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Ideas & Observations

Guest contributor: Progressive leadership: why inclusivity, authenticity and clarity of purpose are key

There is a tendency when leading a business to focus on the external. But the world of work is evolving, and now, more than ever, leaders must ensure they are engaged with their people and ready to embrace change like never before. Here, Gill Hunter, managing partner at Square One Law, explains more.

We have a national skills shortage across most sectors and business types so retaining, training and motivating your existing team is crucial.

This isn’t about pandering to a ‘snowflake’ generation (I hate that expression!) or being ‘soft’.

It’s about understanding what makes your team tick and viewing and valuing them as individuals, not as ‘human resources’ (another expression I dislike!).

I think it is fair to say most law firms have been well behind the curve when it comes to wellbeing, team development and progressive leadership.

The innately competitive nature of the chargeable hours culture, the lack of tolerance for any perceived weakness and the intrinsically macho approach, doing down competitors and bigging up your own achievements, have led to a fairly toxic and unhealthy environment in a lot of places.

A lawyer who joined us from a large London firm told me a story about how, after three nights of working through on a major deal with zero sleep, they were sent home in a taxi, told to go into their house, touch the wall, get back in the taxi and return to work to fool their body and mind into thinking they had been home and had a rest.

A ridiculous proposition on all levels, but they did as they were told. That was because of fear. Fear of losing their job, fear of ridicule from colleagues, fear of being perceived as lacking resilience.

The workforce of today, young and old, have had enough of this.

They do not want cumbersome hierarchy, an all-sticks and no-carrots approach to performance, inflexibility and no work/life balance.

They want something different, a kinder and fairer way of working, and rightly so. It’s up to business leaders to set the standard and authentically lead from the front.

So, what do the teams of today want?

In my experience, talking to our own team, other businesspeople, friends and family, people want to be able to come to work as themselves, have some autonomy and choice over their day-to-day activities and be empowered to act and make decisions.

They want to be fairly rewarded and recognised for their contribution, feel valued and have a clear sense of direction and purpose – for them and the business.

A speaker from a global HR business at a recent conference I attended said that when they surveyed the many thousands of candidates they had dealt with last year, the number one priority when looking for a new job was revealed as wanting to be part of an organisation with purpose.

Clarity of purpose on a business level – eg, this is our ambition – and being purposeful in the way the business operates, caring about its people, caring about the impact on the communities in which it operates, as well as on the environment and society, is incredibly important.

Leaders may need to go on quite a journey to change the culture in their business to accommodate this – for some it will be alien, and quite frankly terrifying.

It means showing vulnerability, admitting you don’t have all the answers – being unafraid to be human!

However, if you take the plunge, you build trust as your people will know it is authentic.

Gone are the days of micromanagement, autocracy and ‘everything needs to go past “x”’. Working collaboratively and considering the interests of all stakeholders is key.

Teams want to know they have a voice and that you are listening.

That doesn’t mean you will grant their every wish, but you will consider their views and communicate with them when decisions are made. And that you will be self-critical, open to challenge and admit when you didn’t quite get something right.

Leaders need to be inclusive, not in order to tick ED&I boxes, but to create stronger decision-making processes within the business, rather than echo chambers of likeminded folk with a limited view of life.

Diversity is important, not just because it’s right (opportunity should be equal for all) but because business is better.

If leaders can’t or won’t change, expect someone to do it for them (especially an external consultant) or pay lip service to it without embracing it, they will lose the respect of their people and fail.

However, if you can get the people and culture right, the business will be stronger and more effective.

At Square One Law, we are determined to break the mould.

We are on a journey – we aren’t there yet, but we are firmly focused on building a high performing team of diverse, talented individuals who, if they’ve got to work, are delighted they work as part of our team.

Through conversations with those with lived experience, we are creating frameworks that will allow us to accommodate difference and create a more equitable workplace for all.

We are exploring different ways of working and running the business.

We are shaking up meetings and using different approaches to encourage challenge, overcome the perpetual problem of owner’s truth (where people default to agreement with whoever is perceived as being in charge) and make our decision-making more inclusive, more collaborative and more effective.

We are constantly looking for ways to improve and have created a number of forums where we can listen to and learn from our people – they are full of great ideas.

We see ourselves as being at the forefront of a growing movement to redefine ‘professional’.

It is not about the suit you wear, the colour of your hair, the long hours you work.

It’s an attitude, a willingness to get stuck in, have your colleagues’ and your clients’ backs, step up and deliver the best service you can and take an interest in your own and your team’s personal development.

That’s true professionalism.