Painted as a calm, reliable leader, Telese Zuberer steps into the president role at Icard Merrill with ease.
After taking a Myers-Briggs personality test in high school, Telese Zuberer knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
“I was one of the few high school students who actually liked public speaking,” she says. Of course, being a minister’s daughter who moved throughout her childhood every three to five years, developing public speaking skills wasn't too unlikely.
And thus began her career in the law, leading up to a recent milestone moment: becoming the president of Icard Merrill, one of more prominent and well-known firms in the Sarasota-Bradenton region.
The firm announced in January Zuberer would be succeeding Bob Lyons, the firm’s president for 23 years, in the top role. Zuberer was elected president-elect of the firm in October 2020, and has spent the past 15 months or so working behind the scenes and shadowing Lyons.
“From the moment she joined, it was apparent she was an excellent lawyer,” Lyons says.
With the time built in for build-up, Zuberer says it was a fairly seamless transition to her new role. “(Bob) stepping back was not such a jarring change,” she says. “I hope his management style that I found effective continues.”
Prior to even working at Icard Merrill, which she joined in 2017 as a shareholder, Zuberer already had somewhat of a foundation at the firm, as she says she knew quite a few of the attorneys there. Zuberer was also familiar with the firm’s reputation, which she says has always been the highest standard. Between those factors, Zuberer was hooked.
Plus, she was looking for a bigger firm anyway. While attending the University of Miami School of Law, she began her career at Siegfried, Rivera, Hyman, Lerner, De La Torre and Sobel, a law firm in Coral Gables now known as Siegfried Rivera. She later worked at her own, smaller firm, so going back to a bigger office, like at Icard Merrill, was exactly what she was looking for.
“I needed the resources from a bigger firm to better serve my clients,” she says.
Zuberer’s practice is specific to condominium and homeowner association law. She focuses on issues that surround the association corporations business, residential development and construction. The way she handles her practice stood out to Lyons. “She has the ability to problem solve from a business standpoint,” he says. “The success she’s had speaks volumes,” he says.
Stepping into a position that someone else held for 23 years is no easy feat. But Zuberer seems to be up for the task.
“His persona is one of immense strength,” she says of Lyons. “He’s gracious in that you don’t realize you’re being led. That’s something I try to emulate.”
But it's not a position she was looking to obtain, she says. In fact, Lyons approached her in 2019 regarding the position. She turned him down. "He kept asking," she says. "He was persistent."
Over the eight to 10 months it took to convince her, Zuberer says Lyons eventually made her realize she had the experience and skillset that would work well as president of the firm. Zuberer says the persistence really built up her confidence until she could see herself in that position.
Of her leadership style, Lyons says Zuberer is a people person through and through. “She’s able to communicate well,” he says. “She can craft solutions that satisfy a dispute.”
When Nicole Price, an associate at Icard Merrill who's known Zuberer since 2017, came across some health issues she began struggling with juggling that with work. Thanks to Zuberer, Price was able to get through it. "She made me feel important," she says, noting that Zuberer was always available to listen and helped Price re-prioritize her schedule.
Price says during that time it was especially important knowing she had someone to talk to in a corporate setting, where that's not typically the norm. "My career wouldn't be what it is today without her," she says.
Karin Mayfield, the West Florida chapter executive director of the Community Associations Institute (CAI), has known Zuberer for nine years, working closely with Zuberer the last five or six years. “I find her to be one of the smarter people I know,” she says. “She thinks things through.”
Zuberer is busy outside the firm, too. She’s a member of the Gulf Coast CEO Forum, active with the Sarasota and Manatee County Bar Associations, Florida Association of Women Lawyers, Court Appointed Guardian Ad Litem for the 12th Judicial Circuit and Parents’ Association of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.
Even with all of that going on, Zuberer finds time for outside activities like running or biking. “Anything that can get me outside in the Florida sun,” she says.
As president-elect, meanwhile, Zuberer took time to find her way.
“It first struck me when she came into my office after meetings and asked why I did what I did,” Lyons says. Additionally, he says Zuberer was quick to analyze and project an issue while also being able to explain it plainly to other shareholders. “She was dynamic in our meetings. She’s going to be great. It’s going to be fun to watch her.”
Zuberer is hopeful to keep a leadership style similar to Lyons. But she's also ready to make a few changes.
She says there’s a generation of attorneys working there who have been there as long as Lyons and are used to the firm being run a certain way. But as the pandemic has taught a lot of companies, there are different ways to run a business.
“We were set up that way,” she says. “Attorneys are not considered embracers of technology.”
So remote work came as a challenge for some. Now, Zuberer is tasked with finding a balance between remote and in-person work. She notes the younger employees seem to have an easier time finding their way around a computer or phone.
“That is going to be a big challenge,” she says, adding in the factor of maintaining teamwork.
Discovering diversity in many ways will be another challenge for the new leader. “I’m the first female in this role,” she says. With diversity not playing a huge role in the firm’s history, Zuberer is interested in bringing in some new voices with diverse backgrounds. “Maybe there are some better ways to do things,” she says.
While Zuberer is the first woman in the role, she doesn't feel that's the reason she was recruited for the president role. “I don’t feel like I’m looked at any differently,” she says, noting she was approached for the role. “I hope they chose the person they thought was the best candidate.”
Zuberer will also be taking a closer look at the firm's internship program. Both interns from last year's program were hired — and Zuberer wants to make it even better. “I’m looking at refreshing what is already a good thing,” she says.
While Icard Merrill is well-known in the area, she’s not sure enough has been done to get the word out about it to the surrounding areas. And that’s something she’s looking to improve upon. “I know we have clients beyond the local firm and markets,” she says. “Why not branch out and offer services outside of our county?”
And she's determined to succeed at all of these goals. "There's an innate eternal drive that I have," she says of upholding the firm's reputation as well as her own. "I don't want there to be a disconnect where I'm not putting enough in for the firm."
That's not to say there won't be any mistakes along the way.
"It's unrealistic to think that," she says. "The resiliency and how we pick ourselves up will be the difference between letting (the mistakes) affect the firm."