S4e4 The Selling Peace of Mind Edition with Derek Rodgers
James chats with Derek Rodgers, Managing Partner of solicitors firm Gardner Leader LLP since 2011.
In that time it has grown from 70 people in two offices in West Berkshire to 180 people across six offices from Swindon to London. A corporate and employment lawyer by background, Derek now focuses solely on managing the business, which has an employee net promoter score of +70.
He is also a director of LawNet, a national network of quality independent law firms, of which Gardner Leader is a member.
They discuss net promoter scores, building a positive working environment, unlimited holiday entitlement, working with the right clients, giving peace of mind, scaling without diluting culture and having an engaged team.
James Nathan 00:07
Hello, and welcome to the only one business show with me your host James Nathan and today I have a slightly different guest for you and a really interesting one to talk with as well. This gentleman is the Managing Partner of a firm of solicitors, Gardener Leader LLP and has been since 2011. At that time, he’s grown or the firm’s grown from 70 people in two offices in West Berkshire to 180 people across six offices from Swindon, right across to London, a corporate employment lawyer by background he now focuses fully on managing the business, which has an employee net promoter score of plus 70. He’s also a director of Law Net, a national network of quality independent law firms of which garden leader is a member. So please welcome Managing Partner, Derek Rogers. Derek, Hi, how are you?
Derek Rodgers 01:41
I’m very well, thank you, James, it’s good to be here.
James Nathan 01:43
It’s lovely to have you on. It’s nice to speak to someone from a from a business or professional services firm as well, I talk to a lot of people who come out all sorts of different types of industries. But the law and professional services are very specific, I guess, in some ways, and very similar to others in, in other ways. But you’ve been with a firm good while now. And it’s changed its shape, well considerably. What’s been the kind of direction you’re you’re moving toward and what’s made you so successful.
Derek Rodgers 02:14
I suppose what we’ve aim to do is grow not for the sake of growth, and not just so we can say we’re x size or x number of people, but really to make sure that we can continue getting the best people and providing a good service and winning good quality work for ourselves and delivering for our clients. But throughout the whole thing, it’s been very important to us that we we almost grow to stay the same. We’re very proud of the culture that we’ve gotten the approach that we take. And what we’ve been trying very hard to do is make sure that we certainly don’t damage that culture as we grow. And I think I think we have managed to actually strengthen the culture and the values as we’ve gone along
James Nathan 03:02
When you talk about culture because you and I’ve worked together over a long period of time now and it’s, you know, there’s absolutely a common thread between the people that you meet within the firm. But is… was that a decision that was made? This is how we want the firm to be or was that something that happened organically?
Derek Rodgers 03:19
I think we would have to say we’ve built on what came before us. So the firm has been around in Newbury since 1895. So unfortunately, our 125 anniversary fell in 2020, which was not necessarily the best year for having a party but so we’ve made it 127. But certainly, I became a managing partner, as you mentioned in 2011, my predecessor who was also called Derek, because we don’t like to change too many things at once. He’d been doing it for you know, several decades before that. And he’d built a firm that was very friendly, very collegiate, really focused on the people. So that was what we we didn’t want to or what I didn’t want to break when I sort of took over the reins from him 11 years ago. So we’ve got a set of partners that are really bought into the idea that enjoy working in the firm as it is, enjoy working with the team of people that we’ve got. And we’re very careful in terms of who we recruit and who we promote to make sure that we we stick with that.
James Nathan 04:24
Right. Okay. And is that changing over time?
Derek Rodgers 04:28
I hope it’s not changing in the fundamentals. You know, I hope we are staying true to that. Now, obviously, a firm of 180 people across six offices spread from… along the Thames Valley and into London, is inevitably going to be different from being in two offices very close to each other, with 60 people where you can know everybody in a way that you potentially can’t do with 180 people who are more spread out but we certainly make the effort to try and stick to what we think is important in that culture, about valuing people, about making sure that people actually enjoy working in the team and can see the firm as a place where they want to spend a long part of their careers.
James Nathan 05:16
Fantastic. And that that net promoter score looks impressive. But can you explain if people don’t understand what a net promoter score is, and employee net promoter score is, what is it and why is it important?
Derek Rodgers 05:26
I can certainly try to explain it. It’s calculated on the same basis as the sort of net promoter scores that you get in a marketing context. So similarly to when you take your car in for a service, or whatever, and you’re asked to rate them out of 10. So as I understand it, whether calculate the score is that people who score nine and 10 are regarded as promoters, people who score, I think it’s zero to six are regarded as detractors. And you sort of ignore the people who score seven and eight, because they’re regarded as passive. Some of which I find a bit odd, because I think if I was given some just score of seven or eight, I would feel that it was being quite positive.
Derek Rodgers 06:06
So this is a way to do it. So you, then I think, you just take away the number of people that score zero to six from the number of people, or the percentage of people that score nine or 10. And that gives you your net promoter score. And we do it through an external company that does a staff survey for us every year or two. And when they first brought this particular measure into the survey, a few years into our experience of doing it, they explained to us that, if you’ve got a score of… the potential is to get a score between minus 100 and plus 100. So plus 100. If everyone’s a promoter minus 100, if everyone’s a detractor, they said that if you could get a score between minus 20 and plus 20, you should regard that as a good score. So we’re very, very pleased to have plus 70. We recognise that that particular survey where the plus 70 came was in 2021, when we’d all just been through a year of pandemic, and we’ve been… a certain amount of sort of Dunkirk spirit or whatever, that’s in there. So we don’t necessarily think it’s realistic to think that will be continued. But the year before the pandemic, when we last did the survey in 2019, we had plus 43. I think it was so, we were pleased with that, as well. And, and that is, obviously we look at all the financial metrics in the firm, but actually, that kind of metric of what our staff think of the place they work is actually one of the most important things for us.
James Nathan 07:35
Absolutely. I mean, I guess, for many, many reasons, certainly from looking after a client perspective. You know, there’s, there’s the old adage that, you know, staff who are looked after look, after your clients the same way. But also looking at, you know, staff retention, and the ability to find good people. I know, you know, it’s not easy at the moment in the market. And markets are cyclical in recruitment. But, you know, finding very good people for a business is hard, and then finding people who fit within the core values and the culture of the business or would fit within that is even more difficult. So it feels good to me, when I hear people say, you know, people like working here, that’s, that’s a really great thing. What do you do to keep that going?
Derek Rodgers 08:20
I think we try and make it as clear as possible that we value people, we try to share the successes, we’ve tried to support people through difficult times. We encourage people to actually enjoy themselves and show that they enjoy themselves. We’re very much into teamwork. One of the nice things, I mean, I think you’re right, we do retain a lot of our people, we don’t see ourselves losing a lot of people for reasons other than people, for whatever reason have to move to a different part of the country or whatever, things like that. But one of the nice things during the pandemic in particular is the number of people that have perhaps left us over the years for reasons like that, and have rejoined us during that time. And I think that has sent a good message to people within the business that people who have perhaps tried other things have wanted to come back.
James Nathan 09:12
Fantastic. I mean, I’m shying away a little bit from asking you about pandemic and post pandemic, because it’s, I guess it’s a conversation that everybody’s having all the time. But when you look at how a business like yours of the size it is in the way it’s grown works, when it’s suddenly thrown into you working from home today, but still maintain that kind of level of happiness. That’s great. Are you all back in the office now you’re working in kind of a pre pandemic way? Or is there a hybrid now?
Derek Rodgers 09:41
Yes, so a bit of a hybrid. So at the moment, we are encouraging everyone to come in 60% of their normal working time. Obviously, there’s some people like reception staff or trainees or new employees that we need to have in the office a bit more. But generally, it’s working out that sort of three days a week for for Full Time people.
James Nathan 10:00
Right? Okay. And one of the things about your business, which I find fabulous actually as well as fascinating is that you don’t have any holiday entitlement, do you? People can take as much leave as they’re like
Derek Rodgers 10:12
Yes, in a sense, we don’t have any…. it’s effectively an unlimited lease policies. So there’s no numerical cap on the number of days holiday that you can have. It’s not a free for all. It’s still managed. But we look at it on the basis of fairness to colleagues, and what are the needs of the business on a particular day? Do we have enough people to, to cover it? And I think it has worked well, for us, we brought it in as a trial. I think probably about a year before the pandemic started. I think it must have been the end of 2019, that we decided to make it a permanent feature, we’d followed in the footsteps of a couple of other firms that we know pretty well, who had done it for a year or two before that, so we had their experience to base it on. And it’s been an interesting process, because in some ways, it has made a very big difference without making much difference at all. So right, in terms of the overall amount of holiday that is taken, I don’t think it’s actually increased it a huge amount. But what it has done is given a lot more flexibility. And we actually call it a flexible leave scheme, rather than an unlimited leave scheme
James Nathan 11:27
A much better name for it!
Derek Rodgers 11:28
I think only because clearly there are limits. But what we’re not doing is saying you’ve had 25 days, you can’t have anything else. But I think it’s, it has, I think our team leaders actually managed the holiday request better now that they do have that mindset of thinking about fairness and the needs of the team. Rather than thinking oh, well, that person is entitled to 25 days and they’ve only taken 13, so I just need to give it to them. It’s also, I think it’s spread the holiday better across the year. So people think are more willing to take holiday early in the year rather than think I might need it later on. And we don’t have that great rush just before Christmas at the end of the year. And it’s enabled us to deal a lot better and a lot more easily with the situations where you do get to the end of the year, under a normal holiday scheme, somebody’s taken their allocated number of days, they want to go to a wedding or something like that, you know that you’re going to let them go to the wedding. But you have to spend ages trying to work out on what basis you’re doing it. Have you treated anyone else differently in the past? Are you setting a precedent, and we don’t have any of that anymore? So I think it’s one of those things that if somebody said, you know, I want to take three weeks off to go to Australia for my brother’s wedding or something, we would almost certainly do that. If they said, I want to take six weeks off just to sit at home and watch Bargain Hunt. We’d probably say well, that’s not fair to the rest of the team, there’s not really a particularly good reason for doing it. So it’s, it works for us. It’s obviously been slightly difficult to properly assess during the pandemic when everyone’s been working at home. And certainly the first year nobody was going anywhere on holiday anyway. But we’ve certainly not had any difficulties coming out of it. Everybody seems happy with it. I think we’ve…. I think I’m only aware of possibly one maybe two slightly difficult conversations we’ve had to have with people where we haven’t quite agreed with the way they’ve been using the scheme. Because you can’t use it, for example, we wouldn’t agree to somebody using it to have every Friday off to make themselves from a five day person to four day person. So there are things like that, but it’s worked for us, and certainly the other firms that we know, who’ve tried it have had a very similar experience.
James Nathan 13:52
Yeah, I mean, I just find it a fascinating model. And I think it’s a very grown up model, which, you know, I don’t have any staff anymore. And I tell people quite regularly just don’t watch any. When I did used to look after teams of people, you know, particularly in recruitment and sales, you’d be, you know, saying to them, come on, you have to take your holiday because they’re not taking it.
Derek Rodgers 14:11
I mean, we still have that, I think, I think we actually still probably have as many people that we have to go to and say can you take a bit more holiday as we do we’re thinking or you’re you’re taking too much.
James Nathan 14:22
And how does that impact the kind of client side? We talked initially about the types of clients and I think you use the language something like the right clients or good clients or something like that? How do you assess how a client will be? How does the client let me rephrase that, I put my teeth back in…. how do you choose or when you’re targeting new business? What are you looking for to add to your client mix? Are you looking for a particular type of business or is it just more general than that?
Derek Rodgers 14:53
I mean, it’s fairly general, I think, I suppose carrying on from the culture of what we want for the staff within the firm. We want to enjoy working with our clients we want clients this was it will tell you the work that we’re doing for them. But we are very much in…. all over spread across Thames Valley, the bulk of our people are in Swindon, Maidenhead, Thatcham, and in Newbury. And in those places, we are quite sort of well embedded in the community. So in Newbury in particular, so we’ve been here a long time. So we’re very much a local firm serving the local community. But within that we’ve got a very broad range of clients from international corporations that are based all over the world, charities, to people who are possibly individuals, but very experienced users of legal services, to people who have perhaps never used a solicitor before. So we’ve got to try and cater for all those different people and make sure that our service is tailored to towards their needs, because you’ve got I don’t like to generalise in terms of age and technology. But to make a sweeping generalisation, you might have young people are very well versed in the digital side of things, and then more elderly clients that perhaps don’t want to do things that way. So whenever we’re thinking about service, we’ve we’ve got quite a wide range of people to think about.
James Nathan 14:53
And thats nice point to kind of start to think around or talk around looking after clients and the service that you provide them. But what’s the key to a good client relationship?
Derek Rodgers 15:43
I think when we were trying to look at all these different people that we asked for, and the different kinds of services that we offer, so you might be somebody buying their first house or making a will, to an international arbitration worth 10s of millions of pounds or more. It’s very different. But when we looked at it all we thought well, actually, behind all of that, whatever people come to us about on the surface, what they’re really looking for, is peace of mind. That’s really what we’re selling to people. So whether you’re a corporate executive, handling something on behalf of your company, there is a or you’re buying your first house, there’s a level of stress on you and or an objective that you want to achieve. And you want to know that somebody is on your side and helping you to do that. And that’s where we feel that what we need to be offering is that peace of mind that that’s what we’re we’re doing for them.
James Nathan 17:34
Yeah, I guess I mean, people don’t tend to come to a firm like yours, just for the fun of it, do they come with a problem or something that needs to be done?
Derek Rodgers 17:41
I think that’s absolutely right. I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning, think actually, it’s a beautiful sunny day, the perfect way to spend it is to go and see a solicitor.
James Nathan 17:51
As nice as your guys are.
Derek Rodgers 17:52
As nice as they are, I mean, hopefully, once they do come and see us, you might get some elements of enjoyment out of it, what we’re doing for them, but no, it’s not…. Even if you’re doing something very positive, like buying a house, what you want to be doing is buying the house. So you’re not the solicitor part of it is just a kind of necessary adjunct to what you’re trying to do. So we need to try and make that as smooth a process as possible, and make sure that people understand what we’re doing for them, what, what they’re going to get out of it. What we need them to do to enable us to provide that service and what their options and risks are.
Derek Rodgers 18:17
So how do you focus on that peace of mind? How does that it could bring itself out through conversation or through relationships or through the transaction that you’re working on?
Derek Rodgers 18:44
I think a lot of it in the early stages is or throughout really but particularly in the early stages is listening to the client and actually understanding what’s important to them and what they’re trying to achieve. And that can differ even in the same kind of matter. You know, you might have somebody that’s in a piece of litigation, and they’re all they want is to have their day in court and, and win. Now, that’s not necessarily always the best option. And it’s important for us to advise people, that there are different ways of doing things and what the risks are of just kind of fighting to the finish regardless. But if that’s what people want to do, then you need to understand that. Other people will approach litigation and really what they want to do is get out of it as quickly as possible and settle it the best way that they can. And I think also you need to be alive to how how much understanding of the process people already have and not assume that people understand what’s going on or how things work and just find that right level of advice to give to them.
James Nathan 19:50
And are there that you look at and you sort of take inspiration from, businesses that you come in contact with might be clients might be just from your own perspective and you think you know what, I love the way they looked after people there or like the way that that process worked? How could I take that and embed that in my business?
Derek Rodgers 20:07
Well, at the risk of becoming sort of mutual admiration You, yourself have done various recruitment exercises for us. And what and you haven’t prompted me to say this. But when you’ve brought us shortlists of people, when we’ve done recruitment exercises, it’s been very clear that you have listened to us and you’ve understood the firm and you’ve taken the knowledge that you have of the firm from other dealings that you’ve had with us over the years, and made very…. been very careful to make sure that the people on that shortlist are the sort of people that we would want to work with. And I think that is, that whole thing of, let’s not just go out and find the sharpest person in this particular role that might have a completely different ethos to the way we would want to approach things within the firm, you’ve gone out and find the people that will fit in with with our way of working. So I think that is, in itself a very good example of what I’m talking about.
James Nathan 21:16
Well thank you. It’s lovely to hear that. It’s also it’s easy to help sell a business when you when you really do believe in them. And you know, when when you work with different businesses, you get a good feel for the style of people and trying to find cultural fit and trying to find values fit and that kind of stuff I find fascinating, but also a hell of a lot of fun. Because it does mean you have to look much further than just, you know, what, what is somebody able to do? But certainly, are they the right person for you? I think, you know, there’s a lot of words we’re not allowed to use anymore. And fit is one of them, is just discriminatory. And I can’t even tell you why. But it makes sense to me that there’s certain types of people work with certain types of businesses well. And I think when you look at… when I asked you about that, in terms of your client base, a lot of the time when I talk to people, particularly on this on this podcast, they talk about well, actually, we work best with a certain type of business. And when I work with that kind of business, I do my best work. And I think that’s quite interesting. And it’s interesting as well, you don’t necessarily have that you have a breath. Is this something though, within that breadth of client where you think actually, I’m gonna, I’m trying not to narrow you down too much of this, because obviously, it’s important that the right people come to you, but…. Are there businesses everywhere they come and you think, actually, we shouldn’t do work with these guys, but ignoring the fact that you might have a conflict of some sort?
Derek Rodgers 22:51
I suppose there is, obviously as solicitors where we’re bound by a lot of ethical rules and things. So you could potentially get clients that wanted to do things in a way that we just, well, wouldn’t be comfortable with, but we wouldn’t be allowed to do so that would always be a problem. I think. Yeah, I suppose a lot of it does come back to do will the people actually value what we’re doing? And will they work with us in a collaborative way to help them achieve their own objectives? I think where people don’t have that approach, it does start to become difficult, I wouldn’t say we rigorously sit down and kind of sort people out in that way. We, we’ve got I say a lot of different clients and, and even within some of our larger corporate clients, you’ve got lots of different kinds of people within those businesses. So you work with the clients, you’ve got. I think within a relationship with a client largely that in itself, as was as part of the answer, we want clients that we can build a relationship with and become more than just somebody that does a particular transaction for them and steps away.
James Nathan 23:57
And we talked initially about growth of the business and how that’s gone. And, you know, it’s interesting to hear different people’s views on growth and how they look to grow a business because it seems to be something that, you know, when you ask businesses, what’s the future – we want to grow? But then when you ask them why there’s there’s kind of a doubting, sort of, I’m not quite sure we just have to. When you grow like you guys have and you have grown, you know, fairly significantly and what isn’t that long a period of time considering you know, how long the firm’s existed? What’s the key to to just scaling without diluting the culture?
Derek Rodgers 24:34
I think being very aware of what the culture actually is. And so our growth has been a combination of a couple of reasonably significant acquisitions of other law firms and a lot of organic growth by recruitment or developing our own youngsters into qualified lawyers and things like that. Certainly on the acquisition side, it’s been very important to make sure that anyone we were going to bring in and that way to bring another firm in that it was made up of people in particularly owned and run by people that would have a similar approach to us. Because I think if you have that kind of jarring two different cultures, it becomes very difficult to integrate into one firm. And that’s tends to be where mergers and acquisitions don’t work out.
James Nathan 25:28
Well, they’re a very complicated thing. I remember my accountancy training, which was much longer than I’d like to admit, when Price Waterhouse and Coopers and Lybrand joined forces and I remember the office in Leeds and thinking, these are two totally different sets of people. And when they merged, it was really obviously apparent, and obviously, over time that’s worked through but very complicated process to bring two firms together. So it’s, it’s a interesting to say that you’ve done that twice. And then it’s been well, twice recently, and both times been very successful, which is, which is fabulous. Derek, before we go, because I’m obviously talking around things forever in a day. But what’s the one thing if you were to give some advice or a golden nugget to the people listening today? What’s the one thing that you would suggest they do, do now to make their businesses better for today, and also better for the years to come? What would that be?
Derek Rodgers 26:22
I do think it’s focusing on having an engaged team of people that actually enjoy what they’re doing and understand the importance of client service and what the business is overall trying to achieve and how it’s trying to achieve it. So I think if you, I think you said yourself earlier, if you have an engaged staff, you’re much more likely to have engaged clients who are willing to work with you for the long term.
James Nathan 26:44
Fabulous, a great way to finish off. Thank you, Derek, thanks very much for your time, and it’s great chatting with you.
Derek Rodgers 26:50
It’s been a real pleasure. Thanks very much.