Best Boss Series: Laura Brunnen, Private Equity Partner, UK

Laura Brunnen is a private equity partner at global law firm Reed Smith, with over 15 years’ experience advising on international private equity transactions. Laura started her legal career at Slaughter and May before specialising in private equity at Kirkland & Ellis and then at Fried Frank where she was promoted to partner whilst pregnant with her first child.  In 2017, Laura led the deal team which won Private Equity Team of the Year at the British Legal Awards and in the same year founded “The 1973 Club”, a social network for women in the private equity industry.

What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader?

I confess that before this interview this was not something I had ever actively considered. Having subsequently spent some time thinking about good (and bad) leaders that I have encountered and what I aspire to, I think the good ones have all demonstrated the following:

1.    They not only know where the organisation or team is going and how they are going to get there but they communicate that to the rest of the team

2.    They don’t let their ego take over, they realise that it is not about them: it’s about the client, the service and the broader team

3.    They take responsibility and don’t hide behind others

4.    They are aware of their own limitations and aren’t afraid to give responsibility to others who have a better skill set

5.    They give public praise and credit

6.    They give people the freedom to take responsibility (whilst remaining in the background and providing support as needed)

7.    They respect and appreciate their team

8.    They motivate people to give that little bit extra of themselves

9.    They have passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing and give people a sense of purpose

10.  They deliver results

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

Leadership is an interactive process in the legal profession so it is difficult to point to one Eureka moment. You start off as a junior associate delegating work to trainees and paralegal. Over time you climb the ladder, gain more responsibility and the size of the team you have to run grows. Then all of a sudden you are a partner and there is a whole heap of other management and leadership required of you!

I would say that proof of impactful leadership comes in many forms, which in a law firm primarily includes people actively seeking to work on your team (or asking you to run a deal for them) and being given increasing responsibility in managing the business (as opposed to doing the fee earning work).

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

For triumph in the face of adversity, it is without a doubt advising on Graphite Capital’s disposal of Micheldever at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017. Not a particularly unusual deal in itself but we had just started work in earnest when it became clear that my law firm (King & Wood Mallesons, better known as SJ Berwin (“KWM”) was going through a wobble: there had clearly been issues for some period of time but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a contentious managing partner election followed by a number of partner resignations. One thing led to another and within a period of months it collapsed and went into administration with the ignominy of being the biggest law firm to fail in Europe.

For two and a half months I had to run that transaction as we headed towards and then went into administration at KWM. I say “I” but I could not have done it by myself – despite the personal and professional turmoil we were all suffering amid desperately trying to find new roles for ourselves and KWM employees as a whole and despite the fact that as a team we were soon going to be split up (seven team members ended up at six different firms), every person in the KWM team stepped up and gave it their all. Not one person threw the towel in.

We signed just before KWM went into administration and a couple of weeks later I joined Reed Smith. Once there I then had to quickly assemble a new team to get the deal through to closing. We must have done something right, as the CEO had the following to say (which I keep pinned up on my wall):

“Not only did Laura and her team do an outstanding job of supporting us throughout every element of the transaction and making a substantial contribution to achieving an outcome that delighted both Graphite and the management team they did so while remaining calm and focused on us throughout and without there being any sign that the problems at KWM were having any impact on them or on their work with us. Clearly, this was a major achievement and demonstrated not just the skill and commitment of the people involved but also leadership and professionalism beyond the normal.”

It is an understatement to say that I was beyond delighted when we won Private Equity Team of the Year for the Graphite deal at the British Legal Awards in 2017: a silver lining to the very dark cloud.

“The great leaders know how to “go up on the balcony” to get some perspective on what really matters”. James H. McLaughlin, Founder and CEO, USA

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

Apart from the above experience with KWM, I had a situation where I staffed someone on a deal who I thought was more experienced than they actually were and it soon became apparent that they were out of their depth. This was not their fault but I had complaints from the client and other stakeholders and so had to bring in more senior team members to take over.

I did not do a good job of explaining all of this to the original team member, ironically because I did not want to hurt their feelings. My sense is that they thought I had hung them out to dry with the client and others, when in fact I had defended them to the hilt and taken responsibility for the problems.  In trying to protect them I think I actually alienated them,  so the lesson here is to have an open, honest conversation when things don’t go to plan (however difficult that may be) rather than glossing over things and letting them fester.

Common opinion states that in order to be successful in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of the world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person?

What does “nice” mean? I think the problem is that being a decent person can sometimes be confused with being “weak”, which is wrong. Someone can be personable and decent whilst still making and implementing difficult decisions. They just do it with some empathy and make it clear that they are not enjoying the negative impact that it may have on others.

To borrow a phrase, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”.  Unpleasant, difficult people may think that people are jumping to attention and running around after them, but the reality is most people in that situation do the minimum and will avoid going the extra mile that is so often required.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

It is fair to say that I am rather emotional. I rarely take it out on other people – I will have a rant at my computer screen, phone or my poor husband instead or draft an email (that I do not send in the heat of the moment). The ranting is generally done in an empty office; one of my clients once commented that I was so calm and they had never seen me lose my temper with the other side – the stories my empty office could tell!

There have been a couple of times when I have been a bit short with someone but I have realised almost straight away and apologised. I don’t think it is weak to apologise, on the contrary, it can be very powerful.

Taking a few deep breaths, counting to ten, asking people to come back in ten minutes, all of this helps to get the blood pressure back down again. As I have got older and more experienced, I have learnt that there is nearly always a solution and a way of fixing things if you can just think about it calmly. I recall one of the associates having a minor melt-down at 4am whilst we were trying to sign a deal (never a great time for clarity of thought) and I had to calm them down and reassure them that the issue in question was not a deal-breaker, we would deal with it and the other side would see sense. Which they did. I think I even muttered the immortal phrase “nobody has died, it’s going to be fine”…

And otherwise, I do non-contact boxing training.  I cannot begin to tell you how therapeutic it is, although I cannot tell you whom I have imagined on the end of my left hooks!

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

I remind myself of how privileged I am and how far I have come over the last 20-25 years. I grew up in a council house, went to my local comprehensive school and somehow ended up going to Cambridge ( I am the only person in my extended family to go to university) and then into the City with a training contract with Slaughter and May. I have had to be incredibly adaptable, stubborn and resilient, so I keep going whatever.

My husband is an anaesthetist, so his job really is about life and death and frankly, I do not know how he puts up with all my inconsequential work-related rants. It is easy to get caught up in things but I try to remind myself that nobody has died and that this is not the thing I will be thinking about or regretting on my death bed.

I also relax through reading and baking and spending time with the family.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

Although it may not seem it, a law firm is in fact very much a people business – both in terms of client management and in managing people in the firm. I have been at five law firms and the differences in culture, priorities and management style are profound. Whilst the overall culture of a firm comes from the top down, individual departments are, to a certain extent, their own fiefdoms and as a small group of partners, we can definitely shape our immediate environment.

I object to and actively discourage “facetime” (that is, the requirement to be seen in the office at all hours)  and can often be found asking people if that piece of work really needs to be done now or if it can wait until the next day. Work hard when it is required (which is often) and take some downtime when it is not. It is also about simple things such as showing you appreciate people and saying thank you and giving people opportunities to stretch themselves. As a partner, it is also important to recognise that part of our role is to teach and mentor and to give our time to associates to help them learn.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. In the absence of monetary rewards, how else do you keep people motivated?

Let’s not pretend that money is unimportant but, as I learnt (the difficult way) earlier in my career, it is not the only thing. People want to feel valued and appreciated and money is only one part of that equation. A simple thing: I always say thank you and let the team know how much I, and the client, appreciate their effort.  It is surprising (and shocking) how many people fail to do this.

It is also very important to give people public credit and recognition for their ideas and work. For example, I may be on a conference call with a client and will introduce something by saying “Emily came up with this great idea that we want to share with you…”. People also want the opportunity to step up and run with things – it is about giving people the opportunity to do that what being in the background giving them sufficient support. It is a delicate balancing act.

I also like to look after my team both during and after a deal. We signed a transaction a couple of weeks ago, the team was up all night (I managed to get a couple of hours’ sleep) so I did a coffee and muffin run when I got in office. It is also good to have team lunches or dinners to celebrate after a deal and unwind. Ad hoc brownies and Krispy Kremes also go down well!

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

Things have definitely changed since I started out when I was scared to talk to an associate, let alone a partner. Whilst on the fee-earning side the trainee/associate/partner hierarchy still exists, it tends to be much flatter. You, therefore, cannot say one thing and do another, that type of approach just doesn’t cut it any more.

I give the team the confidence not to be “yes men”. I always say to associates that they should think for themselves and double-check and should not take what I say as gospel. One would hope that 99% of the time I am right, but I cannot begin to tell you how much joy it gives me when someone comes into my office and says “Laura, I have been thinking about this more and I think we need to do x, y, z instead”

I want to jump out of my seat and punch the air with excitement because someone has taken responsibility, identified an issue and, most importantly proposed a solution.

Even if there is a better solution, that person has not waited to be spoon fed and told what to do, they’ve taken control and that means that I am doing my job.

Read More from the Series: Interview with Nikki Gatenby

How do you decide to be available to your team and to support them? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

I have an open door so people can pop by whenever they need to discuss something. If I am in the middle of a deal then those conversations happen naturally. Obviously, if I am on a call or busy trying to get something out I will ask someone to give me 15/30 minutes and that I will let them know when I’m freed up. Email and phone calls are also used as appropriate, but face to face is always best when possible.

I also act as a careers advisor to specific associates so time is diarised for those meetings and we head off for a coffee or lunch to review how things are going.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

Half the time the associates know more than me about what is going on! It is therefore very important to be tapped into the associate grapevine. I bribe people with the aforementioned brownies.

How do you best harmonise your work and personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this?

I am fairly good at compartmentalising but I do find it difficult to truly switch off. I was talking to someone about this recently and worked out that the last time I truly relaxed on a holiday (other than when I went away whilst on maternity leave) was summer 2002! We didn’t have blackberries then so you switched off your computer on the Friday and off you went for your one week or two-week break and didn’t have to think about anything or check or respond to emails until you came back.

In fact, I think I am addicted to checking my blackberry and receive death stares from my husband if I check it too much – on one memorable occasion I was frantically typing out an email on a ski lift and apparently, he was sorely tempted to knock it out of my hands into the valley below.

Work does bleed into family life and vice versa, I often tell my children to “wait a minute” whilst I rattle off an email and the older one commented a while ago that I am “always working” which was a bit of a wake-up call…

I don’t know if feel I have more to prove as a woman in a predominantly male industry and/or from the fact that I am a working mother but I am trying to go easier on myself, as I am my own worst critic.

If I am on leave, I now make a conscious effort to turn it off or leave it behind if I am going out for the day.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?

This is a decision that we as a group of partners in the London corporate department would take collectively but it doesn’t very often get to that stage.

More often, people conclude for themselves that things are not working and take active steps to find a new role, whether that be with another law firm or in-house or indeed outside of the legal profession altogether.

If you have a good relationship with your team members, then it is not unheard of for someone to initiate that discussion and ask for guidance on what you think they should do.

I am always happy (although sad at the same time!) when someone feels they can be open to that degree with me and trust that (a) I will keep their confidence and (b) will give them honest and impartial advice.

How do you create, manage and motivate an efficient team when your team works remotely?

We all have the opportunity to work remotely from time to time but the current expectation is that people are in the office more often than not. That is particularly important when we are in the middle of a deal and it is much more efficient to join a conference call whilst we are in the same room together or we can review documents and bounce ideas off each other.

Having said that, we need to ensure that all this technology works for us: it has in many ways made working life and indeed the work/life balance much harder over the last 15-20 years.

I work remotely one day a week, which is a day when I can use the time I would otherwise spend commuting to get some life admin and exercise done. I am logged into my desktop and my office line is diverted to my mobile and I am in frequent contact with people back in the office.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those every day other people’s lives better.