When we first met more than fifteen years ago, my friend Pierre was enjoying life at the top of one of Europe’s largest law firms. For years, he’d been the global managing partner. His clients included important families and some of the world’s largest multinationals.
He then moved to London to take over the firm’s booming mergers and acquisitions practice. Pierre and his wife lived in a gracious apartment beside Royal Albert Hall with views over Hyde Park, enjoying all London had to offer. In his profession, it could not get any better.
But in 2005 the dream came to an end. Pierre was asked to move back to the Netherlands.
This was definitely not part of the plan. He and his wife loved cosmopolitan London, and had been planning eventually to retire to the US to be near their three children.
From a career point of view, he’d reached a dead end. Pierre was being pushed aside to make way for younger blood.
He agreed to return home and face the supposedly inevitable decline of a senior lawyer thought to be past his prime. To his credit, he was ‘committed to not being grumpy’ and decided to go out on a high note.
At the time, I was supporting Pierre as his coach. I thought the best way for him to prepare for an uncertain future was to get clear about his strengths. Neither of us realised how much this would change the direction of his career.
“Before I left London,” he said at the time. “We worked quite a bit on my strengths. Just doing the questionnaire was fun in itself*. It laid them out for me on paper. That was important. Then I was able to see I could live from my strengths. I didn’t do anything differently. But I was more comfortable doing the things I had to do, in my own way.
“For example, I used to be very transactional, totally focused on getting the job done. When I learned have all these strengths in relationship building, I began to put more attention on my co-workers. Not surprisingly when I became more relational I got so much more done! I started conversations. I became a better lawyer.
“In particular, I saw an opportunity to get closer to younger lawyers. I always knew I had a talent for mentoring people. It came naturally but only when I identified it as a strength did I begin to use it. Being more conscious of what I’m good at allowed me to be that way more consciously.
“It was important to concentrate on these strengths at that point in my career. I ’institutionalised’ them in myself.”
When I caught up with Pierre again, almost ten years later, he recalled the importance of this transition period.
“Looking back, I can honestly say I returned to the Netherlands wholeheartedly,” he said. “I began coaching younger professionals. I became the father of my juniors. The firm did not recognise the value of what I was doing initially but I did it anyway. The young people started challenging me too. I grew a lot in the process.
“Over time people recognised this was valuable. We developed a proper, firm wide, mentoring programme. Now there are around two hundred young lawyers taking part. Each one has a senior person looking after them. It is institutionalised.”
I was really proud of Pierre. Without any initial support, he’d created a wonderful legacy for future young lawyers coming through the system.
Instead of fading away as expected, he is now working out of the firm’s New York office. He and wife are delighted to be nearer their children. He told me about the results of his support for young people at work.
“It’s the first time any of them have seen their strengths laid out in a systematic way. They are amazed. It’s wonderful because it’s not about anyone’s weaknesses, only encouragement.
“I believe this generation, the Millennials, don’t want it to be all about business. They need more attention, someone to talk to. I used to get it from my partner in the car on our way to a meeting but now it must be systematic.
“Many need encouragement to go for a partner position, or be directed away if that’s not right for them. I’m able to be sincere with them in a way I never could before because we’re talking about an individual’s strengths.
“To be honest many of the young men don’t know who they are. They think everything must be perfect because this is the law! They can become very insincere as a result, pretending everything is fine. In reality they are all worried.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough female partners for the young women to look up to. But that gives them a lot of focus. The young women lawyers feel a sense of responsibility to be role models for those who come after.
“Recently I experienced one of my most satisfying moments at a dinner. An associate came up to me and said, ‘You always took the time to speak to your children when they called you. I will remember that when I have a family.’
“Identifying my values and being challenged on them was also important. The values were not new, but by framing them and putting them on the wall, my values became my constitution. Being a good lawyer I comply with them. In the dead of the night I could look at them and think, ‘Wow they’re not bad.’ My wife thinks they reflect who I am.
“I am now focused more than ever on living my strengths. This can be done in an arrogant way, but I just keep saying to myself that’s how I want to work.”
*Gallups Strengths Access
Disclaimer: I receive no payment from Gallup for recommending their strengths inventory. I just think it’s so good everyone would benefit!