Kurt Somerville is the managing partner of Hemenway & Barnes LLP. He advises families and individuals in the areas of wealth management, estate, financial, and tax planning, and probate matters. As a lawyer and trustee, Kurt advises high net worth clients on a variety of issues and concerns related to preserving, enhancing, and transferring family wealth. He is a former Olympic rower and Founder and Trustee of Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI), the country’s largest public access rowing program.
1. In general, what is something that is key to a successful leadership style or approach that many people are often missing? How did you learn it?
I think a lot of people envision leaders as rugged individualists – when people think of a successful leader, you think of a Winston Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill – these larger than life figures. But having a light touch and empowering others to contribute to a common goal is sometimes overlooked. I don’t think leadership is about ego or personal glorification. For me, it’s been leading by example and having some measure of success in the field so you have the confidence to step up and do what you think is right – but it’s also always been a collaborative process. Certainly in rowing, and for almost any shared endeavor, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you can get that boat so everyone is pulling at the same time and in the same way, the boat is going to sing and it’s going to feel effortless. If you can do that in an organization, hopefully the same thing is going to happen. Using the individualistic approach has the potential to burn too many bridges along the way.
2. Can you tell us a little more about your background in rowing? What did it teach you about leadership?
I started rowing in 9th grade at the Noble & Greenough School. My brother rowed, so I thought to myself, “I’ll try this,” and I never looked back. I rowed for four years in high school, was the captain of my high school team, and continued when I went to Dartmouth for undergrad.
I really knew I had potential probably after freshman year of college when I went to the Olympic trials. I was the youngest guy in my boat; we came in third, but it was still a very respectable showing. After my sophomore year I tried out for the national team and made the eight, which was the priority boat, and was a very big deal for a sophomore. The following year, I was named captain of my Dartmouth team.
The point is, in any leadership role, the best thing you can do is set an example. For me, my attitude was (and still is): even if you do have some innate talent, if you work harder and you put in the time, you get some measure of success. In that way, rowing is a very pure equation. If you’re additionally a good person, thoughtful, and kind, you’ll make a great leader.
I think the fact that I made those teams and rose to that level gave me the confidence to try other things. My coaches helped me to grow as a person and a leader as well. My Olympic coach was Harry Parker, arguably the most successful rowing coach in the U.S., and his style was also quiet and to lead by example…he managed to just get the best out of his oarsmen. I can still hear his words from the launch: as you’re getting to the end of practice and your muscles are telling you, ‘stop, stop!’ – and he knows that’s happening – he would say, “Be stubborn.” I will never forget those words. If I’m grinding it out in my profession, where you do put in long hours and work hard, having that perseverance to push through is important.
3. What did you learn from your predecessor Steve Kidder, the previous managing partner of H&B? What initiatives or approach are you hoping to bring to the position?
Steve Kidder was managing partner of Hemenway & Barnes for the last eight years, and he was excellent at it. He’s very good at getting out of his office and feeling the pulse of his colleagues and employees. They don’t call it “managing” partner for nothing — Steve was good at delegating to capable people, being the face of the firm, meeting with clients, and getting new business; that’s something I want to emulate.
My style is going to be focused on team-building: hopefully my legacy will be making people feel that they’re part of the team. People work better when they know what their role is and know that they are contributing to the whole. I remember when I started as an associate here, some associates at other firms said to me, “your group meets at a weekly meeting, you feel like you’re on a team, and we don’t have that camaraderie.” That was over 20 years ago but I remember that. I don’t think people should feel that way at work.
Overall, the firm is in great shape and steaming ahead in the right direction. We’ve done a wonderful job in the past few years creating the Hemenway Trust Company, and that has enhanced our fiduciary services significantly. We are still in process of integrating that with the law firm, and realizing all of the potential of that organization – it’s very entrepreneurial for we conservative lawyers — so it’s been fun and has helped raise the game of our fiduciary practice. A goal is to continue to increase assets under management and while we do that, never, ever lose sight of why clients entrust us with those assets in the first place: a very high level of professional service. We also have very important partners nearing retirement, and in this practice, more years of experience translates to more wisdom. Planning for those departures is critical.
4. Can you give a brief background about the Jane’s Trust and your trustee duties? Is there anything fundamentally different about this role that has affected your approach to leadership?
Jane’s Trust is a large charitable trust established by Jane Cook, who named partners at Hemenway & Barnes as trustees along with her daughters. As with our other trust clients, our charge is to fulfill the purposes of the trust, which is largely focused on charitable grants to organizations that improve the environment and the health, education, and welfare of people primarily in northern New England. Our role is trust administration –investing the assets and making sure to dot the i’s and cross the t’s – and we meet regularly with the family and family trustees to determine the appropriate grantees of these distributions.
I think leadership in this context is about figuring out your audience and your role. These clients are very intelligent, very active and involved in their communities, and very vocal. We’re there to listen to the client, make sure they get the help they need from our in-house experts to make decisions, and if they need a suggestion or a nudge in a certain direction, we can do that too. We’re helping them realize and put into action what Jane Cook set up, and have them feel that the dollars put into this trust are being put to the most effective use possible. This is an example of that light touch, because you don’t need that inspirational guy charging up a hill – it needs someone who knows what they’re doing and won’t overshadow the family. This is not for our personal enhancement – it’s all about getting the family’s goals accomplished.