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| 24 minutes read

CMO Series EP90 - Christy Walsh of Drew Eckl & Farnham on the move from CMO to COO as a legal marketer

We've seen marketers in law firms get used to wearing a number of hats. One legal marketer who has come to wear a rather unique hat is Christy Walsh, Chief Operating Officer at Drew Eckl & Farnham.

Today, Ali Bone welcomes Christy to the CMO Series to discuss the move from CMO to COO as a legal marketer and the challenges and opportunities for professionals looking to take this path.

Ali and Christy explore:

  • How Christy came to her role as COO at Drew Eckl and Farnham
  • When and why an operations role became something Christy was looking for and how the new position came about
  • The skills crossover from marketing to operations
  • The challenges during that transition and areas that took some adjustment
  • The day-to-day of a COO and how that differs from marketing
  • The secret to wearing many hats and managing a heavy workload
  • The potential evolution of the role of the legal CMO to COO
  • Advice to others looking to make this transition


Ali: Welcome to the CMO series where we discuss all things business development and marketing in the world of professional services. Today's topic is a little different in regard to a career trajectory. We've seen marketers in law firms get used to wearing a number of hats and one legal marketer who has come to wear a rather unique hat is Christy Walsh who is Chief Operating Officer at Drew Eckl & Farnham. 

It's our pleasure today to welcome Christy to the CMO Series to discuss the move from CMO to COO as a legal market and the unique insights and learning this has given her. Welcome, Christy!

Christy: Thank you. Great to be here.

Ali: Yeah, we're absolutely thrilled and I understand from talking beforehand, you've had a very, very busy start to the year. And to top off the amount of hats you already wear, you've had a few extra that you've been delving into from the sounds of it.

Christy: Yeah, absolutely. But it's quieting down a little bit. So I'm very excited to get into our strategy for the year.

Ali: Yeah, I can imagine, I can imagine. Well, very excited to get into this. And without further ado gonna launch off with the first question. So how did you actually come to be in your role as the COO at Drew Eckl & Farnham? And with that, when did the role of being the Chief Operating Officer first come as something that you were really aware of?

Christy: Yeah. So kind of my path to COO is, is long and windy because it didn't just start when I was here at Drew Eckl & Farnham, it starts kind of from the very beginning. All the roles I've had in my professional career have always kind of been maybe a jack-of-all-trades type thing. I don't just stay in one department. I'm not super focused in one area. I've always kind of had my hands in a lot of different areas of business. And so I won't go into all the particulars of where I've come from and how I've gotten there. But you know, once I started at Drew Eckl & Farnham, I came in as the Director of Marketing, which for them later became the CMO. At the time, Director of Marketing was the top role in their marketing department. Honestly, it came from not really staying in my lane. I came in, I was one of, I think I was their second Director of Marketing and there was quite a bit of work to get everything in order. I had my hands full for many, many years. But just because of my personality and the way I like kind of to create processes and procedures. 

Once I got everything running smoothly, the ship was kind of running itself and not to say there weren't strategies and plenty of things to go around. But I had good team members and I was able to start turning my attention to other things that were important to our clients. Inclusion, recruitment, retention, things that weren't directly related to marketing and business development. But honestly had an impact in the way I filled out, you know, RFPs and had conversations with our clients. And so I just started kind of getting involved in these other areas, identifying areas where we could make improvement and running through those until it just became the uh a situation where I was more than just the CMO even though that was my official title. I mean, at the time, wasn't to become COO I didn't even really understand what a COO was until I started listening to a podcast called Second in Command. And it's where, I cannot remember who puts this one on, but they interview COOs at companies across the United States. I even think internationally at this point now and everything from like startups and the COOs who wear multiple hats to people like, I mean, just giant companies and would interview and it became interesting to me that number one in the COO world - it's unique to what everybody needs. But the skill set very much felt like my skill set - identifying a problem, creating a process and solution, you know, having a strategy around what you do. There's just a lot of things that COOs have in common in how we approach problems. And I was like, “man, I could do that, I could totally do that.” And so it was just something that the podcast was really interesting the people they interviewed and, and I started reading more about what a COO does.

And so that's kind of how I learned about the COO and how I realised everything that I had done in my path at Drew Eckl & Farnham and previously had kind of set me up for success and to identify that role. And so one thing that is really good about is kind of recognising talent and helping us grow into the position that we need. So I went to my managing partner, I mentioned that this was something that I might be interested in growing into. What does that path look like? How do I make that happen? And he had to do some research as well. He's like, “I honestly don't know what a COO does. Like, I know the title” he was like, “but what would you do?” And so he and I sat down and said, ”OK, here's the things that a COO does and here's what we would need to do here” and we basically sat down and created the position and identified skill sets that I needed to work on then we went to the board with it and talked to them about like, “here's what I'm doing, I'm already kind of doing more than I was already doing.” And “what does this look like?” And the partnership and our board agreed and then I became COO. So it's definitely something that I'm not sure would have happened if I didn't use my voice. But also if I didn't have such a great leadership team and a great managing partner to help me get there.

Ali: Yeah, of course, it's a fascinating story to hear that. And I was, I was actually gonna ask sort of whether, you know when that sort of operations role was something you might have kind of considered and what you're like, really whether it was something you were even looking for. But it sounds like what happened was it just that realisation of the characteristics of yourself and what you were kind of enjoying doing from a work perspective and turning your hand to just naturally led to it being the perfect role. And as you shared there at the end, you essentially created it yourself within the firm, which is, you know, unique in itself, being able to do that, but just shows how, you know, you can take those opportunities that you have and align your skills in other ways to you know, ultimately achieve what you want to do. 

Christy:  Yeah, absolutely. We had an Executive Director previously, we didn't currently have anybody in that role and so we had an Executive Director, she actually recognised some of those traits in me early on. She had mentioned to me that she could see me being a successor for her and included me again, if it wasn't for her, I may not have been included in some of the things where I could help solve some problems because she did recognise that I could be valuable in that way and included me in things and really kind of mentored me before she left. And so, again, it was, there's just so much that kind of goes into where I am today and my mentors and my leadership here. And honestly, you know, it was COVID that kind of pushed us over the edge because when, when COVID happened and our firm came together and I think we responded very well. You know, when we shut down in March of 2020 we were ready to go, we knew it was happening. Our IT team was ready to go, but what we recognised in our business continuity plan is that we kind of had a lack of senior leadership in that operations role. We had people in HR and in facilities, but we didn't have the leader to take over and, and recognise strategy and create procedures and all that kind of stuff. So COVID really helped us kind of see that was definitely needed here at the firm. And I, I was serving in that role before I officially became the COO and we, again, we sat down and created it based on what I was already currently doing. So the operations role was not something that was done here specifically. And kind of between COVID and then creating it ourselves, we made it what it is today.

Ali: It was amazing how kind of that opportunity to step into those shoes presented itself beforehand. And I think COVID has provided, you know, whilst it's been a very difficult time, so many people provide a lot of opportunity as well in various different guises. You mentioned their sort of your mentors, I mean, have you found, you know, the path that you've taken so far that whether there's actually been some, you know, major crossover in terms of the skills with marketing leading into operations? I mean, has there has there been some nice synergy from that perspective?

Christy: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I will tell you that my marketing and communications background comes into play every single day in the way that we communicate with our internal teams here, our staff members, our attorneys, the way that you communicate with your clients. I've just changed who my client is with the way I'm communicating with the way I'm trying to drive their behaviours. Right? That's the whole thing. And, and marketing and business development I'm trying to drive a behaviour for my client. Well, my clients just changed no longer an external facing client as much. It is kind of my internal facing clients. And so I use that same skill set, the same understanding of why people do things and driving behaviours in order to drive behaviours internally. And so I definitely think that that gives me um an advantage over a lot of my peers and COOs where many of them come from, kind of the CFO and some of them may be a CHRO or whatever. But I definitely feel like that has given me a leg up in the communication and change management aspect, which is such a huge part of, of the job. And honestly, like the leadership skills that you need to have as a CMO to lead a team, those are transferable skills, right? Leading your team, whether it's, you know, two or three people in marketing or multiple team members across multiple departments, it's the same skill set. So those have definitely transferred and were pretty seamless in that transfer.

Ali: Yeah, I can imagine. But what I think is really interesting there is as the CMO you have so much opportunity to be involved in the strategy and the way that the firm is driving forward and that's definitely a massive trend that, you know, we're seeing, I'm sure you're seeing across the legal market world and therefore that also gave you a massive leg up and you say comparatively to some of the other COOs and your peers, you know, it's something they may be slightly lagged behind on when you reflect on what you were doing in that change. Have you found that there are any areas that were challenging? Or you really had to find yourself adjusting to?

Christy: Yes, I mean, you pretty much have to learn how every nook and cranny of the business runs and I still feel like there's something new every day because I've only been in this position for two years.Where  I'll be like, “I'm sorry, somebody walk me through how this, what do you do? What steps do you take?” Because in order to kind of help our business run as smoothly as possible, that's not just the HR department that's not just facilities, like it's literally every single person in this firm and the way that they do their job impacts how successful we are as a business as a law firm. And so understanding whenever there's a problem, I have to kind of figure out what's going on because there are many things in the legal space that I don't know how to do. That's not something you learn as a CMO is how the legal assistant files, you know, there are just so many different things that you never really touch until there's a problem and you realise it needs to be fixed, you have to go like learn how we're doing it and then figure out how to do it better. So that was definitely, I mean, there was a huge learning curve in learning the different departments, I really didn't have a lot of interaction with before. And then I, you know, I think one of the from a kind of philosophical almost way to think about this is the biggest change for me is kind of taking my emotional brain and my business brain and learning when to use those two. And just kind of give you an example to expand on that. So it can kind of sound heartless if you're, if I'm just like, yeah, I couldn't be emotional. I just want to think about business, not necessarily. But you know, when you're the CMO like you're in charge of like that kingdom, right? The projects you put your heart and soul into and you kind of get that is the all-important thing or is the marketing and business development aspects and whatever strategies and projects you have. As the COO I can't love a project so much if it's not good for the whole, right? There may be some really good ideas coming out of each of my departments. But as a business and as the COO I have to kind of work with my other leadership teams and say which one is the most impactful for our firm right now and the strategies that we've outlined and then I have to be the bad guy and tell that person, “this is a really good idea, but we can't do that right now.” It's, you know, it's not always no, sometimes it is no. And you have to kind of detach yourself from getting really excited about these innovative things.

Historically, I would have loved in the marketing space to say “it doesn't fit with what we need right now” and pull yourself away from the really cool things. And so that's just kind of one of the biggest things that I've had to learn is how to kind of distance yourself so that you can look at the whole instead of really macro, really just drill into your section and it's not just for marketing, obviously, I use my marketing example because that's where I'm from, but I mean, it really is across the board I mean, the summer associate program. Everybody has somebody that they want to come into the summer associate program. I have to think about, did you follow the process? Do we already have people for our summer associate program? I can't let this person who it's very important to their future come in and kind of bypass people who went through, the process and got elected the right way. Right? And so it sometimes feels like “I hate to do this, but it just doesn't make sense for us as a business.” 

Ali: It's definitely one of the sort of, I guess the topics when we were, you know, building into this conversation we spoke about beforehand that I just found so interesting is that element of the different viewpoint you get when you're suddenly sitting, as you say the COO and you're looking at the business as a whole rather than your kingdom. And what really struck me are you saying, you know, obviously, you've got all these multiple different hats that you're wearing and you still have responsibility for marketing at the moment. And there's that emotional v business element and the difficulty of as you say, “oh, there's this amazing new, shiny, impactful, innovative piece of technology we would love to use for, you know, marketing principle actually, within the business as a whole, we've got other competing priorities and that's where we really need to focus. And I just thought that was like, such an interesting viewpoint that you brought up that, you know, so few people maybe consider and it's easy, you know, everybody gets wrapped up in their own world, don't they? And you kind of think about what's important to you rather than the whole. You know, now you've kind of got that viewpoint. I think it's yeah, obviously been a big learning curve for you, which is good and a nice challenge for sure.

Christy:  And that's a skill set that you just don't learn until you're in it, right? You just have to recognise sometimes when I'm serving, you know, we didn't have a marketing manager for a while. So I was serving as the lead in the marketing team also being COO and it was very hard for me to kind of transition between I'm overseeing, I'm being the lead of the marketing department right now. So I need to take my COO hat off and say “what works for the marketing department” and then come back as the COO and say, “OK, does that work for the whole?” And those things happen when you're in between people and you're overseeing a department, you have to kind of take lead on, you have to kind of have to say, “oh sorry, I had my COO hat on, not my Marketing Manager hat on. I'm gonna come back to this.” So it was definitely something that you just realise that you're doing and try to balance the two, recognising kind of where I've come from and what I see now how valuable things are.

Ali: And if we delve into that kind of flitting between the two, a little bit more on sort of more of a granular level, what does that day-to-day look like? And how is it differing from marketing to sort of, I guess a brief overview of that would be really interesting.

Christy: My day-to-day is not, you know, I think everybody in leadership probably says this, there's no like normal day-to-day. There's nothing that gets to repeat itself when you're overseeing so many departments. It is a constant like trying to balance the fires with the strategy, making sure that the strategy you've outlined at the beginning of the year continues to move forward despite the things that pop up in your day-to-day business for each of your departments, I will say that I try to make sure to check in with each of my department heads, if not every day, every other day. Because sometimes they're like, “oh, I didn't want to bother you, but I have this, you know, I try to make sure and just check in and say, “hey, how's everything going?” Any major issues we need to talk through and so they have the support that they need. Again, depending on who's on vacation and what's going on. I sometimes get in there and even, you know, I come back and as I mentioned before, I do the Marketing Manager role. So there were times when I kind of put my COO hat to the side for half a day and I would be working very hard on a marketing project that needed to continue to move forward. But then a large chunk of my time is spent with my Managing Partner and my CIO working through our projects and our strategies. A lot of what we're doing is so high level that the three of us kind of have to framework it, build it, test it, fix it and come back and do it all over again. And so, you know, we usually have two or three really big projects that we're working on for the year. And so we spend a lot of our time where whoever's kind of taking the lead will framework it. And then I have to give it to my CIO and he and his team will build something and then they'll give it back to, you know, so I spend a large amount of my time with the high-level strategy and project management of my projects of the projects for the departments. And then making sure that if there is an issue within the firm that we treat it in the appropriate kind of triage manner, as you had mentioned, kind of everybody's in their own space and everything is a big deal to that person. So somebody will come to you and it's a crisis and you have to fix this problem today and I'm like, “uh-huh” And so it's my job to filter those projects into quadrants, that kind of makes sense, right? This is a high priority and it's an easy fix. Let's get this knocked out, right? It'll make our people feel like we're responding to them. It's a fairly easy fix and it makes the business run smoother. This is a high priority, but it also takes a ton of effort. How are we going to solve this? Are we gonna outsource it? So it's my job to triage all of that and identify who the correct people are to solve those problems. And I will tell you that I do that every single day Every single day  somebody has a problem that I have to triage and figure out when and who and how we solve it.

Ali: Yeah. So with that, those competing priorities, the different fires that you're managing, tell me what is the secret to managing it from your workload perspective because it's almost like you're pulled in every which direction.

Christy: Having a really good team. And I know sometimes we, we lose some of our good team members and kind of puts us off our game, but I could not do this without having good department heads whom I feel comfortable delegating these tasks to, knowing that they'll take care of them and that, that they'll come to me when it needs to be escalated. I honestly couldn't do this without my Managing Partner, my CIO and then again, my Manager is underneath. I couldn't, you just couldn't manage it. So I will tell you that that is the secret. Find good people, spend the time to train them, spend the time to build that trust and then do what you got to do to hang on to them if possible. I mean, sometimes you lose them but your people and the people that support you are the success or failure of what I do and what other COOs do.

Ali: Yeah, some wise words, I suppose just surround yourself with, you know, great people and it helps to leverage fantastic work you're doing. And that's it. That's really, really interesting to hear. And it's great that it seems it's a very cohesive team across the board. You mentioned that your CIO the Managing Partner, everybody is clearly pulling in the right direction to make sure that the firm's firing and all cylinders there.

Christy: Yeah, we also, kind of an extension of surrounding yourself with a great team, is it's not just my internal team.  I build really strong relationships with our partnerships and I almost hate to call them vendors because I don't see them that way. They are my partners. They provide services to me and I create really strong relationships with them. So that, I mean, I have vendors of mine that I've worked with long enough and I've created such a good relationship with that. A lot of times they'll be like, “hey, don't forget to do this thing” or “hey, can I help you with this here?” And they really do kind of keep me moving almost like they're an extension of my internal team. So I never underestimate the power of internal and external partnerships.

Ali: Yeah, it's interesting. It's people being that trusted advisor for you. It's interesting you say that as well. I don't know whether you are familiar with her, but Karen Wilcox, who's the Head of Marketing at Taylor English also based in Atlanta, she says something similar, but when we've had a few conversations with her, so we're fortunate enough that they're a client, she sees our team as you know, an extension of her team and how she's able to rely on them exactly what you're saying there. And I think it's so important that you have that both internal and outside council of people who can really help you. And that's what, you know, ultimately ensures that the job gets done in the best way possible. So, yeah, I can understand why you have such a benefit from that, you know, ultimately a lot of respect for the people around you. Christy, if we kind of zoom out a little bit, what I would be interested to understand is, you know, obviously your position is quite unique and you've shared a little bit of a story of how you got there and ultimately, a lot of it aligned to, I suppose, both opportunity but also your personality characteristics, what you enjoyed within the role. Do you think there's the possibility that there's going to be an evolution of seeing more CMOs, you know, going into that sort of COO role?

Christy: You know, I think that there are, as I had mentioned before, I certainly think that many of the skill set that I brought from my, my time as CMO has given me an advantage in some areas. Most CMOs are probably more than qualified to lead this to be a COO. I always kind of say like the ability to be a COO and the desire or the want to be a COO, many CMOs have a very like similar skill set and the, the things that they enjoy, that's why they are CMOs they enjoy the creative aspect of it. They enjoy like working with people and understanding them. And while that is a part of my job, it's certainly a much smaller part of my job than it used to be when I was CMO and I could be really in the innovation and the strategy as it relates to what we're selling to our clients and things like that. So, I certainly think that, as I mentioned before, leadership skills transfer and are a big part of my job as just being a leader and driving strategy forward, I don't have to be an expert at everything and so CMOs can do it. I always wonder though, is just CMOs want to do it. They probably have more fun in their CMO role. As long as they still get to do some of the creative stuff, it's a skill. I mean, it's yeah, I mean, it's a skill set, right?

I would say CMO if you love solving problems, if you like looking at whatever issue is going on and creating a process and procedure for those things, COO may be a perfect role for you. If that is part of your job that you dislike a lot, perhaps, maybe don't go into coo roles because that's what, that's what the majority of my day is, right? What are we doing now? How can we make it better? This is the new process and procedure. So I do think that it is something that could be very beneficial for law firms to have the CMOs transition. But I think the CMO, it's just individual, right? 

Ali: It sounds like there's not necessarily going to be a sudden trend of people moving into it. However, as you say, there's a huge amount of transferable skills that you can take to actually, you know, as we spoke about earlier, that element of driving the strategy of the firm forward, you know, you're naturally aligning yourself to actually if you wanted to sort of fulfilling that role in a different way, which is pretty cool. So to finish things off, Christy, I'd absolutely love to understand what your one piece of advice would be for anybody maybe considering going down this route, please?

Christy: Don't stay in your lane. That's the, you know, it's the one thing. Go ahead and explore other departments, identify, you know, offer to help, right? Write some communications for other teams and start using that skill set for things other than in the marketing department. Offer to sit on some committees that might not particularly feel like it translates to marketing, but you could provide some value, seeing how the business runs outside of just the marketing and business development stuff is really helpful in seeing if this is something that you want or have the skill set for. So step outside of your lane and, and just explore, you never know when you'll find something that you actually love.

Ali: That's a fantastic piece of advice, you know, step outside your lane and you say yourself up in other areas. And I suppose the caveat of all of this is that it's not necessarily that you have to be the CMO already. It could be aspiring marketers who think actually I'd be interested in being in another division. So that's a really lovely piece of advice. So, thank you very much, Christy. This has been wonderful. Thank you. You've been fantastic. Thank you. It's definitely been fun here and I've enjoyed the conversation I really have done. So just to finish us off, I would like to just do what we call our little quickfire round. Chance to kind of like get under the hood of who is Christy Walsh. One of the questions I was excited to ask you, which is what we're opening up with. Based on my knowledge of the love of reading and the amount you read would be, what's your favourite business and nonbusiness book?

Christy: My favourite business book is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's a quick read. Everybody should read it and I think it's great. My nonbusiness book is the All Souls Trilogy. For those of you who watch TV, there's a series, it's called The Discovery Of Witches and it's based on those books. And so that's my favourite series.

Ali: Brilliant. Thank you. And for context for everybody. Last year in 2022 Christy read over 100 books. So she is a lady who is talking with some knowledge around what's worth reading. Second question would be, what was your first job?

Christy: My first real grown-up job was I was an office admin for an event planning company. So again, that was that Jack of all trades that answer phones and helped with, you know, computers and copying and all the fun stuff. So I got to see how businesses run pretty early.

Ali: Brilliant. What makes you happy at work solving a problem naturally. What are you listening to at the moment? Be it podcast, music, audio book? I just finished the personal librarian on audible and it is highly recommended. It was probably one of my best reads. I realise it's only February, but one of my best reads of the year. And then for music, I'm currently obsessed with Zach Bryan. It's a song called Something The Orange. And I could probably listen to it on repeat all day long. But those are my two. 

Ali: Always nice when you find a song like that  And then the final question is, where is your favourite place to visit and why?  

Christy: You know, anywhere warm with a beach. I just love warm weather. My current favourite place is Seaside, Florida. It's got beautiful beaches, great food, shopping. It's kind of a walking, biking place. So it's a great place for the family and it is only a four-hour drive. So it's great when I'm trying to travel with my three small children. It's a lot easier to get there than some of my other favourite places.

Ali: I can imagine that is dreamy. Thank you very much for sharing that and thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It's been a fascinating conversation and one that I've not had before and I can imagine it's gonna have a real impact for a lot of people listening in as well.

Christy: Great. Thank you so much.


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