Georgina McManus: 'Part of my job is to liaise with creative people and help bring fantasy to reality'

Manolo Blahnik's CLO on the business of luxury, professional juggling, pinch-me moments, joining the C-suite, professional growth and the value of making mistakes

Georgina McManus is Manolo Blahnik's chief legal officer and has extensive transactional and operational experience. Singled out by the GC Powerlist as ‘a knock-it-out-of-the-park, excellent lawyer with a business brain’ and an ability to ‘help drive the business forward’, her team won the Luxury In-House Team of the Year in 2020. In addition to her responsibility for Manolo Blahnik’s legal division, she is co-founder of the educational initiative INLAW which aims to provide a pathway to law for students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Did you set out to be an in-house counsel at a luxury brand?

No, I didn’t actually – I started my career working in agribusiness. Luxury law can be very alluring and appears glamorous, but it is a business like any other and so you need strong legal skills to become the best advisor to the business. Whether you focus on commercial law, corporate law or something specialised like intellectual property, you need to develop robust skills to support a business and that needs to be the primary focus. It is important to enjoy the products and believe in the purpose of the business, but your interest needs to go beyond the external aspects of “luxury”. But of course, I love our beautiful products and have always been interested in the fashion sector.

You grew up in Australia. How did you find your way to the UK and into a luxury business?

I grew up in a small town in Western Queensland. Both my parents were lawyers and so I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. As the story goes, I ended up studying law and politics in Australia. After graduating, I worked in the Supreme Court in Queensland and then as a qualified solicitor practising in agribusiness before moving to corporate. Eventually I headed to London to join my friends on what I thought might be a working holiday for 18 months. That was 17 years ago.

Tell us about your career when you arrived in London?

I worked in corporate law and M&A in private practice in the City of London for about three years, but I always knew I was interested in being on the business side of the table. I moved in-house in 2009 where I worked for six years for real estate development firm Westfield Europe. Westfield owned and operated shopping malls around the world and was such an exciting first in-house role. I gained a great deal of experience with corporate and commercial work, real estate, marketing and events, litigation and all sorts of matters associated with our assets, including working with the Metropolitan Police and the London Olympic Games Organising Committee. While I was at Westfield, I had two of my three daughters. I was interested in taking the next step in responsibility and was keen to assume a GC role, so after the birth of my second daughter I was lucky enough to land my dream role as GC at Manolo Blahnik. I had to create the legal function as the first and sole lawyer, building the internal legal division alongside a scaling business.

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Working women have a great deal of additional pressures. Can you give some context on how you view this issue?

There are extraordinary demands on professional parents, not just women, especially when your children are young. Pre-pandemic, we were much more pressured to commit wholly and solely to one or the other. A decade ago, there was no real concept of flexible working in the law. If you wanted to drop your kids off at school, then there was often an assumption that you couldn’t possibly be a committed professional. I am glad to see this is changing; my family has been the beneficiary of less rigid thinking. There is still so much juggling. My husband and I work as a true team supported by incredible childcare providers, but it is a lot to manage both of us pursuing professional careers. I am a firm believer you can have it all, just not always all at once. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that working professionally and parenting both make me happy and so I will commit fully to both and juggle the priorities accordingly.

How did the Manolo Blahnik opportunity develop?

When offered the opportunity to interview at Manolo Blahnik, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t? I was interviewed by the CEO Kristina Blahnik, and felt we had an immediate connection. Kristina is an intellectual force and an astute leader with demonstrated success, all of which was really inspiring to me as a potential employee. Initially, the role was three days a week and that aligned with what I wanted personally. That did not last long though. The growth trajectory of the business and my own ambition were well-matched and the role soon became full-time. I report directly to Kristina, and the legal division headcount has grown to five since I joined in 2015. I was appointed as a member of the group’s C-suite in 2017 and participate in all aspects of strategic business planning and operational functions. A dream job if you love transactional work and want to better understand business management.

Manolo Blahnik is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. What’s it like to work in luxury and particularly at this company?

It’s amazing to work in the luxury sector and, even more so, with a family-owned, heritage brand like Manolo Blahnik. I am in awe that part of my job is to liaise with creative people and help bring fantasy to reality. I am not creative in the traditional sense, so there is nothing more inspiring than watching Mr. Blahnik sketch a new collection or seeing new season products in our showroom. These are still pinch-myself moments.  

I understand you recently completed a course of study at Harvard Advanced Management Programme. Can you tell us about that?

I did. What an incredible experience that was. The programme focuses on management at an advanced level and is an eight-week, highly-intensive course with a five-week residential component at the Harvard Business School in Boston. Our cohort, AMP203, brought 176 executives together from around the world to learn and challenge each other and ourselves. It was transformative; personally and professionally. We studied a wide range of subjects relevant to business leadership, including macroeconomics, financial accounting, DE&I and the environmental trajectory, leadership amidst challenge, advanced marketing and communication, corporate innovation and performance issues, corporate responsibility and ethical leadership, and so much more. The programme was case-study based with nearly 190 cases read in total, although there were negotiation challenges and project work in the mix as well. There was also a coaching element which really brought together the concepts of determining what kind of leader you are now and what you want to be for the future, some of that was peer-led and some by professional coaches. It’s an incredible program and I am extremely grateful to the business for supporting me to pursue it.  Hopefully the dividend is that I am better-placed for the opportunities and challenges that face modern business. It certainly satisfied my curiosity and passion for learning… for now!

You’ve had an interesting career. Can you think of any advice you were given along the way?

I have found it interesting, so thank you! Early in my career I worked for the Hon. Justice MP Moynihan, AO and I nervously confessed my first mistake to him. He had a reputation for being gruff at times, which I later learned hid his incredible passion and commitment for justice and equity. However, he smiled at me and said: “Right, don’t worry, once you realise you have made a mistake you are halfway to fixing it.” It’s such a valuable lesson. We learn through triumph, but more often from failure. Mistakes will always find you if you ignore them, so best to tackle them head on. My advice to those starting out, in addition to the above, is be kind and be yourself.  

McManus was a judge for the Women and Diversity in Law Awards, which took place in London on 21 March. Click here for coverage of the awards, which are hosted by the Global Legal Post. She is also a member of the Luxury Law Alliance advisory board.

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