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  • Ruth Napier

Here be dragons

Updated: Jun 4

Yellow and red chinese dragon paper sculpture with black nighttime bacground
Here be dragons

Early explorers often used charts which included pictures of strange sea monsters or warnings in areas which were unexplored.  As we move through an era of change with AI-enabled technology at every turn, what cultural signposts might help us navigate these uncharted seas?

When I first started working in financial services, I worked in information and research for the investment banking arm of a forward-thinking universal bank. I was intrigued to find that one of the 5 core values used by my new employer in their annual reviews was demonstrating your ability to be “an agent of change”.  The description was unfamiliar at the time, but seems obvious in hindsight. At Bankers Trust innovation was part of their DNA – they sought out creative, problem-solving, collaborative people who could think outside of the box. From the lowliest information assistant or senior-most managing director – the freedom to suggest change and the gratitude for ideas from any source was a hallmark of its culture. Rapidly promoted then hot housed in a corporate finance research team my analytical skills, creativity and career flourished.

But what made their culture so suited to innovation? Looking back I can identify

6 key factors.

1.    People-centric, respectful and collaborative.  Everyone was valued with respect given to peers, managers, juniors and support staff: the very foundation to a collaborative culture. A highly respected Chief Administration Officer (CAO) reflected the importance of the middle and back office functions as fundamental to the successful operation of the bank. Questions were welcomed: they opened up the ability to help improve understanding, to build connections (“I don’t know but I know someone who does, let’s get them on the call”) or to co-create.  There were rocket scientists, rainmakers and dealmakers but heads and critical decision-making roles were people-centric.  Virtual teams were a regular feature – whether formed to deliver a deal or a change project.

2. Meritocratic.  It took hard work and success to progress up to the next level but every promotion was on merit.  If you showed ability it was recognised and harnessed. Bonus pools were allocated to divisions but everyone was eligible.

3. Innovation mindset. Curiosity was valued as highly as a can-do approach to problem solving. Building an understanding of the context and the problem was important - blockers, idlers or anyone not prepared to pull together weren’t tolerated and didn’t stay long.

4. Client-focus. Relationship bankers weren’t simply immersed in their industry sector but were entirely focused on their clients as businesses and individuals. Building a strong relationship with a C-suite leader could take 10 years or more, so bankers were in this for the long game. Trusted advisor status was common with ideas freely shared and exchanged with clients to help refine or improve them – clients were part of the innovation cycle. Even the most junior roles were encouraged to build relationships with clients. Our top 250 clients were carefully relationship mapped – with matrix team charts, key opportunities, competitor detail, historic deals & financials.

5. Technovation. Technology was used as a tool to assist in product innovation, pitching, deal structuring and analysis. CRMs were built to solve particular problems – from driving keeping-in-touch programmes, queryable experience databases to holistic client maps of complex corporate relationships.

6. Commerciality.  Ingrained in bankers every decision was a commercial. Time was precious and not wasted. Business cases were the norm for anything more than a minor intervention and always included opportunity cost information.

How different is a typical professional services firm culture?

From international law firms to regional ones, here are some of the key differences I’ve encountered and a few suggestions on how to nudge them in a positive direction.

1.    Collaborate? Moi?  Law firms are more individualistic and tensions exist between teams (real or imagined differences on levels of contribution or client service). If not carefully managed the tension can lead to a level of mistrust between teams and individuals: this manifests in change projects with those not used to collaborating take time to adjust.

Improve by:

• Benchmarking how collaborative your firm sees itself (employee/staff survey) – and revisit in 6-12 months after implementing changes

• Gaining support internally for and introducing recognition and reward system for collaboration

• Engaging with teams where collaboration is seen as low and identify 2-3 areas where collaboration with one or more other teams would be beneficial. These could be sector, campaign, process improvement, cross-sell or client journey related.

• Subject to 2 being in place/in process, inviting participants to join cross practice teams clustered on these areas.

• Using existing internal mechanisms, meetings and comms channels to reinforce benefits of collaboration or ways to improve collaborative outcomes.

2.    Stuck in second gear. Law firms are populated with negative language associated with people who are not lawyers. I don’t recall ever being called a ‘non-banker’ in the finance world but the term non-fee earner is bandied about frequently in law firms. Unfortunately this promotes a debility: which can lead to arrogant behaviour or a dismissive attitude. Even the most open may be affected by unconscious bias. For firms of any size, their middle and back office equivalents can account for 50% of their headcount: what a waste of potential!

Improve by:

• Changing the firm’s language

• Opening up career pathways for business services (including partnership)• Directors/CxOs on boards and strategic change initiatives

• Trainee seat in business services

3.    Time trials.  When working at a regional law firm we struggled to get people to devote time to business development or innovation when it wasn’t being monitored or recognised as important. We took the decision to collectively call it “Investment time” instead of “Non-fee earning time” – a change of emphasis to show it was valued equally to client work.  Individuals working on innovation projects were given adjustments to their targets to reflect that their time recording on client work would be lower.

Improve by:

• Empowering individuals with investment time target (BD/Innovation/Hybrid)

• Introducing investment into the firm as a set performance objective umbrella

• Setting up and promoting use of investment time codes in time-recording system. Monitoring, giving positive feedback and rewarding investment activity

• Offering anyone interested a grounding in innovation – such as the Legal Services Innovation Course (free).  

4.    Inside out. One of the greatest benefits of having a BD and marketing team in place is the continuous emphasis that they bring to thinking about markets, clients and needs as opposed to matters, cases, practices and services. A true client-focus can be the best lens to drive creative problem solving for the firm and for its clients.

Improve by:

• Promoting better understanding of the entire firm’s offering – internal training/lunch and learn sessions, triggers/signals that indicate potential need for different services

• Hosting a regular internal forum to discuss client challenges/opportunities

• Inviting a client panel to speak at your partner conference and giving the panel a regular slot

• Establishing or updating your client listening programme

• Developing or evolving client personas/ideal client profiles and mapping out client journeys, highlighting pain points to prompt ideation sessions

• Co-creating solutions with clients

5.       Technophobia and technophilia. Fear drives a lot of inertia and the legal sector is often characterised as old-fashioned and slow to change. Ingrained habits can be hard to shift without a collective will, vision and path to a (better) future.  Some of the most challenging change projects are those which affect longstanding relationships: roles can be stuck in a symbiotic relationship that neither is really satisfied with but which neither wants to change for fear of the consequences. Whether involving a lawyer and a secretary or business development and legal teams, technology can be a useful bridge between current and future states. SOS (shiny object syndrome or shiny new toy syndrome) can be an issue with enthusiastic leaders but is more likely to be an irritating trait of a small number of partners.

Improve by:

• Establishing an innovation team with representatives from each department

• Sharing a clear set of innovation priorities to ensure resources and effort is aligned

• Keeping a structured approach to assessing and introducing new priorities

• Communicating regularly on progress

6.       Uncommercial. Whilst lawyers are understandably focused on 1) the law and 2) their client they often have a more limited understanding of commerciality.  The most successful have learned how to match their strength, breadth and reach to that of their clients, institutionalising relationships with multi-jurisdictional in house legal teams. However for a junior lawyer ‘commercial awareness’ can sometimes be reduced to knowing what rates have been set in the firms RFP response, how many billable hours you have to record each month, and perhaps the firm’s annual revenue target. True commerciality is much wider and often less appreciated and relates as much to understanding your client as it does to your firm. 

Improve by:

• Making commercial awareness a core competency

• Introducing commercial training at relevant levels

• Tracking commerciality in client listening/feedback programmes

7. Counter culture.  Bankers like to solve, lawyers like to argue.  I hate to say it but you need to grow a thick skin if you are new to legal and getting involved in a change programme – the why nots sometimes equal or exceed the whys!

Improve by:

• Getting to know who is most likely to challenge and being prepared to tackle them

• Enlisting stakeholders and influencers to neutralise the nay-sayers and silent saboteurs

If you can nudge your firm’s culture one or two steps in the right direction with these tips, then you should help to unlock more of your firm’s transformation potential. Remember you’ll also need to learn how to use your newly forged AI-enabled sword(s) to help slay the dragons or banish them from your map entirely!

Originally published in Centrum, the magazine of the Professional Services Marketing Group.


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