Linklaters interview with John Sheehy, Pottinger
(Linklaters London/Moscow/New York, Mainstream Corporate 2010-2015)
"You don't stop reaching for the stars but these days I'm keeping my feet on the ground as well! I still love this job, I feel like we're firing on all cylinders and I can't wait to see what the future holds for us."
When we last spoke to John Sheehy back in 2018, he was three years into his return to his native Australia following a successful five-year stint with the Linklaters corporate group in London, Moscow and New York. John's career with corporate advisory firm Pottinger had flourished to the point that in 2017, he had become one of Australia's youngest professional services CEOs. A self-described mixture of "executive, consultant, banker and lawyer," the world appeared to be John's, and Pottinger's, oyster.
To the casual outsider, viewing CEO and company in 2021, it would seem that success has been an almost unbroken chain over the intervening period. However, while Pottinger's curve has indeed continued its upward trajectory, John candidly admits to a more difficult personal journey. "In retrospect, 2019 was a tricky year for me," he says. "I thought I was pretty much invincible, I took my foot off the gas and the result was that I got lost in the weeds of short-term delivery and failed to focus enough on long-term strategy. Ironically, considering that client management has always been my favourite part of the job, I wonder now whether I was slightly taking clients for granted. It was a classic leadership mistake."
Part of the difficulty, as John is the first to recognise, may have been the attempt to strike the right balance between offering leadership to his colleagues at Pottinger and getting involved at the coal-face himself. "That balance is very difficult to achieve, particularly at a boutique such as ours," he says. "As a professional with a background in law, my natural inclination had originally been towards the minutiae of subject matter expertise and it was a desire to branch away from it that had led me out of law to Pottinger in the first place. Here I was, though, falling into that trap again somewhere that it wasn't necessarily helpful for my role. There are certain times when you need that type of specialist – lawyers have done especially well in keeping that aspect of their profession indispensable – but our job here is more about helping clients to make well-informed commercial decisions across the board. I still wanted and needed to get my hands dirty but I had to re-think the way in which I went about it."
John's period of self-evaluation certainly appears to have worked the oracle. For the year 2020, he was the recipient of two awards from Business Worldwide Magazine – Corporate Advisory CEO of the Year - Australia and Growth Strategy CEO of the Year - Australia. "Look, the role of CEO is wonderful if you happen to have the best people around you, all executing their stuff at an optimum level," he ventures. "That's the trick, to rally the best people around you to do their best work, and at Pottinger we actively train them to work effectively across all areas and to be good leaders. It is how we make our clients feel when we advise them that matters most to us."
Such musings lead inevitably to a few conclusions on the ingredients that make for good leadership. "The best leaders are those who you don't want to let down," John concludes. "Trust is another facet of good leadership that ought almost to go without saying but it has been a key element for me. My colleagues have had to work with and for me, even though I wasn't a veteran of this industry."
Even the unwelcome arrival of Covid as a reality throughout the world has been unable to derail Pottinger's steady ascent. "It gave rise to some early, and natural, self-reflection by our clients," John reports. "After all, companies such as ours were immediately something of a luxury for businesses that needed to try very hard to stay afloat. Happily, we were well enough organised that we were able to take quick, decisive action and have been able to sail largely unscathed through troubled waters. More than ever, we've been at pains to be regular and transparent with our team. With Sydney and New York in regular lockdown over the past eighteen months, remote meetings have meant that we've shared more with each other about the business at the same time as being much franker on a personal level than used to be the case. Barriers are breaking down; I'm that way naturally but even for more introverted souls, we've found that it has been quite cathartic."
Not everything has been easier during the time of the pandemic, of course. "If you're talking about the sales pipeline, getting in front of people for the first time and having them sign on the dotted line has been tougher," says John. "Commerce hasn't stopped but it has needed to adjust to the new reality. It helps that Pottinger's DNA has always included a healthy dose of flexibility and agility, which has helped us to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. Personally, I think that our entrepreneurial spirit has also been critical to that process. We still regard ourselves as a challenger brand; I am not sure if everyone at Pottinger would agree with that assessment but while I'm still meeting people who are familiar with our competitors and don't know about us or what makes us different, we're going to keep that perspective."
In many ways, these have been a tumultuous few years for people at the commercial cutting edge. John is no different but he has not been so absorbed in his own business that he has been unable to keep old friendships in good repair. "I had dinner with Simon Branigan last time I was in London," he says. "He taught me a lot, had enormous influence over the path of my career and I'm delighted about his recent appointment as Global Head of Corporate at Linklaters. I really did learn so much there and I'm still learning now. 2019 happened and it was a tough year for me but I'm fortunate that it happened when it did. I got the wind knocked out of my sails but that was a good thing in more ways than one. You don't stop reaching for the stars but these days I'm keeping my feet on the ground as well! I still love this job, I feel like we're firing on all cylinders and I can't wait to see what the future holds for us."
Linklaters, September 2021