Rob Otty – CEO Norton Rose Fulbright

The leadership success of Rob Otty, CEO Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa, can easily be overlooked. It is a true South African story that should be celebrated in some form. It is a story of a leader that has taken a South African law firm on to the global stage to become one of the top firms in the world. And all this happened while global economic conditions and it seems the overall legal industry, struggle to create positive movement forward.

Otty is the kind of leader that really didn’t want to be placed on the Leadership Platform, hence the reason a great story like this could easily have been missed. However, with some perseverance, persuasion and strong recommendations by those around him he eventually agreed.

While his humility as a person and leader may come as a surprise, seeing as though attorneys are not exactly known for their humility, in his case it is different. He comments about the influence of his parents and upbringing: “My parents were very humble people and the importance of that has stuck with me.  My dad was very successful as a manager and leader in his organization, but there was never a suggestion that he was more important than he actually was.  He was always very gracious and humble and remains that today.  My mom’s perception of our engagement within the broader context of society and school stood me in good stead.  She was very selfless in the way she engaged with people generally and gave up her time very selflessly for my brother and I as kids – so yes, selflessness in making time for other people.” It always amazes me how influential a leaders upbringing is throughout his career.

When Otty took over as leader of the business about two years ago it was, as he says: “…doing okay, it was very successful, but it was getting to the stage where it needed a shake-up, no doubt about it.” He believed the business had become complacent, even though at the time it had been one of the top four law firms for a while. They had to stop “cruising along”, says Otty.  If they did not step it up or change to the next gear they would “drop off in comparison to our competitors,” explains Otty. 

The environment they were playing in was changing very quickly and was going to change even more quickly, largely because of the international firms coming into their space. They also had to be able to deal with the pressures that clients were bringing to bear on their business. Otty elaborates:  “Engagement with clients is not the same as it was 10 or even 5 years ago.  Lawyers are no longer able to dictate when and how things are going to happen, how much they can charge.”  So there was a very clear understanding internally that it was time for change. 

How did they do this?

First – introspection.  They analysed where they considered the weaknesses to be. Otty explains: “It was a very honest assessment and then we took the cue that we needed to make some change.”

Second, putting the right people in place to actually help make the change. Rob was one of them.  He says: “I think there was some measure of confidence that I would come in and I would actually drive the change.  That made my life a lot easier because I knew in the back of my mind that I had a group of individuals who had accepted the need for change, they were happy to deal with the consequences of change.  I don’t think they appreciated the level of change that I was actually talking about but nevertheless they knew that change was coming.  That smoothed over the initial bump.”

Third, have your own clear ideas and views. He had some very clear ideas in his own mind of what needed to be done. This included shaking up the firm, modernizing it, doing things better – starting with the small things, like their existing client base, without having to go out into the market and getting new clients – they could do things differently. 

Otty also believed the engagement with their people needed to change.  He comments: “We are not there yet but we needed to get back in touch with the organization as a group of people that are all working in the same direction.  I thought that our directors and shareholders needed to take more of an active interest in the business and understand that they are individually accountable, not just to themselves, but to their colleagues and the broader organization.”

Fourth, stretch your own views and beliefs into the “impossible” realm and work at making it possible. The principle here, as mentioned above, is that although a leader needs to listen to people and engage them about the way forward, he should have some existing, clear views in his mind. And, more often than not these views of what to do or where to go should be a stretch for many or most. In fact, for some it may even seem impossible, and this is a good sign that the leader is sufficiently forward thinking, especially in today’s challenging, competitive world.

Otty’s belief was that they needed to take the next step and start looking at playing on the global stage. He explains: “That was one of the biggest opportunities for change that we had, because our market was now beyond South Africa – our clients were beyond South Africa.”  He followed a rigorous and efficient process to gain buy-in to this vision. And when it happened it gave them the opportunity or burning platform to bring in other changes on the back of it.  He found this: “Once the momentum is going you can start making changes a lot more quickly.  Once you go international, all of a sudden you are able to use that opportunity to say we’ve now gone international, what is it we actually need to do to make sure we’re matching.” They looked at their remuneration structure, performance management, how to assess their associates, how to engage with their systems, what technology was needed, what training, how to engage with their people, and so on.

And what movement has occurred since he took over as a leader? Otty answers: “In a nutshell, it has way exceeded my expectations.  We came off a period of very flat performance for about 2-3 years leading up to 2009, 2010 and certainly since we have implemented the changes and we have been driving the changes, our growth has been extraordinary over the last 3 years.”

In fact, when all is said and done, they have taken a South African law firm that had three offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and translated that into a South African law firm that has 55 offices across the world on 6 continents.  Now that is movement and great leadership!

From a South African perspective it has done the following: Their performance has grown significantly and allowed them to employ more people, so they are deriving benefit to the broader economy; their people in the organization suddenly have access to 4000 lawyers around the world; they’re able to tap into intellectual property, tap into skill sets, tap into knowledge, whatever it might be; they’re able to travel; they have had about 15-20 young lawyers sent into the global business over the course of the last two years where they spent 3-6 months and in one instance, 12 months working in a foreign office, getting access to deals they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to and they bring all that expertise back and spread it around the organization.  They’ve allowed people to access training which is simply not available in South Africa; it is training that is absolutely world-class right across the board.  They’ve been able to access clients they would never have been able to access.  Otty adds: “Part of it is all about empowering people; exporting South Africa into the Group – this is not just about South Africa being a small part of the global business – this is South Africa exporting a number of South African ideas and a number of ways we do business in South Africa into the Group.” 

South Africans have representation right across the global business – their IT people are reporting into global, they are part of a global team; marketing is part of the global team; Otty sits on the global executive board; their sector leaders are engaging weekly, daily with sector leaders’ right across the globe in areas that are relevant to their particular businesses.   They have international business groups which include all the lawyers and support staff where they can participate in weekly, bi-weekly, monthly calls and all this is about an incredible array of intellectual capital.  People are doing deals that they’ve never seen – they might be doing them in Italy – and they know that they are going to be coming back.  Otty simply says: “I mean it’s unbelievable – absolutely unbelievable.”

Putting the deal together originally was largely driven by Otty. They did Norton Rose first, which was Europe, Australia, Canada and then last year they did the USA which was the final piece in the puzzle for the global group.  In tying up with the USA, Otty was involved at a global level as part of the Executive board and also went across with the Global CEO to tour the American offices, presenting to the American partners on what the benefits were, why they thought it was important to them, really dealing with the strategy as to why they thought it was a good idea for them to join.

Otty is dynamic yet humble. He explains that he leads quietly.  He does not believe it is his role, and it’s not necessary for him to loudly proclaim things, or dictate, or tell people what to do.  It’s a case of recognizing people’s strengths in the organization and allowing them to get on and do what they are good at doing, and giving them guidance and some direction every so often. Then, step out of the way and let them get on with it.  But he adds: “At the same time there is one standard that I expect from everyone and that’s excellence and I won’t accept anything less than that, but that doesn’t imply that I’ve got to get in and beat people around with a big stick.  As I say, quietly would be the way to describe my style.”

He is the kind of leader that, although he is confident and comes across in this way, has a healthy enough self-image to admit he often doubts himself. In his words: “I’m not embarrassed to say that.  I question myself all the time, I doubt myself all the time and there are times when I sit down and try to understand the logic of that – what is it that I doubt?  I couldn’t tell you what the reason for it is.” And what does this do for him? It allows him to assess, to stop and ask if there are rational reasons for it. He believes it could become incredibly dangerous if a leader was to find himself stifled by the doubt, but it should be something that alerts you to stop and self-analyze.  And, as he says: “Every so often, take the time to do some introspection and say am I doing things for the right reasons?  Is the constant need for change appropriate?  Or is it because it interests you?  It should give rise to some measure of self-introspection.  If it doesn’t its dangerous.”

Someone on his team describes him like this: “Rob is an energetic, passionate, people orientated and results driven leader. He is very approachable, humble and shows empathy to all staff.  He is also proactive and looks to address difficult issues.  This contributes to him being a great leader. He has highlighted the importance of valuing our people.  He has also emphasised the importance of running the firm as a business and assisted in making lawyers understand the business drivers that makes the firm a successful business.” One could not write a better definition of a great leader.

Our South African Rob Otty is destined for even greater success, not just because of his immense leadership abilities in creating successful movement, but also because of his exceptional behaviour towards people along the way.

 This article was featured in 





Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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