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Des Mannion Chief Executive Officer Langleys Solicitors

CEO blog: Gareth Southgate, David Maister and working on the hoof

Jul 29th, 2021

Des Mannion, Chief Executive Officer

Like many of us, I was gripped by the England football team’s journey to the final of the European Championship. As a qualified coach (professional, rather than sporting I hasten to add, although I did qualify as a referee many moons ago…) and leader of a commercial firm, I paid particular attention to Gareth Southgate’s leadership.

It was fascinating watching him bring together a group of talented individuals to form an effective team.

Tough calls. Youngsters making their competitive debuts. Penalties. Southgate’s experience throughout the championship proved how hard it is to get every decision right… the bottom line is you don’t and this goes with the territory.

As a leader you are a hero one minute and a villain the next. One of the benefits of hindsight is 20/20 vision – something you don’t have the luxury of when making difficult decisions in the heat of the moment. The key attribute for me is authenticity, following your own instincts and trusting the ‘good team’ you have built around you to deliver.

Having spent 25 years in accountancy, and the last six years leading and managing law firms – bringing together a group of talented individuals as an effective team – I have experienced my share of challenges.

The challenge of the new

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the most recent. I started my role as CEO here at Langleys in April 2020, and had to get to grips with a new firm, new role, new culture and new people; all while, like the rest of us, trying to deal with a global pandemic.

Tim Cross became Senior Partner a month before I joined. So we were both taking on new roles in a pandemic (the firm didn’t have a CEO before), building a working rapport in this context and trying to stay sane…

My 90-day plan was confined to the bin. Not knowing what was going to happen the next day or month meant that short-term decision making was impossible, let alone long-term. Like every other business leader we had to deal with what was right in front of us, which meant reacting rather than planning.

Some call it emergent strategy ­– others, working on the hoof!   A good example was the amount of change in employment legislation in that time, and my partner being an employment lawyer I had experience of the impact of the landscape changing daily.

Strategy and engagement

Compounding the challenge of Coronavirus, Langleys had sold its insurance business in January 2021 and we had to devise a new strategy for a different firm.

We started this in October and were clear that while the strategy developed was (obviously) important, the process of developing it was equally so.

I’m proud that we managed to involve everyone in the firm in doing this.

We sent questionnaires to everyone so they could share their ideas about what was working well and what needed to change. Our partners nominated the colleagues they wanted to sit on our strategy review group. All of them, along with our business services heads, took part in a series of workshops.

Engagement was key, and it was the most inclusive strategy process I’ve been involved in, which went down well with all

Learning from the masters

When working through it, I was reminded of David Maister’s classic book Managing The Professional Service Firm, which I read early in my career to help me understand accountants and lawyers. Maister is a genuine guru of the industry and this book is the bible.

One of the book’s key messages is that the thinking and behaviours that help lawyers excel as individuals, may be the things that limit what they can achieve as firms. Management challenges occur not in spite of lawyers’ intelligence and training, but because of them.

This made it more important – but more challenging – to involve everyone in the strategy review. An added motivation was to give a clear signal that the firm was changing, and that discussion, listening and openness were key tenets of the culture we wanted to create.

My thinking about this has been influenced by Gerry Johnson and Kevin Scholes, and their Cultural Web for defining the paradigm of the work environment; stories; rituals and routines; symbols; organisational structure; control systems; and power structures.

A key part of defining our culture relating to this web was agreeing the values we believed in and the the collective standards we would hold ourselves to as a firm. Again, everyone was involved in the process, so the values we have now are truly ‘ours’, rather than something imposed by the hierarchy.

Management, governance and doing what you say you will

One of the outputs of our strategy was distinguishing between management and governance.

In place of the firm’s old leadership team, we have a Strategy & Management Board and an Operations Board. The first group does what it says on the tin, and is made up of the CEO, Senior Partner, divisional heads, plus another partner to ensure transparency and objectivity.

The Operations Board comprises the CEO and business services directors. Its job is to implement – i.e. “we know what we have to do, so how let’s do it”…

I’ll finish by reciting some wisdom from a book a I read recently.

Legacy, by James Kerr, explores the philosophy of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby union team. One of their mantras is authenticity and doing what you say you will – no ifs or buts.

Kerr tells a story about JP Morgan (founder of the investment bank) being offered an envelope with some advice in it. If he liked the advice he would pay $25,000. If he didn’t, he would pay nothing.

He opened the enveloped, nodded, and paid the $25,000.

The advice said:

  1. Every morning write a list of the things to be done that day
  2. Do them

Simple but sage advice, and a reminder that as teams we have to do what we say we will to build trust, which is the foundation stone of good leadership.

I don’t know if Gareth Southgate’s read the book, and although he can’t take penalties for the team, he should be proud of what he’s achieved – which should definitlely mean “it’s coming home” very soon…

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Des Mannion

Chief Executive Officer

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