Leadership lessons from a woman at the top: An interview with Lesley Gregory, chairman of Memery Crystal

The idea of a woman heading up a UK law firm shouldn’t be a big deal. Law firms need leading and the best person for the job, does the job. Simple. But the reality is that we haven’t yet reached the Promised Land. We’re getting closer, but even today there is a miniscule number of women compared to men sitting at the top of corporate organisations. The speed of change is painfully slow. Will it be different in 50 years? Time will tell.

One pioneer who provides inspiration for all ambitious professionals, both male and female, is Lesley Gregory, chairman at Memery Crystal. Lesley joined the firm when it employed just 12 people. Five years later, aged 28, she rose to partner level, before progressing ultimately to CEO. Six years later in 2016, when Memery Crystal employed 120 staff, she became chairman.

“Most people who know me would use the word ‘competitive’,” Lesley tells us. “I don’t mean that I constantly try to beat others, but rather that I always want to do the best I can. In fact, having been CEO of the firm, I now recognise that competitiveness is a general trait of lawyers. And as long as you’re collegiate too, that competitiveness is a real positive.”

Lesley’s drive and client-facing approach make her a natural choice for leader, as does her honesty. She reveals her honesty in her refreshingly candid assessment of her rise to the top: “The jump to CEO was more challenging than I had expected,” she says. “The leadership and strategy side was fine, but the day-to-day people issues were much tougher. Everything comes your way as CEO, particularly people issues: you must deal with people who don’t always get on and handle sensitive remuneration issues. These are facts of life at any firm and I didn’t anticipate them to be quite so challenging.”

So how did she get to grips with these challenges? “We’re trained to be lawyers, not managers, so you have to learn on the job,” she says. “You need to understand what drives each individual, so you must spend time getting to know them. Only then can you work out what’s important to that person and what isn’t. And that information often tells you how to deal with them in a non-confrontational way.

“Leaders make decisions. But, they won’t always be happy decisions for everyone. But if you can make them in such a way so that all individuals feel valued, then you’ve done a good job. People want to feel valued. That drives most of us – the need to feel valued within the organisation, not just financially but emotionally too.”

There’s little doubt that Lesley’s consultative and emotionally intelligent approach to leadership have been key to her success at Memery Crystal. Her advice on winning over doubters gives further insight into her modus operandi, and offers useful tips for anyone who wants to lead. “Once you’ve made a business decision, the most important question is how you get people to buy into it,” she says. “If someone wants to block you or doesn’t think the same way as you do, you can, hopefully, bring them along with you through persuasion and empathy rather than a dictatorship. Maybe the female way is to use a bit more persuasion. How you communicate is important. People would say, I hope, that I’m open and straightforward. Maybe that’s a female trait too – having the courage to be open with your feelings. That’s important, I believe.”

The foundation for Lesley’s success, however, is arguably more basic than her nuanced, EQ-infused leadership approach. See sees her passion for practising law and for building and maintaining client relationships as the main drivers of her career. And there was no way she was going to give them up when she became CEO. She explains: “When I became CEO we decided that we didn’t want our top fee-earning lawyers, myself included, to stop doing what they do best. We have employed a top quality non-lawyer senior management team so that the partners leading the firm and our heads of department can still do their day jobs. It’s important to me because I enjoy dealing with clients, building the relationship and helping them grow. I didn’t want to give that up only to do law-firm management. You also get more respect and credibility if colleagues see that you’re delivering significant clients to the firm. It’s hard to juggle at times, but it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people.”

So why does Lesley think that the gender balance is still so out of kilter? She says: “Most firms have more female lawyers than males until about four years after qualifying. At Memery Crystal, 65% of our lawyers are female, but only 25% of our partners are women. Why? Well, many women decide, after having children, that the work-life balance isn’t achievable, even though great strides forward have been made in this area. So there is quite a lot of fall out. I don’t think the issue is about firms blocking female promotions. However, it’s true that at some firms a male-dominated leadership culture prevails, which doesn’t help women, does it.

“Firms have to take more actual steps and not just pay lip service to implement agile, flexible working for women who want to return after having children. It can’t be that women are frowned upon if they leave at 5pm because these days it’s so simple to get online and work from home. You’ve got to trust your employees and give them more flexibility. At Memery Crystal, we’re constantly working to improve this. ”

We finish our conversation by asking Lesley if she has any advice for ambitious professionals who want to become leaders. She says: “Leadership comes incrementally in measured steps. Start by building a reputation in your practice area, then move forward to perhaps heading that particular area or department. Take gradual steps and make your mark.

“Get a mentor, too. I feel strongly about that. It’s important to have a mentor, either inside our outside your firm.

That perfect mentor could well be the person featured in this article, Lesley Gregory, although if you’re thinking of teeing her up as your guru you will have to join a very long queue. Lesley’s story is inspirational for all professionals. It adds to the great professional services gender debate, but her tale is in fact much less to do with her being a woman and everything to do with the driving forces of competitiveness, hard work, honesty and skillful leadership.