Table talk beth wilson

Beth Wilson, Former Canada Chief Executive Officer, Dentons

In our latest Table Talk, Ken Fredeen welcomed Beth Wilson FCPA, FCA, ICD.D who recently stepped out of her CEO role at Dentons Canada. In their hour-long conversation, Beth provided her insights on leadership, leadership development, career insights, professional service firm governance, and interesting comparisons between the professions of accounting and law. Having held increasing leadership roles within one of the Big 4 accounting firms and then serving as CEO of one of Canada’s largest law firms, Beth provided many interesting perspectives and insights. Though our time with her was short, we hope that this overview will whet your appetite to watch the full interview found below.

Let’s begin with perceptions. Soft spoken, friendly, Beth does not easily fit the stereotype of a successful professional services’ firm leader. But I will put it out there, that Beth is the kind of leader we need now more than ever, in professional services firms and beyond.  If you listened carefully to what she had to say, you will understand why. But let me summarize.

Beth’s leadership style, honed over years of increasing leadership roles and experience, is unique:  inclusive, a careful listener, curious, humble, collaborative, strategic, respectful but also decisive. She gave as an example the advice she received from a wise leader: “Don’t pay too much attention to the accolades, just strive to get better.” A small but important lesson too many leaders forget, as they look for compliments, which confirm their belief that they are a great leader.  Great leaders also make sure to have naysayers at the leadership table, but more importantly listen to their voices.

Beth’s transition plan for taking on the CEO role at Dentons had many elements, all carefully thought out in advance. One hundred days to listen, evaluate, build consensus and act. In a short period of time and as an outsider, she had to develop strong relationships both within the Canadian partnership, and on the global stage of one of the world’s largest law firms. She sought out truthtellers; people who told her what she needed to hear. She encouraged people to challenge her and listened to people at all levels within the firm.

To summarize, she emphasized three qualities in her leadership style:

Inclusivity: Purposeful inclusion of different voices at the leadership table – in conversations, in leading, in seeing themselves as part of the strategy and having a role and purpose.

Approachability: Human, a “real” person who is welcoming and creates an environment where people wouldn’t hesitate to email you a comment or idea.

Accessibility: Ensuring that you are responsive if someone sends you a thought or idea, being available to people (not over scheduled) either in person, or email, and showing up in different forums and venues so you are accessible to people who aren’t at the leadership table. Making yourself available to speak, to have a dialogue, to support or sponsor someone’s initiative or project, kick off their event or speak to their client.

With her domestic and international experience from one of the Big 4 firms, there is no doubt that at times she challenged the established thinking of the firm both domestically and internationally. More importantly she had to navigate this stage as a Canadian, which she acknowledged as giving her an advantage.

Diversity and inclusion has always been important to Beth.  She moved the dial at Dentons and before that, KPMG. While she led by example in all of her leadership roles within both firms, she gave particular credit to clients that have pushed and held law firms accountable with important questions around who gets the credit, compensation, and client and non-client leadership roles, salary equity and the like. Professional services firms listen when clients speak!

Such a pleasure having Beth at the Table with me. Next up is Zabeen Hirji, former Senior Vice President of HR at RBC and now a senior consultant at Deloitte. She will explore resilience in the C Suite, burnout and the workplace of the future, all of which are important to and will be of great interest, to General Counsel and their teams.