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From the Godfather to the Doug-father – leading workplace lawyer reflects on his journey

WRITTEN BYJames Price | JPAbusiness

Ep 22 Square – 3

One of the joys of hosting a podcast is meeting people who not only have a great story to tell, but who are great storytellers.

Andrew Douglas from FCW Lawyers – who joined me for episode 22 of the Let’s Talk Business podcast – is one such personality.

Andrew is a highly skilled and experienced workplace relations lawyer, who also has a gift for sharing the lessons he’s learned throughout his long career.

In the episode he took us on a journey from growing up in Ballarat in an intensely competitive family, to earning the fearsome nickname ‘the Godfather’ due to his “lack of generosity of spirit” as a young litigator, through to life-changing events at age 45 and the subsequent mellowing and accumulation of self-knowledge that has seen his nickname morph to ‘the Doug-father’.


Changing his relationship with conflict

Andrew has learned a lot in more than 30 years as a legal practitioner and, more recently, owner of multiple businesses.

His first ‘epiphany’ came at about age 45 when his daughter became very ill and his outlook on dealing with conflict changed.

At that time I was combative – that’s who I was,” Andrew said.

“But when my daughter got sick I realised – as I stepped back from things – that we were being drawn into all sorts of fights that were costing our clients money, and which were about my hubris, sometimes, and other solicitors’ hubris, but they weren’t about the subject matter of what the dispute was about.

“The truth is most of the things that cause you trouble are people who you’ve allowed to cause trouble – so you created them. You’ve accommodated behaviours because you won’t have the discussion.

“So I had this epiphany and said ‘this is just crazy – I’m actually prolonging dispute rather than fixing it’.”

Instead, he learned people need to “shut up and listen and realise the person who is creating the problem is yours. They didn’t start off being an enemy. That’s something you did – not just them”.

“And the moment you can change that mindset … then you can actually own it,” he said.

“And the moment you own it, you can step back and not be as highly sensitised to it. It’s the excessive sensitisation to conflict that escalates it. When you don’t feel that sensitivity, then it’s just a person behaving badly.”


Founding a ‘moral firm’

This acceptance of responsibility for a team’s behaviour was also integral to Andrew’s second epiphany, which came when he was founding his own law firm six years ago.

“There was an awareness that if we want to succeed and we want to attract and keep talent, we have to be something better than just okay,” he said.

“So I went and read everything I could on morality and the philosophy of being good.”

What eventuated was a business philosophy based on being a ‘moral firm’.

“It meant identifying and celebrating the individuality of people within an organisation and building a capability structure around them that allows them to be the best version of themself,” he said.

And the key, he said, was providing a ‘just’ environment.

“A just environment is one where everyone understands ‘this is what good is, and when you don’t do good, this is what happens’.”

Living up to these values, however, is not always easy, says Andrew.

“It takes a lot of courage because what it means is, confronted by a situation where a high-earning person behaves in a way that is unacceptable, will you treat them the same as a low-earning person?

“And you must, because if you want to be morally good you can’t bend, you can’t be flexible, you can’t be a mate. So everyone understands the consequences are the same.

“So that’s hard. And the other part is ‘leading good’ is not easy, because we fail.”


Finding the positives in failure

I queried whether failure is such a bad thing.

In response, Andrew recounted a recent incident in which he failed to live up to his own firm’s values during difficult acquisition negotiations, but was able to draw some positives from it by immediately acknowledging his failure.

The mistakes I make today are the ones I made at 3. I replicate the same stupid behaviour every time I get into conflict,” he said with some self-reproach.

But, he says, he has a great counsellor who has helped him recognise and deal with these aspects of his personality.

While the goal is to use this self-knowledge to identify and avoid circumstances where he will fail, her advice is that “when you do stuff up, you put your hand up really fast and go ‘I shouldn’t have done that. I breached everything I say we stand for’.”

“In the last week I’ve done that and it’s been really interesting to see the reaction of people,” he told me.

While they were a bit startled that he admitted his fault straight away, he said it had also built a stronger bond within the team because “being able to be candid about your own failure allows other people to fail”.

“So, the textbook answer: failure can good if there’s a learning. Failure can’t be good if it’s repeated and there is no learning.”


Trust key to high performance

I loved hearing this take from Andrew, because in my experience the best business owners never stop listening and learning – that’s real listening and real learning – and making changes to their own behaviour, approach and business as a result.

Being able to admit you were wrong, or that someone else in your team has a superior approach or idea, builds trust and respect. These, in turn, encourage open and transparent behaviour, where all players are prepared to give frank and fearless feedback and constructive criticism, and also receive the same.

From our perspective and experience as valuers, this dynamic within a team leads to high performance and is commonly seen in businesses with very strong valuation.


Tune in to the podcast

Andrew and I covered a lot of territory in our conversation. Some of the other topics we discussed included:

  • the benefits of collaboration versus competition within a business;
  • recruitment advice for regional business owners and managers;
  • whether business leaders need to be liked;
  • how to cede control within your business and focus on your strengths;
  • succession planning advice for young business owners.

Whether you’re just starting out in business or well into your journey, Andrew has so much experience to share that I encourage everyone to listen to this discussion.

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About James Price | JPAbusiness James Price has over 30 years’ experience in providing strategic, commercial and financial advice to Australian and international business clients. James’ blogs provide business advice for aspiring and current small to mid-sized business owners, operators and managers.