Jeff Twentyman: Can Professional Services Firms Act Neutral Anymore?
‘Perspectives’ is a joint project of The Beautiful Truth and Leaders on Purpose. During the 5th annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit, The Beautiful Truth conducted interviews with influential corporate leaders and thought leaders. The goal was to gain insight into their perspectives on purposeful business and answer the question: what actions should our businesses take in the current historical context?
Jeff Twentyman is a Partner and Chair for Sustainability and Responsible Business at the international law firm Slaughter and May. Founded in 1889, the firm is considered one of the most prestigious in the world, based on its clients, revenue per lawyer, revenue per partner and the number of lawyers. The firm aims to integrate sustainability into its strategic and operational decisions so that it becomes part of its everyday business activity.
We spoke to him to gain insight into what sustainability means for Slaughter and May and professional services firms more broadly.
How do you interpret “purpose”?
Nobody sets up a business for the sake of setting up a business. They set up a business to achieve something – that’s a purpose. For example, if I was to ask you to do something, one of the first questions you will ask me is: ‘why’? Because understanding the ‘why’ informs the ‘how’. Professional services firms need to take responsibility at the most senior level in creating that clarity of vision.
Once you have the ‘why’, that purpose, it’s easier to decide as a professional services firm who you take on as clients. For example, there’s a huge opportunity for firms to service the transition of organisations away from activities that are retractive, and for that to be part of the firm’s purpose. It’s often criticised as acting for the wrong clients, but they’re actually providing a public service.
Nobody sets up a business for the sake of setting up a business. They set up a business to achieve something – that’s a purpose.
Tell us about the current state of sustainability.
When it comes to business, the word sustainability should be about answering the question: can the organisation sustain itself into the future? But the term has become simultaneously overused and focused on the outcome, rather than the practices.
Too often, sustainability is seen as a reporting framework that prioritises compliance, reporting, risk and reputation over the business’s impact. Reporting and regulatory frameworks are essential, but they must be tools to help articulate what the business is doing to the world, what its priorities are and ultimately what its purpose is.
Most business leaders weren’t trained to think of sustainability as being about the future of humanity – but the leadership role is not the leadership role it used to be. It’s not just about financial metrics; we’ve gone from ten years ago where the only show in town was shareholder primacy, to a situation where things aren’t as absolutist.
How is the role of professional services firms changing in relation to sustainability?
There used to be this notion that professional services are neutral and independent actors – therefore absolved of responsibility when it comes to sustainability. However, the world around us has grown and is therefore imposing responsibility on us – people no longer buy the idea that businesses such as mine are neutral.
You could very easily articulate my firm’s purpose as: “helping our clients to confront the greatest challenges facing people and planet.” And implicit in that is deprioritising businesses that aren’t contributing to solutions for the challenges facing people and planet. This philosophy would clear up the notion that professional services firms are neutral and bring us more aligned with what our stakeholders and the world around us expects of us.
People no longer buy the idea that businesses such as mine are neutral.
How do you view the balance of partner profit and sustainability trade offs?
Fundamentally, professional services firms are businesses. The proprietors have concerns for financial returns, just like any shareholders would in any other business. And so the question is, how do we balance this with the vocal demands from stakeholders? There’s enormous fear that by making certain choices, you alienate some of your important stakeholders from being customers.
This balancing act between shareholder and stakeholder needs often leads business leaders to say: “I don’t want to act for people who do this or that,” thus turning down commercial opportunities. It’s a conversation centred around the sort of work they don’t want to do. But why isn’t it a conversation about the sort of work they do want to do?
How should professional services firms therefore operate?
Personally, it’s very straightforward where you should be allocating your efforts, capacity and resources. As a professional services firm, you want to be engaged with the businesses that are thriving in ten years time. You don’t want to be focused on a dwindling legacy industry that is struggling with transformation, latching onto their coattails when they’re inevitably going to be in decline. By doing this, you’re also satisfying the needs of your stakeholders, especially your employees – they feel prouder of the work they’re doing and more engaged.