An interview with Jonny Searle MBE

Jonny Searle MBE

Managing career transitions – ideas from sport and business

After graduating from Oxford, where he rowed in three successful Boat Race crews and was President of the University Boat Club, Jonny competed in the British rowing team from 1989-1999, winning a Gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona – an experience he describes as having created a feeling of total calm and contentment.

Four years later he experienced what he considered for many years to be the ‘disappointment’ of a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics, but which, like his gold medal performance at the 1992 Olympics, he now describes as something he achieved a long time ago which he is happy to have done, and from which he learnt a lot.

Jonny undertook a series of gradual career transitions, developing a career as a private practice lawyer in the City at law firm Ashurst from 1993, where he worked in some great teams on challenging projects: first in litigation and later in the corporate department. In 2000 Jonny retired from international rowing and in 2002 he moved in-house to international entertainment company Modern Times Group, where he worked as General Counsel and Company Secretary.

From 2015, Jonny started to transition to focus on his work as an executive coach, presenter and facilitator, working with senior executives and groups to encourage personal and business growth in pursuit of their goals.

Jonny kindly took time to speak to Nigel Spencer, Senior Client Director in our Custom Executive Education team, reflecting on the different stages of his own career so far, and discussing ideas on how to best manage career transitions.

Jonny, it’s great to have this time with you to discuss your career path and the topic of career transitions as part of our series. You have had four fascinating phases to your career, overlapping phases, beginning with your time in elite sport as an Olympic rower and developing in parallel a career as a City lawyer. If we start with this gradual transition from the world of elite sport to the legal world, what are your reflections of how you managed the change, and how you saw the different worlds?

For much of the time that I worked in my private practice legal role, I was living – and working – in sport and business in parallel. To help me with this ‘parallel running,’ I found it helpful to set a boundary around the two areas as far as possible, with a clear focus on rowing when I arrived at training, then switching to a work mindset when I arrived at the office. I found this really hard sometimes, particularly when I was trying to manage pressure or set-backs in either area, and at those times I am thankful that I had supportive colleagues in both environments.

I didn’t grow up in a business environment and as I learnt more about the business world I was moving into, I remember being struck by how many similar factors led to success and high performance in both environments – but I also noticed some subtle differences.  For example, there’s lots of research in both sport and business which tells us that good goal-setting is fundamental, especially because of the sense of purpose and direction it provides; but it seemed to me that the layers and complexity were very different in the corporate environment.

In our rowing world goals were very clear. There were six lanes, a clear direction of travel, and it was about boat speed over a defined distance (2,000m), with our fitness work and trials all geared towards that goal for an easily measurable span of our careers – often four years. In other words, goals in elite sport were about holding a very defined outcome in mind and then focusing on clearly-defined intermediate steps, and the day-to-day process of repetitive performance, which would get you there.

In the business world, goals are more complex:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • How will we measure our progress?
  • Who will measure it?
  • When will we measure it?
  • How many goals do we have?
  • Who are our competitors?

And as well as the challenge of having multiple, complex goals there’s a need for alignment between different people: individual goals, the goals of the team, department or office, the client’s goals for a project, and the goals of the firm. And because it is more complicated, I feel that identifying and calling out goals in business needs real focus. When I coach business executives now, I try to bring some of the sharp sporting ‘lens’ of goal-setting to help them to be clear on what they are trying to achieve.

Another reflection on how I managed the change into my first legal role is that, at that time of transition, I tried to identify what I could bring from my ‘other world’ which would add value. At Ashurst, for example, in the late 1990s sport and the media were growing sectors. We agreed, therefore, that we would set up a client focus around sports law given the work that the firm was already doing in that area and my interest, networks and expertise; and I co-founded the firm’s ‘Sports Law Group’.   

Many people come to a new role with an area of interest, skills, contacts and knowledge that’s applicable in some way, and they will also bring preferences in how they operate; they might like following process and structure, deliver performance under pressure, innovation, or be good at engaging with people; so it’s worth considering as you transition: ‘What can I bring from my previous world into the current role?’

Lastly, I think another key mind-set to bring into the transition period is one of personal growth, your shifting identities, and a degree of humility – accepting that you have a lot to learn! In my case I had come back from the Olympics in 1992 as a ‘best in the world’ rower, met the Queen to collect an MBE and appeared occasionally on TV, but at the same time I was also a ‘trainee lawyer’ – and I had to get comfortable with those different identities.   

Senior executives from our clients would chat with me enthusiastically about my sporting experiences, and then I’d sit in meetings with them as an inexperienced lawyer, trying to understand the commercial discussions and making notes. I tried to accept that I would have to stay committed and to work smart and work hard to develop into the good lawyer I wanted to be, in the same way that I had done to become a good rower.

four oars splashing through water

Whilst at Christ Church, Oxford, Jonny competed in the Varsity boat race in 1988, 1989, and 1990, winning all three races.

One area I’m particularly interested to hear about is the importance of feedback in creating peak performance. How did that compare in sport and business?

I think one fundamental in every environment is open and honest communication, and feedback is a key part of that. In the sporting world the cultural norm was that feedback was very regular and often very direct. Most competitors at the highest level of sport are ‘feedback hungry’; they want to know how they can be better, and they are happy to give feedback to others in their team in the same spirit.

We used to speak before and after every training session, and often during the sessions, exploring ways to find more speed: it was how we drove the ongoing, incremental improvements which might make the difference between winning and losing. I often wonder how high the performance could be in the workplace if we all spent a couple of minutes each morning and evening reviewing our performance together.

Having said that direct feedback close to the event is useful in both sport and business, I see this as another area where the application may differ slightly. It links back partly to what I said earlier about goals being more multi-faceted in business, and particularly the importance of good working relationships in an office environment.

The simplicity and ‘task’ nature of a sporting goal lends itself to a very direct conversation focussed on the task itself, whereas the performance feedback in an office may have to be more focussed on how someone behaves; the way someone manages their time, the information someone provides when delegating a task, or the importance of performing more mundane tasks conscientiously towards the overall team goal; which can lead to unhealthy conflict as it can be more easily heard as personal attack.

I try to remind clients that when giving feedback, it’s important to consider the relationship as well as the task, and to consider how the person they are speaking with will react to the feedback, although of course this can be harder when one or both people are under pressure.

When considering how feedback is delivered, I remember, one partner at the firm saying that he liked working with me because he could be really direct and I didn’t mind. To be honest, given my experience in sport, his level of directness didn’t stretch my tolerance level at all, I don’t think we had the same threshold of ‘directness!'

My other ‘experience’ of feedback is that we need to make sure we are open to receive it as well as to give it. With that in mind, I think it’s really healthy that organisations are moving away from approaches where feedback is given solely as part of a review process, and where the expectation is that I wait to receive it, to one where people are encouraged to regularly, and proactively, ask for feedback.

It sounds a small difference, but it changes the dynamic in an interesting way, because if I go and ask for the feedback, then it opens up the conversation for the other person without it feeling pressured and forced. It creates a greater degree of individual empowerment and responsibility.

People sometimes hear a request for feedback as if it were a sign of weakness or lack of competence generally. But many people find it useful to know what others see or hear to help them to identify potential areas for improvement; and as the recipient of feedback, people then have the choice about what to do with the information.

Jonny, after you had been at Ashurst for almost 10 years, you then moved in-house to a listed entertainment company, Modern Times Group (MTG) where you worked as Company Secretary and General Counsel. How did that transition happen, and what did you learn from the change?

I think this touches on a couple of interesting points when considering transitions. First, the importance of considering the ‘whole person’ coming to work and, second, how you can ‘de-risk’ a transition by finding out as much as possible about the next potential role – ideally creating some opportunities for ‘parallel running’ and career experiments while you are still in your current position.

On the point of the ‘whole person’, I think that people need to be conscious of choices they make and the number of things they are trying to balance both inside and outside work. It’s about managing your energy, and I often talk to coachees about this issue, asking them to understand what else may be going on in their lives that could be bringing pressure and require energy.

In my case a number of shifts had been happening while I was still at Ashurst. My elder son was born in 1999, and soon afterwards, in 2000, I decided to stop rowing as juggling the family, work and rowing was impossible. Also I was starting to think more broadly about the job itself, the working pattern of private practice with a young family, and what that would look like moving forwards.

At this same time I was fortunate to have an opportunity to conduct a mini ‘career experiment’ – as I went on secondment to one of our clients. That really helped my thinking because it meant I had seen the world of an in-house lawyer, knew what it involved and thought that it would not only suit me more at that stage of my life, but also that I would enjoy it.

Whilst it’s important that everyone takes responsibility for their own performance; it’s vital that all those performances contribute to a common ‘greater good’.

People often talk about the differences between the worlds of private practice law firms and in-house legal departments Jonny. What struck you most as you made the transition, especially in terms of any differences at a cultural level?

I think it’s important to say first that you can’t generalise too much. Every private practice law firm will have different aspects to its culture, and the nature of any in-house role will be different depending on the industry sector you are moving into, the size of the in-house team, and a whole host of other factors. So when thinking about how to make a successful transition in-house, the first thing is: ‘Understand what will be expected of you, and find out if the business will meet your expectations.’

An important element of this research is to find out about the culture: not the visible culture, what is ‘written on the wall,’ but the invisible culture. Find out what gets rewarded and what gets punished. Don’t assume, and ask questions on the way in, in particular: ‘What is it like to work here?’

When I asked that question before joining MTG, someone who knew the business told me that people worked there for ‘6 months or 6 years’ as there was a strong culture which didn’t suit everyone. After meeting the senior management and finding out about the business I decided that I would fit in well; and I stayed for 13 years.

In terms of what I mean by that ‘strong culture,’ a few examples come to mind. At MTG, one was a mind-set in the early years of ‘Always Be Closing,’ because getting the deal done, executing decisions, and moving on, were key elements of the way the business operated.

Something which supported this mindset and culture in the business was another saying: ‘Pick up your hat when the deal is done’ – this made us judge if we were reaching a point of diminishing returns. First, because of the time you were spending but also to see it from your internal clients’ perspective, making sure that you didn’t make your colleagues spend more time than they needed. So we encouraged each other to consider how we would justify the value of our delay, edits or changes.

In my own case, one major difference I remember feeling was in the level of expertise that we carried in the legal team, where we had to make choices between building expertise in certain areas versus buying it in from outside counsel. In the world of private practice you were part of a large firm where you could call on groups of people with deep expertise in many different areas and apply those to a broad range of your client’s business challenges; but an in-house environment may be very lean with a high focus on efficiency and cost control.

We were part of a team in a complex business in many countries, but we didn’t carry a large headcount. In order to provide great legal support and to succeed and deliver for the business, we built deep expertise in those areas which came up regularly, and used external advisers for non-core work.

A big consideration for our in-house team was also the fixed cost that we carried. We needed to be ruthless about prioritising and choosing where we could have maximum impact and, to achieve this, we would consider the priority when deciding how to resource a piece of work – including whether or not to ask for outside counsel support. We would look at the importance of the work to the business; the commercial value, the operational impact, and any significant reputational or regulatory implications. We’d also ‘code’ our work ‘green,’ ‘blue’ or ‘red’ time by its level of importance and note how much time we spent in each area as a way to stay focussed on the impact of our work.


Jonny, that’s interesting, so a number of these shifts suggest a need to almost re-frame some elements of your identity when you transitioned?

I think that’s right, there felt like a slight shift for me at the time from being a ‘legal expert’ in private practice to being more of a ‘generalist lawyer’ in-house where I needed breadth of knowledge both in the law and also in our business. It was about knowing enough to spot an issue, and also to identify when we needed external help.

For example, I remember the first management meeting I attended at MTG very clearly, and the breadth of knowledge which was expected. When a legal question came up, all eyes around the table turned to me – even though it wasn’t an area where I felt I had a lot of knowledge – and they were waiting for my answer! So the ‘label’ or ‘badge’ I had in that meeting was very much ‘overall legal adviser,’ and they expected a confident point of view, at least an initial legal perspective and what the impact might be.

I was no longer a ‘litigator’ or ‘corporate transactions adviser.’ That expectation and pressure to know about a wide range of legal issues, and to control costs, also made it important to speak up when something was outside our area of competence, and to find someone who was an expert if necessary.

'They were waiting for my answer!'

pair of glasses resting on a mac laptop

'I remember the first management meeting I attended at MTG very clearly... When a legal question came up, all eyes around the table turned to me'

A related point is that you also need to flex your ‘identity’ as you realise what is expected in the new role, and that’s why I strongly recommend getting a really good steer on the expectations and culture as you go in. It’s vital to understand your role and responsibilities.

To give one example, I noticed quite quickly that what ‘good’ looked like to colleagues outside the legal function in MTG was if the legal team could also contribute to the broader business conversations taking place. This aspect was always something I really enjoyed anyway, but I wanted to make sure that this was part of the wider legal team’s skill-set and identity too.

It was partly to build this flexibility of identity and sense of closeness to the business that our lawyers sometimes moved around the business. They took time to understand the industry technology, our competitors, and the overall business goals. In other words, we tried to create different experiences for our legal team members to keep them learning, build their networks with different commercial teams, and expand their understanding of MTG as a whole.

Another consideration for me after moving in-house was that my ‘job’ changed from one which primarily involved providing legal advice, to include people management, project management and business leadership. I enjoyed these new roles, which I’m sure helped me to adapt to them.

Changing roles may be required of anyone over the course of their career whether they are moving or staying in the same organisation. When thinking about the transition between roles, it can be useful for people to remember the words of author Marshall Goldsmith in his book of the same title ‘What got you here won’t get you there’ and to think about what they may have to change.


We mentioned briefly earlier the ‘sense of team’ in relation to goal-setting. Are there any principles of high-performing teams you have noticed as you have transitioned between the different phases or your career?

My overall reflection is that there are a number of similarities in what creates high performance in teams in different environments, most of which I have mentioned already; the right skills, focussing on what has the biggest impact, the right culture, as well as open communication and an environment that keeps pressure at a productive, but not stressful level.

But I think the most important feature of great teams – in both sport and in business – is retaining the focus on the bigger picture and the common goals. Teams can have a bias towards silos or, in the worst cases, internal competition if common goals aren’t clear – so, as a leadership team, you have to keep working to overcome that risk and instil the sense of broader connection. Without a common purpose a group of people who work together isn’t really a team.

I think a key element of the success of the British Olympic team in 2012 for example was this ‘bigger picture’ focus, in that case the focus being on creating a legacy of sport in the country. And that was a shift, because when I competed in the early 1990s there were times when there wasn’t even a sense of common purpose within the different crews of the ‘national rowing team.’

So whilst it’s important that everyone takes responsibility for their own performance; it’s vital that all those performances contribute to a common ‘greater good.’

At MTG we had a very strong and positive sense of collective success. It felt that across departments we were all contributing to creating content, to channel launches and to getting deals done to achieve the business’s overall aims of entertaining more people; attracting more subscribers and viewers, generating revenue and managing costs. So in that environment we were really successful in building the sense of ‘goal’ beyond our immediate team or unit.


Jonny, you have now moved from the legal roles to coaching senior executives – so another transition! I was curious to ask, if you were now using your coaching expertise to work with your younger self, what questions would you have asked to help you to manage those career phase changes?

That’s a really interesting question, and I think above all it’s about helping someone to understand the different phases and elements of the career they want: the focus on technical delivery and project management; time spent on people management, and contribution to the business leadership; managing operations and creating the strategy; and how they may need to develop and grow – or perhaps even how they may be able to use strengths and preferences that they always had, but which they had little opportunity to use early in their career.

In terms of questions to help people through these transitions, and thinking about what I have experienced, I would summarise it as achieving clarity in four areas, which I encourage people to review from time to time:

  • Clarity on how the transition can align with your purpose and values - How does this transition align with what is important to you now, and in the future?
  • Clarity on who you are today and what the world around you looks like - How do you like to work today? What can you bring? What gives/takes your energy today? What do you know about the new role and the working environment?
  • Clarity on your plan for your new ‘world’ - What will have to change and what will you have to do to move from where you are now to where you want to be?
  • Clarity about your level of resilience - How will you manage the pressures and cope with the stress that may increase during the transition?


Jonny, thank you, that’s been fascinating.