In the Spotlight: Melissa Soh-Newstead, Silver Fern Farms

In the Spotlight: Melissa Soh-Newstead, Silver Fern Farms

We talk with Melissa-Soh Newstead, General Counsel and Company Secretary at Silver Fern Farms about how she puts her personal motto into practice.

Can you tell us about your role, what you love about it and what it is teaching you about yourself?

As the General Counsel and Company Secretary, I oversee, and am responsible for all legal, corporate, commercial contracts, compliance, governance and board secretariat matters for the Silver Fern Farms group entities. I love being part of the Silver Fern Farms family (I’m a foodie!). For me, it is so satisfying and motivating to be working in such a challenging and dynamic yet thriving environment where no two days are the same.  I have always taken pride in being a strong person and thought any sign of weakness could put you on the back foot. This role has taught me to be brave and bold, to accept weaknesses as opportunities not threats, to be unafraid of trying something new or challenging the status quo if you see there is a better option. One should not be afraid of failure; it’s just part of a learning journey for all of us. Fail but fail fast and you will come out stronger and become more resilient.

What is the biggest challenge in your role and how are you tackling it?

My biggest personal challenge is providing legal support and advice on unprecedented issues in the current COVID environment and ensuring crises and risks are properly addressed and mitigated in a timely manner before more shit hits the fan. You go to work thinking you have your day planned out but often you are deployed to deal with important or unprecedented issues that usually require fast thinking and fast solution. It can be challenging and scary at times to make bold decisions at the drop of a hat, particularly when input from, and collaboration with, other stakeholders with different interests are required.  Adding to that challenge is working remotely. These challenges are not insurmountable though; you quickly learn to use your skills and judgement to influence stakeholders and ultimate decision makers, and work with them in a productive and collaborative way. Regular updates and virtual meetings have kept my colleagues and I connected.

How do you put your personal motto into practice – “work smarter, be courageous, be resilient, embrace innovation and dare to be different.”

Work smarter and not harder! I am always sceptical when an employer or a recruiter looks for someone who is willing to work hard and put in long hours. This may be controversial to some of you, but why put in long hours unnecessarily when you can work smarter? Why not use available technology or take short cuts if they are more time efficient? My view is that the key to productivity and creativity is working smarter, not harder. Lawyers who constantly work long hours will eventually burn out. Hard work can drain your energy and eventually your self-motivation. Ever heard of the law of diminishing returns? It is an old cliché, but I work to live and not live to work.

Most businesses see Legal function as a cost centre. Try to change your colleagues’ mindset that you are not just another cost centre by showing what you do adds value to the wider business, and you do this by being a strategic thinker and not just a problem solver. As in-house lawyers, we should not only look at ways to run the Legal function in a cost efficient and effective manner, but we should put our hand up to make more of a “profit-centre-type” contribution to the business. This means working smarter, have courage, be resilient, embrace innovation and dare to be different. To add value and make more of a “profit-centre-type” contribution to the business, be proactive and not reactive. I would always challenge myself to be creative and look for ways to do things differently if it is a better option than the status quo. I would find ways to make continuous improvement to in-house services such as establishing or enhancing internal processes and procedures to create agility and sustainability, playing a proactive role in supporting the company’s strategy, and  making valuable and relevant contributions to the Senior Leadership team  (of which I am part). Work smarter to increase impact of your work.  Be sure to immerse yourself in “profit making” functions such as sales, marketing, supply chain and operations and contribute to the success of these activities. It is only when you add value and make discernible significant impact to the wider business that others in the organisation may stop viewing you as a cost centre and you will gain recognition and be rewarded with funding and support that you need.

You spent nearly seven years working as an in-house counsel in Qatar. What differences between the in-house legal professions in the Middle East and NZ have you noted?

I worked for a quango funded by the Emir (King), so our legal team had the luxury of a relatively big budget and we were not treated as “a cost centre”. A high performing in-house legal team in Qatar can wield significant influence in shaping, driving and implementing corporate strategy. Most business units would typically defer to Legal for even non-legal related matters. It is not uncommon to see a Chief Legal Officer/General Counsel reporting to the CEO and assuming an EXCO role on the same hierarchical level as the CFO, COO, CTO, etc in the organisation.  Another key difference is that many in-house teams in the Middle East comprise lawyers from civil and common law jurisdictions with diverse backgrounds. My previous Legal team had lawyers from 8 different countries and almost all of them were multi-lingual! You learn a great deal from each other on how to handle issues/conflicts and negotiation with lawyers who have a totally different background to yours. Having expertise in common law and civil code in-house reduce the legal spend on outsourcing.

What was your highlight over lockdown, and any low?

High: Working from home away from disruption and noise (we have an open plan office) had made it easier for me to complete tasks that require a great deal of attention a lot quicker than before (for example preparing board papers and minutes). The experience of working remotely has been positive for our organisation; our first ever virtual AGM was a great success. A virtual AGM or hybrid virtual-physical AGM is likely to be the new norm for corporates going forward.  Another highlight was that most of my colleagues have learned to work productively without the majority of us being anchored to a central office environment. Working remotely has given us the opportunity to re-think and transform the way our team works and to organise our workforce to create an agile yet productive team. The use of co-location (home, mobile, hub offices) as the new “norm” can become an efficient, collaborated and integrated way of working.  It will a great and exciting move from environmental and sustainability perspectives; for e.g. the amount of travel is likely to be minimised. This will reduce our carbon footprint.

Low: Missing the camaraderie of my teammates. It was lonely sometimes. Working collaboratively and productively via zoom/Microsoft teams in big projects was challenging at times (especially in IT projects where user acceptance tests and training were required). From my perspective, being personally connected is generally better than virtually connected to forge and maintain relationships.