Annual review 2017

Leadership for an uncertain world

Disruption, competition, ambiguity and constant change are some of the defining characteristics of our time. Sustaining our business and continuing to meet our clients’ evolving needs calls for a new kind of leadership – one fit for an uncertain world.

Sasha Hardman

Global HR Director, Allen & Overy


Businesses across sectors face a similar conundrum – how to find the right people to lead their organisations into the future at a time when many of the traditional models of leadership are being challenged by rapid economic, technological and social change.

Many of our clients are devoting significant resources to the issue of future leadership and they are keen to work with advisers who are searching for answers to similar questions.

As Sasha Hardman, A&O’s Global HR Director, puts it: “Alongside our clients we are asking ourselves what kind of leaders do we need to steer us through an increasingly complex and uncertain world?

“What skills, talents and personal qualities will our leaders need to deal with an environment where disruption, hyper-competition, ambiguity and constant change are now the new order of the day and where the margins for error are growing increasingly narrow?”

There is, says Sasha, a vast and growing library of books – both academic and popular – on leadership. Advances in neuroscience and psychology have opened up many fascinating new perspectives on what constitutes great leadership.

Business schools around the world are teaching modules on leadership, albeit often in a generic way.

Yet in the professional services industry in general, and the legal sector in particular, there is limited writing on the subject and there are very few leadership development programmes aimed specifically at the particular leadership challenges faced by law firms.

“Leadership has always been seen as something of an add-on in our world, almost a luxury,” she says. “And in our profession, as in others, people tend to rise to the top of the tree because they are brilliant lawyers, but not necessarily because they are great leaders.”

Increasingly, A&O has taken a different view from many of its competitors, seeing leadership as a matter of critical importance both for the future direction of the firm and to sustain and develop deeper and more strategic relationships with our clients.

Fiona Colthorpe, Head of Talent and UK HR, explains: “We believe that the best-led firms will make the best business decisions and stand a far greater chance of sustaining their success, even at times of great complexity and change.

“Crucially, the best-led firms are also likely to be much more agile in meeting evolving client needs in inventive ways, since inspiring leadership is often the best catalyst for innovation.”

In that sense, leadership will increasingly become a point of real differentiation between global law firms, she argues, and the investment we make in identifying, developing and supporting future leaders should translate into a significant competitive advantage.

“What skills, talents and personal qualities will our leaders need to deal with an environment where disruption, hyper-competition, ambiguity and constant change are now the new order of the day and where the margins for error are growing increasingly narrow?”


The A&O Leadership CentreRead more

The companies that have made most progress in addressing some of the toughest questions around future leadership are those that have invested in their own dedicated resources in this area – Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Deloitte, to name but a few.

“We have decided it is time for us to make a similar investment,” says Sasha. “Working with a group of best-in-class partners we have now launched the A&O Leadership Centre to identify, develop and support future leaders, whether their aspirations lie within the firm or elsewhere in the commercial world.”

Partners joining the programme have either been picked out or see themselves as having the potential to take leadership positions within the firm. That makes the overall programme highly aspirational and the response has been tremendous.

“Part of the appeal, I think, is that the modules we are offering go significantly further than development work we are currently offering our emerging leaders and our partners through the A&O Business School,” says Fiona. “The programme is global – open to partners across our network. But people particularly seem to like the fact that our modules are highly personalised, relying heavily on intensive one-to-one and peer-to-peer coaching.”

Sasha agrees. “The fact that the modules have been designed with lawyers specifically in mind is another significant draw – we find a lot of our partners and the GCs we work with at client firms are wanting leadership programmes designed for the legal sector.”

The external partners helping A&O draw on the most advanced thinking in the field include INSEAD, executive search and leadership consultancy firm Heidrick & Struggles, and world-renowned executive coach training and leadership development provider Meyler Campbell.

These external partners have also joined with key members of A&O’s current leadership team to create a powerful faculty to support and steer this development work, combining external expertise with experience of working at the highest level in the profession.

Being a leaderRead more

“I think the accent on personal coaching will prove very important,” says Sasha. “It allows us to concentrate, if you like, on what it really means to be a leader, rather than just focusing on the theory.”

It’s about encouraging and building on those, often varied, personal qualities and skills that will be so important in the years ahead.

“Our future leaders will need to be agile, self-aware and self-assured,” says Fiona. “They will need to have high levels of energy, passion, ambition and drive, and be able to take timely decisions, but not shy to take responsibility when mistakes happen.

“They will need to be optimistic, but realistically so, and they will need to be resilient in the face of setbacks. Crucially, they will need to be empathetic and adept at navigating complex business relationships and environments.”

“We want the A&O Leadership Centre to focus on a wider range of leadership skills than have typically been addressed in the context of the legal sector,” adds Sasha.

“It’s the ability to bring insight, for instance, to build deep client and business relationships, and to drive performance while encouraging innovation and collaboration. And it’s the ability to build trust among colleagues and fellow leaders, to nurture talent and to stand confidently as a recognised role model within the firm and in the wider world.”

It will take time and patient investment to build the sort of capability in this area that we want, she admits.

“But we are determined to get this right because we are clear that great leadership will increasingly be a defining feature of successful global law firms and a very important differentiator for our clients.”

“Our future leaders will need to be agile, self-aware and self-assured. They will need to have high levels of energy, passion, ambition and drive, and be able to take timely decisions, but not shy to take responsibility when mistakes happen.”