Why Leadership Learning Counts in a Growing Firm

We started our law firm BHSM in 2012, in the teeth of a recession. There were four of us in two rooms in a modernised Georgian building on Harcourt Terrace, and the only requirement for leadership was directing ourselves and looking after our much-valued clients.

Last year, our firm had reached the milestone of 50 people. It struck me, then, that the journey from zero to 50 was arguably easier than the journey from 50 onwards would be.

Many business leaders can relate to the challenges that come with growth, and they put structures in place to help them manage it. For a company that makes physical products, many of those challenges will be a matter of logistics: increasing production capacity, or expanding warehouse space, etc.

But in an environment like a law firm, we don’t manufacture widgets; we are a group of people working for and advising our clients and each solicitor’s desk is a business unit. Most of our growth challenges and opportunities will be people-related, with all of the complexity that involves.

What is the role of a Managing Partner?

The role of a managing partner in a law firm is much more than just the mechanics of running a business – it’s about being invested in the people who work in the business and trying to understand their individual perspectives on challenges and opportunities, concerns and ambitions.

So, I asked myself: how can I try and help people when giving advice about careers, rather than just assigning tasks. For example, that might be talking about how they may be able to improve performance, or working in a way that challenges them, or that encourages them to look at opportunities and problems in a different light.

In my view, a leader in a professional services firm must be personally invested in the careers of everybody who works there. And in order to give a valuable contribution, they need to inform themselves as to what’s important in that context.

As managing partner, I felt an obligation to the people in the firm today – and to people who will join in the future – to have good leadership policies in place.

Until the point that I enrolled on the Timoney course last year, I had never had any formal leadership training and I felt that this was missing from my toolkit.

The value of leadership training

Leadership training equips you with the tools and mindset to provide direction, management, structure, and strategy. I attended the Timoney Leadership Institute’s Advanced Leadership Programme, where I had the opportunity to analyse and discuss case studies of other businesses in different fields and learn how they dealt with challenges; the kind that often resonate with your own experience.

Sometimes in life, you have principles that you hold naturally, and it’s only when you hear them articulated by others that you realise they align closely with what you were doing all along.

In fact, one of the lecturers on the programme, Professor Miquel Lladó, spoke about putting yourself in the future and looking backwards because, that way, you can see things coming towards you.

Not only is this an excellent way of managing by anticipating growth, but I was also personally encouraged to hear this because it mirrored our approach at BHSM.

We were fortunate in not having any single moment, or a crisis point, where we thought: we have to change radically. Instead, we have always tried to be ahead of problems rather than having to solve them after they emerge.

And as we passed our first ten years in business, we were trying to apply similar foresight. It was a case of knowing and agreeing where we’re going on our journey, and clearly defining what we needed to get us there.

Changing expectations of leaders

The days of a leader sitting on a pedestal and expecting people to nod and obey were never right to begin with, and they’re definitely not right now.

Even the expression ‘managing people’ doesn’t sit well with me; I prefer to think of it in terms of working withpeople – together. In our firm, there are no hierarchies. We have always taken a respectful, collaborative approach. There are no such things as ‘closed doors’ – doors and desks are permanently ‘open‘ for queries, discussions, questions, ideas, and advice.

Your business reflects your culture; your policies and your goals should do likewise. We are very much a culture-driven firm. I think culture is a natural byproduct of the working environment. It is not something that can be contrived or retrofitted; it is engendered by the choices the leadership of a company makes – their vision, their hires – and a good culture should be cherished, nurtured, and never taken for granted.

Earlier this year, we moved from a Georgian building to a modern, and bespoke for our needs, single-floor office on Baggot Street Bridge, and we made sure our new office design would mirror how we like to work. It’s a totally democratised space. We all work together, learning, collaborating, strategizing and having some fun while doing so.

Insights from high-calibre academics

Another reason I valued the leadership development programme was the direct access it afforded me to the latest thinking in the field, which was particularly beneficial as perceived best in class approaches can become outdated very quickly. Timoney’s programme taps into fresh viewpoints delivered by high-calibre academics, from Harvard or IESE, who facilitate group sessions and contribute their insights.

I got tremendous value from this; so much so that we subsequently engaged with one of the professors from the course to meet and give advice to the wider leadership group in our firm.

I also enjoyed learning through the other participants on the course and hearing their real-life experiences and, sometimes hard-earned, wisdom. Those incidental stories provided me with an insight into the many approaches that other successful businesses are taking and, ultimately, gave me some fresh perspectives when looking at challenges and opportunities.

More than a traditional list of ‘key takeaways’, I look back on the programme as giving me the mindset to keep improving as a leader and to be more in tune with the role by listening to others and communicating better with them. During this year, we introduced a mentorship programme – whereby senior members of the team are at the disposal of more junior members – and this has been a success with strong take-up throughout the office.

Spreading the growth mindset

I want to stress at this point that, when I talk about leadership, I see it in terms of the group – not just for the benefit of a select few. For me, the real litmus test for the programme is to be able to share the experience of the programme with everyone working in the firm. The knowledge should percolate throughout the business: that’s how we will truly measure its success.

Overall, taking the Timoney programme provided an encouraging validation that we were on a positive path to growing in a managed and structured way and in a way that included the whole firm.

We already have a collaborative culture, which is a strong place to start. With that said, there have certainly been many lessons and methods tested in real-life businesses that we can apply to provide even more structure to what we do. No business can be complacent, and we want to work consistently to provide a challenging and rewarding environment for all.

The programme gave me the opportunity to learn how to keep putting people front and centre of what we do – and to employ models, policies, and procedures to help achieve that goal. Having undertaken the programme, I see how leadership training is vital not just in the business of law, but for any professional services firm.

There is no organisation without our people. They have to be at the front of what we do. If you neglect the people in your business, you have no culture to speak of. And a business without a shared identity will never realise its full potential.

If anyone has any questions, please feel free to email me at mhoman@bhsm.ie.