Performance Leader Podcast: S3 Ep 2: William Johnson on the three leadership roles of an equity partner

Ray D'Cruz
Performance Leader

My guest on S3 Ep 2 of the Performance Leaders podcast is Leadership Expert, William Johnson.

In this conversation, William draws on 30 years' experience developing leaders in the world's leading consulting and professional services firms. He distills the three key leadership tasks for every equity partner:

  • exemplifying the brand
  • embodying the culture
  • ensuring the legacy

The discussion takes place in a dynamic context for many firms: the unfolding nature hybrid working and the consuming war for talent.

About our guest

William Johnson has been advising firms on aligning behaviours with strategy for over 30 years. His firm, The Openside Group, works with some of the world's leading consulting and professional services firms.

William’s interest in learning and leadership theory began when he was commissioned in the fleet air arm of the Royal Navy, where after frontline service, he became involved in aircrew training. 

William holds a Masters in Experimental Psychology from Oxford, is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He also has an MBA from Warwick Business School and is a graduate of Harvard's Leading Professional Services Firms program.

He joins us on the Performance Leader's podcast to discuss the three roles of a partner in a high performing firm, exemplifying the brand, embodying the culture, including nurturing it in a hybrid environment and ensuring the legacy. We also draw on William's experience of how to give feedback and how to deal with High-Performing yet toxic partners. 

William is a great writer. His articles on The Openside Group website are highly insightful for anyone working in a professional services firm. His passion for leadership, culture and legacy shines through this podcast and all of his work. 

Additional resources on leadership for equity partners

Interview Transcript

Ray: [00:00:46] William, thanks for joining us on thePerformance Leader's podcast.


William: [00:01:00] It's great to be here, I'm flattered to be invited, given the previous array of stellar guests you've had.


Ray: [00:01:06] William, how do you define that idea of a high performance firm?


William: [00:01:26] In most professional service firms, high performance

determined in terms of numbers. We've always taken a broader look at professional services firms and in our view, the real high performance firms produce the numbers as a function of their work on brand, culture and legacy, if you like long term view. So, the numbers come as a function of that rather than just focusing on the numbers themselves.


Ray: [00:04:49] What are the key areas for focus for a high performing firm?


William: [00:04:58] You can Google leadership programs, there'd be 10 million; everybody's got a leadership program, every business school has got a leadership program. The thing that's missing for them all in terms of, well, for all of them, and they're all fine in terms of content.What's missing from most of them is context. So, we took a different look at this, looking specifically at professional services We looked at the three roles that a partner needs to be so adept at, to be successful. And those three roles are to exemplify the brand, to embody the culture and to ensure that legacy. So, brand, culture and legacy What we've noticed -what's been fascinating is pre-COVID, the focus for our work: How do you have conversations which exemplify and illustrate and demonstrate the brand of the firm, and reinforce the brand of the firm, rather than merely assert what the brand is?


William: [00:06:49] During COVID, it became really clear that the interest and the focus to change onto culture and legacy. As we come out of lockdown, our conversation with clients now is almost exclusively around how do we maintain our culture? How do we ensure that it's fit for purpose and aligns with our brand? And then the most radical change and the biggest conversation is how do we develop the next layer of partners? Because without exception, they're all facing this gap between senior manager and partner. And what we're seeing is in the Big 4, turnover is after about three to five years is over 30 percent. And this has been exaggerated and magnified by the pandemic.,So the work now that we're doing is around legacy. What is your legacy as a partner? How do you ensure it? How do you ensure the legacy of the firm? What do you want to be known for? How are you going to develop people? All those sorts of issues, much more now than the sort of external client stuff.


Ray: [00:08:44] The firms we're talking to at the moment are worried about how they're going to nurture and develop their culture in a virtual or hybrid environment. I guess a lot of the I think you call them 'artefacts of authority' have been vested in the physical workplace, even the way we dress in a professional services environment. With a lot of those things no longer there, how do firms emphasise and develop culture?


William: [00:09:21] In an article 'the absence of artefacts and authority' was essentially prompted by a doing some virtual training for partners of a law firm. And one of the partners was doing it on the zoom from up from his own room, and he had strategically moved all of his qualifications and certificates so that they were in focus of the camera. Now, I didn't have the nerve to bring this up because it looks so obvious. But one of his colleagues actually commented on it and said, 'what's this about?' And of course, it was something to reinforce his position. It really was a brilliant trigger and opened up a whole discussion around, well, imposter syndrome was where we got it there because there were a number of female partners in this law firms that we got talking about imposter syndrome. And it turned into a sort of light-hearted but really important conversation. The traditional model, of course, in professional services is learning by watching and learning onsite, particularly in consulting. That's not there. You know, there isn't that opportunity. So, in the virtual world, suddenly there's a different set of skills required. You can't say you can't put somebody in a consulting. I have the watch what's going on. I'm working alongside people and take part in projects because effectively they're all doing a sort of timeshare on different terminals, on a on a sort of hub. And you don't get any traction. You don't get the spotlight because the water cooler moment. But you don't have that opportunity to have coaching or mentoring or developmental conversations, sort of because they not now naturally occurring. The implication is the urgency of that is that you have to make them occur. But that's a challenge for a lot of senior people who so in most firms, you know, there are some great who are really good at it and there are some, particularly in law firms. There are some who are really good at developing people, and there are some people who are just really, really good at the law.


Ray: [00:12:22] William, what's your advice for leaders or managers in these virtual environments, how can they run or manage these meetings more effectively?


William: [00:12:32] There's a sort of question before that, first they've got to be aware of what's missing. And so, the onus now is upon some of the people who are not so good at this, they've got to pick up those skills from the people who are good at it. So, in one firm, we've set up a number of partner co-coaching groups. So, there are some people who are well known for and have a reputation as being the go-to people for mentoring, you know, good at developing teams. And we've paired them with some people who perhaps don't have that reputation. So, they're sort of learning the tricks of the trade and co-coaching groups that we've facilitated. And then this is really uncomfortable for some purely technical people, and while they've been able to get by in sort of an office environment because other people were picking up the slack, in a virtual world there's nobody else to pick up the slack, so they have to do it. And this is uncomfortable. So firstly, they have to start making space. I was having a conversation just before we came on air this morning with a client of ours in Europe, and I'm coaching the managing partner and he's a really, really great guy, but he's really shy. And I was talking to the director this morning, and she said that he addressed the new actions yesterday virtually. And he'd spoken fluently eloquently about the numbers, the strategy, but it was all technical. And she said it was just like a sort of a technical briefing. It could have been done. by an e-mail and there was no personal warmth. And this, of course, is what the next generation without wishing to stereotype them, this idea of engagement and a personal connection is vitally important. So, he just needs relax and open up and get a bit more personal about things. So, it's something we've been working on and he's getting better at it. And he's the great guy who's just very, very sharp.And so, he resorts to the second. So, he's got some learning to do.


Ray: [00:15:09] And so that's advice you would presumably give him in any environment. But in a virtual environment, this becomes exaggerated in terms of the effect.


William: [00:15:21] Absolutely. Because you're sort of exposed, you're a single face on the screen. Now, if you're not good at making a relationship in the real world, in a physical world, you're going to find it almost impossible via screen. Everything's exaggerated. The virtual meeting plays to the strengths of agenda, checklist, Just get it done right because it's easier to run. There aren't so many diversions. The downside, of course, is that you actually need the space to have those side development conversations What sort of idiot organizes virtual meetings that start as soon as one finishes? What is the space? Where is the space for reflection? How can you possibly get there on time? It doesn't allow people to have the space to have peripheral conversations. It plays to the agenda-driven task focus. So even more difficult then, to have that relationship focus.


Ray: [00:24:07] Let's just head back to the legacy issue, and you mentioned that there are a lot of firms that are really struggling with that cohort of future leaders or next partners. Can you expanda little bit on why that is?


William: [00:24:24] This could be summed up by the conversation I had first with the chairman of a major European law firm. And I went to breakfast with him, and he said the challenge we've got, William, our cultures made us hugely successful for 100 years and we can't get these juniors to fit into our culture. And I just laughed because it's the wrong question.They are not going to fit into your culture. The culture's got to change to accommodate them. And it was a really difficult conversation We had this conversation over a long period. But to his credit, he sorts of got it. But if you've got a really strong culture in a law firm. And that's made you successful, then of course there's a question about why you would be changing.But the concern legacy at the moment is that the people coming through, call them Millennials and Generation Z, and it's too easy to stereotype that group, but there are aspects which are consistent with the profile of that group. Most of them now look at the cost to become a partner.  And they look at it and they say, I'm not prepared to pay that. I want to see my kids. I want to have more quality lifetime.I want to stay married. They look at the people who are there, and what it's taken them to get there, and they just say no. And they've got more options.And so they'll go, they'll get some experience. They'll get a great brand on their on their resume. But you know, they're, well, skilled. They're smart. And the Generation Z is sometimes characterized as disloyal. I think that does of this service, but they are not bound by a sense of duty. You know, my generation, we had this sort of sense of duty and job for a life and commitment to the brand and do what it takes. But that's just gradually eroded over the generations.


Ray: [00:27:31] It can work in a number of ways as well. I think I heard recently of some UK law firms that were really under siege from US law firms in relation to talent. And it certainly wasn't the promise of a better lifestyle, it was probably the opposite. But the view was, well, if I do this for three years, then when I'm ready to have a family or move it to the next phase of my life, I've got the financial security. I can then have my choice.


William: [00:28:05] I absolutely get that argument because it's been the argument in investment banking forever. And if you look at it, it's Hotel California, right? You can check out anytime you like, you can never leave. Once you're in there, it is incredibly difficult to get out. It's really hard to walk away. And we, you know, we've done some work over the years with private equity firms. Same idea. And there's a certain sort of personality profile in there, really. We use the Hogan leadership assessment metrics or psychometric. I've been a psychologist for 30 years, and I've used most of them the tools, but the one I use the most now and I think is most applicable for professional services, is Hogan. And there's a very distinct Hogan profile to fit those sorts of people that stay in there. And they are fundamentally insecure, driven, needs the next deal. It's not really about the money, know it's about the deal, and then they're never really satisfied, highly self-critical, and they just need the next deal in the next deal. And that's when they're successful, because they're very driven. But the flipside to that is it's very hard for them to get away, you know, to give it up.


Speaker2: [00:31:44] William, as we think about the generations that are moving through professional services firms now coming into these firms, why will they join a professional services firm and what might make them stay?


Speaker1: [00:31:58] Certainly, the salary has got to be competitive. But it's not enough. It's necessary, but it's nowhere near sufficient. So, what they're looking at is, they're looking at culture. They're looking at a career path. They're looking at diversity and inclusion issues are absolutely critical. So, they're looking at equal opportunity, balance, I think, is probably the word that sums it up more than anything, they're looking for balance. They want to know that they'll work as hard as anybody else. Ok, but not exclusively. So, they'll look for things like broadening opportunities.Secondments.  A clear career path. a clear development path. So, what happens in three years time? And then what happens? One of the one of my clients has had a number of their high performing, high potential juniors leaving, and they were leaving because they were being treated as the partner's personal property. So, they weren't being allowed to go and work for other partners in other areas of the firm because they were so good, the partner wants to keep hold of them They're not going to swallow that. They also they have much more access through Glassdoor and Vault and other social media sites. Second-worst.


William: [00:33:46] They won't believe the PR, because every firm says come and join us, we're great. And they don't want people on tables anymore or, you know, pool tables They don't want that sort of stuff. So, they want something longer term. They want to see how they can grow. They want a sense of purpose as well. They want to know, you know, everyone quotes Sinek, but they want to know the why. What’s this firm for? Is it just to make money?


Ray: [00:35:19] What's your assessment of the feedback culture in professional services?


William: [00:35:28] Feedback if somebody could come up with another word for feedback, they could make a fortune, because this is the word that strikes terror into any professional service individual. The last thing when somebody says to you, 'can I give you some feedback?' You know what's coming. Feedback is almost invariably top down and very rarely development in professional services firms. What I've noticed is the people are really good at this never collect feedback. They just manage to have developmental conversations. I do global conferences, keynotes I did one in the US before lockdown: 200 people there, mix of law, lawyers, accountants, consultants. I had got a really good reception, really good engagement. Very positive. And then one guy came up to me at the end of the session and he said, "Great session, can I give you a bit of feedback?" And you just know what's coming. And of course, being the type of, you know, psychologically insecure person that I am, that's the only thing I hear. So, it's not it's not developmental.


William: [00:37:10] There's a really interesting book which is very popular called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. It's all about feedback, and it's been sort of trashed in the press a bit. So, she's written a revised version, a foreward and an afterword. And I still think it's pretty good. It's a good approach to giving feedback with compassion, giving the difficult message, which is in people's best interests, but giving it so they still end up feeling positive. And that's a rare art, and in professional services, it's even rarer than it is in general. The hierarchical nature. This sort of partnership structure: the feedback tends to be top-down, very direct and very rare.


Ray: [00:38:28] And certainly our view is that feedback can be candid and honest and open where there's a really strong relationship in place. It's very hard to turn up without that relationship and provide that level of feedback and security at the same time.


William: [00:38:51] You have to have a right to offer feedback and you have to earn that right to offer it. You don't have it by virtue of your seniority, and it has to be delivered with compassion. And the other thing about feedback, my great mentor John Savage, who is a partner atBooz Allen, he worked with us for a very long time, he's retired now. But he always said to me, there are two things you can do wrong with feedback. One is taken it too seriously and the others do not take it seriously enough. He's absolutely right: keep it in perspective.


Ray: [00:39:44] It's even trickier for partners when they're giving feedback to peers. And we see this playing out and in performance conversations where perhaps a practice group leader is trying to give feedback to a rainmaker. And so, there's even though there's a title with power, there might be implicit power difference in the reverse way. What's your advice for a practice group leader walking into a meeting room with a rainmaker to deliver some challenging feedback?


William: [00:40:24] Yeah, I guess what you're sort of verging on a now is the article we wrote about the Paradox of the Poisonous Performer. Every firm has got toxic, high performer, right, every firm. In our firm it might be me, but I don't know. But just about every firm's got one, who's high performing but is challenging behaviour. Well, there are a couple of things going on here. Firstly, it's been tolerated, It's all the way through.You know, it's often said that the culture is defined by the behaviours you tolerate. And the problem with challenging behaviour, is as soon as you tolerate it, you legitimize it. You make it valid. And the longer you tolerate it, the more it becomes OK. So, dealing with it at a partner level is much more challenging than dealing with it at a junior level. It's much easier because it's not just embedded about the high performer again. There's a book by two guys out of Harvard, Jay Lorsch and Tom Tierney, who ran when Bain after BillBain. They wrote a book called Aligning the Stars, and there's a lot in thereabout the cost of [toxic] high performers. Most of the evidence, nearly all evidence, says they are never worth the cost No matter how much they bring in,the long term cost to the culture, to the brand, to the firm is more than they'll ever bring in. So, it's a difficult one. My advice would be deal with it early.


William: [00:42:21] The second thing is that you have to doit in stages. So, we took a simplistic view of emotional intelligence The original five were self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills. Take the first two self-awareness and self-regulation are the most critical, because without self-awareness, you can't have any self-regulation. So where do you start? You have to start by raising the person's self-awareness. First, they've got to be open to that. to you raising it We're using this Hogan instrument with a number of partners in another firm.Not all of them are. toxic High-Performance, but they're all very, very high ego, high power, high recognition, high performing guys. And they're good guys, but they're not very self-aware. So that first year of Hogan and follow up was about raising their self-awareness. Once you raise their self-awareness, you can then bring up instances and they start to identify instances where they might be able to self-regulate a bit more. Maybe take another option. But if they're not self-aware, you can't do anything. There's no point in offering feedback to someone, even that might be valid, if they've got no context for it. If they're not self-aware, they're not going to buy it. So, it's incremental, it’s gently, it has to be subtle and done with compassion. And in the long term context of the firm. And ultimately there has to be consequences.There have to be consequences. If there are no consequences for bad behaviour, you're going to keep getting it. That doesn't mean you have to issue threats or beatings or punishments. But there have to be consequences because if there are no consequences, you're not going to get compliance.


Ray: [00:44:45] This is not part of the recording, butI think that's a great answer, by the way. I really like that idea of incremental, but starting with self-awareness,


William: [00:45:06] Let's work on this for a year and revisit it. I want you to talk to this coach or we'll have these conversations.And you've going to have a structure, or you've got to have a process like, you know, bring me instances, show me examples, let's get some feedback, let's do some role play. You know, it's a longer term game,


Ray: [00:45:29] It helps having some sort of agreed framework around what it means to be a partner of that firm. Whether that's a values driven framework or a competencies driven framework, something to reference and to rely on that's been agreed by the partners as representing the ethos of that firm.


William: [00:45:52] You can have the brand values you like.If the culture doesn't match that culture, leaks through. It'll leak through in your interactions with the clients, in the way they observe you physically behaving with your team, it will leak through. No matter how much you try and police it, it will leak through. So, alignment is critical, and it's really easy, once you sort of alert to this, to notice signs of misalignment in the firm: the brand, the values and the partner behaviours really easy and comeback to your question right at the beginning. What characterizes a high performing firm complete alignment between brand culture and partner behaviour.Complete alignment and not accept some mindless compliance, but alignment and consequences for non-compliance. They deal with non-compliant behaviour transparently and instantly. And because of that, because everyone knows that you don't get very much of it, because everybody knows there are consequences.This is the way we do things around here. This is what to expect in some of the great sort of paradox here is that the strongest cultures have the fewest rules.


Ray: [00:48:50] William, that seems like a great place to thank you for your time today.


William: [00:48:56] It's been a pleasure, Ray.

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