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Taking the road less travelled
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Taking the road less travelled

As a lawyer, strategy consultant and now managing partner of Baker & McKenzie, Chris Freeland attributes his success to his overseas adventures and taking the harder path. He speaks to…

As a lawyer, strategy consultant and now managing partner of Baker & McKenzie, Chris Freeland attributes his success to his overseas adventures and taking the harder path. He speaks to Briana Everett.

Always passionate about advocating his view, Chris Freeland has come a long way since his days representing the University of Melbourne in the world debating championships.

From Melbourne to New York City to Beijing and Sydney, the father of two has dipped his toes into a number of different roles, including corporate lawyer, strategy consultant and general manager for Boston Consulting Group, as well as his most recent stint as a partner and chief operating officer at Gilbert + Tobin.

Launching his legal career as a corporate lawyer at Freehills in Melbourne, it wasn't long before Freeland sought to differentiate himself from the pack, enrolling himself in a Master of Business Administration (MBA) - a decision that would eventually take him to the upper east side of Manhattan.

Initially, his decision to get an MBA was made with the aim of simply improving his skills as a lawyer. However, through his Rupert Murdoch Fellowship at the University of Melbourne, Freeland was granted the rare opportunity to complete his MBA at the prestigious Columbia University in New York City, which steered his career in a slightly different direction.

"New York was fantastic! I love New York [and] I was fortunate to have a year there ... It was great fun," Freeland says, fondly recounting his days living by the Guggenheim Museum with his wife.

"I did an MBA with the view [that] I would perhaps go back to be a better corporate lawyer, [but] I was enticed by a couple of consulting firms."

Lured by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) into what "seemed like an interesting thing to do", Freeland extended his stay in New York and launched his career as a strategy consultant with BCG. Gradually building his expertise, Freeland worked on projects in New York and Boston across a range of industries and later continued his work back in Melbourne and Sydney.

Following a number of years as a strategy consultant and reaching the level of general manager of BCG Australia/New Zealand, Freeland was headhunted to Gilbert + Tobin - a move which once again saw him living the life of an expatriate.

This time it was Beijing, where he moved with his family, to spend a year advising Chinese firm King & Wood, with which Gilbert + Tobin has a strategic alliance.

Cut to August 2010 and Freeland had made his final landing at Baker & McKenzie's Sydney office as the firm's new managing partner, taking the reins from Mark Chapple who held the position since 2005.

And while it is still early days, Freeland will reach his 100th day as Baker's managing partner this month, already laying the foundations for his future plans.

"In terms of my first 100 days it's really about listening to the people here," he says, listing his goals as the firm's new leader.

"I've come as an outsider so [I want to hear] what people think and [take] the opportunity to engage with them, to understand what the issues are, and develop my own views on some of the challenges and opportunities that the firm faces."

Grasping those challenges and opportunities within an organisation is what Freeland knows best, with his years as a strategy consultant preparing him well for life in professional services management.

"[An MBA] is one of those degrees [where] you get a taste of a whole lot of different things ... I did this great subject ... where I learnt how to influence people ... and about stakeholder management and how you achieve change in a legal environment. You need to influence people, as opposed to direct them," he says.

Tackling change

Throughout his career, implementing change has been Freeland's biggest challenge, but also his greatest joy.

"The biggest challenge is how to implement change," Freeland says, reflecting on his 10 years working in professional services leadership roles.

"In a professional services firm, it relies on your ability to bring people with you and [to] lay out a pathway which is attractive for people to join ... it's a journey," he explains.

"So the biggest challenge I've found in the last 10 years is how to bring about change [and] how to influence people."

Although implementing change and influencing people in the right direction has provided an ongoing challenge for Freeland, having the chance to make a change is also what he thrives on.

"In all of the roles that I have had, I've tried to make a difference and to use them as opportunities to make great organisations even better. Baker & McKenzie is a terrific and successful firm [but] I'd like to think there are some things that I can do which make it even better within the Australian market ... it's a steep learning curve.

"But it's early days yet. I'm not an expert!"

Clearly, Freeland is not afraid to set himself a challenge and he says if there's one thing that has helped him get where he is today, it's choosing the more difficult path.

"If I think about the things that have developed me most in my career it's where I've chosen the harder path ... like moving my family to Beijing for a year. It was difficult juggling those things ... [but] having worked overseas has been a real highlight for me," he says, contemplating the advice he would give younger lawyers coming up through the ranks.

"Follow what you're passionate about. Develop an interest in things you like doing [so] you can stand out from the crowd. And sometimes, take the more difficult path."

Refreshingly, Freeland practices what he preaches, having been involved in a number of other interests, including community organisations such as Victoria's Berry Street - the largest independent children's welfare organisation - and being a board member of a national theatre company.

"Having interests outside work [is] something I've tried to do throughout my career ... getting involved in other activities and community activities," he says.

"I've been involved in a bunch of really great community organisations ... I'm not sure that I contributed much as a [board] director but what I did was fantastic for me."

More recently, Freeland joined the board of the Sydney Film Festival as chairman - a role which allows him to escape the legal world in favour of the film industry, mixing with Australian and international actors and directors.

"I don't have a background in the film industry, [but] I love films. It's something that I love spending my time doing," he says.

"[The organisation] was looking for someone who brought a set of skills and business experiences, change experience, but [who] also had an interest and involvement in the arts, as I have."

It's when discussing his role as chairman that Freeland's face really lights up. Getting the chance to walk the red carpet with the likes of Ewan McGregor, he says, provides some light relief from a demanding day job.

"It has been a great role. It was tough at first because I had to help the organisation through a bunch of changes, but when you get to go to some of the great films and go on the red carpet ... it's good fun" he says, joking that the photographers must be wondering, 'Who is that guy standing next to Ewan McGregor?'

"I'm sure all the cameramen are thinking, 'Get him out of the way!'"

The best part about his involvement in the Film Festival, says Freeland, is the chance to mix with different-minded people.

"One of the things I love about it is [that] I have the chance, both in the festival and at other times, to mix with directors and actors. They think differently to lawyers [which] is fantastic. I'll come out of having had a busy day at work or particular issues and can [then] talk about the latest film they're making and the challenges that they've got.

"It's kind of cool."

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