Cecily Zhu
04 April 2018

Keeping it cool: How mediator Cecily Zhu calms commercial conflicts

Published on 04 April 2018

Cecily Zhu is passionate about helping people work constructively through conflict. As an experienced mediator and director of The Accord Group, Cecily has worked with clients in film exhibition and distribution, wine grape supply, franchising, horticulture and petroleum trade and managed investment schemes. As well as Australia, Cecily’s work takes her to Hong Kong and Malaysia. Insights spoke to Cecily about how she helps her clients, what she loves about her work, and how she came to lead The Accord Group. 

“As simple and clichéd as it sounds, the best part of my job is helping people – removing conflict from people’s businesses and lives so they can get on with their lives. There are a lot of thankless jobs out there, but mediation is an exception. It is a great feeling to receive a thank you phone call or email from a party after helping them to resolve a dispute.

“There’s also an element of human psychology involved when you’re mediating and trying to understand what makes the parties tick – what drives people to make certain decisions, and why two people can have such opposing views on an issue.”

In addition to providing mediation services, Cecily also designs and conducts mediation training courses. 

“It’s so satisfying to introduce mediation skills to people, particularly those who have been trained to think a certain way, like lawyers, and see how those skills can really impact their personal and professional lives.”

Cecily was mentored by David Newton, who pioneered commercial mediation in Australia and established The Accord Group in 1992. 

“He was one of the very few people I’ve ever met who was still truly passionate about his work after more than twenty-five years and woke up every day excited to go to work. He lived and breathed mediation, constantly reminding me of how important our work was to industry and to society.” 

She discovered her love of mediation during university, when she was selected to represent the University of New South Wales at the ICC International Mediation Competition in Paris.

“I learnt that mediation was an efficient and effective alternative to litigation being used worldwide,” said Cecily.

Having completed a commercial law clerkship, Cecily turned down a graduate offer to join The Accord Group.

“I started off managing dispute resolution schemes under industry codes. I was on the frontline dealing with dispute enquiries and educating people about their available dispute resolution options. I spoke to hundreds of parties in dispute, mainly small business owners, and I realised the overwhelming burden and stress that conflict could bring. 

“As I guided people through the process of going to mediation, I sensed the relief that people felt upon finding out there was a quick, affordable and effective process available – with more than 75% of matters settling, it was like a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’ve always liked working with people and helping people, so mediation was a natural fit for me. I decided to become a nationally accredited mediator and I haven’t looked back since.”

In 2016, David Newton passed away, leaving Cecily at a crossroads – should she continue the business or pursue other options, such as commercial law?

“It was a loss deeply felt by the mediation community,” said Cecily. After much consideration, Cecily decided to purchase The Accord Group and keep it running.

“Since then, it has been an absolute roller-coaster going from employee to business owner. There has been a lot of ups and downs and challenges along the way – such as how to make decisions quickly, communicating across cultures, effective marketing, and everything in between. I have recently landed some new clients and work which have helped to validate my efforts, including a corporate training client in Hong Kong and a large-scale facilitation project involving a franchise network with thousands of franchise partners.”

As a lawyer herself, Cecily sees many opportunities for mediators and lawyers to work closely on matters.

“I think lawyers play an important role in assessing whether a particular dispute is suitable for mediation. This may be a question of timing, the nature of the dispute, the parties involved, and so on. Lawyers are often the ‘gateway’ to mediation for clients who have never participated in mediation before. This means that clients’ expectations about the process will often be guided by their lawyers’ advice. The outcome of a mediation may depend on the level of a client’s preparation and the advice they receive from their representatives.”

In her experience, asking the right questions of clients at the start of a matter are crucial to a constructive outcome.

“It is easy to assume that a dispute is about particular issues which manifest on the surface, but there may be – and usually are – underlying needs which cannot be ignored and must be addressed for an agreeable outcome. It’s always worth taking the time to consider the needs, goals and objectives of your client and listening carefully to understand what clients really want.”

Many industries may benefit from partnering with mediators to resolve or avoid disputes.

“Disputes are a natural part of life and business, but there are serious costs associated with them, including stress, poorly performing teams, expensive legal fees and broken relationships. Having an independent third-party step in to diffuse conflicts at any stage can be helpful in reducing the cost and pain of disputes. 

“Not only do mediators help resolve disputes, they can also help to prevent disputes from escalating by designing mechanisms and processes within an organisation. For example: What chain of command or communication channels are open for employees to make a workplace complaint? In a franchise system, how do franchisees raise issues to their franchisor? If you run a managed investment scheme, what internal dispute resolution scheme do you have to resolve disputes with consumers or investors?

“Industry associations that deal with a high volume of disputes between industry participants could also benefit from developing a confidential, cost-effective and efficient dispute resolution process that keeps matters out of court.”