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Corporate values to the fore

Wealth advisory firm Stonehage Fleming refines focus and values through leadership development programme devised by Executive Education division of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Marc de Rond leading a session

A few months after London-based wealth advisory firm Stonehage merged with Fleming Family & Partners, a rival firm established by the family of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, 36 executives found themselves this spring in the famous Debating Chamber of the Cambridge Union talking about the “Stephens Question.”

The Stephens Question, named after former Cambridge University Boat Club manager Roger Stephens, asks this simple query: “Will doing something help the boat go faster?” If the answer is yes, the “something” is done; if the answer is no, it is not done. It’s designed to identify what’s really crucial to success, and strip away distractions.

Leaders of Stonehage had been discussing the Stephens Question as part of a Leadership Development Programme (LDP) at Cambridge Judge Business School, and had initially determined that every decision had first to be in clients’ interests and, secondly, contribute over a three-year time period to the bottom line – three years being deemed sufficient time to enable a new project to get off the ground.

But with Stonehage now freshly merged with Fleming – creating a firm with assets under management, advice or administration of $43 billion – the three dozen leaders who attended the most recent LDP determined that newly named Stonehage Fleming Family & Partners (Stonehage Fleming) also needed an expressly stated commitment to valuing its enlarged staff (now 500 strong in 13 countries), so this became the third leg of the firm’s “Stephens” focus.

“It became apparent in our last LDP programme that we needed this new value for the merged business, so this was really important for us in terms of integrating the two firms,” says Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, Stonehage Fleming’s Global Head of Human Resources. “It was quite clear in Cambridge that, after the merger, people wanted this value, a genuine appreciation of our people, to be more expressly stated.”

As described by Griffiths-Lambeth, it’s this sort of insight that has helped make the Cambridge LDP so effective since Stonehage leaders attended their first session in April 2013, followed by five additional sessions, at each of which attendees have built on the earlier foundations. The next event is planned for October.

Stonehage participants have attended classes in such well-known sites as the 149-year-old Cambridge Union Debating Chamber, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum (a memorial to famed explorer Robert Falcon Scott) – where they discussed high-performing teams with Mark de Rond, Reader in Strategy & Organisation at Cambridge Judge, who has studied such high-performing teams as Army surgeons in Afghanistan and championship rowers (and was himself part of a two-man team that rowed the navigable length of the Amazon, sponsored by Stonehage, winning a place in Guinness World Records.)

“Going from place to place makes it more memorable, because individuals associate what they’re learning with a place and people interact while they’re walking,” says Griffiths-Lambeth. “Cambridge is small enough you can do that, and Cambridge is stunning.”

Regarding the “Stephens Question,” session leader Mark de Rond says it’s natural and healthy for a firm like Stonehage to evolve its criteria over time.

The magic in considering the Stephens Question is often in the conversation rather than the answer, because the conversation requires organisations to define first what their ‘boat’ is.

“There’s every expectation that the Stephens Question for an organisation’s purpose will evolve over time, because to force people periodically to reflect on purpose is to encourage them to revisit the relevance of their firm in the context of a potentially rapidly changing environment.”

Stonehage had decided it needed a Leadership Development Programme because the firm realised that, while successful, it consisted of 35 independent businesses (insurance, legal, art, etc.) supporting high net worth individuals in 12 locations around the world, but with limited communication and coordination among those businesses.

Griffiths-Lambeth says she met with 15 business schools before deciding that Cambridge Judge was the right partner to design a custom programme – one that started with the basic question: “What type of business did Stonehage want to be, and what kind of leadership and culture would most effectively attain this vision?” Working with Cambridge Judge, Stonehage opted for the “One-firm Firm” approach that seeks a culture designed to maximise trust and loyalty between staff and firm and enabling an integrated service to be provided to clients (in contrast with most modern organisations full of experts who frequently can’t see the wood for the trees).

“We worked with Stonehage to design a programme that could develop the leadership qualities required to grow and develop the business while remaining a uniquely client-focused organisation,” said Tim Bellis, Senior Advisor for Professional Services Firms at Cambridge Judge Executive Education. “Stonehage is a unique firm – a family-oriented firm but one involved with very sophisticated, international clients – so the programme was developed with that in mind.”

Since the Stonehage LDP began two years ago, there have been many productive changes at the firm: Stonehage overhauled its recruitment and promotions processes in order to focus on “how” and not just “what” people achieve, developed a new suite of in-house training, improved communication through various programmes, and changed remuneration policy to focus on “value and values” in addition to individual performance.

Looking ahead to the next session in Cambridge, the firm is looking at differences – and similarities – between the histories of Stonehage and Fleming Family & Partners.

Stonehage was launched for a small number of international families, based in South Africa. These clients were concerned about political instability and felt it was important to have assets held in trust, outside Africa, to fall back on. Stonehage’s fiduciary roots are fundamental to the group’s approach as it has resulted in clients’ best interests always being put first. With its connection to the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co. (which was sold for $7.7 billion to Chase Manhattan Bank in 2000), the Fleming family’s image, in contrast, had long been one of old money and landed aristocracy.

“Both Stonehage and Robert Fleming were based on a pioneering spirit,” says Griffiths-Lambeth. “Fleming set up railroads in America in the 19th Century, while the South African families who established and were supported by Stonehage are also innovators in their spheres. We’ll explore this link further when we meet again in Cambridge.”