This week Matthew Evans sat down with Rob Bower, Managing Partner of Montagu Evans, a planning and development real estate consultancy firm which has recently reached an impressive 100-year milestone in business. Using this opportunity to celebrate the progress and journey so far, we explored what it means to be a Leader of a Partnership, how he’s shaped the culture and embraced change, and how he measures his success.
Have you ever attempted to move into a leadership role at a larger consultancy or conversely, set up on your own? What has compelled you to stay at Montagu Evans?
Having joined Montagu Evans in 1995 as a graduate, I’ve never seriously contemplated moving or setting up on my own because the work that I have done, the clients I’ve had the privilege of working with and the support of my colleagues has always made it too compelling a business to leave.
That said, as I progressed through the firm to Managing Partner, it was clear to me that my inheritance was a lightly managed, individualistic environment which was heavily siloed. The firm was very profitable, and on the surface, it was easy to persuade yourself there was no need for any radical change. However, because of this we were impeding our ability to provide the sort of service clients were clearly telling us they wanted – which was a joined-up approach, bringing together commercial expertise that spanned both our public and private sector clients.
In my view, the structure we had was not sustainable for the long term. My time as Managing Partner to date has been spent, in one way or another, in making the firm align more closely with what our clients say they want, to listen to our next generation talent in attracting and retaining them and to make it fit for purpose both now and for the years to come.
But with all of this – every single piece – I could not have done it without the support of a number of key Partners throughout the firm and a very hard working Central Management team who together have brought to life my vision. Who believed in me and where needed (and willing to) have done the heavy lifting with me to make it the business it is today.
What is your leadership style and what motivates you?
First up, I should say that anything we have done has been a truly collaborative effort – and I’m not just saying that. One of the most important aspects I see in being a leader is getting others to believe and trust in you and your vision. To bring them along the journey, feel included and empowered in the decisions being made.
Assuming you know best simply because you’re the appointed leader is a recipe for disaster in my book. It’s a fine balance though, as you also must be willing to challenge people. I believe people do their best work when you give them the autonomy and space to do it. If I ran a bigger business, I’d be missing out on the creative freedom that a consultancy of this size brings. Big, shareholder owned businesses in our profession are less good at letting people be their best selves by letting them take risks, experiment and do things differently. In my experience, companies that focus heavily on the bottom line don’t consider the human impact of cutting costs and how this might damage the future culture in years to come. This is what we do differently, and what I strive to continue to achieve. We take the human aspect of our business to heart. We look ahead at the impact of our decisions not only for the business but the society we serve.
Our annual reviews also provide the opportunity for the business to critique me. I’d never profess to know everything, to know all my own strengths and flaws, so taking the time to capture that and set my own objectives (which are openly communicated to the business) provides greater transparency on performance and improves my role as a leader and the responsibilities I have.
As an aside, I’m also a passionate skier; I do a lot of ski touring, and I’ve been on some challenging mountaintops in wild weather. At times of real stress, I use that as a reference point as it applies to business leadership and helps me to work in high pressure environments. It has also taught me not to plan too far ahead because stuff always goes wrong! To have alternatives and to be flexible to change. It’s important to be able to listen to the team around you, adapt and change tack quickly.
It seems therefore that the Montagu Evans of 2020/2021 is made more in your image. Do you change your management style to adapt to individuals and their motivators, or is this the case of saying, this is the journey we’re going on and you’re going to come with me?
This may seem trite, but the business isn’t in my image, it’s in the image that our people and our clients have painted for us via extensive annual feedback reviews. My job is to ensure that our firm fits that image.
Montagu Evans is a Partnership just shy of 100 Partners all of who, quite rightly, have a voice that wishes to be heard. Anybody who has worked in a Partnership knows that you can’t bulldoze your way through issues or make major decisions without extensive consultation. My style therefore has to be to persuade, to win over by well marshalled thought and detailed preparation whilst always having in the back of my mind the need to test everything against the key question: is this good for the firm as a whole and our clients?
To adapt and be flexible. To be humble. To admit when you’ve got things wrong and be open to critique. I really believe there’s strength in vulnerability as a leader. As part of that I genuinely work hard to be authentic and inclusive, to bring people along with me on the journey. As I implied before, the culture at Montagu Evans was quite different before. We struggled to admit to our own weaknesses, so there was no room to learn and for authenticity.
How did you align the other Partners and get them on board with your journey?
My priority in the first 2-3 years of being Managing Partner was to build trust. Trust had to be re-established in the Partnership. We focused on improving communication, and created trust through greater transparency.
As we sat around the senior table about 9 months in, one Partner turned to me and said “You really do believe in what you’re saying. You’re really going to do it, aren’t you?” and that’s when the penny dropped, and people started to trust that I meant what I said about what I wanted us to deliver.
Once you build trust, you can take people on a different journey. You could tell the people who really “got it” because these people began to change the culture by spreading positivity by word of mouth around the business. They quickly became the ambassadors for change.
You put a lot of ownership on yourself, how do you deal with that immense pressure?
For me, it’s fundamentally important that you have an active and healthy personal life. Exercise is hugely important to me and goes a long way to relieve the pressure. I remind myself that I am lucky and fortunate to be in such a fantastic leadership position, with a very supportive team within a successful firm. It’s a privilege and an honour to hold that position, and if you don’t feel that way then perhaps you’ve taken that role for the wrong reasons.
There are moments where the job is stressful and I’ve been under pressure to make tough decisions, but so far I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Like skiing in risky environments, you don’t have a choice about making a decision – you just have to take the leap.
On the topic of Diversity and Inclusion – how do you ensure you achieve a better, diverse leadership group?
The structures we have around us are deeply embedded in the Real Estate sector. It’s a challenge, but we’re constantly adapting our business to reflect this.
We’re actively addressing a gender imbalance by considering carefully what we can do to attract female talent. We run a successful Leadership Programme aimed at empowering women and identifying challenges within the business we can proactively address.
LGBTQ+ representation across our business is also improving. In the past, we haven’t been honest enough about giving LGBTQ+ people a platform, so that’s something we’ve recognised and are actively working towards.
The most challenging bit for the industry is BAME in property, as it’s universally recognised that the built environment sector has a talent pool that isn’t diverse enough at entry level and narrows as you go up the ranks. We need to find a way to connect with people far earlier in their school years and careers in order to give them more opportunities at the beginning of their career paths. We’ve recently implemented a talent development programme which establishes long term relationships with students from under-represented backgrounds as well as launching an apprenticeship programme and signing up to the 100 Black Interns campaign in an attempt to tackle this early on and open up opportunities wherever possible.
Do you have a hero?
Muhammad Ali. He was so much more than a boxer. He was an agent for change, a role model not just for the black community, but for everyone with an open mind and a desire to do things differently, and he did it largely by using humour, hard graft and holding an unwavering conviction of his beliefs.
What book would you recommend?
A fictional novel I have just finished is A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It’s a beautifully written page tuner.
What’s the future for Montagu Evans?
Over the next decade, we’re looking to knit together and grow our high-quality management consultancy expertise with our core real estate specialists and a particular focus on our key strengths in planning and development. Management consultant style intellectual horse power with real estate specialism is where Montagu Evans can really excel. And we want to continue to be known in our industry as a firm that provides a joined-up, problem solving client service in a collaborative way that is best for the client.
We’re already embarking on that journey and have made substantial progress but recognise we have a way to go. We want to be the go-to consultancy to solve a real estate problem, and until we are the first name on people’s lips, we have work to do.
To discuss this article in further detail, or to find out how Matthew can help you and your business needs, get in touch today.
Want to read more? Have a read of some of the other interviews from this series:
- Motivators of Leadership with Kate Still, Founder, CEO, Executive Coach and Board Advisor.
- Motivators of Leadership with Nigel Mapp, Managing Partner of Montagu Evans.