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Business spotlight: leadership in lockdown

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Jun 2020

Sarah Walker-Smith is unusual for a CEO for a law firm: she is a chartered accountant rather than a lawyer. She explains to Beth McLoughlin what her unique perspective brings, and how the firm is using COVID-19 as an opportunity to enact positive change.

When she joined Shakespeare Martineau as CEO 15 months ago, Sarah Walker-Smith was confronted with a working culture which was far from agile. "Everyone was sitting at their own desk with a PC. There was paper everywhere. I realised I had some work to do," she says.

Fast forward to February this year, and a suspected case of coronavirus forced the firm to act very quickly to bring that change programme forward. They bought laptops for everyone. "We had mobilised and got to the point a week before lockdown where we could the entire business working from home," Walker-Smith explains.

Offices have remained mostly closed throughout lockdown, and there is no rush to get everyone back into the office. Walker-Smith describes this as "the new abnormal."

"We are not ever going back to where we were before. That means moving to a hybrid model, where most people work a combination of work and the office, which is very flexible and works differently for different people in different roles – possibly in different weeks. What we are trying to do is treat people as individuals."

A planned approach

The firm has also changed its approach to financial planning. As soon as the pandemic hit, the budget was scrapped, and there are no plans to have one again. The firm has changed its KPIs and is developing new ways of measuring leads and demand, to better prepare for the longer term. Rather than instigate 20% pay cuts for everyone as some firms have, Shakespeare Martineau has taken an individual approach to staff, with some on furlough and others moving to four-day weeks, all to protect jobs in the long-term. "We wanted to avoid a knee-jerk reaction and take a more planned approach," she explains.

What grounds Walker-Smith's approach is the background she has in accounting. "I learned how businesses work, and that fundamental understanding is something I wouldn't give up for the world," she says. She qualified at Deloitte, and went on to a managerial role at PwC, before spending eight years at Boots working in change management. A 15-year stint at another law firm followed before she became the female chief executive of Shakespeare Martineau – a first for any law firm. "I hope I won't be the last," she says.

Does she think that the decisive, people-centred approach she has to leadership comes from being female? These are, after all, the qualities people have praised in political leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel and New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern in their response to Covid-19.

"It's not fair to put people in boxes," she says. "But I think I can draw on the best approach to coronavirus, which has been this planned, controlled, calm approach. Looking at the long-term rather than just thinking about short-term profitability, involving people and being incredibly honest with everybody."

Two-way trust

Qualities such as empathy and excellent communication skills are the ones she emphasises as most important for today's business leaders – and that doesn't mean being any less tough or driven.

"I make very quick decisions and then tell people about them," she says. "I'm very honest about it because what you are trying to do is build trust. I think having the ability to build two-way trust is hugely important, but also being transparent, decisive, commercial, strategic, visionary. Those things are still there, but I think we've got to wrap it around now with being a human being."