Timing is key: Selina Sagayam

Leading legal mind and Brummell Inspirational Woman on the power of patience, people and giving back

People 13 Feb 2019

Selina Sagayam

Selina Sagayam

As the daughter of a diplomat I have an international background, and it offered me a real appreciation of different cultures and an interest in people that has been invaluable throughout my career.

Although as a young girl I harboured the ambition to be on stage as an actress and singer, I pursued law, and was particularly drawn to corporate law for the intellectual challenge and the commercial and business underpinnings of the practice. The barristers’ chambers I got a tenancy offer from following my legal training specialised in a broad mix of commercial and chancery work, which drove me to develop my career as a City corporate solicitor, where I stayed for over 25 years, and it ended up being incredibly fulfilling and diverse.

When I started off in my first law firm, I wanted to be a partner by the time I was 30, but I ended up being made a partner when I was 31. I was still one of the youngest partners in my cohort, but I was disappointed in having missed my ‘target’. What I learned from the experience was that I was a bit too naive and ambitious, and I perhaps voiced my ambition and my drive too much, when it should have been more tempered. It taught me to be patient, and that timing is absolutely key.

For a number of years I was the only woman in my practice group team, and when I left that firm I was the only female corporate partner in London, but I wasn’t particularly conscious of it. If I came across somebody who made a sexist comment, I just stuck to my mission of being the best I could be – the best adviser, the best team leader, and the best colleague. I tried to be better than everybody else and got on with it with substance, showing I could deliver and that I was committed to the firm, my team and my clients.

For me, diversity and inclusion truly is about nurturing talent and respecting people – gender is one element, but there are so many other angles and it is essential to be cognisant and respectful of the intersectionality of diverse traits. When I started off at the commercial/corporate bar, I was told by one of my professors, ‘You could have a first degree from Oxford or Cambridge, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up in one of these sectors… What you need in addition to that is the following three things: a love of wine, a love of opera and a house in Tuscany’. How lacking in diversity!

This made me even more determined to pursue a career there, but I realised it’s critical that these barriers aren’t there and that we should have a much more open profession. Particularly in the area I’m in and the matters that I am called to advise upon, I’m required to think laterally and innovatively, and you’re in the best place to do that when you have been exposed to a broad and diverse mix of experiences, people, interests and cultures.

I actually created my current position as head of UK transactional practice development within Gibson Dunn by putting my head together with my managing partner. It’s a very broad role, but something which was needed from a business angle for our practice, and expertise I knew I’d be able to bring in terms of my skills and business development acumen.

I think to be an effective leader you have to be true to yourself, and I’ve accepted that, while you can’t be liked and loved by all, you should aim to be respected. There has to be a balance though, as leaders who are too remote from their teams or who seem intimidating may not be the most successful, because it’s also important to demonstrate that there’s a human side to you too. It’s crucial to recognise there are different drivers that will bring different people to the table, and you may need to tailor your approach to incentivise and motivate people.

Speaking more generally on progression and career paths, using your networks and getting thoughts and ideas from different people is invaluable. I think I’m able to bring so much more to my advisory role because of what I’m doing on my committees, advisory, board and leadership roles, and because I’ve been open to what other business leaders and thought leaders are doing.

One key piece of advice I was given when I was considering which way to go in terms of career, is to establish your three guiding principles or pillars. Then, when times get difficult or you are facing a critical career or business decision, go back to your pillars, and see whether you’re being true to them or compromising them.

I’m a true believer of giving back, and since being included in Brummell‘s Inspirational Women listing in 2018, I’ve recently been appointed as a trustee on the board of Refuge, an outstanding charity, which helps women, children and men who are the victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. I’d been saving some ‘spare capacity’ for a charity that really meant something to me, and the work Refuge do is phenomenal. I feel so fortunate about where I am today, and not only is it rewarding to give back, but the world is a small place, and the more you give, the more you receive in so many ways.