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‘We need to be transparent with the people that we lead’

Being more open and transparent means better workplaces, stronger leaders and more well-rounded professionals, according to Philip Morris’ head of legal. 

user iconLauren Croft 07 June 2021 Big Law
 has over a decade of legal experience and has worked as a lawyer in both Australia and London. Currently, she’s the head of legal for Australia and the Pacific Islands at Philip
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Content warning: This episode contains content that may be disturbing or distressing to some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.

Niti Nadarajah has over a decade of legal experience and has worked as a lawyer in both Australia and London. Currently, she’s the head of legal for Australia and the Pacific Islands at Philip Morris International. 

Speaking on The Corporate Counsel Show about her personal journey, Ms Nadarajah discussed the importance of being transparent as a leader and open communication in the workplace – both issues that are very close to her heart.

 
 

From day one, lawyers aren’t encouraged to be vulnerable, something that Ms Nadarajah said can eventually be very damaging. 

“Through law school and private practice, you’re not really to be authentic or vulnerable. It’s very much who you need to present [yourself as] in your day job and to your clients,” she said. 

“I think we’re high achievers generally, so failure comes at a high price.

“[But] there is so much good to be had from talking about things and being open, honest, and transparent.”

It was especially important for Ms Nadarajah to be transparent once she reached a senior management position, especially at the height of COVID-19. 

“A lack of transparency was something I had experienced in the past, and so it was something that for me really was important for me to do the opposite of with my team,” she continued. 

“I think if there’s one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it’s that you need to be human and you need to share how you’re feeling and where you’re at with the people that you lead.”

Ms Nadarajah took the pandemic as an opportunity to be increasingly real and authentic with her team, even changing nappies occasionally on Zoom as well as being upfront with her own struggles rather than presenting a brave front, whether that was in the office or at home. 

“It really struck home to me that I just need to share how I’m feeling with people. And so I made a conscious effort that I would put my video on for all calls, regardless of what I was doing,” she said. 

Last year, Ms Nadarajah wrote an article titled “The mask I wore to work” about having two miscarriages and, after putting on a “mask” in the office for so long, emphasised the importance of being honest with those around you.

“If you had asked me if I was OK, the mask would have splintered.

“And yet I suffered in silence while grief and depression engulfed me. I operated largely on auto-pilot at work, often escaping into the bathroom to cry silent tears. And when I returned home, my pent-up emotions spilt out in an avalanche.

“When I first pressed post on that article, I was so nervous. I was incredibly nervous to put it out there and to talk about something so incredibly personal. I’m not that same person anymore,” Ms Nadarajah said of the article, first published on LinkedIn. 

“I think particularly the events of last year have shone a light for me on the fragility of life and the importance of really living it to its fullest.”

And more people related to the article than she thought – with certain aspects of her story acting as “light bulb” moments for those who were going through similar traumas. 

Ms Nadarajah has since become involved in many different initiatives at work relating to flexibility and mental health awareness, and added that communication and “talking about mental health issues is incredibly important.”

Communication is a particularly important skill to have within a hybrid working environment, Ms Nadarajah said, especially in a post-pandemic world. But she added that law firms and law schools aren’t investing enough time in developing soft skills like communication and emotional intelligence – both of which are of the utmost importance for a leader to have. 

“Emotional intelligence starts with listening to people,” she said.

“It really starts with stopping and just listening, and asking really how are you, where are you at today? How are you coping with what’s going on? And then going from there.

“I think we definitely should invest more in these at the junior levels where people are really starting to become the leaders they might be in years to come.”

She maintained that having these soft skills, and being more transparent with those around you, make you a better leader and a more well-rounded person. 

“If I’m not feeling 100 per cent, I can tell people I’m not feeling 100 per cent. If I’m struggling with a change in the workplace, for example, I can quite openly and honestly say that I’m struggling. And I think this is really important because we need to be transparent with the people that we lead,” Ms Nadarajah added. 

“I think we owe it to our team to step up and really take that responsibility for owning where we are ourselves.

“The more I speak about things openly and honestly, the less it feels like Im being brave doing it. I own that space. I own my narrative. And this is a narrative I believe is so incredibly important. Its something Im very passionate about and I dont feel uncomfortable talking about it anymore.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Niti Nadarajah, click below:

If you’re struggling in the workplace or otherwise, help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14. Each law society and bar association also has further contacts available on their respective websites.