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What shielding taught me about people management

I’ve spent long periods of time over the last year shielding, while continuing to lead Hampshire law firm Paris Smith. The experience has caused me to self-critique my approach to leadership, reinforced it and shown me what really matters. I have learned lessons that I hope will be useful for everyone involved in people management in law firms.

For me, Covid-19 has posed, and still poses, a serious personal threat. I was placed in the clinically extremely vulnerable category, having undergone a kidney transplant 17 years ago.

My emotions certainly got the better of me the day I realised I would have to shield, and my life was restricted to my four walls and garden, unable to see many of my family, including my 95-year- old mother.

There were periods during lockdown which were very tough. Being confined to home, whilst comfortable, was at times hard for someone like me who enjoys meeting and talking to others. As the weeks passed, my energy levels did flag at times.

But despite my personal challenges I was mindful that I remained a leader with a duty to serve Paris Smith and all members of it. I quickly turned my attention to how we would manage and lead the firm and its team of 260 people through the pandemic remotely.

Here are some of the lessons I learned.

People will remember how they felt

I was mindful that every one of us would be dealing with our own emotions and fears. I knew that my priority was to put the health and wellbeing of staff first.

But how could I best serve the firm and all who work for it from my shielded position? The key to this came to me quickly – people will remember how they felt, and how they were made to feel during the pandemic, long after Covid-19 has passed.

It was important to understand how staff were feeling and how might we best instil an even greater degree of trust, confidence and personal security in these uncertain times.

Communication is vital

Open and honest communication has been so important during the pandemic. The management team and I made it our business to have as many conversations with staff as we could. We used these for conveying information, but also crucially, for listening to what they said and how they said it.

If our people felt that they had a voice which was being heard, we could build on that as a basis for a united approach to us navigating through the pandemic, as one team.

The importance of optimism, hope and honesty

The pandemic has been challenging in so many different ways for my colleagues, so I knew the management team and I had to offer optimism and hope. I don’t advocate offering false hope, so it is always important to be honest too.

I am a person who is always keen to learn from situations, to adopt a glass-half-full approach to life. Negativity and I are not the best of pals. Thus, throughout the challenges of the last year, I have retained a sense of optimism for the future.

However, I knew that I would be failing our people if I was overly positive about the current situation. I have always been open and honest as to the reality of the national and regional situation as well as the firm’s position at any time. I have been transparent as to how I was thinking and feeling. It has always served me well and enabled me to sleep easier at night.

Ask for help

It is important to admit when you need help. You will not have all of the answers yourself, but the old adage is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. It is a lesson I was taught at a young age and it has stayed with me.

I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by talented colleagues whom I trust. Problems don’t feel so impossible when I seek their input.

Look after yourself

Anyone who has responsibility for looking after other people at work needs to ensure that they are in the best shape they can be. Be authentic, be true to yourself and show vulnerability. We are all human beings, so there is no need to try to be super human.

I always remember the reason for the cabin crew instruction on an aircraft – put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help others.

I have learned a lot about myself during the pandemic. I am mentally richer for the experience and grateful for what I have learned. I am optimistic for the future and intend to take the positives from the last year and move forward with greater awareness of what really matters.

Peter Taylor is the Managing Partner of Paris Smith LLP. To contact Peter, please email peter.taylor@parissmith.co.uk, call 02380 482482 or visit www.parissmith.co.uk

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