"You are an active participant in your own career. Be open to a variety of experiences. Ensure you are doing your job as well as you can.” John W.H. Denton AO

A global business leader and legal expert on international trade and investment, John W.H. Denton AO is the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

The Corrs alumnus and former CEO is also a Board member of the United Nations Global Compact and Co-chair of the B20 finance and infrastructure taskforce, as well as a founding member of the Business 20 (B20), a Board member of IFM Global Investors, Co-Founder of the Australia–China CEO Roundtable and Patron of UNHCR in Australia.

In 2015, John was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to the business community, the arts and the rights of refugees, including as a founder of Human Rights Watch Australia and Teach for Australia.

Q: You spent more than 25 years at Corrs, including 17 years as CEO. What are some of your fondest memories of your time at the firm? 

JD:  Fond memories abound. But the clearest memory is of the buzz, the amazing goodwill and energy of colleagues, especially in the period leading up to Christmas. I used to say that I wished I could bottle that atmosphere like a scent to sprinkle around during down periods. That would be magical. The power of the positive. Plenty of that – always at Corrs. 

I was elected Senior Partner when the firm was faced with several challenges. I am grateful to have worked with so many colleagues. In effect, we rebuilt and sought to transform Corrs into the leading independent law firm in Australia. That journey could have not been possible without the amazing people I was honoured to lead, and most importantly team up with, to achieve this goal.  

None of this would have been possible without our ambitious clients. They urged me personally to keep pushing the firm forward harder. They encouraged me to not be afraid to be seen as standing for something more than the day-to-day. It’s why we became a purpose-led and mission-driven firm. 

Q: You commenced as Secretary General of ICC in Paris in October 2018, becoming the first Australian to hold this role. What have been some of your most rewarding experiences at ICC to date? 

JD:  The most rewarding experience so far has been working to turn ICC into a truly global outfit with regional relevance and local impact. ICC is the most trusted private sector organisation in the world. We represent more than 45 million companies who employ more than 1.3 billion workers.  

Since I took on the leadership role, we have expanded our reach and sharpened our focus. Now, in over 170 countries, 70% of our constituency is in the Global South. This makes us the world’s most inclusive voice of the real economy and largest second track diplomatic network. We are a unique and powerful platform. We are positioned squarely at the heart of the issues that matter today to business and the communities we serve. It is exciting to lead an organisation like this and ensure it sits at the top table globally.   

In this context, it was amazing to be invited by the UN Secretary-General to join the UN Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance along with the heads of the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation among others. We developed for him the proposal now known as the Black Sea Agreement. It ensures that grain and other critical goods continue to flow out of Ukraine despite the war.  

We are now co-leading on the UN response to the financial debt and liquidity crises affecting middle-income to least developed countries. It is not a job for the faint-hearted, but it is extremely rewarding.

Q: Just recently, you were in Kyiv connecting with business and government to discuss Ukraine’s rebuild and recovery. What were some of your takeaways from that trip?  

JD:  I mentioned our ongoing engagement with the vital Black Sea Agreement. We continue to support it wholeheartedly. I have visited Kyiv twice since the war began. The first time was in June of last year. We worked with local business leaders on solutions to help keep the private sector going. It was deeply emotional for me to visit places such as Bucha and Borodyanka only 10 kilometres from Kyiv. I got to witness first-hand the depth of cruelty and the damage that this war has done to defenceless citizens.  

You can draw a lot of inspiration from the resilience and fortitude of Ukrainians. Our goal is to help keep the private sector functioning across Ukraine. We call it the economic front. It is a critical part of the defence of Ukraine.  

My most recent trip was in March 2023. It was amazing to see how local business has impressively adapted to the crisis. It keeps showing tremendous resilience in an environment of massive uncertainty.  

The rebuilding of Ukraine has already started. Scaling up support and capacity-building for local business must remain a priority. This is particularly true for SMEs, the pumping heart of the Ukrainian economy. We are also working to develop the Ukrainian government’s reform agenda. We identify impediments to future investment and help promote greater transparency and anti-corruption measures. 

Q: Prior to joining Corrs you were a diplomat based in a variety of cities, including Moscow during the Gorbachev era. What lessons from your life as a diplomat did you draw on during your time as a law firm leader and now as the leader of ICC?    

JD:  It is funny how my career has taken me to strange places. In the end, they all sort of make sense. Although most would describe my career as anything but ‘norm core’! The first rule of diplomacy is to never make an enemy by mistake. It is a piece of advice that is surprisingly useful. It doesn’t mean you shy away from tough decisions. Instead, it helps guide how you lean into them. 

In a leadership role, you have to make plenty of decisions and often hard choices over people’s careers. Thinking about this rule always helped me focus on the importance of getting the people relationship right. You need to build it on respect and empathy.  

Professional and knowledge-based businesses are really all about people leadership. Applying this rule also helps engage with different types of people and cultures. And, of course, when you pick a battle to fight you really need to be sure that it is worth it!

Q: What is the best career advice you have ever been given? 

JD:  Don’t wait to be asked. I have had the honour to mentor dozens of people from all over the world. I noticed that many initially expect you to create their career paths for them. It’s a mistake. You are an active participant in your own career. Do your homework. Be open to a variety of experiences. Ensure you are doing your job as well as you can.  

In my view, if opportunities come, you should seize them. Don’t be risk averse. People too often later in life end up regretting opportunities they passed by. Make the time. Take the risk. I would rather regret taking on too much. Ships are not built to stay in the shipyard, they are built to sail the high seas.

Q: Why do you enjoy being part of the Corrs alumni community? 

JD: Because Corrs is a big part of my professional life. Corrs’ DNA is my own. I share its values, bold ambition, determination and purpose.  

Corrs as a firm has really solid bones: it stands for something greater than the day-to-day. I hope the ambitious nature I saw as the essence of the firm endures. I will always proudly wear the Corrs banner. And it will always be on my CV!

This interview was conducted in April 2023.