Leadership during the pandemic Quarter 1 2021

By SALLY HUTTON AND CHRISTO ELS, Published in COVID-19 Leadership

A discussion on leadership in a year without precedent.


What have you found most challenging and what, to your surprise, was most easily resolved?

Sally Hutton: I was surprised how quickly everyone adapted to working remotely. I had expected a few more teething issues, particularly in some of our business services functions, which have always operated on site. But on 31 March 2020, just after the start of hard lockdown, we performed our entire month-end process remotely for the first time ever and it was completely seamless. That said, for me, the greatest challenge has been the loss of variety in my day-to-day workday. I was accustomed to a work week that incorporated travel between our Johannesburg and Cape Town offices, lots of in-person meetings and other face-to-face engagements (e.g. lunches and client functions), a mix of conference calls and other interactions and a lot of physical movement from one place to another. These days, I find that I can spend 12 hours consecutively just sitting at my desk and looking at a screen, because all of these activities are now done over MS Teams, Zoom and Webex. I do miss the variety.


Christo Els: Formal meetings with clients and firm management activities progressed surprisingly well using MS Teams and, in many cases, better than before, due to the ease of attendance. However, law firms are fundamentally people businesses and driving culture and creating a sense of togetherness was more challenging. I learned a lot during the year, related to creating new opportunities for access and strengthening connection between our people, which should endure into the future. These opportunities must also constantly evolve, as new ideas quickly become old, which is both challenging and exciting.

How was the firm, in the very short space of time everyone was given, able to meet the extreme challenge of complete lockdown?

The firm had already made a very significant investment in technology over several years, to facilitate remote and flexible working, and we had already implemented a flexible working policy. Fortunately, we had already rolled out MS Teams to our business services teams – largely to enhance the efficiencies of internal meetings – and we were starting to roll it out to our legal services teams before the COVID-19 crisis hit. A month before hard lockdown, we had already started preparing the firm for a fully-remote working solution, including by accelerating our MS Teams roll-out and testing holding our Board and Excom meetings over MS Teams. As a result, when President Ramaphosa made the hard lockdown announcement, we were ready to go. We moved the entire firm to remote working in just two days.

We are very proud of how our teams rose to the challenge to ensure that our firm continued to deliver the same excellent client service and proactive commercial advice that our clients have come to expect. Although this has been a tough time for everyone in some ways, it has also inspired us and brought us closer together. We've discovered what we can really do when we really pull together, reach out, help one another and try new ways of working and communicating.

Did the increased use of technology by law firms mean the technology that was initially required, and which continues to be needed, was completely adequate to meet the demands, and the security available appropriately – despite some issues probably never having been anticipated?

As stated above, we were well prepared from a technology perspective, and had been working on increased remote and flexible working for some time. We have an excellent IT team which has ensured we have the best technology to support our clients, and that our systems are secure.

Despite key institutional readiness, there are still issues related to connectivity quality in parts of South Africa which are and remain an issue. These were, however, anticipated. What we are now focusing on is managing the more human aspects of managing this hybrid approach to work.

How were you able to lead effectively when everyone, at least initially, not only had to work remotely but also faced both professional and personal challenges?

Our methodology in approaching any complex challenge is to craft a multi-pronged strategy. Our COVID-19 strategy focused as much on communicating, connecting and supporting our people as it did on measures to manage liquidity.

We have taken several active steps to make all our people feel more connected this year and to raise morale. We have held regular town halls and communication sessions between ourselves and each area of our business, we send a monthly (and weekly) newsletter to the firm, as well as regular newsflashes, and we have held a number of firm talks (e.g. Siya and Rachel Kolisi spoke to all of us and our families, which was a real hit). One of our initiatives was to relaunch our "Know my name, Know my story" initiative, where we encourage our staff to share their unique stories, to get to know each other a little better. Every day, we posted someone's story to the whole firm, which has allowed us to celebrate our diversity and appreciate the people we work with. We have also done lots of fun things for the whole firm using the MS Teams functionality – e.g. Tik Tok challenges (the two of us even did one in hard lockdown), photo sharing, puzzles, quizzes, etc.

How did you ensure that those practice heads who are inclined to work in silos became more collaborative?

Collaboration and teamwork is one of our core firm values and clients often comment that this is a distinguishing feature of working with our firm. All of our structures and processes are designed to foster better collaboration. Our sector approach is an effective way to drive collaboration between the various practice areas. Our sector heads drive activities around clients operating in a specific ecosystem, where they face similar challenges and opportunities, and where solutions can be implemented across the sector. We also created platforms to enable meaningful conversations in pursuit of opportunities, and to provide access to relevant industry information, key developments and topics of interest to our active sectors. We actually found that, in some ways, remote working drove more collaboration, because people had more time on their hands to participate in firm initiatives. For instance, we had over 90% attendance at a number of the partner meetings we held last year.

Has any practice area been busier than anticipated?

Merger and acquisition activity was definitely impacted, although this improved in the second half. Areas like dispute resolution, banking and finance, and restructuring were extremely busy – although not unexpectedly. We actually launched an integrated restructuring and insolvency offering during last year, which has been very well received by the market.

On the pro bono side, a team of our healthcare specialists contributed to help kickstart the National Ventilator Project (NVP) to build 20,000 ventilators and is currently supporting the Department of Health on vaccine procurement. Together with many other businesses, including the five largest law firms in South Africa, we lent our expertise to Business 4 South Africa to collaborate with government on issues related to the lockdown regulations, and to drive a co-ordinated and proactive programme to limit the economic, social and health impact of COVID-19 on the country. Our pro bono team also assisted families who were subjected to unlawful evictions as a result of COVID-19 lockdown laws, and they also supported NGOs trying to access social grants.

How were you able to assist in ensuring that new CAs feel part of the Webber Wentzel team?

It is definitely more challenging to integrate newcomers, including our CAs, into a remote working environment. Our new CAs started on 1 February 2021, in the midst of Level 3 lockdown, and have been encouraged to work from home where possible. Our teams are making a special effort though, to make them feel welcome, and our new CAs will, in turn, also need to make an extra effort to connect with their teams. We asked each of the CAs to do a brief video introducing themselves to the firm, and our people have been able to interact with the videos to get to know them. Our CAs are also encouraged to get involved in various firm initiatives like the Webber Wentzel Leadership Network, which is an internal firm initiative that creates a platform for informed dialogue to inspire, educate, and support the development of future leaders. The resilience and flexibility that this batch of CAs will have learnt in this period will, of course, be hugely valuable in their future careers.

What is your personal ongoing 'grey hair'-inducing area?

Sally Hutton: We have had to work extra hard at maintaining culture in an environment when people spend a lot of time apart, in order to avoid drift and disengagement. Although there are some obvious positives that have come from the work-from-home shift, people still do benefit enormously from personal interactions and being apart can erode a firm's cultural glue, if you don't work hard at keeping connections strong. People can also feel a bit stuck in a rut and may be open to making moves just for the sake of a change – as leaders, we therefore need to work even harder to make people feel connected and motivated.

Christo Els: For me personally, I have struggled to separate home and work life. I have tried to overcome this by consciously moving my "office" to different parts of the house from time to time and structure "no screen time" when the opportunity presents itself. As a colleague and leader, I also miss the ability to have chance interactions with partners and employees, now very restricted by remote working. So often, these chance interactions help create awareness of concerns or problems people may experience. Although we try to overcome this by having regular gatherings and interactions over MS Teams, it remains a challenge requiring constant attention.

Hutton is Managing Partner and Els Senior Partner of Webber Wentzel. rgad