Legal Business Blogs

Talking sheds – A&O’s former chief on why the personal touch is critical in a crisis

In March last year – as the Covid-19 crisis gathered pace – I wrote in Legal Business that if you’re a leader when an emergency happens, you need to act like one. I added that, as the leader, you are also communicator-in-chief.

Talking to leaders over the last few months, it’s striking how acting like a leader has meant adapting their style as this crisis has rolled on. A more approachable, informal and open approach that connects more personally with their people has become key.

One managing partner of a London-originated law firm told me how he had shared with partners and staff his love of his garden shed and all that was in it. He discovered that people reacted surprisingly well to him sharing some of his personal life with them. Messages inundated his inbox, responding to his cheerful, down-to-earth shed stories, creating a real sense of emotional engagement.

Sharing shed stories may sound trivial, but it had a tremendous impact on the firm and him. He was enabling people to connect with him and hearing directly from them. He short-circuited the management layers that usually blur the connection between leaders and the led. It became a source of power for him. People are more willing to go along with you if they feel they have connected with you.

Another senior partner of a global law firm explained how he’d started posting a regular blog talking about the pressures in his own life during the lockdown and the firm’s challenges as a whole. ‘I’ve had hundreds of warm messages from people responding to my blogs and personally responded to every one of them. It helped create a feeling of connection,’ he told me. He gained a better understanding of people’s real concerns and felt able to make better decisions.

A senior leader in a large global professional services firm said she missed the ability to ‘feel the vibe’ in the office – the mood or morale to their people – with everyone working from home. She said she had taken to calling staff randomly just to see how they were doing. She soon realised that she was terrifying some people. They thought a call from her could only mean one thing – dismissal. But she persevered. Word got around, and the conversations became more comfortable. She came to enjoy the interaction and ability to hear directly from the shopfloor.

So, what is going on here?

Those who dismiss this openness as a ‘touchy-feely’ confection that detracts from the ‘real work’ of leadership miss an essential point. In this crisis, many people have felt genuinely and understandably frightened at a profoundly personal level. They want to feel their leaders understand their worries and fears. They want reassurance that they are not alone in having those feelings.

At the same time, there is a welcome trend towards increasing openness about mental health issues. For example, Charlie Jacobs, senior partner of Linklaters, was reported last year as sharing with staff that he had experienced a ‘dip in spirits’ during the lockdown and what he was doing to deal with it.

Of course, this is not to suggest that over-sharing, extravagant displays of emotion or hand wringing are what is needed. No-one wants to be led by someone self-obsessed or ‘woe is me’.

First  and foremost, they want an honest and transparent assessment of the situation and direction of travel from someone they trust. Neither Cassandra nor Pollyanna. They want to feel there is a steady hand on the tiller. But leaders who can combine that with a genuinely personal touch find it easier to inspire loyalty, confidence and bring people with them.

The best leaders have demonstrated an almost chameleon-like ability to adapt their style to the different phases of an unfolding crisis. In the early stages, the consensual leadership model, familiar to a greater or lesser degree in most law firms, had to go. Leaders needed the confidence to make timely and effective decisions. The crisis permitted – indeed demanded – actions that would usually be difficult, if not impossible. The priority was to steady the ship. It’s no good being empathetic if the business is going down the plughole.

But as the crisis evolved into a long grind, the best leaders have changed their style again. They realised they had to be sensitive to the change in the balance of power in the firm. The inevitable damage from the earlier phase needed repair. It was knowing when to be decisive and when to be empathetic. When to assert power and when to be more accommodating.

These kinds of nuanced judgements are particularly challenging because no one can predict this crisis’ duration. That’s why it’s all the more important to pace yourself – to recognise you need to keep handling the problem day-to-day long after the situation had used up your initial surge of adrenaline.

When the chairman of Dewey & LeBoeuf, Mort Pierce, was reported to say ‘Management is not my passion’ shortly before the firm went into bankruptcy in 2012, it summed up an attitude of antipathy to leadership and management at law firms belonging to a bygone era.

If this crisis has shown anything, it has demonstrated the best-led firms have thrived, and the poorly led have suffered. Smart firms are already investing in leadership skills and preparing their future leaders for the responsibilities of leadership. In doing so, they are baking in a sustainable competitive advantage over those who don’t take leadership seriously.

Episode 1 of the new podcast series from Professor Laura Empson and David Morley: Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People, is released today.

The series brings together Laura’s decades of academic research of professionals’ leadership and David’s practical experience of leading a global law firm to explore crucial leadership questions for professional organisations’ leaders. Such as how to lead in the current crisis and preserve a collaborative culture when working remotely.

Laura and  David discuss these issues, and many more, with senior leaders from some of the world’s most successful professional organisations, such as McKinsey, KPMG, and Allen & Overy.