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25 thing’s I’ve learned in 25 years

Warren Partners

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On its quarter century anniversary, Warren Partners founder Joëlle Warren MBE reflects on lessons learned from building an ethical executive search firm.

1. Integrity is the foundation of business success. From day one, it was about treating people right, a simple yet powerful ethos that has guided us through the last 25 years.

2. Diversity and inclusion is rightfully at the centre of any good business today, but this has been a guiding principle for us from the beginning. Because true respect means treating everyone equally, regardless of their background.

3. The power of expansion: starting in the northwest of the UK, it would have been easy to remain a big fish in a smallish pond. But growing UK-wide and building international clients taught me the value of maintaining broad horizons.

4. Employee ownership was a key moment for us. The pivotal decision to become an employee-owned firm was about valuing the team that built our success. And showing them through actions, not just words, that you appreciate their hard work.

5. As a leader, it’s okay to appear vulnerable. When the business went through tough times – from financial crises to the pandemic – I leaned heavily on the team around me and they helped us get through the challenges. Stone-faced stoicism is not the answer – people need to see your authentic self.

6. The internet changed executive search, but our approach to candidate care and selection – ensuring we help build diverse boards and leadership teams – became even more crucial. And while many other firms still rely on their black book of ‘revolving door’ candidates, we’ve always looked deeper and more broadly than that.

7. My proudest achievement is maintaining our reputation as an ethical business. That’s why I’m so delighted and incredibly proud that we’re about to get our B Corp certification. Business can be a force for good and we strive for that every day.

8. My Christian faith has profoundly influenced my values and, by extension, our company ethos. Of course, not all of the team follows a particular faith but when I’m recruiting, I ensure that everyone’s personal values are aligned to our company values of being generous, courageous, inclusive, ethical and, crucially, fun.

9. The executive search world is due for some disruption. Will AI be the catalyst? For us, it will certainly help address some of the team’s more mundane tasks, allowing them to focus on the more strategic or high personal touch aspects of their role.

10. Servant leadership, focusing on serving clients and the team, rather than on power, has been key. What is the best for everyone, collectively, rather than me, personally.

11. People need consistency. Businesses that constantly pivot in their messaging or their approach to people management are often the ones that struggle. We’ve never deviated from our core purpose of building diverse and sustainable leadership teams.

12. We have an exciting growth strategy in place, supported by some great new hires. I believe the whole team can see the bigger picture and that the future is bright – which is probably why so many of them have been with us for so many years.

13. Values drive success. In other words, being good is good business. Ethical businesses consistently outperform their competitors in the long term.

14. Mentorship has been hugely important for me. Both as a giver and receiver of mentorship. The best leaders learn from everyone they meet professionally. In any conversation, I’m always thinking ‘what can I learn from this person?’

15. Sponsorship is also key for me. So not just advising someone as a mentor, but advocating for them to others. Helping them to make connections that would benefit them – and the person or business you’re connecting them with.

16. I used to hate confrontation and avoided it all costs, particularly when it meant addressing issues with the team. Now I know it’s kinder and more compassionate to deal with underperformance earlier – get everything out on the table, so to speak.

17. The future of work will involve reinventing ourselves for multiple careers. We’re all going to be working until later in life but with more interesting and varied career paths. In a sense, we’re reinventing ourselves each time, which I think is fascinating and exciting.

18. Sleep and exercise are so important when running a company. It’s so easy to skimp on both, but that way bad decisions lie.

19. Perfectionism will slow you down. Of course, everyone wants to be sure that everything is done just right but if you operate like that then many projects just won’t get off the drawing board. You have to keep moving.

20. Protect your team’s time, even if they won’t. A good leader keeps a keen eye on potential employee burnout. Encouraging a culture of rest is good practice.

21. You won’t always make the right decisions. That doesn’t make you unsuccessful – it’s just part of the route of getting to success.

22. But your first instinct when it comes to a decision is usually the right one. Delve deeper into the subject, of course, as you need to be fully informed, but you’ll be surprised how often that your intuition was correct.

23. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get really smart people to help you. All you have to do is ask.

24. Keep your word and do what you’ll say you’ll do. It’s one of the best ways to build trust and growth with clients and our team.

25. Hard work is your biggest competitive advantage. Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule – putting in the work can help balance out privilege, advantage and even intelligence.

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