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| 25 minutes read

CMO Series EP119 - Tom Helm of Smith Gambrell Russell on Leading with Intent: A CMO's Journey to Growth

In this episode of the CMO Series, we explore the critical juncture of transitioning into the role of a Chief Marketing Officer. It's a moment teeming with possibilities for driving growth, nurturing teams, and instigating change. The ascent to this position can also expose vulnerabilities, demanding a level of intentionality and mindfulness that is essential to effective leadership. 

Join Eugene McCormick as he chats with Tom Helm, Chief Marketing Officer at Smith Gambrell Russell, to delve into the lessons and strategies Tom has adopted in his recent CMO role, offering invaluable advice to those taking the next step up.

Tom and Eugene discuss:

  • Tom’s journey to his current role as CMO at Smith Gambrell Russell
  • The main priorities in the first 12 months in post, and how they were approached
  • The most challenging part of the journey so far
  • The changes and different approaches Tom has taken in his new role compared to previous roles
  • What success looks like and the next big change on the horizon
  • Advice for professionals taking the step up to CMO, and those looking to take a more intentional approach to leadership


Eugene: Hi folks and welcome to another edition of the Passle CMO Series podcast. Now, the transition to CMO is a pivotal moment and offers the opportunity to drive growth, develop teams and lead change. Now, on the flip side, taking that step can also uncover vulnerabilities and requires a level of awareness and intentionality that is central to successful leadership. Now, today, we're delighted to welcome Tom Helm, who is the Chief Marketing Officer at Smith Gambrell Russell. We're going to dive into the learning and transformative approaches Tom has taken over the last 18 months in the CMO role and indeed, his advice for others taking on that mantle of Chief Marketing Officer - Tom, thank you very much. Welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast.

Tom: Eugene, thanks for the intro, and good to reconnect with you. Glad to be here.

Eugene: A pleasure, Tom. We're going to jump straight in and I want to actually, you know, start where you are today. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to date and indeed your journey to become the Chief Marketing Officer at Smith Gambell Russell?

Tom: Sure. Yeah. So believe it or not, I worked in-house for law firms for nearly 22 years now, which is hard for me to believe. I started out. My first role was as a generalist with Rogers Towers, a law firm based in Jacksonville, Florida, where I worked for about 10 years. And it's funny, I knew nothing about legal marketing as I think a lot of us did not around that time when we first started out, at least. And at that firm, I earned my stripes by doing it all, which I think a lot of us, particularly those of us who started out as generalists did. And moved to Atlanta about 12 years ago to work with a litigation boutique for a couple of years before moving on to Bryan Cave, which, as many of you know, is now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and I worked there for about eight years, several of those years as Director of Business Development. And now I'm with Smith Gambrell, where I've been for about a year and a half as CMO.

Eugene: You've been a year and a half as CMO and when you and I spoke before, we spoke at length about, you know, how you hit the ground running. It's a step up, the change in role. You know, it's a very different proposition, a different position, a different job type. Can you tell us a bit about your main priorities in those first 12 months? And actually how you approach those?

Tom:  Yeah, that's it. I appreciate the question, Eugene. So the first 12 months were probably some of my most challenging in that, primarily because I was in recruiting mode and recruiting as many of us on this call have faced trying to build out a team, not only retention but recruiting, and that in the latter was the most challenging for me. It's been a hot job market. I'm based in Atlanta. However, we have marketing professionals and business development professionals in Chicago as well. And I'll talk a little bit more about our firm's merger with Freeborn and Peters in a little bit. But anyway, those are two competitive markets. We even looked in New York and that's probably the most competitive. And so, during my first 12 months, identifying people to serve in specific roles in the team was by far hands down the biggest challenge. And then the merger seven months into my time with Smith Gambrell, that created a whole new set of challenges yet opportunities at the same time.

Eugene: Yeah. When I spoke to you before, you talked about how you had to come in and build up the BD function. I think you said to me it was actually pretty challenging, not just to find the right people but to convince them that yours was the place to come and work. And it was a job market like you had an experience was that the hardest or most challenging part of your journey so far in the CMO role, or was there something different?

Tom: Yeah, I think it's finding it… Yeah, you raise a good point. The business development team as we had talked about before was tough because that's outside of our profession, that and marketing technology specialist roles. I believe from what I understand from recruiter contacts of mine are some of the hardest to recruit for and business development in particular. It depends on what we're looking for for me. I had to look at people who maybe we are at the more junior end of management in order to, because things were so competitive, not just from a salary standpoint, but in terms of flexibility of remote work and that sort of thing, we have a hybrid work environment where people can work from home for a couple of days, but some firms were offering as uh you know, fully remote work and we just couldn't compete with that. We want some people in the office and I think for business development roles, that's important. It's not the only thing that's one of the factors we were looking for. So, between competing on salary with some global firms and competing with remote work, that added a whole new layer to the competitive nature of recruiting for these roles. So the beauty is, with the help of outside recruiting contacts, we were able to find some fantastic candidates and we've since filled not only two business development manager roles, but two business development coordinator roles. Two out of those four roles came from legal, whereas the other two came from finance and health care. So the point there is we have to shift our thinking when recruiting in terms of finding talent in places that may not be so obvious and roles that may not be so obvious that translate well into in-house legal marketing or business development professionals or roles.

Eugene: And also change your idea of what a good BD team looks like, which I imagine everyone in the industry has been doing for a while.

Tom: That's right. Yeah, Smith Gambrell, my predecessor, and the team, have had a couple of business development coordinators over the years. But to your point, fully functional is absolutely what I was trying to accomplish and create. And we've done that - knock wood - as of today, we have a fully staffed marketing communications and business development team. And you can't see me now, but I'm doing fist pumps nonstop every day because we finally have a team. And so it's not just filling the roles, it's making sure you have the right people and that they take on responsibilities that they want and that I have sold them on taking when interviewing for the roles and working together where, you know, frankly, they're making an impact or we're all making an impact where our internal stakeholders see a noticeable difference and they see the value add because it's not lost on me; when you add headcount, you need to prove your worth. And so regardless of one's team size, and we have four business development professionals, we want to prove value every day. And we're always talking about ways to get on the front foot in order to do that. It could be as easy as picking up the phone and having a conversation or going to visit them instead of sending an email or it could be providing things that they weren't even looking for or asking for. And so we're always looking for ways to do that, not just to prove everyone's worth. It's more than that, it's really helping move the needle, particularly on the revenue generation and business expansion front. So we're dialed into that now that we have the right people touching the right projects.

Eugene: You mentioned something earlier, which I thought was interesting. You talked about the role for which they're hired and I actually wanted to loop back to sort of that first question. You were your expertise and the role you occupied was very much in that business development space. You are now in the Chief Marketing Officer role. Can you tell me a bit about what you have had to change in your role, your approach to it, how different that's been because you are still a very new CMO, and what's been the biggest difference for you? Is it, you know, is it hands-off? Is it taking a step back? Is it having to roll the sleeves up? What's been the main difference?

Tom: Yeah, that's a great question. Eugene. I'm glad you asked that. Yeah. Frankly, I've had to unlearn some muscle memory that has developed over the years. You know, in my prior role at Bryan Cave, I was a Director of Business Development. I was one of several in my area of responsibility and the teams were corporate and finance transactions. And in that department alone, we had over 600 lawyers and a team of 12 people. And there were times when things got, we were either thinly staffed or just projects were overloading the team, I would jump in, roll my sleeves up, work on RFPs or whatever I needed to do. And we all do that in different ways on different projects where needed. And even when I joined Smith Gambrell as CMO, we were woefully understaffed. And so I had to do the same here just to keep the ship afloat in a lot of ways. You know, when good opportunities come in the door by way of RFPs or whatever they may be, that requires a lot of time and attention. I had no choice. And frankly, all of the team members had no choice but to ladder on into areas where it wasn't necessarily within our scope of responsibilities. But we did what we needed to do to get the job done. So, all that to say, you know, over the years, yes, I've worn more of the business development hat and been in those roles at different firms. But now I don't have time for that. And frankly, I don't want to do that at this point in my career. So I guess for those listening, if you know, for those of us who are in transition and want and aspiring to be in certain roles or like me who are in a first-time, first chair role. There are some things we have to get used to delegating and giving our team members certain team members an opportunity to shine in their respective areas. And so for me, I've had to take a step back and not just, you know, yes, I'll roll my sleeves up and be happy to get in the trenches with anybody at any time that's needed. But that is not why the firm hired me. And that's not what I want to be doing at this point in my career and people need an opportunity to shine themselves. So, for example, if there's a practice group or industry group call. And the head of that group invited me to join. I pull in a member of the team to do that. And instead of me, I don't always have to be on those calls nor should I be, because again, each team member has and wants an opportunity to shine on their own. So anyway, that's been a big lesson learned for me. I know that sounds obvious. But until you're in the role, you truly don't know what it's like. And so I've had to not only unlearn that muscle memory, as I said, but also pay attention to the higher-level, truly strategic things that the firm has hired me to do and be that voice on behalf of the team to firm leadership where needed. 

Eugene: I think that's quite a nice segue into sort of the next section. You mentioned the merger and I'd like you to weave a bit of that and the challenges and actually what you're trying to achieve there in this next answer because you mentioned that you've had to change your approach and unlearn muscle memory. Could you maybe let us into a little bit about what your goals are as a leader, both professionally and personally, but also as a team for the next 6, 12, 18 months? Because I remember you saying to me before, we've got the final piece of the puzzle and you just offered a rollout to someone. I think it was a BD coordinator or manager. I can't remember precisely. It sounds like you've spent 18 months putting the foundations in place. Can you let us into sort of what's coming up?

Tom: Yeah. Yes, you're right. It was a BD Coordinator. She's here now and she's great. We're excited to have her. So now it's “now what?” Right. So it's time to get cracking, as our British friends like to say, we have the people, we have the people in the right seats working on the right things. And so now we're still, we're still on the heels of a major merger, at least for a firm of our size. So Smith Gambrell was approximately 275 lawyers prior to the combination with Freeborn and Peters based in Chicago and when we merged with them, the effective date was April 1st of this year, we brought on another 125 lawyers or so, and that for a firm of our size, the scale of that is significant. So it requires, yes, a lot of resources. But through this process, we were able to write staff our right size, our department. But we also have a lot of work to do, you know, every day, we're learning new things about our new colleagues and they are of us. We are one firm now and integrate as much as we can be. But for those of us who've been through a law firm merger of any size. And many people listening, I'm sure on this call have realized how much time and effort it takes to integrate people processes systems. All of that is a heavy lift. And I view my role and the role of our team, particularly the business development professionals on my team as dot connectors within the firm because everybody is learning about their new colleagues, expertise and experience in different sectors and practices, et cetera. We've got a lot of learning to do that continues and we've got a long ways to go. And so those are the, you know, it's an example of something that we're continuing to do. So over the next, you know, that that's something I'm absolutely focused on and we'll continue to be focused on over the next 12 months. That will be important because I remember speaking with a colleague at a prior firm who had been through two global mergers and Bryan Cave merging with Berwin Leighton Paisner, which was a London-based firm. I think I said some made some ignorant comment; “Oh yeah. Well, you know, a year from now the dust will settle. We'll be integrated.” And she laughed. We were on the phone and she laughed in my ear and said, “Tom, you're kidding. This will take 2, 3 if not four years”. Now, I don't know how well the firm is integrated, because I'm not there anymore. But my point is, that it's a long game, and that continues to be something we're focused on right now. 

Eugene: Definitely. So then I am just going back to those goals and I want to start feeding into how you report them and measure that internally. You just mentioned there that we, in our role, are the connectors. And I remember you talking to me before, but you know, obviously, we've gone through this merger. We want to increase our visibility in the Chicago market. There are some key groups, the leadership and I have identified them and this is how we want to attack it over the next 18 months. Can you talk about how, when you're connecting those dots, how do you report that and how you are actually sharing the success? Because coming back to one of your previous answers, you want to show the value of your team, your team is growing rapidly and you have to be able to report that success. Can you talk a little about that, you mentioned the success of the merger and how important that is on a more sort of day-to-day level. Can you mention a little bit about what you're reporting, how you're working with partnership, and how you're demonstrating that return on investment? Obviously, being you in your role, you want to impress as much as possible.

Tom: Yeah. Thanks for that question, Eugene. Yeah, I think a couple of things that one is to hear about successes, we have to be tuned into what's going on around the firm. And that happens, you know, somewhat organically or naturally through joining practice group calls or, you know, the team is involved in pulling together proposals or doing being a part of pitch prep meetings, things like that. But we also have to ask, you know, ask each other. So we're not even though I view us as being integral and connecting dots, we're not always the hub. In fact, often we're you know, one piece of a larger puzzle. And we have to ask other lawyers what they're working on with whom they're working in which office, and which practice and then ask them the results or follow-up of any meetings or proposals that have gone out. And always, you know, get that real time feedback from our lawyers as much as we possibly can. And my view is, I need to be, you know, in that mix. And so does the team, so we learn about those things. And so I join, for example, to answer your question. I join partner calls every month where I'll feed back some of the successes going around the firm, I will join our practice group and industry team leader calls to do the same and often on those calls, that's where I'll learn about things that I didn't know about. And so I need to take that information back to the team. So it's a combination of things. And so we do log those and track those. I have what I call post-merger wins and successes and it's a pretty informal document, but it's a way to keep all of those things. And so, when our managing partner does the state of the firm address at the annual meeting or retreat, he will share some of those successes at, you know, not only at the, at the event with our lawyers, but periodically throughout the year with staff as well because that's, we often talk about attorneys. There are some successes that staff members, legal assistants, and paralegals are involved with as well. And I think all of those are important things to capture and share and report with others as much as we reasonably can on the regular. So that's my view.

Eugene: Yeah. So just a few of the things you've said there, coming back to this theme of being very intentional with your time and intentional with how you demonstrate your return on investment. You're not, you know, trying to join every single call, you're giving your team the success and the platform and the foundation to be the best versions of themselves. But a lot of what you've just said there is, is talking about just being very deliberate and consistent. How have you become like that? I think because that's actually an interesting, you mentioned muscle memory. That's a very deliberate thing which you do naturally, maybe without thinking about it and it sounds quite authentic. The other thing I think you do very well is you're quite vulnerable in saying I don't know this or I need my other team to be the ones to shine. I don't need to be the one on that call listening to this or reading through the pitch proposal. Could you talk a little bit about sort of those two key themes? And actually, I imagine they would be a pretty important piece of advice that you would offer to anyone and to anyone looking to build out a team because you're basically saying, “I don't know everything and we need to do this together and we need to share in this success.” Could you talk a little to that, please?

Tom: Yes, Eugene, I'll try to unpack a couple of things you just talked about one in order to provide that value and to get on the front foot and be proactive and all of those things I truly believe in and want us to do. We have to be honest and help set expectations. So sort of, I'll get back to your question, but it reminds me of something you asked me earlier on this call is what's been one of the hardest, what have been the hardest things the first 12 months, one of which is setting or resetting expectations. So when I joined, as I said, we had a small marketing team, the firm was smaller and Smith Gambrell, or you may hear, may refer to the firm as SGR, on occasion. SGR has grown quite quickly in a relatively short period of time. And the marketing team and the firm used to be much smaller and would do just about everything, not everything but almost everything that they were asked and gladly, and I think that was great to some degree to help, you know, build and strengthen relationships with internal clients. This preceded me. But since I've gotten here, I realize we can't say yes to everything and we're not going to, and I think most of our attorneys understand that if we give them some context and I have what don't have to be difficult conversations but direct conversations with them. They understand and as long as something gets done, it might be collaborating with another administrative department or staff members, legal assistant, whatever it is or redirecting or creating a new process that's all critically important. And something I've had to do during my year and a half. And the reason I bring that up is we have to create space to carve out that because it's easy for me to sit here and say, if people are listening, probably rolling their eyes being proactive. Yeah right. How do we have time to do that? Well, for us, in order to do that, I've had to create that time by getting, taking some things off a lot of people's plate. And so we're always having, I'm always having those conversations and so that helps with that proactive piece. 

Eugene: Tom to tie that together a bit of an annoying question. But do you have any one or two bits of advice that you would give to any other professionals looking to, to take that next step? Because you just talked about being very open and intentional and honest and any advice to anyone looking to take that same approach to being on the C suite?

Tom: Yeah, there's quite a few things I have to say about that Eugene uh one I have not, I did not get into this role on my own. I had a lot of hope along the way. But I've learned a lot, a great deal from the people on my team, colleagues in the marketing department and business development department over the years. Second is peer groups. I have a huge, I know this is not, is not a legal marketing association call. However, I have a lot of peer friends and people who have developed deep meaningful relationships through LMA over the years who have helped me along the way and still do to this day. So, you know, earlier we were talking about being intentional and, you know, getting it how I got into this role and all of those things, you know, these aren't just things I've learned on my own or made up. I've learned them from people who have been there, done that. I've learned them from people who are taking the first CMO role along with me. And in fact,  there are a number of people, at least a dozen I can think of who are in their first CMO role. And we chat informally from time to time. Passle, not that you asked me to give a plug, but Passle has been integral in facilitating some of those introductions and conversations which I'm grateful for. So my piece of advice if I can give it is to surround yourself by or with people who are smart people, capable people who have been there, done that. And so you don't have to go to learn, you don't have to create anything a-new. Others have gone before us and will come up behind us and we have to surround ourselves with people who know what they're doing. And so if you don't have a formal peer group or virtual or in person roundtable, that you're a part of then create one and it doesn't have to be formal, it doesn't have to be paid. If you don't know enough people ask because I guarantee you there's one degree of separation, somebody is gonna know somebody um that we should be linked up with for whatever reason. So anyway, that was a long winded way of saying. Yes,I got to where I am today through experience and I know what I'm doing but I'm a better person because I surround myself with people who know what they're doing. The other thing, I'll give you a little insider, you and our listeners insider tip on at least, something that's been valuable to me and invaluable to me. it's the first time I've ever done this in my career, but it's hands down, one of the most important things I've ever done is earlier this year, I hired an executive coach. I didn't ask my firm to pay for it because I wanted this investment to be mine and I didn't want them asking me, what the firm is getting out of it. I could, but I'm not going to, but that's been a wise investment on my part because she and I tend to talk about two things. One, what's hot right now on my mind, things that are keeping me up at night two is, helping me shore up some things that I may not be strong in and frankly that's the latter is really why I engaged her services in the first place. I know, for example, that I need to stop and slow down and look at the data, look at the details before making a decision because I'm somebody who just jumps right in. If we talked about it. Good. Let's go. But I've learned some things through her that are a bit more programmatic to help me slow down and um take into account a number of considerations while still being decisive. So anyway, those are a few things that I've been focused on and helped me and I encourage others to consider um at this point in their careers, particularly to help get them to the next level or even be better at the roles they're in now.

Eugene: Completely. It's almost like you're saying the vulnerability is as much is as important as the confidence. It's the confidence to know what you're good at and make the right decisions, but it's being vulnerable enough to say, “hey, I don't know everything here” and to engage, be that an executive coach, be it, your peers, be people outside a vendor, whoever that may be. And actually treat, you know, give the same advice that you give. Anyone else don't try and don't try and go it alone. 

Tom: That's right. Yeah, that's exactly right. Eugene, I got to where I am because I know my stuff but at the same time, I don't know everything right. Or there have been, or I should say and there have been times where I, you know, head hits the pillow at night. It's like, oh, my gosh, am I making the right decision or, you know, you sort of question your calls on certain things and therefore, lack of confidence can creep in but you wake up as soon as I have coffee in my hand the next morning, I'm good. I'm golden. But in order to really feel good about certain decisions or a path I'm taking many times, I have to talk with other people about that. And I think, you know, I may have had a good idea. But talking with others can make it great. And sometimes the people you talk with are not necessarily your vulnerabilities, but it's ok to be vulnerable and open and candid and honest and how and in your response could be, I don't know what to do. What do you think and asking your team members you that question or peers, like you said, so I think it's all that to say we can't, nor should we go it alone. And I don't care how successful somebody is or aspires to be there. They've had help along the way. And I think that's a healthy thing to do.

Eugene: I think that's a very nice not attended on Tom. Thank you very much. If OK with you, I'm gonna keep you for 30 seconds a minute longer just to do a little quick fire round. Hope I can grab you for one more minute.

Tom: Yeah. Sure love to.

Eugene: What is your favorite business and non business book?

Tom: Eugene, yeah, that's a good question. My favorite business book, or at least among my favorite business book is Difficult Conversations and I think the subtitle is How to Discuss What Matters Most. And there are three authors, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen. That book's been out for a while now. It's certainly well over a decade, but I highly recommend that book. If any of my former colleagues, team members are listening to this, they're probably rolling their eyes because I routinely brought up the book all the time and even bought it for them. I don't know about my favorite nonbusiness book,

but a recent one I read was The Halifax Explosion, which I found fascinating. And it's a non historical, excuse me, historical nonfiction. I encourage people to read that. It's a page turner.


Eugene: Okay. I'll look it up, Tom. What was your first job? 

Tom: Oh, gosh. My first job was cutting grass in my neighborhood. My father bought a lawn mower for me and let me borrow his weed whacker and I went around, made a decent amount of money doing that and my first, I’m using air quotes, professional job or I should say paid job with benefits was serving as a gofer for a plumbing company. And I will not get into the details of what all that involved on this call. 

Eugene: We'll save that for episode two. 

Tom: Exactly. Exactly.

Eugene: Well, it's a nice segue to the next one. What makes you happy at work in your current role, we'll say, rather than your first professional role.

Tom: Oh, gosh, the people I work with, I know that it sounds obvious, but I think many of us, many listeners can really, you know, surround ourselves with smart people but people, at least for us and our team, we work hard, but we also laugh at ourselves and have good belly laughs. And so definitely the people couldn't agree more.

Eugene: What are you listening to at the moment? Could be a podcast, music, audiobook, anything in between.

Tom: Oh, gosh, a couple of podcasts. One I always have going is Tim Ferriss. A number of people probably have heard of Tim Ferriss. Anyway, he interviews a lot of high-performing athletes and business people. And so I always find some good nuggets of information and new ways of thinking to learn from others. I'm listening to is the other podcast I'm listening to is Coaching for Leaders with Dave Stachowiak. I think that's how you say his last name and non-professional one I'm listening to is Song Exploder which breaks down songs with through interviews with artists. It's pretty fascinating. I recommend it.

Eugene: Nice. Check that out. Last question, favorite place to visit and why?

Tom: Ooh hands down for me as well as my wife is Point Raise National Seashore, which is in California just north of San Francisco. It is a magical place and it's one of nine National sea shores in the US and so highly recommend it for anyone. It's a great place to go on hikes, day hikes, visit the shore and that sort of thing. So it's absolutely beautiful.

Eugene: Wicked. Tom, we're gonna leave it there. But just to say, thank you very much for your time and for being part of the Passle CMO Series podcast.

Tom: Eugene, I really appreciate your time and the opportunity. It's good to be here.

Eugene: Pleasure.






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