Company culture is more than just a buzzword; it is the lifeblood that infuses energy, purpose, and a sense of belonging into every aspect of an organization. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by David Beech, CEO of Knights plc, who has helped to transform the company into the UK's number one regional professional services business.
David sat down with Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Co-founder, to discuss issues ranging from fostering inclusion and belonging in the workplace to building a culture of collaboration and growth.
Well, my title is CEO, but I think of myself more as an owner-manager. I’ve been in the legal field for a long time: I qualified in 1990, and during the nineties, I became a managing partner of a law firm. I retired from law in 2004 and went into private equity. I never thought I’d see a law firm again. But after deregulation came into effect in 2012, investors were allowed to purchase law firms for the first. So I bought my first firm, and since then I’ve built Knights into a company that includes over 26 law firms.
I had some background as a senior partner in the traditional law firm management model — but in my view, it was dysfunctional and didn’t feel like a proper business model. People were competing with each other for profit share instead of working and building together. That drove me away from law in 2004, but deregulation brought me back. I’m interested in building a culture of collaboration — we have 26 locations across the UK working together as one business. One thing I’ve done is abolish all targets: that’s encouraged people to think of the common good. We’re very proud of our culture, and it drives our planning and decision-making.
Looking back to my early days, I always wanted to lead and take responsibility. But the key is to help people to unleash their potential: as a manager, your job is to give people what they need to flourish. You don’t make your employees better — they have to do that themselves. I think law is a very self-contained environment, and there is a real shortage of leaders. But in my early career, I found an opportunity to step up, and thankfully it went well more often than it went badly.
I talk about culture all the time. There is an old cliche that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, which is absolutely right. You can define culture in terms of behaviour and habits, but it’s also about people. In any business, particularly professional services, you need two things — people and cash. Some leaders are uncomfortable talking about money, but it’s the lifeblood of any business, so you need to take it seriously. When it comes to people, I have a no-nonsense policy — you have to celebrate good behaviour but also deal with anyone who brings the mood down. In our business, honesty nurtures a positive culture. If you have that, people can say what they think, and it builds trust. I like comparing it to football; the best team will always beat a line-up of the best individuals. Getting rid of targets was key to that: rewarding employees with fees is like only paying your players for scoring goals. You can’t develop a team culture through individual rewards, and that’s why we haven’t had personal targets in our business for ten years.
In terms of inclusion, I believe in a flat structure. I regard hierarchies as a weakness: employees should have access to each other. So we have very few titles — of course, we have titles of seniority, such as Senior and Associate, but we’ve gotten rid of titles such as Head of Department. For our business, a paralegal who’s just graduated college is just as important as a partner: in fact, the first paralegal we ever hired just became one of our partners after 10 years with the company. When a business has a sense of momentum, and when people feel that, it builds a sense of purpose. In our business, everyone knows our direction. We want to bring professional development to the regions: we don’t want to be based in London or to expand internationally. My goal is to build the best team that professional services has ever seen. That’s what gets me up in the morning, and it helps people feel at home.
My goal is to build the best team that professional services has ever seen. That’s what gets me up in the morning, and it helps people feel at home.
To risk another football analogy — the managers need to know their players! People need to understand each other. Being in the office is important; face-to-face interaction helps build relationships. You learn things through osmosis — by speaking with others and listening to them. It’s critical to have people of all experience levels working together — it helps to build a culture of mutual learning and respect. We can all remember someone who helped to shape us — a fantastic teacher at school or a mentor early in our careers — and those are the kind of relationships we want to build.
It’s all about culture. If people know there is a reward for their efforts, they will repay you by working hard. And you need to acknowledge people’s progress — it helps them to keep going and climb even higher.