Interviewed by Linda Zenagui
Meet our WTP6 Alumna Mechteld Flohil. In this interview, Mechteld shared her views on how best to improve female representation at senior levels, fostering creativity in the workplace and what she believes to be common skills and traits of successful leaders.
You were appointed Associate Director at Osborne Clarke in 2020. Not everyone has a clear picture of what the legal profession entails. Could you describe your role and your typical day at work?
I work as a Deputy civil law notary in the corporate (M&A) department of the law firm Osborne Clarke in Amsterdam. I provide legal advice, assist clients with implementing legal structures, merge companies or transfer shares and all the actions that require the involvement of a notary.
On a typical day, I spend a lot of time on the phone and in my mailbox, exchanging emails with colleagues and clients, tax advisors and accountants. I also write legal advice and guidance notes. The advice can take the form of a notarial deed, which is executed before the notary (either in person or on the basis of a written proxy). A day at work can be quite diverse and dynamic.
You were appointed to your new position at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you adjust to your new role in such turbulent times and what methods did you implement to create meaningful relationships with your new clients or colleagues?
I was lucky to start my new position three months before the Covid-19 pandemic started disrupting our lives. As part of the notarial team, I was still allowed to go to the office during the lockdown. I was working from home one-third of the time. Being in the office was helpful to get to know and cooperate with my new colleagues.
Before joining Osborne Clarke, I had been working for 13 years at another law firm. It was quite a change to adjust to a new firm and position, especially given the context of the pandemic.
I found it easier to connect with my colleagues through in-person meetings. When this option was not available, video meetings were the second-best option. I also enjoyed meeting new people during training sessions organised by our firm.
According to a UK Diversity Report published in 2015, women outnumber men as associates and in legal support, but only 20% go on to become partners. In 2019, Osborne Clarke decided to redress the balance by putting their female lawyers first on its website for International Women's Day. Has Osborne Clarke implemented any other actions to achieve greater gender balance at all levels? And as a leader, what actions would you put in place yourself to improve diversity?
I believe that on a local level at Osborne Clarke, we are doing quite well, with three female partners. In 2021, the Netherlands adopted a new legislation to improve gender diversity on corporate boards, meaning that one third of the board positions of listed and large companies must now be held by women effective per 1st January 2022.
Despite this progress, sometime ago, I was made aware that some women with whom I’m connected on LinkedIn had changed their LinkedIn username to ‘Peter’. There are in fact more CEOs named ‘Peter’, than there are women CEOs. The change of name was a way to raise awareness of this sad situation.
I believe that positive discrimination can be tricky: by forcing woman candidates, it may be suggested that it is not the best candidate who is being proposed, leading to a weak support base. Since I became a mum last year, I noticed even more how much of a challenge it can be, to be a woman in a leadership position, both at home and in the office.
In my view, people are less likely to facilitate certain conditions if they didn’t have these conditions themselves. When at my previous work, a male associate asked for time off for the birth of his child, the partners were not so generous in providing this and kept noticing that they had also not been able to take time off when they became fathers for the first time themselves. Leaders must have a clear vision of the current situation and be aware that times are changing. They must provide an environment suitable to the current times. This can help to retain talent.I don’t believe in a 50/50 situation where positions are by force equally shared by men and women, since skills and experience must remain the most important determinants to win and be hired in a position. However, people tend to hire people who look like them. Since men are taking up most of the leadership positions, they might be seduced by this bias and unconsciously prefer to hire another man. This is where positive discrimination can come in and be needed to help women to get a seat at the table.
Understanding and adapting to other people’s situation could lead to better work-life balance and would improve diversity at work. Parental duties can be shared by both parents and not always be picked up by the mother. This may be helpful in achieving greater diversity in top positions.
People are less likely to facilitate certain (flexible employment) conditions if they didn’t have these conditions themselves
How do you foster creativity in your role and organisation, particularly in such a competitive and regulated sector?
I use creativity in my job when it comes to problem-solving and see it as a way of presenting solutions. At Osborne Clarke, we also use playful ways of explaining solutions such as cartoons, designs or structured charts. We try to not just use words to make our ideas insightful and get a good understanding. We are always balancing the strict legal guidelines with the client’s desires, which are not always aligned. The client doesn’t always get their desired outcome. I try to be creative where possible, to suggest an alternative solution in order for the client to get the same result but within the framework of the law.
From all the mentors or leaders who you have met, what is the one behaviour, skill or trait that you have noticed to be the most common to make a great leader?
Great leaders can take in information in a very open way, being curious and interested. When they receive information, they do not put labels on the information but really listen to grasp and understand the underlining issues. A few weeks ago, there was a “Me Too” discussion in the Netherlands when allegations of sexual misconduct engulfed a popular Dutch TV talent show. It highlighted how a culture of permissiveness can allow issues to be ignored for years - even though the TV show management pretended to have put mitigation measures in place. Leaders must be able to listen and be aware of the culture of their organisation, since people might act differently in front of them. They need to be able to identify and treat the disease and not just the symptoms.
Leaders must be culturally aware and allow open communication. They must create a culture which is open to criticism and feedback. They must (endeavour to) be role models themselves.
Both male and female leaders are to be judged based on their merits, what they are providing to the company, bringing in more clients, giving the best legal advice, etc. Other key features are good communication skills and empathy.
Leaders must be aware of the culture of the organisation, be able to identify and treat any diseases and not just the symptoms
We would like to end the interview with a more light-hearted question. If you could pick a country where you could work several weeks a year besides your current location, which country would it be?
My partner is Greek and I would love to spend some time in Greece, although the language is very hard to learn. It is so different from Amsterdam which can be cold, grey, and not always sunny during the winter. The pandemic showed the possibilities to work in different locations. It may also offer a better work-life balance. For me, I would also have an extra push to learn Greek since my partner speaks the language to our baby and I do not want to be excluded from the conversation! (laughs)