting research and other project work.

She is a member of the global HR leadership team; the EMEA diversity and inclusion committee and the steering group of WiN (Women in Norton Rose Fulbright) – the Norton Rose Fulbright women’s group in London. With two lawyers, Julie and Laura, she developed the Board series of courses Three steps to Board, Two steps on Board and Tales from the Boardroom aimed at helping more women get to the top and be more effective at board-level.

Carolann mentors a head of department in one of the universities in London and a number of lawyers in the UK and overseas. She also assists the G(irls)20 charity which works with young women between the ages of 18 and 23. It is focused on producing the next generation of female leaders from G20 countries plus the African Union, Europe, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the MENA regions. Carolann runs a leadership course for them annually.

She and her team have won a range of awards for their work. These include the Law Society Excellence in Learning & Development award 2013 for the design and implementation of the global L&D strategy; the MPF (Managing Partners Forum) Best Collaboration Across the Management Team 2015 for delivering a single, global L&D platform “that produced very tangible benefits in terms of integration during a period of dramatic growth and change”; a silver award in the commercial category of the TJ Awards 2013 and a bronze for L&D team of the year in the TJ Awards 2014.

Why training and how did you start?

I was working as a lecturer in economics and banking. I attended a management training course and was impressed with Dr Liz Walker who was running it. I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to do that’.  Soon after, a new curriculum was launched in my department. It occurred to me that I could develop a related training course and charge lecturers to attend. It was a success. The content was well received and more delegates than expected attended. That was my entry into activity-based training design
and delivery.

Who or what inspires you?

Looking out of the window into our garden at the trees, shrubs and flowers in the early hours of the morning when all, apart from the birds singing, is quiet and still. Maya Angelou’s joie de vivre expressed through her poetry And Still I Rise delivered in that mellifluous voice.

I take my hat off to working mothers like my colleagues Sarah and Anjli who have masterfully transferred their enhanced, as a result of motherhood, skills in multi-tasking, trouble shooting and people management (the little ones and the big ones!) into the workplace. As mums with new babies, they managed themselves and others impressively well despite the
sleep deprivation.

I’d like to say to those who worry about the effects on their careers of having children. Just get on with it. Having children could help you to be even more successful at work.

What would you say has been your noblest hour?

Noblest hour? Oh dear, I don’t think that I’ve done anything that merits such a high level of distinction. However, there are a couple of achievements in which I take a little bit of pride. One of them is building with my colleagues a globally well respected L&D department which is helping our staff and external clients learn, grow and change. Another is designing the Careers Strategies Programme which has played a pivotal role in helping the practice to promote more of its very talented women to partners. I took a few risks with the design and build of the programme which I am pleased to say have paid off.

What and when was your career turning point?

There were two. In 1999 I was working as a head of business development in the finance sector. I was reading The Sunday Times and saw that Norton Rose was advertising for an organisational development training manager. I was drawn to the post because it mentioned OD and after some deliberation I decided to give it a whirl because it looked interesting and getting to grips with a new industry would be a challenge. In that sense it did not disappoint!

I am quite a private person with a low boredom threshold and a love of knowledge and learning. When I reach a point where work has become routine and I feel that there is no room for me to grow, I find another job and move on. This happened in 2007 with the result that I moved to another law firm. I didn’t know it at the time but it would precipitate my second career turning point. I was head-hunted back to Norton Rose returning in early 2009 prior to the firm’s combination with an Australian firm. It’s been lovely to see the organisation grow following four combinations into what it is now and to have been a part of that.

It’s been a time of great personal growth and development for me as a professional. Contributing to pre- and post-combination integration work in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the US to help build a single business approach, has provided me with some uniquely interesting and challenging experiences. The combinations have also afforded me the opportunity to lead the development and implementation of our global learning and development strategy. Getting this to work day-to-day has been a huge team effort involving great people at every level in the business globally. Because of the manner in which it has been managed, the organisation is in a really strong position and I am proud to work for it. It would have been awful to have been watching these exciting developments from the sidelines thinking ‘if only I had gone back to Norton Rose’.

Describe your best learning and development experience?

Two come to mind. First modules such as strategy and organisational behaviour on my MBA. The content and approach aligned with my interests and learning style. Second, the Meyler Campbell business coach programme because it helped me gain some insight into the talent that the best coaches have and how I can identify them when we need their help. 

Having said that, the day-to-day experience I have had in my current role has been a remarkable learning experience. When I took over the running of the department a little over six years ago, I had a vision which I communicated to them. At its core was a desire to provide excellent service to the practice and it clients. What’s interesting is that at that stage I had no idea that the business would grow so quickly, with four combinations between 2010 and 2013. [pullquote]Working with my team and colleagues on this project has been a bit like the biggest action learning set you can imagine[/pullquote]. It’s resulted in me learning a huge amount in areas such as strategic thinking, stakeholder management, handling difficult situations, trust, cross border communication, persuading and influencing and people management. On balance, doing this job has been my best learning experience as it has brought the academic learning I have had to life in ways I could not have imagined as a student. 

What’s next in your career?

Many of the books and research on career development say that one should be career planning a couple of years ahead. The fact that I can’t answer that question suggests that I’m not practising what I preach and or lack ambition. However, the simple truth is that I’m not planning to go anywhere. That’s because Norton Rose Fulbright keeps me busy, stimulated and engaged. The work is varied, exciting and challenging. Whenever I get to a point where I think we’ve pretty much done everything, something interesting happens in the organisation, which means that there’s more to do in the L&D space.

Rules to live by

“Our L&D department is our workshop. Don’t ask people to do what you don’t do yourself.” The genesis of this is my belief that training people is a privilege – we owe it to them to do a great job while they are with us and to provide them with skills they can use when they get back to their desks. I believe that we can best do this when we’ve turned theory into practice by practising the tools and techniques ourselves, so that when we suggest, for example, the use of a particular feedback model, we do so on the basis of having tried it with our colleagues and those we manage. Such an approach also provides the war stories which really bring training alive.

“Control for excellence.” For me, robust planning, organising and control are key to delivering quality services. I prefer to spend time on these aspects at the start of a project to avoid errors and complaints.

“How can we do it better next time?” The provision of quality services doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan for it, deliver it and then review it – establish what went well, what went wrong and what needs to be done differently next time. 

“Give yourself a fighting chance of success by surrounding yourself with people who have the right attitude. Together you’ll do great work and have fun doing so.” My colleague Simon switched me onto looking for attitude when interviewing. As a manager, it’s my job to get things done through people. Relationships are key. However, it’s difficult to maintain harmonious relationships with people who are difficult to manage. As a result, I prefer to surround myself with people whose mindset is ‘we’re here to do a great job by helping people learn; work harmoniously with colleagues; live by our department’s values and organisation’s business principles’. That way there is minimal need to give feedback that consists of criticism and I’m able to concentrate on providing feedback in the form of praise.

“It’s good for your development.” I get teased mercilessly by the team (because they perceive this to be a touch self-serving and they are probably right) for saying this as I often do when I’m delegating something which the recipient is a little reluctant to take on. I say it as a form of encouragement in the knowledge that some of the greatest learning I’ve had has been from those tasks that I’ve been a bit afraid of but have taken on and successfully delivered. The same goes for many members of the team.

“Run you own race” (borrowed from my colleague Natasha). Comparing oneself to others is a very human thing to do. It can be motivational in that it spurs you on to perform better but it can have the opposite effect, leading to under performance or even failure as the negative emotions you feel from looking at what someone else is doing holds you back. For those who are prone to the latter, the antidote to that is to focus on competing with yourself with the aim of become better.

“Get the right PA.” It would be impossible for me to do this job without the right anchor as someone needs to be doing all of the organising while I’m in meetings and working on projects. Over the last six years I’ve had two bright, hardworking and high achieving PAs; first Christel and now Chloe. It’s Chloe’s job to get me in the right room, with the right papers at the right time irrespective of geographical location and time zone. She controls my diary. I don’t touch it. It’s a huge and complicated job but it works because in this domain she’s the boss and I do as I’m told!

Finally, “every manager needs a bit of luck”. Mine has come in the form of my husband John, a real star. He’s always there for me and has supported me throughout my career. He tolerates with good humour my working away from home and taking and making calls at odd times of the day and night. He’s very quick-witted and makes light of my many idiosyncrasies. John helps ensure that even in cases where the spotlight is on me, I don’t take myself too seriously. 


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