Managing partner doubled profit in two years by changing office culture

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Australasian Lawyer Hot Lister and Australia’s managing partner of newly formed Squire Patton Boggs, John Poulsen, has achieved a staggering amount during his tenure that includes leading and managing the combination of the large part of a national firm with a top 10 global law firm.

He’s also successfully reversed fractured internal workplace cohesion and "within a couple of years" his model saw the firm increase staff engagement into the 90s, drop turnover to 12%, increase revenue by $14 million and double profits.

Earlier this month, Squire Sanders and Patton Boggs LLP merged to create Squire Patton Boggs, now one of the largest 25 law firms in the world.

It’s no small feat - but it’s just part of another more involved journey that Poulsen has been instrumental in leading.

It all began when he became managing partner of Minter Ellison Lawyers’ legacy Perth office in 2006.

It was here that he had to wade into a workplace that was fractured and hemorrhaging internally, and had a whopping 50% staff turnover.

“We created - with the assistance of Deloitte Consulting and in particular that of Jenn Morris, partner with Deloitte (who is also a dual Olympic gold medal hockey player) - nine task forces comprising of partners, support staff and lawyers which looked at a number of different aspects including our governance structure, our partner remuneration, our staff strategies and our client strategies,” Poulsen tells Australasian Lawyer.

Coming out of this process is what he calls the ‘flow of success’, and the aforementioned results speak for themselves.

Then, in 2011, came another change: Squire Sanders’ partners voted in favour of a plan to merge with the majority (80 lawyers and 14 partners) of the Perth Minter Ellison-affiliated office, and the Australian branch of Squire Sanders was created.

Poulsen says the jump to Squires made sense because the firm has the same vision and culture as he and his team do.

“Lawyers can be conservative so it involved a considerable leap of faith for the team - one that they embraced and occasionally struggled with, but we kept a clear view on the way forward and I am so proud of the team that I am working with today,” he says.
 
Poulsen applies American business consultant and author Jim Collins’ moto Good to Great - getting the right people on the bus so that the rest looks after itself – to his leadership style.

He says he’s constantly reading, talking with people and learning about strategies and ideas to become a better leader, and quips that he tries his best, but often fails, to be a “Level 5 Leader”: someone who looks in the mirror when things do not go according to plan, and looks out the window to others when things go as planned.

Poulsen’s 'flow of success' approach puts people first followed by clients, and focuses heavily on the wellbeing of all members of the team.

“We have found time and time again with the right people everything else flows and business grows… Even at partner level, the firm operates under a merit pay system that rewards collaborative behaviours. This can be somewhat different to the ‘eat what you kill’ approach at other firms.”

A key component of this is having good values that are embedded in the culture as well as the remuneration and advancement structures.

“I strongly believe in an ‘empowerment and trust’ model of leadership over the more traditional ‘command and control’ hierarchical structure. You have to develop a climate of trust in your organisation which will then allow your people to think through and develop their own view on how a problem should be dealt with,” he says, adding that this does mean that some mistakes will probably be made.

However, when they are it’s vital that the workplace culture means that ‘fessing up’ does not lead to ridicule or denigration, but rather a focus on what has been learned and how the mistake can be constructively fixed.

Flexible working arrangements are also a steadfast in Poulsen’s model, something that has been recognised nationally as best practice and received a number of awards.

His “wonderful” executive assistant, for example, works two days a week in the office and the balance from her home, which is nearly 300 kilometres away.

Poulsen has also spent the past two years building up a financial practice from scratch, which has seen the opening of a successful Sydney office through lateral hiring.

He was recently named by Best Lawyers as a leading lawyer in the structured financial space - no small achievement considering he hadn’t been in practice for a number of years.

And when he’s not practising or leading his Australian Squire Patton Boggs team as managing partner, Poulsen is a dab hand in the kitchen and likes to take time out to cook for his family and friends.

“I believe in the importance of gratitude and have found that this helps keep people positive,” he says. “Lawyers can be very exacting and punishing on themselves, but gratitude for our colleagues, our clients, the challenging work and our global colleagues really makes it a more positive and empowering experience.”

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