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How Simon Holdsworth overcame self-doubt – and a life-threatening illness – to take over the reins at Thrings…

There is a belief that people who’ve recovered from serious illness are meant to recognise the futility of office-based work. According to ‘conventional’ wisdom, their brush with mortality washes the scales from their eyes, and leads them to rebellion against the capitalist machine, the launch of a goat farm on an Outer Hebridean island, or possibly a smoothie shack in the Home Counties.

But Simon Holdsworth, managing partner at South-West based law firm Thrings, had not read that particular script. Having fully recovered from Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2011, following nine months of chemotherapy, he was re-energised and determined to return to the law firm where he had worked for 19 years; but not in his previous role as company commercial head but as managing partner.

After his recovery, Simon had what he describes as his “Jerry Maguire moment” and he wrote down his vision for what he thought the firm could achieve. “It was warts and all and included the phrase ‘I want to be managing partner’,” he says. “It was a leap of faith because I didn’t know if people would think ‘you’ve got to be bloody joking’.”

They didn’t, which isn’t surprising given Simon’s passion for his place of work. “Thrings is not just a job, it’s been a fundamental part of my life for 19 years,” he says. “I have such a strong affinity with this firm and its people. During my treatment, I had a lot of time to reflect on exactly what I wanted from my career and what benefit I could offer.

“Facing your own mortality, aged 44 with two young children, brings the important things in life into sharp focus. And clearly family is incredibly important. But the experience also reminded me that this firm called Thrings is also a family, and, once I had recovered, I felt a deep sense of duty towards it.”

Simon’s life affirming but challenging experience, alongside his undoubted talent and formidable character, clearly give him a unique motivation for his work. It’s not surprising therefore that his firm was keen to tap into this rare combination. But what was his compelling vision for Thrings?

At its heart was the mission to build long-term trust between the firm and its clients, and between the firm and its own people; to go beyond the normal working relationship towards something altogether more effective and more rewarding.

To reach this point, Simon had to look back before looking forward: “A firm’s legacy lends significant weight to the vision of what it can become,” he says. “We’re an organisation that’s never been self-important. We’re bright, we solve problems and we get on well with clients and each other. It’s an approach that creates long-lasting friendships. That might seem simplistic but it’s why I joined Thrings in the first place. A lot of clients and intermediaries are now so much more to me than colleagues – they are real friends. That denotes a particular way of doing things.”

With that legacy in mind, Simon outlined his vision: “In this highly competitive market, with firms looking to become bigger and bigger, and with the commoditization of legal services, my vision focused on trusted relationships: with clients, with intermediaries and with ourselves. I don’t like the term ‘trusted adviser’ because it’s hackneyed. ‘Trusted friend’ is probably better.

“We must make sure that clients trust us to help them to reach their goals. Part of that is about being creative and being able to solve problems entrepreneurially, which may, of course, involve an element of risk. But you can only do that if you really know the client and if they fully trust you. Clients want solutions and advice – they don’t just want the law regurgitated. In many cases the law is secondary. It’s all about the relationship.”

Simon’s intense focus on building positive, trusted relationships requires a long-term view, not one that values short-term profits and quick, dirty wins. So what impact does such an approach have?

First of all, it has led to careful reassessment of the metrics used to monitor the business. Simon has moved away from measuring profits by office because it encourages the wrong sort of behaviour. He says: “As you better understand your clients’ needs, you want to introduce them to new parts of the business. Clients are not best served by internal struggles between departments, and profit by office most certainly does not encourage collaboration.

“We also now have team targets rather than individual fee-earning targets. That’s because we wanted to shift the KPIs to drive behaviours that result in the best possible client experience. We are mindful, too, that it takes time to develop relationships with clients – you need ‘off the clock’ moments. So people don’t have to come back from every meeting with a scalp. If you take that pressure off, it enables them to spend the right amount of time asking the right questions.”

Secondly, because trusted relationships are only formed by people who are comfortable in their own skin, Thrings encourages individuality. “Authenticity is so important,” says Simon. “People have to be themselves and sell themselves as part of the organisation, not sell Thrings through themselves. They can’t be clones.”

It is significant that Simon, after facing mortality and having the time to reflect on his life, wanted to return to Thrings to write his next chapter. His experience gives him unique insight into what really matters in life and how the professional and the personal spheres are intrinsically linked. By understanding the value of Thrings, as opposed to its price, Simon is perfectly qualified to lead the organisation. “In my heart of hearts I hope we don’t lose the sense that we’re all in it together at Thrings,” he says. “We all have a part to play. It is easy to lose sight of that, with the pressure to grow, to merge, and to boost profits. But actually we are a group of individual human beings who want to collaborate, bounce ideas off each other and enjoy our work.”

If more leaders lived and breathed this philosophy, the working world would surely be a better, more compassionate and fulfilling place.