11 Aug

Lesson 1: Build the dream/Dream the dream

Dreams are free...... (So you have no excuse for not dreaming brash and bold dreams) 

You need to build bold brash dreams and believe in your dreams. It is important to dream about the sort of firm you would like to develop. Dreams are free so you have no excuse for not dreaming bold brash dreams. To turn a dream – a mere figment of your imagination – into a profitable business, you must have a vivid image of what success looks like to you. You must be able to close your eyes, take a deep breath and picture the future you would like to create for yourself and your team. You must then translate your dream into a vision you and your team believe in and work towards. Once you have clarity on this, ignore naysayers and PhD (pull him down) people. Certainly, seek advice from others, but as Steve Jobs put it, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” And do not be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Lesson 2. Find Exceptional People

It's all about your people 

I would never have achieved the success I did without an army of truly exceptional people who urged me on and supported my ambitions. It is all about your people: To date, I have interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs, many of whom I have written about.  The vast majority complained that after access to capital, finding committed and loyal employees were the biggest challenge they faced while growing their businesses. My experience has been markedly different. As a founder, I have been credited for the successes of the firm and received many accolades, but my real secret is that I was able to find and develop exceptional people (mostly “homegrown” and educated in Ghana). I then sold them my dream which constantly reminded them about. They, in turn, become "co-creators" and "poured their hearts” into building a great firm. I would never have achieved the success I did without the army of truly exceptional people who urged me on and supported my ambitions.

Lesson 3 Topic: Be willing to learn

Experience can be overrated.....

When I started #Oxford & Beaumont, I had only four years of post-qualification legal experience and a little under two years of experience leading people in a professional setting. (Indeed, when I was hired by Tony O. Elumelu, C.O.N for my prior executive management role at United Bank for Africa, I had zero experience managing and leading people in a professional setting). It did not help either that majority of our team members were even more inexperienced than myself (our cash flow at the time could not support more expensive experienced lawyers). Unsurprising for a profession which, in Ghana, often emphasizes seniority over competence, this put us at a disadvantage. Many of our competitors, the legal community in general, and even some of the people I targeted as clients, dismissed us. We made up for our lack of experience by consistently delivering superior client service and investing heavily in acquiring knowledge. In addition to books, online resources, seminars and short courses, I relied on many mentors and others (such as Ekua Hayfron-Benjamin, Mark Soundy, Richard Bussell and Mark Bankes) who generously shared their knowledge and experience with me including an amazing advisory board (led first by John Awuah and later by His Excellency Annan Cato and with seasoned lawyers such as Ian Walker and retired Kirkland & Ellis partner, John Morris ). In no time, the market noticed and, on many occasions, very prominent senior lawyers were asked by dissatisfied clients to hand over their files to my team.

Lesson 4. Focus on value-based culture 

Invest in your people & develop a culture that fits

It is one thing to hire great people and a different thing to build a team that ensures the firm’s success. For that, you need to invest time and resources in training and development. For young employees, the difference between excellence and mediocrity is directly correlated with how they are managed at the early stages of their careers. Even the most experienced employees benefit from ongoing professional development. Many early-stage entrepreneurs focus on growth and market-facing activities rather than internal training and development (which can take a long time to yield results). Training and development must be non-negotiable, no matter how busy the entrepreneur is. Equally important is developing a values-based culture that ‘fits’ the entrepreneur’s vision and creates an environment for employees to thrive. As the legendary ex-CEO of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher put it “You must spend more time on intangibles to create buy-in. We are not afraid to talk to our people with emotion. Not afraid to tell them “We love you” because we do.” Given recent events, it is probably better to rely on your actions, not your words demonstrate this (platonic) love sincerely and authentically. Employees who feel valued become important ambassadors of the firm attracting other talented employees and clients. In our case, once word got out about our unique culture, we were inundated with applications and became a popular choice at all the top universities and law schools in the country.

Lesson 5: Walk the talk

Your video must match your audio 

Establishing the right tone at the inception of an enterprise, whatever its size, is vital to long-term success.

Your video must match your audio. The founder is part evangelist, part-task master, part ambassador and a living expression of the brand he/she seeks to develop. The founder as vision bearer must walk the talk every day. Entrepreneurs who do this create great firms with an even greater culture. Howard Schultz puts this brilliantly: “Whether you are CEO or a lower-level employee, the single most important thing you do at work each day is to communicate your values to others, especially new hires. Establishing the right tone at the inception of an enterprise, whatever its size, is vital to long term success". Employees see through leaders who are inauthentic and who do not impose on themselves the same standards they require of their employees. Employees also mimic the founder's behaviours - both the good, the bad and the ugly.

Lesson 6: Make it rain (as a team)

Everyone must be a rainmaker

While the reputation of the firm and its lawyers is important in generating work, it is unlikely to be enough, especially at the beginning. The regular flow of work also depends on rainmaking and business development activities. The norm is for this to be left to one or a small number of partners. That is a mistake I myself made initially. It is important that the entire team (non-lawyers included) is encouraged to develop a rainmaking mentality and to develop, maintain and leverage the right networks to generate work for the firm. Doing this efficiently and successfully requires training and a system that recognises and rewards success in this area.

Lesson 7: Never eat alone ......

As cliched as the saying “100% of zero is zero”, it is true, and entrepreneurs should bear this in mind. Entrepreneurs who refuse to let others participate in the equity of their firms, particularly in the case of professional services firms, should not be surprised if they cannot find motivated employees and/or have high attrition rates. In professional service firms, there should be a clear progression path from trainee to equity partnership with clarity on which model the firm adopts (such as lockstep, ‘kill as you eat’ or a modified lock lockstep step). Equity partners should not just be partners in the name. They should own a stake in the firm and share in both risks and rewards. Generosity and a willingness to share often pays off.

Lesson 8: Prioritise presence

Presenteeism is important at the beginningclosely linked to Lesson 5 ('Your audio must match your video').

Presenteeism, in this case, means being present for the present’s sake. Team members take cues from the entrepreneur and mimic his behaviours. So, the more team members interact with the entrepreneur the more likely they are to follow his example and learn behaviours consistent with the values and culture of the firm. This means that the entrepreneur must spend as much time as possible in the office, urging the team on and establishing the tone of the firm - particularly at the beginning and during its initial years. He must be prepared to roll up his sleeves and alongside the team, get his hands dirty. Presenteeism also involves bonding and getting to know the team, as well as regularly walking the corridors, always the role model of the required behaviour. Where this is absent, team members will develop their own culture which may be at variance with what the entrepreneur desires. As the firm grows and becomes better established, the entrepreneur himself need not be as present, provided he had developed and trained leaders who are able to step into his shoes. There is a fine distinction between micromanaging and presenteeism. In many instances, entrepreneurs might achieve a better result if instead of micromanaging, they exhibited presenteeism.’ Micromanaging stifles growth and creativity but presenteeism gives employees room to grow.

Lesson 9: Recognise and nurture talent 

Talent: the primary resource of a professional services firm.

Only grow as fast as you can find talented people who share your values and are likely to fit in with the firm’s culture. The primary resource of a professional services firm is talent. A law firm is only as good as the quality of its lawyers. So, you must never compromise the quality of lawyers you hire. In my opinion, it is better to turn down work and slow growth if you are unable to find lawyers of the calibre you require. Good lawyers though are not enough. For the firm to succeed and continue to build a culture that supports its dreams and ambitions, the lawyers hired must share the same values and buy into the vision of the firm. In addition, they should be able to fit in with and contribute to the culture of the firm. They must also have a growth mindset.

Lesson 10: Take tough decisions

Do not be afraid to get people off the bus

The other side of lesson 9 is that you should not be afraid to fire employees who no longer meet the standards you expect or whose actions and behaviours are no longer aligned with the culture of the firm. This can be difficult, especially where, as I did, you have a small close-knit team, akin to a family, where people form strong bonds with each other. Firing people was the most difficult part for me. But it is a necessary evil because one bad nut spoils the whole soup. Even highfliers should be let go if they do not live the values of the firm. Before you fire anyone though, you must give them an opportunity to redeem themselves and you must provide them with relevant training (including training on the firm’s values and culture) so they have a fair chance of developing the technical skills and behaviours you expect. You should also develop a fair and transparent appraisal system which enables you to come to an objective decision about whether or not the employee meets your standards.

Lesson 11: Lead by listening 

Two heads they say are better than 1, how about 20, 100 and so on? Lead by listening. When you put a bunch of smart alecs on a bus, one of two things could happen chaos; or magic. You avoid chaos and get to the magic only if you listen. When you listen to what your employees have to say, you create magic by crafting a strategy that is unique to the people on the bus and that no one else can replicate. You also create a certain level of buy-in and motivation that no compensation package will achieve. Two heads, they say, are better than one. How about 10, 20, 100 and so on? But it is not easy to listen when it is your dream. To listen, you have to leave your ego at the door and create a culture of talking. It is one thing to say you listen to your employees and another thing to have these employees actually speak up and for you to hear them, particularly in our culture. You have to recognise that and develop ‘active listening skills' and ‘active listening tools'

Lesson 12: Remain relevant

Do not get drunk on your success

Remember yesterday is history, it's tomorrow that counts. Do not get drunk on your success. It is not always easy to stay focused and grounded when you achieve demonstrable success and are celebrated publicly. Remember that “Yesterday is history. It is tomorrow that counts.” While it is important, now and then, to celebrate your success and pat yourself and your team on the back, it is even more important to focus on doing bigger and better than you have done so far. Past success – no matter phenomenal – is no guarantee of future success. In law, you are only as good as your last deal so you have to continue to remain relevant and dynamic. It also means you must constantly read the market and where necessary, do not be afraid to pivot to respond to new and emerging trends and/or demands.

Lesson 13: Maintain perspective

Do not take it seriously. It is only Work, do not take it too seriously

Many of us lose perspective as we try to build and scale our businesses. We neglect ourselves, our health, and our relationships as we prioritise our businesses. Of course, only in the dictionary does success come before work. There are no shortcuts to building a successful business. Start-ups in particular are jealous and demanding mistresses, but it is important that we strive for balance and not lose perspective. Build-in breaks, take proper holidays, spoil yourself now and then, and make time for your hobbies and the things and people you love. Plus, it is important to develop the discipline to take digital breaks and digital detoxes where you completely ignore all devices and focus on yourself. Always remember the Zen saying, ‘It is the silence between the notes that makes the music'. If Covid has taught us anything, it is about how fleeting life is and how important it is to make time for ourselves and nurture key relationships. The famous Harvard Happiness Study found strong relationships to be by far the strongest predictor of life satisfaction, and better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, wealth, fame, IQ, or even genes. And Harold Kushner said "no one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

Lesson 14: Be open to change 

The entrepreneur must know when to give way 

For start-ups and fast-growth firms, it is important that you have an entrepreneur at the helm, selling and driving his vision. As the firm begins to mature and become more established, its success will depend on the systems and structures that it builds. Many ‘true’ entrepreneurs do not do as well operating within the boxes of these systems and structures. That is where managers come in. Managers are, by definition, better at managing these systems and structures. In some cases, the entrepreneur is able to evolve from entrepreneur to manager. In my case, the success of the merger of Oxford & Beaumont with ENSafrica meant that we became more bureaucratic with more systems, controls, and processes than I was willing to put up with. The culture I started with, had tirelessly built and was so massively proud of, also quickly changed in a way that was no longer aligned to my own values and preferred way of doing business. I, therefore, knew it was time to go. Proud that I’d been able to create a leading law firm with an initial investment of only $ 5,000 and confident that my legacy will continue long after I left, I exited to pursue other opportunities. It is a difficult decision for an entrepreneur to make – to walk away from his baby, the firm he started. But I have learnt that it is OK to move on. For me, it was OK to walk away from my baby partly because I passionately believe in the words of Maria in the movie Sound of Music “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” I am terribly excited about the window of opportunities that would undoubtedly colour the next phase of my professional life. The lessons I have learned (and shared over the last fortnight) and the many mistakes I have made (which I hope to share later in the year) have provided me with invaluable experience. It is that experience (as well as all the relationships I am blessed to have) that I will draw on to help build Keystone Solicitors (Oxford & Beaumont version 2.0) and the various entrepreneurial ventures I continue to pursue. Those lessons and mistakes (and other experiences I have had or am yet to have) will also provide me with rich insights that can only enhance my role at the University of Buckingham, as well as my future articles and books.

Republished from Linkedin with the kind permission of Professor Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia - Founder of Oxford & Beaumont (Now ENSGhana), Chairman of Keystone Solicitors, Part time professor of Practice at University of Buckinghamshire.

* The email will not be published on the website.