I met our new cohort of interns this past week at Laurence Simons – 3 brilliant, talented young people who are starting out on their career – and I was asked what it was like to be a leader, and also what it was like to be a female CEO. I answered the questions in the time we had but I found these questions have stayed with me. Bubbling away in my consciousness. One of the best ways for me to work out my position on a topic is to debate it; and because I am “old-school” (and middle aged), to write down those thoughts, to educate myself by reading around it and to do research about it, and also to reflect on my lived experience. Here we go then.
Leadership is an elusive concept. Try to find an agreed-upon definition, and you will instead see variations and academics arguing over which theory from the past is relevant enough to help inform the future. This much is true: when leading an organisation, one must have “eyes on the road” and at the same time “monitor the rear-view mirror”. As we at Laurence Simons celebrate our 35th anniversary in 2023, I am looking back at some of the lessons I have learned throughout my career, and during my time at the helm, too, and I will also take the opportunity to look ahead at what the next 35 years may hold for our team and those willing to serve as leaders in the future.
The world is changing at lightspeed, and leaders worldwide are grappling with the effects of this change. This year alone, organisations will be spending $1b investing in the future of work, including technologies such as AI, robotics, process automation and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). The onus is on leaders to help guide their teams into this brave new world. The tools you need are already out there; these are some principles I have picked up along the way, which you can use to carry your team into the future. However, before we look forward we need to monitor the rear-view mirror.
PAST (or, what to do to at the start of your career)
During my student days I had many, many jobs. Retail, service industry, cleaning, clerical, childcare, and at each job I had supervisors, bosses, managers, but not necessarily always someone who was a leader. After my student days, and in my first paid full-time role, I worked in Brussels. It was here that I first benefitted from working in an organisation that understood what leadership was. It was, however, hierarchical. Juniors were much less confident to question a senior, and there was a formality that is absent today in the USA, Northern and Western Europe. In my view, what you need when you are starting out in your career is a combination of solid advice, support and teaching, as well as someone who quite literally promotes you, in all senses of the word. It was both of these in tandem that allowed me to have access to senior leaders who gave very directional leadership. In the 90s, the most important factors for good leadership were to be direct, decisive and intelligent. This is my lived experience of it, too.
I worked in an organisation that had formal programmes for both mentorship, and perhaps the more critical cousin, sponsorship. There is a key difference between these: mentors advise you and sponsors advocate for you. I was fortunate in my first decade of my career to have both. My sponsor was the CEO of a major international brand, a Swedish man who saw my potential long before I did. He pushed me waaaaay out of my comfort zone: showed me how and when I had made a mistake (there were many) and gave me confidence when mine had long evaporated. This leadership is still vital today. Perhaps more so than ever for our young talent – leadership that inspires, guides and teaches.
For those who want to be leaders of the future – you need help – find yourself a mentor and then ask for sponsorship.
- Mentorship is for everyone and benefits both parties; in fact, 87% of mentors and mentees reported feeling empowered and more confident as a result of their mentoring.
- Mentors report lower levels of worry and more meaningfulness in their work.
- Engaging in mentorship is incredibly beneficial, but you may also need some support outside of your organisation. Enlisting the help of a mentor who can give you their candid, unfiltered ideas and solutions can make all the difference.
According to research from Stanford University and the Centre for Talent Innovation, the vast majority of women (85%) and multicultural professionals (81%) need navigational support to advance in their careers but receive it less often than Caucasian men. However, a 2010 Catalyst study revealed that more women than men have been assigned mentors, yet 15% more men won promotions. Why? The findings indicate that having more mentorship did not lead to advancement, but having a senior mentor in a position to provide sponsorship did.
One of the most interesting parts of my career to date was leading the Management Buy-Out (MBO) of Laurence Simons (LS) in 2017/2018, taking the business out of private equity ownership. It tested my leadership in so many ways; it was my first (and only!) MBO. It was complex, took longer and had unexpected challenges in ways I couldn’t anticipate. One of my strengths as a leader is to ask for help, to find an expert in a field and to surround myself with people who are smarter, faster, better than I am at many, many things. Sometimes that can be hard for my ego – still a work in progress to recognise when my ego steps in – but it has always allowed me to reach an outcome more quickly and often with less stress. I spoke to a brilliant lawyer at a magic circle law firm who (very kindly) suggested that my MBO was de-minimis for them and then opened up her network to me. Within days I had effectively created my MBO advisory board (fixed fee, too!), which made the experience easier. A further test of leadership here was to hand over the reins of LS to business unit heads – some of whom had very little senior management experience – and to trust them to get on with it. They did. Brilliantly. If you delegate, and trust that people will rise the challenge, more often than not they do. On a related note, understandably, there were a few team members that didn’t want to wait it out and during this uncertain time left the business. I had to be okay with that regardless of how personally disappointed I was by their choice. Again, another leadership lesson: you can lead a horse to water… However, because I had clearly outlined the possibilities of what we could achieve post MBO, being in charge of our own destiny, the core of the team remained (and all were given equity in the company which bought Laurence Simons’ group of companies as a thank you). On day one post MBO, I said we were a 30-year-old start up and so our next chapter began.
NOW (or what a global pandemic, Brexit and Geo Politics has taught us)
Tomes have been written on what good leadership looks like, today. I am not an expert, nor would I claim to be. What I do know though is there was never a normal – the business world shifts and changes constantly. There was never a “one size fits all” approach to leadership because it is dependent upon the culture of both the organisation and country; the industry sector and established ways of working within that sector. We live in a world that is always “on” and the global pandemic blurred the line between work and home lives. (Remember in those early days of working from home before we had worked out either how to have a corporate backdrop and/or to blur screens, how you could literally look around someone’s home, whether a client, colleague or candidate?).
What we currently know is an agility to get across issues and to understand them quickly, and decide a course of action is critical. Having or finding the right person to lead and run a function or business is essential. Those business (or countries) that had this type of leadership during the pandemic, came out of it more robust, and in some cases more profitable. What is not spoken of is the impact of this skill and the toil it can take on leaders’ wellbeing, nor the relentlessness of a 24/7 world. One of the blurring of lines that leaders must continue to recognise is how their impact is also always “on”. According to CEO World, 2023 leaders “influence doesn’t end at the “lobby”, whether physical or the act of signing off”.
If we specifically look at our world at LS the great resignation continues in the legal sector. In our recent discussing the personality traits of General Counsel, we highlighted some of the sobering statistics on mental health and stress in the legal sector; 63% of legal professionals reported suffering from stress on a daily basis.
Statistics tell us that 70% of corporate lawyers and 58% of law firm lawyers say they are likely to leave their current position in the next year. This means that the war on talent is likely to continue to be real, and so companies need to do all they can to keep the talent that they have. What will ensure that a valued employee stays or leaves a company is what that company culture – and leadership team – looks like. Do they have “psychological safety?”
Safety is whether or not your team feel they can speak up, ask for help, or offer an idea. It is easier said than done in organisations where leadership may, for good reason, such as compliance or regulation, have to have more rigour and structure in business units. However, one of the key themes of what we have seen in a post-pandemic business world is how companies can pivot quickly and effectively. Human beings are capable of greatness and as such your team needs to know that they can be innovative, take risks and think outside of the box without fear for their job.
RETAINING CONFIDENCE IN THE FACE OF UNCERTAINTY ( or, what does leadership look like in the world of machine learning and AI)
In an era characterised by rapid change and unpredictability, the ability to retain confidence in the face of uncertainty will be a crucial attribute for leaders of the future. As technological advancements continue to reshape industries, societal values evolve, and global challenges emerge, leaders must navigate through complex landscapes while inspiring confidence in their teams. This article explores key strategies that future leaders can employ to retain stability, learn from mistakes, and foster strong connections with their teams.
Retaining stability in every circumstance is paramount for leaders aiming to inspire confidence in their teams. Uncertainty can create anxiety and doubt, leading to decreased morale and productivity. Therefore, it is essential for leaders to exhibit unwavering stability, even in turbulent times. According to Forbes (2023), this stability is not synonymous with inflexibility, but rather an ability to remain composed, adaptable, and optimistic amidst ambiguity. Leaders should communicate a sense of calm and provide a clear vision, outlining a path forward, even when facing unforeseen challenges.
No leader is perfect; everyone makes mistakes. The key is not to dwell on these mistakes but to learn from them and move forward. Harvard Business Review (HBR, 2023) emphasises the importance of pausing, examining mistakes, and then focusing on brainstorming solutions. Leaders of the future should cultivate a growth mindset that allows them to view mistakes as opportunities for growth and development. By acknowledging and taking responsibility for their errors, leaders create a culture of accountability and continuous improvement within their organisations.
Furthermore, retaining and strengthening connections with the team, especially direct reports, will enable leaders to gain valuable insights into the dynamics at play within their workplace. In an increasingly interconnected world, leaders must foster open lines of communication and actively listen to their team members. By creating a supportive and inclusive environment, leaders can empower their employees to share their ideas, concerns, and perspectives. Harvard Business Review (HBR, 2023) suggests that maintaining regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports can provide leaders with valuable feedback and allow them to address any issues promptly. Building strong relationships based on trust and mutual respect will not only enhance teamwork but also foster a sense of belonging and loyalty among employees.
In the future, leaders must also be proactive in addressing the impact of technological advancements and digital transformation on their organizations. Embracing technological innovations and providing opportunities for upskilling and reskilling will be crucial to retaining confidence within the workforce. By demonstrating a commitment to adaptability and lifelong learning, leaders can inspire their teams to embrace change rather than fear it. Additionally, future leaders should foster a culture of innovation and experimentation, encouraging employees to explore new ideas and approaches. This will help organisations stay ahead of the curve and adapt to the ever-evolving business landscape.
Another vital aspect of leadership in the future will be the ability to navigate diversity and inclusion. Leaders must recognise and value the unique perspectives and backgrounds of their team members, fostering an environment that encourages diversity of thought. By promoting inclusivity and equity, leaders can harness the collective intelligence of their teams and drive innovation. Retaining confidence in the face of uncertainty requires leaders to embrace diversity as a strength, enabling them to make informed decisions and develop creative solutions.
In conclusion, leadership in the future will require retaining confidence in the face of uncertainty. Leaders must embody stability, learning from mistakes and moving forward with resilience. Strengthening connections with the team will provide valuable insights and foster a sense of belonging. Embracing technological advancements and diversity will be essential in navigating the complexities of the future. By adopting these strategies, leaders can inspire confidence, promote growth, and lead their organisations to success in an ever-changing world.
The last 7 paragraphs were not written by me. I took some of the research we had done and asked ChatGPT to come up with 750 words about the future of leadership; this is the first response. My version of what leaders need to show in the future is very simple – they need to show their humanity. More than ever, it is vital that we are courageous and vulnerable; trusting and empowering; authentic and real. In short, we continue to connect with our colleagues and customers – for us at LS that is both candidates and clients – with our hearts, minds and spirit.