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John Heaps - Chairman of the Yorkshire Building Society

Alumni spotlight

John Heaps

Chairman of the Yorkshire Building Society

Following his four years as Chairman of Eversheds Sutherland, John Heaps left to become Chairman of the Yorkshire Building Society in 2014. He opens up about his style of leadership, reflections of the firm and his proudest professional achievement.

Why did you want to become a lawyer?

I cannot say it was a childhood burning ambition. I had hopes to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. When that dream evaporated, law was the next best thing. As things turned out, I could not have asked for a better career.

What is your main focus as Chairman of the Yorkshire Building Society?

I’m ultimately responsible for the safety and soundness of the Society. I achieve that principally by ensuring we have an excellent executive team and a group of non-executives who bring great skills and challenges to the Board.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Getting to grips with an entirely new set of issues with an entirely new group of people, who know a great deal more about financial services than I do!

How does it compare to being Chairman of Eversheds Sutherland?

At Eversheds Sutherland, I saw my role as representing the partners and helping to communicate to the wider firm its direction and values. At YBS, I have far less contact with staff. My job is to chair the Board of the Society.

Very few lawyers take up non-executive roles. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s a combination of factors that starts with personal choice. A lot of people see retirement from the law as an opportunity to do different things that time then allows. Taking on a NED role is a step into the public domain that lawyers, particularly those in private practice, often decide is not for them.

For anyone wishing to develop a second career as a non-executive, it’s important to start preparing as early as possible by taking an external role that gives experience, and also building a network of contacts who can help you when the time comes. I was very fortunate that as Eversheds Sutherland’s Chairman, I gained experience of governance issues and met some influential people who were of enormous help when I started to look for a role in earnest.

Do you miss the intellectual rigour of the law?

Yes I do. The job of an adviser, particularly a trusted adviser, is very special. I have to remember to suppress those instincts when legal issues arise at the YBS Board.

John (far left, second row from the front) at a Leeds Litigation group meeting in the mid-90s

John (far left, second row from the front) at a Leeds Litigation group meeting in the mid-90s

How would you describe your leadership style?

I was told early on by a very wise person that leadership is as much to do with your demeanour as it is with what you say. So I have always tried to remain positive and cheerful whatever the circumstances. It’s also worth being clear about what you stand for and having a few simple messages that people will recall. I defined my time as Chairman by the phrase, “the spirit of Eversheds”. I think people understood what I meant.

What is the most vivid memory of your legal career?

That would be when I was training in 1976, turning up over an hour late for a case before the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning. When the court rose for the lunch adjournment, I spluttered my excuses to the Partner, Nimble Thompson, and expected a severe stripping down.

But he just turned to me and said, “John…forget it,” by which he meant he couldn’t really care if I had been captured by Martians. This was the Court of Appeal. This was Lord Denning! It was a very effective lesson about the importance of being on time which I never forgot.

A fresh-faced John

John pictured in 2001

What is your proudest achievement at the firm?

I guess people will remember me most for introducing a methodology for handling litigation called Early Case Assessment. But undoubtedly my proudest achievement was being invited to join the six-strong team that formed the Integration Board in 1999, which led to the financial integration of the six firms that came within the Eversheds fold.

While I’m very proud that I was appointed the Chairman – looking back, had it not been for the Integration Board, the Eversheds Sutherland firm we know today may never have existed.