Monkey business

One of the things I am most enjoying in what is laughingly called semi-retirement is the distance it allows me from what was once all-consuming. I am no longer a lawyer, and have nothing to prove: I have been there, done that and worn the t-shirt for far too long. Instead, I feel I have much to achieve still, and the energy to do it – and I no longer have to climb the hierarchy. The struggle up the greasy pole is a thing of the past.

I have been reading Dario Maestripieri’s article The Origins of Power in the RSA’s Summer Journal. I liked the section in which he considers the different social strategies of male rhesus macaques. He describes the problems for ‘challenger immigrants’ – “young, strong and impulsive, and [with] no patience for waiting in a queue”, who are not always successful, and then goes on,

In larger groups, despotic alpha males have built a system of alliances to protect their status and privileges. When ambitious males join one of these groups, their best bet is ‘challenger resident’ strategy. Challenger residents do not immediately confront the alpha male. Instead, they start out as low ranking and concentrate on building alliances with other males. Only after they have identified the strengths and weaknesses of the alpha male, become familiar with social dynamics within the group and established political alliances with other males do they launch an attack on the alpha male. Given their knowledge and strategic ability, challenger residents are often successful in defeating the alpha male and taking his place at the top.

Sound familiar? Simply substitute lawyer for macaque.

Rumsfeld’s Rules

Donald Rumsfeld’s Rules (Advice on government, business and life) may have been around for a while, but I only found them today, courtesy of a link in one of Kevin O’Keefe’s tweets and Rick Klau’s weblog. As Rick Klau comments, “They are, put simply, brilliant”. Read them: this is the link.

I particularly enjoyed this one,

Reduce the number of lawyers. They are like beavers. They get in the middle of the stream and dam it up.

Some 30 years ago, I was the gofer to one of the corporate partners in the firm that then employed me. We were advising a merchant bank, in turn advising the independent directors of ATV. It was (or seems) a very long time ago, but I have two vivid memories of that particular transaction.

The first was the appearance, very late one night, of the irrepressible Lew Grade. He, and his cigar, came through the double doors that led off into the Executive Suite at the top of the building. He just wanted to know that we were all being looked after; and as he left, he executed a couple of steps just to let us know that he was still a hoofer at heart.

My second memory, and this was triggered by reading Rumsfeld’s advice about lawyers, was of Robert Holmes à Court walking unannounced into an all parties meeting: clients, merchant bankers, stockbrokers, accountants and a fair number of lawyers. His Bell Group had just emerged as  a buyer. Holmes à Court looked at the suits sitting round the table: there were probably some 20 plus people in the room, and he slowly worked round the table, asking everyone who they were, who they were with, and what they were doing. Depending upon the answer given it was either a “You may leave now” or “You may stay”. All very courteous but nonetheless there was steel in his eyes.

I was one of the last he got to.

“Well, what are you doing?”

“Taking the notes.”

“You had better stay”

And stay I did. Holmes à Court was himself originally a lawyer, and had a very well-developed sense of who and what was needed.

A different S word

Read Stefan Stern’s latest column in the FT, Time to get your strategy right. It has been a pretty grizzly year, and it is not getting easier fast, but we will come out of this recession: and professional service firms, like any other business, need to be ready. So, as Stern opens, “We need to talk about strategy” – but, and this is where it starts,

. . . business leaders ought to recognise, as they catch their breath after months of turbulence, that the strategy they were pursuing until recently is unlikely to be right for today.

It’s not just that markets have changed. Your organisation has changed. You may have all been through a near-death experience. Even if you avoided calamity, it is unlikely that colleagues are the same carefree people you remember from a year or two ago. Most businesses have been making serious cutbacks. Co-workers may be doing their best to look calm and positive. But they can see unemployment rising and know that sustained recovery is a long way off.

Leadership is all

In a week when everything is overshadowed by the fate of Speaker Martin (at the time of posting we are still waiting to hear when it is he intends to go) and after what seems an eternity of disclosures about MPs’ expenses (accompanied by an orgy of hand-wringing insincerity), yet another excellent article by Stefan Stern in today’s FT – and for leaders in law firms another pointer,

Does “real leadership” simply mean telling people what to do? Or does leadership mean building consensus, so that when you attempt to make changes your organisation advances more or less as one.

Leadership is situational. In other words, context is everything. Few business leaders find themselves facing a weekly inquisition like PMQs. But in a time of economic difficulty, businesses and organisations do look to their leaders for clarity of thought and decisive action. So which organisations will come through this period in better shape: those where there is less talk and more action, or those where agreement is sought before action is taken?

Stern writes about the recent launch of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at the Cass Business School in London, and reports the comments of Laura Empson, director of the centre : “Professionals, by and large, do not want to be led, and professionals, by and large, do not want to be leaders.”

And this is the real problem.

Holding on to optimism

A very good public lecture at the University of Exeter yesterday evening on Building the Energy Future, given by James Smith, Chairman of Shell UK.

Very upbeat (“we need to hold on to our optimism, but realise that optimism alone is not enough”) and honest. And this morning Stefan Stern in the FT on why Managing the mood is crucial,

Leaders have to be resilient. At the moment the bad news is coming not single spies, but in battalions. Tough trading conditions like these test character as much as business acumen. Your physical and emotional response to these challenges is just as important as the decisions you actually take.

If James Smith’s performance last night is typical of the man (and I am sure it is) then Shell UK must be a great place to work.

P.S. Note to Steve Smith (University of Exeter VC) ~ these lectures are too good to miss: there should be a podcast.