Monday 13 November 2017,

The first Managing Partners’ Forum Leadership Summit, hosted by Travers Smith LLP, looked at the qualities of great leaders, the best approaches to critical leadership challenges and effective leadership strategies.

Keynote presentations by Richard Hytner, author of Consiglieri, which was written to celebrate the craft of leadership beyond the alpha leaders; and Andrew Kakabadse from Henley Business School, who shared insights from his extensive research with top executives and leadership teams from across the globe, were followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Neil May, COO of Bedel Cristin, and chair of Parallel Mind, and featuring both keynote speakers together with David Patient, managing partner of Travers Smith and Christian Fleck, managing director at LexisNexis UK and Ireland.

Hytner’s presentation highlighted the new problems that leaders of professional services organisations face: the relentless march of technology, the changing expectations of clients and talent, and issues around competing for business in a disaggregated marketplace. These are in addition to the challenges of leading experts who are smart, egotistic and resistant to change and conformity.

When professional services firms are asked what differentiates them from their peers, they inevitably say it’s their ‘unique culture’, but the concept of a cultural brand that attracts business runs counter to the position of ‘rainmakers’ whose approach is based on individuals ‘owning’ their clients. This creates challenges for business leaders.

Hytner identified two types of leader: alpha leaders who thrive on energy and action and can live with accountability for the decisions they take on behalf of their organisation; and persuasive leaders, whose skills are about influence and connectivity.

Both types of leaders, but especially persuasive leaders, depend a cast of consiglieri, or supporting leaders, with complementary skills. Hytner’s LEAD model highlights four feelings that consiglieri bring to organisational leadership:

  1. Liberation – liberators are people who liberate leaders from onerous tasks;
  2. Enlightenment – educators keep leaders informed and up-to-date on the latest developments and the freshest ideas. They’ve been on the courses, and read the business magazines;
  3. Authenticity - anchors keep leaders authentic by giving them honest feedback and telling them when they are out of line or off message. This will be a trusted confidante, or even a spouse
  4. Deliverables – people who make things happen by delivering on the leader’s strategy.

Organisational culture is about behaviours, and in professional services, the acid test of an effective leaders is their approach to aberrant behaviour by rainmakers, who feel they own their practice, and how they determine – and signal – a yellow card or red card event.

Hytner identifies three critical leadership qualities:

  1. Curiosity – drives innovation. Professional services need to be curious beyond their own areas of expertise.
  2. Humility – lawyers especially need to collaborate more with their clients and peers because most of their problems are multi-faceted and require cross-disciplinary solutions
  3. Courage – to be adventurous about change and focus on leaving the business in good shape for the next generation

Finally, he advises leaders to focus on the purpose of the firm, rather than any individual, because clever, talented people can forget that clients are attracted to the firm’s leveraged genius rather than the individuals within it. Leading an organisation is analogous to conducting an orchestra:

“Fundamentally, the job of leadership in professional services is the conductor’s role: understanding the strength of the first violin or the percussionist and getting the best out of the entire orchestra, rather than indulging the soloists in too much of the limelight.”

The second keynote speaker, Professor Andrew Kakabadse from Henley Business School, presented findings from his research on leadership and organisational politics, which included a survey covering nearly 20,000 organisations across 43 countries.

Many of the big corporate failures of the past few decades had been anticipated by their respective boards. “When a business is not doing well, the board’s ability to predict what will happen within 65 months increases,” explains Kakabadse. “When leadership is challenged or stretched, insights improve, but the ability to use those insights decreases.” For example, although people predicted that HBOS was going to collapse, the management and board could not prevent it.

Kakabadse’s in-depth analysis into why this was happening revealed that top teams were generally short-termist and divided in their perceptions of competitive advantage and differentiation. This led to a lack of clear strategy. However, exceptional organisations focused on delivery as opposed to ‘value proposition’ and this meant taking an evidence-based approach. “If you had an idea, you had to produce the evidence to prove that it worked”. Evidence is not just about the numbers, explained Kakabadse. It is also about identifying fracture points between strategy and execution, so that people don’t feel disconnected from the centre.

Another fracture point was that the management did not feel they were getting value from the board, to such an extent that when management anticipated things going wrong with the business, they were more likely to look for a new job than raise the issue with their board!

Kakabadse found that boards themselves were over-reliant on compliance rather than really understanding the organisation. And fractures within the boards accelerated corporate failure – for example at RBS, the chairman could not stand up to the CEO.

In order to get around these fractures, leaders need to ask themselves two questions:

  1. What value am I contributing, and does it make sense?
  2. Where is the evidence for that?

Kakabadse’s final point was an anecdote about an introverted leader collecting evidence for the need for change and sharing it in a way that won the respect of the entire business and liberated it from the constraints of the past. He observed that the most effective leaders tend to rely more on evidence than charisma. “The way you gather evidence in context and form a picture of the way forward and a convincing argument behind that, is the basis of leadership that works.”

The panel discussion that followed explored the themes that featured in the keynote presentations: leadership style, diversity, governance and engagement.

Successful leadership is predicated on understanding the business. Managing partner David Patient walks the floors at Travers Smith talking to people in different roles across the firm. He agrees with Hytner about the importance of having the right management team. When he took over as managing partner, he appointed a professional HR director who transformed the function, and the firm’s culture. Crisis communication is another critical success factor. “When you hear something which is not true, deal with it quickly and don’t let it turn into a wildfire,” he advises. “If you don’t find ways to communicate with the business, people will fill the silence.”

Christian Fleck at LexisNexis highlighted three barriers to change in law firms:

  1. There is no burning platform – the fact that most law firms are relatively successful makes it difficult to drive change
  2. Lawyers are naturally change averse
  3. Partnerships elect their leaders rather than appoint them. Law firm leaders have to manage their shareholders on a daily basis

Fleck agrees with Hytner that leadership credibility depends on authenticity and humility and driving a consistent line “It’s about engagement and positive alignment in a complex and heterogeneous stakeholder group,” he says. “decision-making cadence is particularly important to ensure buy-in.”

On charismatic leadership, Hytner highlights the power and the danger of personal branding. “Boris Johnson said that in a very short time Donald Trump had created his own brand and seeped it into the global consciousness,” explained Hytner, adding that leaders aren’t meant to be brands; they are there to lead. He agrees with Kakabadse that charisma can often mask a lack of evidence that can be dangerous to the business, and cited Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Apple’s Tim Cook as examples of effective consiglieri style of leadership in an unpredictable business environment. Further discussions touched on diversity and governance.

Joanna Goodman