How to succeed as a female boss

Julie is not one to let gender – or any other characteristic for that matter – hold her or her peers back. During her first meeting as a partner, a colleague quipped that it was great that they finally had someone to pour the tea. “That sort of comment never bothers me; it just bounces off,” she tells us. But what she remembers most from the episode – which happened way back in 1983 – is the response of Menzies LLP’s then senior partner. She recalls that he smiled but quietly told Mr Witty (and any of his mates who had been tempted to snigger) that this would be the last time that anyone made a joke like that. “He didn’t make a big thing of it,” she recalls, “but he sorted it in a light-hearted, effective way.” Julie was impressed. Her boss had not only won her over but had also remedied a potentially toxic situation in one swift manoeuvre. Thankfully, from that moment on, this kind of behaviour was stamped out for good at the firm.

Now in her third term as Menzies LLP’s senior partner herself, Julie talks a lot about winning people over. She calls it “the battle for hearts and minds”. And, she believes that it is the key to running a successful firm that prides itself on equality and diversity. During the past seven years of her leadership, this idea has propelled the UK’s 21st biggest accountancy firm forward, navigating it through a period of intense change. It has also guided a recent rebrand, which is now bearing fruit. So, let’s get to the bottom of what her philosophy really means…

To understand more, we must turn the clock back a few decades to her time as a trainee. Julie joined Menzies LLP straight from school and one of her first bosses – there were eight partners back then (there are 40 today) – encouraged her to forget the idea of university, take her exams at the firm and work her way up. His clever management style left a big impression. “That partner was very perceptive,” she says. “Every time he saw that I wasn’t being challenged he gave me something that made me stay. I remember thinking, ‘I’m bored; it’s time to go travelling’ – but then he handed me something new to do. He did that two or three times, which is a real skill. What’s more, he seemed to always be rushing around so I’m surprised he even knew I was there. Being perceptive is a quality I have taken on myself in my career.”

This little anecdote shows just how much skilful people management – of people starting their careers in particular – matters. That partner won her over. In so doing, he motivated a trainee who was soon to become a future leader at the firm.

Fast forward to 2019 and Julie continues to harvest rich rewards from that lesson. “You have to involve people,” she says. “They must be an intrinsic part of the journey. To help us achieve that here, we have created the Menzies Academy – an intricate lattice of courses. There are all sorts of avenues you can go down, from soft skills to technical training. We want to help our people get to where they want to go by challenging, supporting and satisfying them.”

Julie believes that the battle for hearts and minds has never been more important – or as testing – as it is today with the millennial generation. “Attracting and retaining millennials needs a different approach,” she argues. “They are wired differently. You either work with them or you lose them, and you don’t get a second chance. There’s no point in saying: ‘That’s not how we do things.’ That’ll get you nowhere. My generation tended to find their professional home and then stay put. But this new wave of people isn’t afraid of change, and businesses must change their approach to stay relevant. They will start looking elsewhere if they feel out of the loop. So, it’s about engagement and ownership – making them feel that they too can shape outcomes. This generation is also incredible talented and the future faces of the industry, this makes them hugely important for any business and well worth the investment.”

But it isn’t just about involving people in projects; it’s about constantly sharing information too. Handing out diktats and expecting others to understand and follow is a poor leadership strategy. “You have to communicate relentlessly,” says Menzies LLP’s senior partner. “Leaders often mistakenly think: ‘I’ve set out my vision, now I’ll go back to my desk.’ That won’t work. You have to reinforce it, live it, get the partners to live it, reward staff for living it, and embed it in everything you do. People want transparency and integrity. They want their leaders to be open. If they think it’s all smoke and mirrors, you won’t win them over.”

Good leadership also means reaching out to people who may feel undervalued or alienated. Negativity unsteadies the ship, so counteracting that negativity early on is crucial, argues Julie. “As we become more advisory focused, one of our challenges is making sure that compliance staff see where they fit in,” she says. “You can’t have a two-tier system where some staff feel less valuable than others. We recently created an animation for our intranet to get that message across. We will know that it has succeeded if people watch it and say: ‘I get that. I get what I’m doing. I get why I can make a difference.’”

Another potent weapon in Julie’s leadership strategy is “courageous integrity” – a characteristic she encourages all her leaders to develop. “We tell partners they must have those difficult conversations. It might be a tricky chat with a client saying the relationship isn’t working (it’s not in our DNA to let clients go but sometimes it’s the right thing to do). Or it could be addressing a people problem. Issues must be addressed quickly and clearly, so my message to partners is to show courageous integrity and to have those difficult conversations sooner rather than later.”

Courage and integrity are two attributes Julie has never lacked, and they’ve taken her right to the top of her firm. But her biggest professional asset – perhaps one of the main reasons why she’s thrived in her leadership role – is her quest for ‘good business’. She frames successful leadership as attritional warfare where victory is reliant on having an army of supporters living and breathing the vision. Once they are on board, her next battle begins to ensure she is doing what she can to keep them  on the journey. It’s a gutsy, practical vision of leadership. So, hats off to the partner who used his ingenuity all those years ago to retain the services of a young trainee called Julie Adams. Her rise is a superb example of just what it takes to succeed as a boss in the professional services world, and it will surely inspire countless others – women and men alike – to follow in her footsteps.