Things could have turned out differently for Joan Mill, who recently joined CPA Global as executive vice president for EMEA sales. From the age of 11 she trained as an athlete, specialising in sprinting and the shot put, before giving it up to focus fully on her studies.
Today, she enjoys watching various sports including tennis and Formula 1, doing charity runs and is looking to take up a team sport. But the old competitive edge remains: “You don’t want to challenge me to a race – unless I’m in heels!”
In fact, she says the skills that helped her succeed in athletics – dedication, ambition, determination and discipline – are the same ones that have guided her career, which has spanned law, banking and business. And they come in part from her family, where she learned that “Being second is first loser”. “As a child, I was very studious to the point where my mother would have to force me to eat,” says Mill.
From law to sales
It wasn’t surprising therefore that she followed in her father’s footsteps by studying law. She then worked for law firms Skadden and SJ Berwin in London, before completing an MBA specialising in applied finance. This led to two years working in fixed-income derivatives at Lehman Bros, the investment bank that collapsed spectacularly in 2008.
“In life you don’t have mistakes, you have lessons. Smart people learn from those lessons and I hope we’ve learned lessons from Lehman Bros and Bear Stearns,” says Mill. For her pesonally, the collapse of Lehman led to a new opportunity as she was headhunted to join CPA Global in Jersey, tasked with looking at how the IP service provider could improve across its services.
This was followed by a move to Fusion Experience as director of global sales and marketing, before Mill developed and launched a new technology product for the IP market, NovumIP. Then, last month, she rejoined CPA Global to lead its 32-strong EMEA sales team. “My passion is marrying up IP with technology,” she says, adding that the company’s vision about improving efficiency, data insight and monetisation of IP portfolios perfectly fits with this: “We want to pass on the benefits of using technology to our clients.”
Technology and change management
“Technology is an enabler: it provides insights, efficiency and collaboration,” says Mill, but adds that it often provokes resistance. She cites the opposition faced by Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard, when she tried to diversify the company into the PC market. In IP, she explains where opposition to technology comes from: “In one word: paper. Lots of attorneys love it because it’s tangible, which is ironic in the world of intangibles. I think in this industry we are quite reticent to change.”
The key, she says, is that technology adoption must be accompanied by change management: “Once you have technology as an enabler, you have to have change management too to overcome any obstacles.” And she says that, while artificial intelligence will become more important, it’s not a threat to people’s jobs yet: “I don’t think AI can overtake the human interaction. In some instances you need the human touch and what we call the four-eyes check.”
Where she does see technology having an impact is improving efficiency: “We live in a just-in-time society – everyone expects and can get information and insights at the tip of their fingertips. In some industries clients expect that as well.” For example, that may mean using WhatsApp to communicate with clients – but that in turn means re-thinking how you communicate, how much formality is appropriate etc. At CPA Global, Mill says she is excited about the company’s new IP Platform product and how clients can use that as an enabler for their own services.
Empowered women empower women
Although she has worked in different areas – law, finance, technology development, sales, Mill says she’s always been “pleasantly encouraged” by their openness to women and “meritocracy”: appointments and promotions have been based on panel interviews and psychometric testing, rather than favouritism.
But she adds that there is more to be done, in particular to encourage gender equality. Her principle is “Empowered women empower women” and she says that now she’s in a senior role, “I think it’s my duty to do what I can to help other women.”
For example, she has a mentee at salesforce.com. “I encourage her to speak up when needed. But women also get a bad rep if they are feisty and there is a thin line there,” says Mill. She says that forming groups or networks can be helpful and mentions a group of Ferrari-owning businesswomen, who raise money to sponsor girls around the world to go to school.
Mill’s sense of competitiveness and ambition remains strong. “My biggest competitor is myself,” she says. Now though it is directed not at athletics but at IP and in particular marrying IP management and technology. “Digitisation, AI, just-in time – these are the things that will change the face of IP going forward,” she says, adding: “Corporates and law firms that are not already on the technology train will find themselves left behind.”