Q&A: David Sharrock – “I see myself as a hope bearer and my main challenge is to keep hope alive by caring deeply for those around me.”
In our Q&A, David Sharrock, managing principal of Melbourne firm Sharrock Pitman Legal and author of the new book, Fighting for Enterprise Success: Through the Eye of the Tiger, outlines why he put pen to paper and reveals some of the key elements of law firm success.
Your book draws from more than 40 years of experience as a lawyer and business leader. Why did you feel compelled to write it?
“It all really started during the global financial crisis more than a decade ago. My law practice came out relatively unscathed because our business fundamentals had been developed over a long period of time, but we saw many businesses go to the wall. I wanted to help enterprises and their leaders survive and even thrive. Back then, in 2009, we first responded by sponsoring and implementing a food, wine and music festival in the local retail precinct just to lift people’s spirits. It was a fantastic day, with 15,000 people flocking to the event.
“We later decided to start a community-based, business club known as The School of Hard Knocks for Stressed Business People and Reluctant Entrepreneurs to piggyback off the festival and help businesses. At club meetings over the past six year years, we’ve given away a lot of our own law firm’s business development material to help people run their businesses really well. Then I decided that our help for businesses needed to reach a wider audience. How better to do that than through a book for profit and not-for-profit organisations, with a view to assisting them to get their fundamentals right and thrive. It took five years to write the book while struggling to recover from chronic fatigue caused by dengue fever.”
Thinking back to the GFC, were all those business failures purely the result of the financial crisis, or did poor leadership, poor systems and poor staff management play a role?
“All of the above. There are always layers to everything that happens in our personal lives and enterprises. There are a multitude of reasons for failure, but a lot of businesspeople fly by the seat of their pants. The truth is that if they don’t have the fundamentals in place and they don’t focus on the strengths of their enterprise, then there is greater likelihood of a business failure.”
In the book, you note that modern business leaders are really under the pump, facing challenges relating to leadership, governance, strategy, planning, entrepreneurship, innovation, values, principles, culture, customer service, business growth, financial management and more. Is it any wonder that they struggle?
“The pressures are absolutely enormous. If you’re running an enterprise such as a law firm, you’re caught up in a noble purpose and you’re making a powerfully good contribution to our society. So there’s no judgement from me around potential failure – my message is all to do with giving people hope for the future. And it’s not a matter of doing one thing right – for example, leadership, vision or values. It’s a matter of drawing all the different aspects of running an enterprise and making them work with each other.”
Okay, then let’s start with some initial survival skills. Where should business leaders start?
“A positive mindset is profoundly important. You can defeat yourself in running an enterprise, thinking that it’s all too hard and that leadership itself is profoundly difficult. Of course, it is difficult and I still consider that I’ve got my L plates on as a leader despite having been a leader in some way or another for the past 45-odd years. It’s tough and you will make your fair share of mistakes, but you’ve got to dust yourself off and learn from it all to achieve something better into the future.”
The presence in your book of some 68 self-assessment tools, templates and worksheets from the resources of Sharrock Pitman Legal suggests there is no magic bullet for business success.
“Yes, it’s intended to be read slowly and to stimulate ideas, creativity and innovation that can help contribute to success over an extended period of time. It’s a workbook for leaders and their teams.”
You take the view that most people need to learn to become highly effective leaders and that this often happens courtesy of trial and error. How can firms create a culture of leadership development?
“It can only happen if there are effective leaders in the enterprise who coach and mentor a high-performance team. Workplace culture is also a profound part of the mix. Every organisation is realising, from the Australian cricket team to the big banks and even to the Vatican, that it is vitally important to build a vibrant workplace culture. It’s non-negotiable, and if you can do that you then stand a chance of driving towards success in a more positive and focused way.”
In the book, you also explain why you try to be a “hope bearer”. What does that mean?
“This may sound arrogant, but I model my own leadership on Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, who I see as having been a hope-bearer. He came to prominence in the United States in the mid-1950s and was sadly assassinated in 1968. He gave hope to African-Americans, who were oppressed in every way – financially, housing wise, job wise and in other discriminatory ways. He rose up with a non-violent reform agenda to highlight the injustice of it all and to do practical things to give people hope in the midst of a hopeless and helpless situation.
“Even in running a law firm, I use his model of leadership because it is servant leadership at its very heart, and Dr King had a humility and honesty and integrity to his message to bring about hope. In some respects, that’s what lawyers do, too. We are helping people with often very difficult situations in their lives and we are giving them hope. People can get in a pickle in workplaces and in their businesses, so lawyers are showing them the way forward. In doing so, it’s not about what we can get out of it, or how much money we can make; it’s all to do with caring deeply for them as people. So I see myself as a hope bearer and my main challenge is to keep hope alive by caring deeply for those around me.”
You believe in serving your ‘customers’, not ‘clients’. Why do you make the distinction?
“For mine, the term ‘client’ is almost a pejorative word for the people we help. It comes from the past and it’s gone. Now they are customers. They demand from us a certain standard of service and product for which they agree to pay a fair and reasonable price. We sell them a product and a service that is of an exceptional standard – it’s not ‘ho hum’ or a case of ‘that’ll do’; it’s something that goes above and beyond the quality that’s needed to be helpful to them. They are our customers because they hold incredible power over us as professionals and service providers. It used to be in the olden days that we commanded a monopoly of legal services and products. However, today the market is highly competitive. There are numerous options that people have in determining their professional services providers. If we are too expensive, they will go elsewhere unless we convince them that we provide better value and benefit. They’re the customer and they will make the decision. So we have to be incredibly responsive to their call upon us as professional services firms and not rely on the old and traditional approach when we were in great demand and we could determine what we would do for what price we wanted and expect work to roll in the door. There’s a fussy marketplace out there today and the pie is getting very difficult to divide. There’s a statistic I’ve heard that states that of all the legal products and services that might be needed in the community, only 17 per cent go to law firms. The other 83 per cent comprises self-help options, or paralegal companies, conveyancers or whatever. It’s very much a customer-driven legal industry, so we need to respond and put aside the old and embrace the new that lies ahead. That requires all of us to become obsessively customer-centric, constantly adjusting and improving each customer touch point.”
If the customer is king, then pricing must surely be crucial. You advocate responsible pricing and financial vigilance rather than focusing on counting beans. Is that right?
“Well, my adage is that all things being equal a business can be successful not by focusing on profit and how many dollars can be made out of a particular customer. That is very common in all industries – it’s the almighty dollar that drives everything, and the primary question is what profit can a business make. Instead, if there’s a focus on the quality of service and the quality of product, the dollars will follow.”
Does your firm opt for billable hours or fixed fees?
“We abhor time recording for our lawyers. We consider about 30 pricing factors, including everything from the complexity of the matter, to the research required, to the number of lawyers required, to the value and benefits we are to deliver – anything but six-minute billable units. More lawyers are coming to that conclusion. The truth is that there’s a dearth of practical tools to help lawyers and law firms do fixed pricing and do it well. And there are a minefield of traps, so sometimes the status quo seems safer. However, the goal with fixed pricing is to arrive at a fair and reasonable price all round, both to customers and to us. Customers understand that we have to make a fair and reasonable profit, but they also want to know up front what they are going to pay. So prior disclosure in a fixed-pricing sense is profoundly important to give customers certainty and control over their legal spend. And yes, we even fix price litigation and family law.”
One chapter in your book suggests that a leader needs to make a candid appraisal about physical, emotional, spiritual or inner well-being. Not many firms would talk about such a concept, I suspect.
“There is a statistic commonly quoted suggesting that leadership style contributes to 30 per cent of the profitability of an enterprise. Now if that’s true, and my hunch is that it’s about right, then it becomes profoundly important to look at how we lead, whether we are leading in a highly effective manner, or whether there are things from the past that we are carrying with us day in and day out that are actually affecting – and, may I say, infecting – our workplace. If there’s something ticking away inside ourselves that’s not particularly helpful, then it behoves us to try to do something to get that right. That means identifying a source of trouble and saying, for example, ‘Oh, that’s why I lost my temper today’. It can be extremely damaging if you have a temper tantrum, for instance. It’s a sign of immaturity and you need to understand what’s happening inside you and what effect that’s having on the team and customers. It takes a certain courage to do such a personal analysis and change may well be needed. Over the years, I’ve made heaps of mistakes as a leader, but at least I’ve tried to learn from them. I believe that self-awareness and being true to self will result in a leader becoming more authentic and vulnerable. Too many leaders act from a paradigm of power and authority instead of from a one of humility and servanthood.”
What about values? Most firms are big on this element.
“We’ve got them plastered on the walls here in our office and we live and breathe them day in and day out. They help the team and remind the team of the glue that holds us together. We give them public prominence so our customers can hold us to account. They must be real and experienced by our customers day by day . They are critically important to us as an enterprise and how we do our work and in what spirit and ethos. Those values need to be more than boring words, so I developed phrases or pictures or images that bring the values to life and make them memorable, rather than going stale on a website or on the boardroom wall.”
Where do smaller firms fit into the picture in today’s highly competitive legal services space?
“We’re a relatively small, boutique, commercial law practice in the suburbs of Melbourne, and people can look down at that, but I don’t. I have counted it as an immense privilege to serve our community with legal services and products that I hope are second to none. Therein lies the satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top end of town, or at a tiny regional firm; it can all be extremely worthwhile and satisfying. We’re all equals together and serve a worthwhile function in helping society.”
You are now 65 and have had a wonderful career. What does it mean to you to bring out your book?
“The book comes from my heart and soul. In my sunset years of practising law, all I wanted to do was leave something of a legacy, not just for Sharrock Pitman Legal and for future generations at our firm but for the legal industry more broadly and other organisations, too. I want it to leave a legacy of hope – that things don’t have to be the way they always have been. It’s important to embrace the new and the different and to work hard and well towards a better and more successful future. If I can do that, I’ll be very happy. I’ll have done something worthwhile.”
Some key messages from David Sharrock’s book
- Enterprise success starts with the leader having high personal motivation for the business to become world’s best.
- An inspirational vision of the preferred future for the enterprise, coming from the enterprise leader and embraced by everyone, is fundamental.
- Any enterprise must have unshakeable values which impact all stakeholders.
- Any enterprise must be principle-centric and conduct itself according to a set of imperative principles.
- There must be an overall driving purpose which goes well beyond technical acumen to impact people.
- Highly effective leadership is an absolute must for enterprise success.
- A dynamic high-performing team is also crucial.
- Unrivalled customer-centricity will result in raving fans.
- Incisive planning is critically important.
David Sharrock is an accredited business law specialist, an accredited mediator, a business facilitator, a public speaker and an author. He is managing principal of Sharrock Pitman Legal, a boutique commercial law practice in Melbourne. The firm won the 2018 Law Institute of Victoria Award for ‘Boutique Law Firm of the Year’ and David himself was a finalist in the 2019 Law Institute of Victoria Suburban Lawyer of the Year Award.
His book is available for purchase at www.fightingforenterprisesuccess.com or amazon.com.au.