Mark Ford, Global Knowledge Leader with EY shares his insights on leadership and collaboration.
CCBJ: Mark, tell us what led you to join EY?
Mark Ford: Well, it was really when I met our global law leader, Cornelius Grossmann. I was excited by his vision to create the world’s leading enterprise legal services business. I thought that was something I could add value to, and that the organization was one I would fit into. I guess what really gets me out of bed in the mornings is a feeling that I can make a difference, and that’s what I try and do every day—make things just a little bit better. I wouldn’t say it happens every day. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. But that’s what I try and achieve: Wherever we are today, let’s see if we can make things a little bit better.
Tell us about your leadership style and who or what has influenced it over the years.
I think the approach that I try to take is multi-pronged. First of all, to be visible. That’s particularly important in an organization the size and scale and geographic diversity of EY. It’s important that the program has visibility that my stakeholders know who I am and see what I’m doing. Coupled with that, I think being accessible is really important. I try and be accessible to people at all levels, no matter what their role, if they’re interested in, or have some sort of engagement with, what I’m doing. When I joined EY, one of the first things I did was to try to get to know as many of the stakeholders as I could. That was obviously the leadership within the legal function, but it was also anybody who was working within the knowledge area as well.
So those are the two main things: be visible and be accessible. And then in terms of how I manage or lead teams, I try to give people as much responsibility as they’re comfortable with and can cope with. Then I nudge them to do a bit more and support them, but I try to not be too hands on; that’s not my style.
You asked about people who’ve inspired me. There are two people that really spring to mind. The first was Christopher Millard. When I was a trainee at my first firm, Clifford Chance, he was my supervising partner. And when I qualified as a lawyer, I continued working with him for a number of years. He was a real visionary, way ahead of his time. It was the mid-nineties, and he saw the future of technology and its power to transform the delivery of legal services. He had a strong feeling that there was a better way to do things. One of his catch phrases was, “We’ve got to work smarter and not harder.” He really inspired me because he was very energetic, very enthusiastic and he had real vision.
My second influencer was Paul Rawlinson, who was the Global Chair of Baker McKenzie, where I worked after Clifford Chance. He was a really inspirational guy, a true leader, and an exceptional communicator. I think that was his secret sauce, his ability to really connect with people.
He could have been reading the shopping list and people would’ve been listening with mouths wide open and eyes bright with inspiration. He had this ability to galvanize people and bring them with him. I’m talking about him in the past tense because, unfortunately, he died suddenly and it was a massive blow to the firm because he was so visible and so loved. Even people who didn’t know him that well felt the lost very keenly.
What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring for your team?
Well, I guess the first thing is pretty obvious: somebody who’s got the right abilities, technical skills, knowledge and experience. But the deciding factor when having to choose between applicants with very similar profiles and experiences is attitude. I like to work with self-starters who will collaborate, but they’ve also got a vision; an idea of what they want to achieve and how they want to get there; someone who is going to be able to create and implement a plan to take us from where we are today to where we want to be. It’s also important, for me anyway, to have somebody who’s going to be fun to work with. We spend a lot of time interacting virtually with our work colleagues and I think it’s important not to take it all too seriously and just to be able to have some fun at the same time.
How would you describe the culture of your organization?
Well, to be fair, it’s early days for me at EY. Let’s talk again in a year and I’ll be better able to answer that better. But if you’d like my first impression: It’s very collegial and very friendly. And given its size, I think that’s almost miraculous. The organization is very respectful of individuals and the dividing line between private life and work life. Maybe I won’t say this in six months, but right now it seems to me that the organization understands work-life balance. One very small example that really struck me was over Christmas, I don’t think I got any work emails apart from a couple of automated things that come every day. It was the first time in many, many years that’d ever happened to me. I talked to a couple of colleagues about it and they said, “Well, yeah, that’s deliberate because people here respect the fact that you need downtime.”
What would you say is the most rewarding career advice you’ve received over the years?
The one that springs to mind, and it’s probably a bit corny, but it’s something one of my mentors once said to me: “Feedback is a gift.” I think that might be a McKinsey thing; I’m not sure where it comes from. But anyway, it was told to me and, of course, feedback isn’t always a gift that you want, but I’ve tried to live by that and to take whatever feedback I get at face value. Hopefully it’s positive most of the time. But even if it’s negative, it’s something you can learn from and use to improve.
You didn’t ask this, but I think the most valuable career advice that I give to people is to see any new role or project or task or responsibility as an opportunity to shine. I’ve seen a lot of people go adrift because, particularly if they’re new to an organization or to a role or a team, they give the impression that what they’re being asked to do is beneath their pay grade; they’re a bit too grand to do it, or too experienced or whatever. Of course, people don’t like that. Everybody has to earn their stripes. So that’s the advice I always try and give: Throw yourself into whatever opportunity you have, whatever task you’re asked to do or project you’re asked to take on and see it as an opportunity. Because no matter how easy, basic or menial, it seems, if you do it well, people will notice, and give you more responsibility.
What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?
That’s a pretty big question! One thing that comes immediately to mind is that lawyers sometimes have a rather narrow view of the world. I’m thinking particularly of the fact that they sometimes only really listen to other lawyers or only really value the opinions of other lawyers. (By the way, this is not an issue at EY; it’s something I’ve observed at some law firms.) I remember an experience I had some years ago. It involved a very good, but fairly conservative firm. They were looking for someone to take on a sort of operational improvement role. I suppose today we would call it innovation. The person who was interviewing me wondered aloud whether this job could ever be done by someone who hadn’t been a lawyer at that firm. Their view was that the partners wouldn’t take anybody seriously otherwise. And that rang alarm bells for me. That sort of view—that you have to have been a lawyer, you have to have walked in those shoes in order to be able to contribute anything meaningful—is a bit old fashioned. But it still exists in a lot of firms.
And related to that, I suppose I’d say I wish that the legal industry would be less reluctant to embrace technology and change. Lawyers and, traditionally, law firms, have been very change averse. And again, I think EY is very different; I’ve seen only embracing of technology and new ways of working and looking for ways to be efficient here. But the legal industry still operates, in large part, on the hourly billing model, and of course that doesn’t incentivize using technology or doing anything that makes you more efficient. We have this bizarre, counterintuitive model where, effectively, the less efficient you are, the more money you make. And, somehow, some firms seem to still think that’s okay. Of course, it is changing, but I’d like to see it change quicker.
Published April 28, 2022.