We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds”, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.
In this column, Rose speaks with Liam Brown, Chairman & CEO of legal industry consultancy Elevate, about leading by exerting influence instead of authority, managing through structural change, and how his company is handling the current crisis.
Rose Ors: Who are the leaders and thinkers outside the legal industry who have influenced your approach to business?
Liam Brown: My mentor, Lord Bob Gavron, the founder and CEO of St. Ives [now Kin + Carta], one of the largest printing and publishing companies in the UK, was unquestionably the most significant influence on me. He hired me — even though I had no relevant business experience — to a management-training position, starting at entry-level, but with gradually increasing responsibilities as he moved me around the company. Along the way he offered me an up-close and personal master class on how to lead a large enterprise.
Rose Ors: What are some of the lessons he taught you?
Liam Brown: Of the many lessons I learned from him, two stick out for me. First, he stressed the importance of understanding the system of activities within a company to better be able to diagnose and address the underlying causes of a problem rather than merely treating the symptoms. This appealed to my medical background.
Second, he never missed an opportunity to emphasize that effective leadership flowed through exerting influence, rather than authority. I learned that the hard way during one assignment as the new, young head of a 500-person, unionized department. Nobody was going to do anything simply because I told them to! I had to develop a whole new set of influencing skills. So I have some sympathy for law firm managing partners.
Rose Ors: Leading by influence versus authority certainly applies to law firms.
Liam Brown: Absolutely. Any leader of a law firm partnership will tell you of the importance of influence. That said, influence is necessary for any leader in any organization. It applies to me as the largest shareholder of Elevate. I have a lot of control, but I can’t get anyone to do anything merely by me telling them to. A command-and-control approach doesn’t work in professional businesses made up of smart, motivated, energetic people who seek purpose, autonomy, and mastery.
Rose Ors: What other lessons did you learn from Bob?
Liam Brown: He taught me by example how to manage a business through significant structural change. Our company was under significant financial pressure in the late 1980s, and the only way to stay in business was to dramatically change the way we worked. In order to take advantage of emerging, more efficient technology, we needed to transform our work processes and change the skills and make up of our workforce. This required we de-unionize, lay off many, and radically retrain those people that remained. We had to communicate the necessity and urgency of these changes in a way that would bring employees along.
Bob coached me on how to talk to not only the minds, but also to the hearts of the people going on this journey. It was a massive undertaking, and I learned how to do it from the best.
Rose Ors: Did his approach mirror author Dr. John Kotter’s change model?
Liam Brown: Yes. For example, one of Kotter’s steps is to identify and remove obstacles to change. You must speak to employees one-to-one as people in order to find out who is resistant and why.
People who resist usually do so out of fear. You must address those fears by straightforwardly and honestly explaining why the future will be better than today — and how to get there — to have any hope of support. I seem to have spent my whole career speaking to a lot of resisters.
Rose Ors: What books have influenced you, Liam?
Liam Brown: Principles by Ray Dalio is an excellent book for building a company based on a system of activities. It is infamous for Radical Transparency. While I don’t agree with the extent to which Ray employs it, I hope that people would say a hallmark of my management and business style is speaking with candor and openness.
Deep Work by Cal Newport is a guide on how to be intensely focused to be effective. It teaches you how to set boundaries and politely say no to things that are not a priority.
Superfast: Lead at Speed by Sophie Devonshire discusses how to manage your energy, which for me, as the leader of a fast-moving company, is critical.
Rose Ors: What is a big picture question facing the legal industry?
Liam Brown: Improving diversity will benefit customers and the people who work in the legal sector. To me this requires us to include different points of view, different voices, and different experiences.
I imagine a legal sector in the future that includes professionals with multiple disciplines from varied backgrounds. I hope that lawyers and legal professionals will contribute to this diversity, whether they work at a law department, a law firm, or a law company.
Rose Ors: Moving on to a top-of-mind issue. How is Elevate dealing with the COVID-19 crisis?
Liam Brown: We prepared in advance and we acted early. Working from home is a normal option we offer, whenever customers allow. We have Business Continuity Planning, even Pandemic Response Planning, documented and periodically tested. We launched our Pandemic Response to COVID-19 at the end of January. Before lockdowns were imposed, our entire company began working from home, without any interruption in customer service.
More importantly, beyond systems and methods, we recognize the stress and anxiety our people may be feeling. Our People team sends out a daily COVID-19 communication, and our managers have been coached to start daily meetings by briefly checking in to see how everyone is feeling, then focus on getting on with business.
I have hosted video conference townhalls and regularly send videos and emails giving my assessment of the crisis because I believe it’s important for employees to know what I think will happen, and what this will mean for our company and for them.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.