By Mzukona Mantshontsho
WEBBER WENTZEL is one of South Africa’s leading law firms providing clients with innovative solutions to their most complex legal issues.
The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to Equity Partner Ziyanda Ntshona about her personal and entrepreneurial journey at the firm.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Equity Partner at Webber Wentzel
I was appointed as an equity partner at Webber Wentzel in 2013, after eight years with the firm. It was very gratifying to be recognised as an equity partner by some of the best legal minds in South Africa, this being an endorsement of my legal skills and leadership abilities.
My appointment to the Board of Webber Wentzel in 2016 was another triumph for me and continues to be a source of pride and motivation. The Board comprises 14 members, of whom seven are elected by the partnership, and I was appointed following nomination by the partnership. It was an affirmation that the partnership recognised my leadership abilities and could place its trust in me to form part of the leadership team responsible for the firm’s strategic direction. Furthermore, as a black woman, it underscored the firm’s commitment to having a diverse leadership group, and I feel honoured to be a part of that important body.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
One of my core objectives is to realise an increase in the level of representation and participation of black women in the equity partnership. Raising numbers is simple; the challenge and measure of success lies in getting the value and quality recognised.
I believe it is particularly important that the entire firm, including its leadership, should be a diverse universe; diverse in gender, race and history. Ours is a beautiful but complex society and it will take a multi-dimensional, diverse leadership team to lead the firm to the next level. Therefore, I see my role as being an engine for accelerated change in the composition and culture of the leadership team, so that it reflects the new South Africa and, even more importantly, results in a team that can continue effectively and successfully to identify and respond to the challenges and opportunities in South Africa.
One of Webber Wentzel’s hallmark values is excellence. I would like to play a role in the continuance and growth of this value, both in the South African context and in the wider African context. My ambition is for the firm’s reputation for excellence to be further recognised in sub-Saharan Africa, to strengthen our ability to compete with large international law firms in our chosen jurisdictions, and to be the law firm of choice in key strategic areas in sub-Saharan Africa.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
Whilst fostering a collaborative spirit, I value and encourage independence. Well-founded independence comes from confidence and the knowledge that one is equipped with the requisite skills to succeed. Thus, I seek to empower my team through a combination of strong professional skills and provision of on the job training. The team members are assured of receiving the necessary support and guidance where needed but I emphasise that they should take the quantum leap themselves. I strive for balance between support and supervision on the one hand, and independence and intellectual freedom on the other. With maturity I have recognised that it is important to manage this balance – because it is likely the needs will differ from individual to individual.
My leadership style is outcomes based. Flexibility is key and a necessary skill when leading people. The millennial generation values a more balanced lifestyle, and I encourage working in a manner that suits the team, provided client targets and deliverables are met. I am always open in communicating, as this is vital for flexibility to work.
Key to my leadership style is both collaborating and listening. Sometimes as a leader one may become removed from what is happening on the ground, and constantly listening and engaging can lead to inclusive leadership. Through passion, you connect, and I seek to use my passion to create an enabling environment where we best serve the client and ensure the success of the firm.
Finally, I remain authentic and stay true to myself. A leader must have a heart and compassion. By example, this becomes a learned behaviour and gives others permission to lead their own teams in the same way.
Have you had any challenges as a woman professional that you think differ from your male counterparts? How have you tackled them?
I once walked into a reception area, dressed to the nines and ready for negotiations, the receptionist ran to the door and informed me that there were no jobs. Rather than let that deflate me, I walked into the boardroom in a deliberate and confident manner, with a resolve not to permit anything to undermine my performance.
I have often entered a boardroom where I was the only woman, and the only black woman, and I had to look past the presumptions of incompetence and give the other participants time to acclimate to me, as a lawyer. I get a kick out of seeing perceptions of me change – where my counterparts start to realise (and you can see that moment in their faces) that I have a lot to offer and am a worthy opponent. After a few of these experiences, my reputation now precedes me, and such occurrences have become rare.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
The ability to be a game changer and transform my environment for the better makes me tick. I look for opportunities to change for the better and for opportunities to inspire change. The energy of the people in our environment also makes me tick. It informs how we all relate and work together towards achieving our goal of excellence and of making Webber Wentzel a stimulating working environment.
To be a game changer, one must know the game, as dynamic as it can be. I therefore do not want to miss any opportunity. Opportunities do not always present themselves in the expected manner. One must be prepared and open to them, in whatever form or shape they may arise. My intention is to be consistently alert to opportunities.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
I have three formal mentorship relationships, and several informal mentorships. I also have a sponsee. A sponsee differs from a mentee by the direct daily involvement and on the job training to expose the individual to work he or she may not have had an opportunity to be involved in.
I commit to the individuals whom I mentor, in different ways. I generally provide counselling and career guidance. On occasion, I use soft skills and assume the role of the “older work sister” or “work mom” because these can be strong mentorship attributes. We have a greater responsibility than just ensuring our individual success, and mentoring is a way in which to contribute to another’s success.
I also believe in “reverse mentorship” – where the young teach the more experienced. In this way, I also learn from my mentees to improve and be a better mentor.
If you had to relate to a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
Two of my career highs come to mind. One is the first time I led and completed a multi-billion Rand transaction on behalf of a client. Another is when I was appointed to the Board of Ubuntu Pathways, an NGO established in my hometown, Port Elizabeth. Ubuntu Pathways assists the underserved and disadvantaged, and uplifts lives, from cradle to career. This relationship has provided me with an organic and strong link to my hometown, and an opportunity to use my legal skills in a selfless way to benefit the common good.
My career low has been the slow pace of transformation. I am hopeful that with the transformation action plan that the firm is currently implementing – where I have had a role – the pace of transformation will increase, as transformation is a moral, economic and social imperative.
What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
- I was recently (2018) recognised as a legal expert in the fields of Corporate, Commercial and M&A Law by The Legal 500.
- I co-led the team that assisted Absa Bank Limited in its acquisition of banks in nine jurisdictions from Barclays Bank plc. This transaction was awarded “Deal of the Year” by DealMakers in 2013.
- In the Chambers and Partners 2018 rankings, Webber Wentzel received 56 individual rankings, up from 53 the previous year. The firm also attained the highest number of practice area and individual rankings of all law firms operating in SA – over one-third of Webber Wentzel’s partners were ranked by Chambers.
- In the annual update of rankings produced by The Legal 500, which has been analysing the capabilities of law firms across the world for 30 years, Webber Wentzel had the highest number of individuals listed, and more Tier 1 rankings than any other firm ranked in South Africa.
- Another of the world’s leading guides to law firms, the ILFR1000, gave Webber Wentzel a Tier 1 ranking across the board for legal services in 2018, a position the firm has maintained for four consecutive years.
- In the DealMakers awards, Webber Wentzel clinched Legal Adviser of the Year 2017 for Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) by deal value in the South Africa, Africa, BEE and unlisted deals categories. The firm was also involved in the 2017 DealMakers Private Equity and M&A Deals of the Year.
- In the 2017 Merger market and Thomson Reuters league table for South Africa, Webber Wentzel was placed first for M&A by volume and value in South Africa.
- In the 2018 Private Equity Africa Awards, Webber Wentzel won Local Legal Advisor of the Year, and the competition and regulatory and IP teams won Team of the Year awards at the African Legal Awards.
- Forty-six Webber Wentzel attorneys were included in the 2018 edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa.
- Webber Wentzel also achieved the Law Firm of the Year award for both Corporate Law and Mining in 2018.
- Webber Wentzel was awarded the exclusive Top Employers South Africa 2018 certification. This had nothing to do with law and everything to do with the culture of the firm. It was the firm’s fifth certification from Top Employers.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
Our Client Growth Strategy seeks to embed a client-centric approach in all that we do. In every investment we make, we ask ourselves “does this benefit our clients?” To deliver against this strategy we have focused our investment in three key areas:
Investment in enhanced client experience through a Key Client Programme:
- Our Key Client Programme is a framework designed to equip our fee-earners with the skills, behaviours and account management methodologies to strengthen relationships with select clients across multiple practices to foster greater client loyalty. It’s a structured and coordinated approach to managing our client relationships and aims to facilitate more consistent and compelling client experiences.
- Dedicated Client Relationship Partners, supported by multidisciplinary teams, are assigned to each key client to ensure we develop a deep and coordinated understanding of each client’s needs; build tailored solutions and have an accountable plan of action to ensure we always do what we say we will do.
- Our Pricing Specialist worked with our partners to develop pricing guidelines and training to equip our client teams to engage more confidently in transparent, value-based pricing discussions and to collaborate with clients in developing fee approaches that more accurately reﬂect the value of the work being conducted.
Investment in value-adding efficiencies for clients:
- Our Legal Services Centre ensures the efficient delivery of our client matters with alternative resourcing, process improvement and project management, coupled with the use of appropriate technology.
- In April 2018, we were the first South African law firm to announce the deployment of artificial intelligence software, Luminance, to supplement existing due diligence and document review processes.
Investment in people for the benefit of our clients:
- Partner Appointments: to bolster key client relationships by providing deeper insights into how we can better service these clients.
- Partner Development Programme: client centricity and contemporary pricing practices.
- Coding training: fundamentals of coding/technology concepts; creating awareness about disruptive technology/legal technology trends to enable lawyers to assist clients into the future.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains a high level of ethics and integrity?
Ethics and integrity are key values that underpin the way in which Webber Wentzel conducts its duties. This is governed through our internal code of conduct and through a series of policies and processes.
Ethics and integrity speak to the heart of the firm’s moral judgements and in turn impact the way we behave and as such, the way we manage and do business. Ethics and integrity form the basis for our survival as a law firm. These values are articulated and woven into every thread of what we do daily.
The firm has a set of values which are inculcated into the fabric of every decision taken. We pride ourselves as a firm to uphold the highest standards of integrity and commitment to our clients, and their needs. This ethos is lived both internally and externally. These values are reflected in our policies, which are important guidelines and set the tone for culture and behaviour.
The Firm subscribes to the professional ethics policy which encompasses an ethical policy and code of conduct that upholds the powers of the profession through behavioural conduct that is acceptable and in line with practices that are fair, transparent, honest and ethical. In addition, the firm has a sound disciplinary code and procedure as well as a code of good practice which deals with all forms of corrective action. These elements are specifically dealt with and inducted towards all our partners through the Partner Development Programme and for all our managers and staff through a series of induction and training programmes and through ongoing management of the firm.
We never lose sight of the fact that we serve as advisors, professional experts and knowledge leaders to our clients and as such, we deliver our responsibilities with the highest level of ethics and integrity and expect all those within our firm to do so.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
More than ever before, as transformation is a key strategic objective of the firm, overseen by the Board. The goal of transformation requires a change in the worldview of all elements of the firm, changing the way we process the information around us. We continuously review our values and behaviours and should not hesitate to make bold moves when required.
Critical mass, at the relevant levels, is essential in achieving transformation. Transformation is not just about a single rising star. The leadership team must be diverse and strong to achieve transformation credibly.
Our transformation vision is “To be recognised as a South African law firm leading the charge for inclusion and diversity, in line with the spirit of the Constitution, in a way that enriches the lives and development of all Webber Wentzel staff and clients.” To actively pursue this vision, a transformation committee was established, and a transformation action plan developed for the 2016-2018 period. Key milestones achieved during this period include:
- We introduced a Transformation Sponsorship Programme that will focus on Black African salaried partners, senior associates and associates over the next 18 months. The intention of this programme is to propel black African candidates across the firm into positions where they are fully equipped to serve the clients through one on one investment in increasing their ability to work on matters of complexity, instilling an elevated level of confidence and preparing them to easily step into positions of seniority.
- We implemented a bespoke unconscious bias training programme which surfaced several issues that the firm should focus on in the coming years as part of the transformation agenda. These have been added to the current transformation action plan and will continue to shape our transformation journey.
- We rolled out Diversity and Inclusion Workshops to the firm.
- We appointed a Head of Transformation.
- We initiated a firm Gender Strategy aimed at increasing inclusivity for women at Webber Wentzel.
- We increased the focus of procurement to drive transformation to empowered companies, prioritising the briefing of black counsel and applying preferential procurement policies.
Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of?
Last year, the firm devoted over 21 000 pro bono hours to make our country a more equal and diverse place. In its pro bono strategy, the firm is guided by the recognised need to narrow the divide between the advantaged and disadvantaged members of South African society and the obligation to play a role in promoting the transformative goals of the Constitution. To do that we commit to taking on matters which make a positive difference to the community, as seen by involvement and lead in the many recent rule of law cases in our courts.
For Women’s Month, we donated 108 menstrual cups (MCups) to the learners at Fairmount Secondary School in Grassy Park. We also made a CSI donation to the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges’ outreach programme to schools dealing with issues of sexual violence, sexual harassment and teenage pregnancies. For Mandela Month, we ran a Volunteer Programme for all our staff and partnered with Habitat for Humanity – which runs an ongoing project to assist vulnerable families and communities with their housing needs.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
We have a set of values to which all staff are obliged to adhere. These ensure the delivery of the consistently high-quality service that our external and internal clients expect of us. These values have been embodied in our own Client Service Excellence Protocol and apply equally to all at Webber Wentzel.
These values and standards of excellence also extend to recruiting and constant training of the best talent, ensuring that we all have the necessary skills, tools, know-how and experience to deliver an excellent and professional service.
From induction training to each appraisal, the emphasis is put on professionalism and our partners and managers are expected to lead by example. Equity partners are also subject to a 360 evaluation which includes an evaluation of their behaviour by peers and those who report to them. We also provide all staff with continuous technical training, ensuring we keep abreast of all legal developments.
Our Key Client Programme provides a framework, guidelines and tools to help entrench and maintain deep client relationships by providing professional service that exceeds their expectations. It also gives clients the opportunity to provide feedback on the level of service and professionalism of the people that they work with in our firm.
When you are not at work, what do you get up to and where can people follow you online?
My husband says that when I am not at work, I work. Although that may be true, in my free time, I am essentially a family girl. I spend quality time with my husband, my kids and my family. I love to read, attend plays at the Market Theatre, attend art fairs and watch comedy television shows, as I love to laugh. I love to travel with my family.
I am on LinkedIn.