With Data and Insights
This Next Normal leadership series podcast features the Chairman and CEO of Elevate, Liam Brown, and Bill Horne, the CEO of Quovant. Quovant is a legal spend management and data analytics solution provider, clearly a competitor of Elevate. It’s refreshing to hear this exchange between two experienced CEOs talking about leadership in these challenging times.
- [01:46] – A career fixer, Bill enlightens us to his process and the path to becoming a fixer – not a role you see advertised
- [03:54] – A surprising learning, understanding the relationship between a corporate GC and law firms – specifically the sensitivity around the relationship
- [09:32] – In nine months, this is going to be great – trust me, and the data
- [13:36] – Being a CEO in 2020…
- [16:44] – Empathy and running a business… we’re still capitalists
- [18:54] – Leading through economic cycles requires bringing new tools to the table
- [22:26] – New – or want to be – CEOs – Tune in to Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gate on Netflix
Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio file.
Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next Normal Leadership Series, featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO Liam Brown, talking with Bill Horne, CEO of Quovant, the legal spend management, and data analytics solution provider. During this episode, Liam and Bill discuss turnaround leadership and the unique CEO experience of leading and running a business, in this case, competitive law companies during 2020.
Liam Brown: Bill, I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you as a business leader, what I call a law company leader. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to ask you to tell the listeners and me a bit of how you got into the role that you have now. What was the arc of a career that led you to where you are now?
Bill Horne: Sure. Well, thanks for inviting me, I appreciate it, and it’s good to spend some time with you. I came to Quovant about five years ago. I’ve worked for the same private equity firm since 2004, Sopris Capital out of New York. I’m their fixer. I’m not the guy who gets the companies sort of going up into the right; I get the companies going down in some directions. I came to the company, there was a little bit of trouble. We were bleeding some cash, and they’d gone through all the investors’ money, we had to do something else. Over some time, we’ve got the ship turned around, and I’ve enjoyed what we’re doing here, and I’ve enjoyed learning another industry and watching what you guys have been doing. Congrats on your success. I wish you the best.
LB: You’ve described yourself as a fixer. How do you end up as a corporate fixer? What is the training or the background or the experience that lead you to that role and then stay in it, as a career?
BH: It’s probably a variety of experiences. If I go way back to my IBM days when I first started selling, I never got the good territory. By stepping into situations that needed some help, I’ve just kind of fallen into it. I didn’t think that would be my career, but I enjoy it. And I’ve got a methodology that I go through; it’s not the same for every company, but I’ve got some building blocks of getting things back right. And then we’ve been fortunate to have some good exes along the way and keeping the band together.
LB: I want to ask you about your methodology in a minute, but what attracts you to working with the same people or working with the same private equity firm?
BH: First and foremost, the guy who runs it, Andy Paul, he’s a straightforward communicator. And what you see is what you get. We can have a very frank conversation on any level. And over the years, we’ve developed a great deal of trust. I was his first remote CEO ever in 2004. I commuted from Atlanta to Nashville, ran a gift card company. He said, “Let’s see how this goes.” And it went pretty well. You’ve been in situations where people get out over their skis and then stretch the story. And then the next thing is a stretch. And they’re trying to do the right thing, but they are people I liken to home builders. Some people are great at putting the sticks up, and then some people are great at making sticks a home. The home’s up, but there are some problems in the house. And we come in and try to make a house a home. It’s a very different skill set. It’s not for everybody. You gotta be a great listener, you have to be pretty patient, and you have to have investors who also have the patience to say, “Okay, we can get through this thing,” and enough dry powder to do what we gotta do. And it’s worked pretty well. I think I’m on number eight right now, so…
LB: Do you work with any of the same people on the management teams as you’ve moved from place to place?
BH: No. Typically I’m precluded from doing that. When we have an exit, I can’t touch the folks. I had one situation where I brought somebody back, but interestingly, great guy, the skills he brought to the previous company didn’t transfer well to the new company. You have to be somewhat malleable in your skillset because however you put that house up or fix the house, it’s different the next time. If you try to apply the same fix, you’re going to fail.
LB: If the same fix doesn’t work from place to place, you still need a framework. How do you approach something like this? Can you comment at all about the framework or methodology you bring as a new leader to a business? It doesn’t matter what industry. We’ll say in the legal industry.
BH: For me, it all starts with the people. That sounds maybe a little too broad, but I make a point up to 100 people to meet with every person in the company for 20 to 30 minutes. I have some questions, a little bit of secret sauce; four questions that I ask everybody. The same four questions, I type them in as my laptop, and I turn it around after number one, and I show them, this is what I’m doing. When it’s complete, I share this with everyone in the company unless it’s something so sensitive that I can’t, or somebody said, “Hey, Bill, this is in confidence.” I keep those somewhere else. Typically, by the time I’m halfway through, I have a good idea of the big problems. I may not know the little ones, but I know the big ones. If people go into my LinkedIn profile, they immediately don’t trust me. They assume I’m going to fire everybody. And I’m up there smiling, truly glad to see everybody, and tell them we’ll get through this, and the result will be great.
That’s the first phase. While that’s going on, I have a planning process I’ve used over the years, and it’s evolved. I had a great mentor by the name of Larry McTavish. Larry and I saw very much the same on strategy and operational planning. Too many companies look at five-year plans; I don’t believe in those. I have a hard time believing in a one-year plan, but I break things up depending on the severity of the problem, either in the quarters or six months or a year. There’s a methodology we follow that helps us develop a plan based on what we hear to get things fixed. That process takes a bit of time, but it starts to bring the team together, or it pulls the team apart, and I realize where I’ve got holes and what we have to fix. Big picture, that’s what we do. It’s worked well across a lot of portfolio companies.
LB: About your second statement, I do the same thing around planning; we call it Horizon Planning. It breaks things into goals and initiatives. What does success look like? How do we know we’re on track? Who’s accountable for doing what? Then you have to be patient, don’t you? Because you have to work the plan.
BH: Yes, you have to let the plan play out.
LB: Talk about what it was like to be a fixer in law.
BH: I’m not a lawyer by training, and we have a lot of lawyers who work for the company. Because of what we do, legal bill review, we’re not always completely trusted or loved by the legal side of the house. I’ve had to figure out what makes lawyers tick in that situation. I think we’ve done a good job of now really talking about the company as a tech-enabled service, that we help people get together with their law firm and have a better relationship with their law firm. It’s not necessarily all about savings; there’s a lot more value we can deliver than the broad category of legal bill review and saving people X% of their spend. A lot of our time is spent on; how do we become more friendly with the lawyers and the law firms. We’re sitting on a ton of data. We’re remodeling that data, we’re doing some work with AI. We’re in that mix, and we’re making good progress. I think that’s going to help that relationship grow and strengthen.
LB: Were there any characteristics of the legal sector you’ve found uniquely interesting or different or perhaps surprisingly similar to the other sectors you’ve worked in previously?
BH: Not sure of a lot of similarities. Slow to change is something I don’t think I expected coming into it. I didn’t understand the full breadth of the depth of the relationship between the corporate general counsel, if you will, and the law firm. And the concerns of jeopardizing a relationship because we’re now counting the dollars paid, we’re not able to solve that in all situations. We find it’s much easier in others, especially with new GCs; they want to make their footprint, but I think what we’re seeing now that younger partners are coming along, this is just much more a way of life they know how to deal with it. I talked to a law firm, a Wall Street firm, the other day, and they’re dealing with something like 27 different billing companies. It’s giving the law firm a headache because their DSOs are going up, and they’re a cash business, so they’re not going to get their bonuses as they might have anticipated. Throw a little pandemic on top of it because everybody cut things back. I think it’s a good time for law firms to rethink things. There are lots of opportunities.
LB: When you think about the businesses that we run, we are in the legal industry, kind of similar to how you stand up in front of a team of colleagues whenever you’re looking to turn around or improve a new business. You’re saying, “Let me paint a picture of what the future is going to look like. And in nine months, things are going to be great.” When you’re doing something like working with a law department and their law firms, and then someone in that room is thinking, “Well, hang on a second. Now we’re talking about money? How is this going to impact my relationship?” How do we build trust and bring people along to prepare to engage with the change they need to get to this future better state?
BH: I think the answer’s in data. The more information we can share that’s meaningful to someone. Not “You’re gonna save 16%,” or whatever your number is, that’s not meaningful. The meaningful number is what’s inside of all that? What are the patterns? What are your law firms producing for you? Are they efficient in doing that? Are they doing what you asked them to do? And how do they measure up against all the other law firms you’re working with? It’s pretty interesting when you start giving them data to assimilate and then have a conversation. Because the law firms want to have the conversation, they want to do a better job. Every once in a while, like anywhere, you’ve got somebody who doesn’t follow the rules, and so they might be a big biller, and they shouldn’t have been a big biller.
It’s the conversation. It’s just like anything with an employer, in the turnaround; here’s the information we have. Tell me what you think about it. The center is data, not the relationship. The relationship gets better, the partnership gets stronger, and there’s understanding. They may say, “You know what, I get that, okay. This time, that one’s on me. Don’t worry about it. Next time, not so much. Okay.” They go back, and tell her or tell him that, “You can’t do this with this client.” “Oh, I had no idea.” That will help this person in their career because they’ll be a better lawyer for it. They’ll provide better customer service, and everybody wins. I think what we’re doing is highly valuable. Give us the chance to share the data, which our clients do, they come back and say, “You know what, this never hurts the relationship. We have a better relationship.”
“I think the answer’s in data. The more information we can share that’s meaningful to someone.”
– Bill Horne
LB: I’d like to think that we think of each other as polite competitors. I believe in this area; this is something that people are nervous about stepping into because they have a relationship. The business issues, fees, billing, review, and response are all wrapped up together. That can be pretty confusing. As you go through this process, as you indicated, and start to separate the data. That leads to a conversation about what is and isn’t valued, leading to changes in behavior. All of that is parallel to the relationship, bringing the business conversation to the business. Law firms have made great progress in moving their business functions into these conversations. You’re not always having a billing conversation with the billing partner; you are having a billing conversation with the people whose business function it is to manage the billing or financial aspects of the running of the law firm.
“You’re not always having a billing conversation with the billing partner; you are having a billing conversation with the people whose business function it is to manage the billing or financial aspects of the running of the law firm.”
– Liam Brown
LB: Running a business in this environment, running a business through these times, health, health care, the social change, the economic environment. What is it like being a CEO right now?
BH: Very different. We’ve been remote since March 14th. We’ve had some people coming and going. Probably like you; I like to be in front of the troops. I enjoy it, it’s fun, and you pick up on lots of things just because you’re around, so when you’re not around, you don’t get to pick up on all that stuff, so I think it’s more challenging. We’ve been talking about communication. That plays an even bigger role, and staying present plays a huge role. But you and I are on video; this is tiresome to a lot of people. I think empathy right now, that’s a heightened sensitivity for us, and sometimes as CEOs, we can be a little terser, a little more direct, because of what we’re trying to get done, so it’s a big challenge.
LB: I think that’s a real challenge. Just being self-reflective, I would say that’s probably my Achilles heel right now. I’m used to building relationships with people who aren’t in the same office as me. And I’m aware some people are used to working and engaging with me more directly, but some have commented that I’m different in person, and I’m a different person online. I’ve sort of pushed back on it; what do you mean by that? And what I get to inevitably is, “Well, you’re less empathetic.” It’s an interesting thing to be aware of. And you think of your colleagues now listening to this podcast, or you think of younger executives who are developing their careers, how do they develop and improve the way we express empathy so that it lands for the people we’re interfacing with? I don’t mean all the time, and perfectly, I mean, how do we get better at this?
BH: I think we have to talk about it, number one. Number two, I think it’s harder for first-line managers to be consistent with that all the time, so consistency of leadership is something we talk about, no high highs. No, low lows, be steady. I do a fair amount of reading with my team and encourage them to send it to their direct reports. Current articles might be from Harvard Business Review or McKinsey or whatever, who are researching all this and talking to lots of people and trying to keep the dialogue up here instead of down there. Still, I think what’s interesting is there’s a change that is going to happen again. This remote thing is not for everybody, and it’s very difficult for some. I think it’s particularly difficult for working parents with young school-aged children. My heart broke the other day when a first grader was trying to learn to read over a laptop on a make-shift table in a kitchen. I mean, talk about a struggle. And so we’re worried about earnings and revenue growth and all that kind of stuff, and this parent is wondering, “Is my child gonna be massively behind here?” As leaders, we have to be empathetic to that.
BH: Empathy gets us this far. We also have a business to run in this new whatever we’re experiencing, and still, we’re capitalists, so let’s go. And how can we help you? And if this is not for you, then tell us it’s not for you, and maybe there’s something else we can have you do.
LB: That is a reality, and as employers and managers, what can we do to be aware that that affects some of the people we work with. We have the reality if we are running a business. As I was preparing to speak with you, I read some of the articles you had written, and if it’s okay, I am interested. One of the ones I read about was balancing work from home and returning to work. How do we approach that? When do we approach that? How are you assessing or thinking about the appetite for returning to work and planning to return to the workplace? What approach or approaches are you thinking about or taking?
BH: We were initially considering almost a pod approach of people coming back. I talk to many staff members; some are dying to come back, some are not. By the way, they do say, “Hey, I don’t have to send my dog to daycare. I love that I’m not driving, using gasoline, and all the other stuff.” But many people say, “I miss the water cooler chat, I miss, just that informal communication where you can walk down the hallway and solve the problem.” Today, we have Teams, we have email, we have text, and we have a phone. Many times, people are dodging communication and just moving the monkey to somebody else via email. We are thinking about how to communicate better as a company, and what does that mean? It doesn’t mean we can put people in small groups to come back. The problem is one person gets sick, and the ripple effect of that is massive. My team and I talk about every two weeks; we look at all the data and talk about our people. We’ll decide when it makes sense possibly we open in January, so we’re thinking about it. To your primary question a second ago, there is the cost of this to business and I think it’s going to gently raise our costs, because everybody’s not as productive as you may want them to be, working from home for any variety of reasons that they can’t control. I t’s not their fault. The pandemic’s not their fault. They have young, great, sweet children who require Mom and Dad. It’s not their fault, so we as businesses have to learn how to accommodate that and get through it.
LB: I appreciate you speaking so transparently about that. I think we’re lucky that we are… well, I was going to speak for myself grey-haired CEOs. At this time, I think this is an extremely difficult time to be a business leader. One of the things that I do is I work with other CEOs in our industry, sometimes first-time CEOs, and they talk about the struggle. This is not a normal time for any CEO, and it’s certainly an incredibly challenging time for someone going through that whole journey that I’m sure we all went through: Am I a capable CEO? Am I doing a good job? Am I a good leader? Will people trust me, follow me, believe in me?
We’re lucky we have seen economic cycles before. While we haven’t seen a pandemic, we’ve grappled with – I’ll call them – other types of existential threats to the business. It allows you to bring tools to the table. I wonder how you feel about this. We have operations around the world where local authorities allow people to come back to the workplace. One of the things that we’ve said is, we’ll let people make their individual and personal choice. So as long as we stay below, for example, 20% of our footprint, people can make a choice. And what we found is similar to what you said, is there are a tremendous number of people, certainly not everyone, but a huge number of people that want to spend some time in the office.
That may just be an afternoon a week. We are getting away from the kitchen table or the bedside table and being mindful of our social responsibilities as employers and our role in protecting our employees, protecting societies from the transmission, and being aware of just the human mental stress and wellness element. Being mindful of, we have to be employers of people, and people need to rely on their paycheck, especially at a time like this.
BH: You’re 100% right. The mental health side of this is not getting smaller; it’s getting bigger. I’ve mentioned it to many people, “Try meditation, try anything,” Because the same old view and the same old thing every day, day in, day out is not good for anybody.
LB: As we wind towards the end of our conversation, I like to ask people a couple of questions, and I’ll tell you the first one so that you can have it just playing in the back of your mind. I’d like to ask you, “Leadership in tough times requires… dot dot dot.” I’d like you to finish that sentence. While that’s playing in the back of your mind, I’ll ask this. You said you read a lot, are there any books or authors that you think young leaders or people who aspire to leadership in law, or any business, should invest the time in reading because that book or that author was impactful to you?
BH: On the book side, there’s probably a handful. The one I’m enjoying at the moment, I haven’t finished it, is Bob Iger’s book, he ran Disney. I’ve enjoyed some writings from Larry Bossidy, CEO of Allied Signal. Then there’s a book that I just ordered the other day. I haven’t cracked the cover yet. But it’s Bill Gate’s favorite business book of all time. If you’ve not watched The Mind of Bill Gates, I would encourage young CEOs to watch that, it’s not about Microsoft.
LB: The Mind of Bill Gates?
BH: Yeah, it’s a three-part series. I think each series is about 45 minutes long. But it’s how he thinks. And I say the more that young leaders can see how other people think, and see if that’s how they ought to think or shouldn’t think. I’ve always challenged my thinking, and that’s what I get out of reading.
LB: Interesting. I love the notion of reading books as a way of having a conversation, a dialogue with other people’s ideas. It’s a sort of, personal dialogue, but you’re learning things from other people. On that note, I’ve given you some time to think about leadership in tough times requires dot dot dot.
BH: Okay, I’d say courage, I’d say resilience and empathy.
LB: You don’t get off that easily. Why those three words?
BH: I think it’s increasingly difficult for many people to be resilient right now. People are tired of this, and it’s the unknown that bothers people more than the known. Are we going to have a vaccine? Are we going to go through another pandemic? Are numbers going to suffer because people just aren’t letting law firms do as much as they were? Being resilient and then saying, “Look, I can get through this, and we’ll figure this thing out.” Courage, the courage to tell the truth, the courage to tell people maybe what they don’t want to hear, but they need to hear it. Courage to be that guy or that woman standing up in front of everybody with the good story and their chin up. But a realist about what’s going on, not a fake leader. And then empathy, trying to feel what people are going through. You just don’t know what people are dealing with. I think to be a genuine leader today, you kind of try to get into that, but not so far you lose your perspective as a business leader because we’re all paid to get a job done. But if you can recognize that and be that person, to be a helper. That requires us to listen and ask the question. It’s not, “How are you doing?” It’s, how are Y-O-U doing? And mean it and stop, and when they say something, say, “Well, tell me what that means?” You’ll have a much more genuine conversation with folks.
LB: Bill, it’s been great. Thank you for your time, and I can see why you have improved the fortune of Quovant. I wish you, and your team continued good fortune, not too much good fortune, but this has been fantastic, thank you.
BH: Thank you for your insights. I enjoyed it. Have a great 2021.