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Chris Harvey explains how his path to a top job with Deloitte spanned multiple sectors

Published on Saturday, 25 Apr 2015
Chris Harvey
Managing Director and Global Leader, Financial Services, Deloitte. Photo: Lau Wai

It is the accepted wisdom of the boardroom that fresh starts and mid-career direction changes effectively scupper your chances of making it right to the top. But Chris Harvey is proof positive that a more roundabout route, which gives experience in tackling widely diverse challenges, can also work out just fine.

“I have been in three very different environments which have led me to where I am now,” says the managing director and global leader for financial services at Deloitte, who oversees nearly 60,000 staff and close to US$10.5 billion in revenue – about 30 per cent of the firm’s worldwide total. “As a person, I’ve learned that I operate best when I’m passionate about what I do.”

Having benefitted from the financial support of an army cadetship to read law at Oxford University, Harvey was committed to joining up on graduation. He was admitted to Sandhurst, the British military academy for officer training, and soon found himself on active service, being posted to Northern Ireland for a first operational tour with the Duke of Wellington’s regiment in the early 1980s. The basic assignment, offensively, was to identify terrorist targets and weapons stashes and prevent possible bombing and shootings. Defensively, it meant playing a support role for the civilian police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

“That is where I got my first big learning in leadership,” Harvey says. “It was a fairly tense time there, just after the hunger strikes, and as a 20-year-old graduate with very little experience of that type of thing, I had command of 30 men going out on day and night patrols. It taught me the misconception about leadership and man management: that it is telling people what to do. That might work in the barracks, but not out on ops, where it is about inspiring people to do what they wouldn’t in the normal course of events. Early on, I also learned it is about coaching to improve the skills and capabilities of the whole team.”

In addition, he quickly realised he wasn’t good at some things – and shouldn’t try to be. For instance, when a patrol bumped into a local farmer, Harvey would take a deliberate step back and let a fellow soldier from a farming background – and with the accent and interests to match – handle the conversation.

For a period of ten years, army life suited him well. He enjoyed the excitement, the “derring-do”, the practical challenges, and the chance to keep playing rugby to a high standard. Besides operational commands, there were also stints as a Sandhurst instructor and in low-level intelligence work which, relevant for later business roles, made clear the essential difference between data, information and useful, actionable intelligence.

However, after 10 years of army life, the time came to move on, which involved a certain amount of soul searching and turning down a place at army staff college. A return to the law held little appeal, so Harvey opted instead for an MBA at Cranfield, outside London, where he surprised himself by taking top prize. While there, the standard graduate job round resulted in offers to join a consulting firm and pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly.

“I was pretty fortunate, but wasn’t quite sure how to consult, if I had never been in business,” he says. “So I took the other offer and went into the sales and marketing side, where they had a training course and taught me to sell. I found that selling is an incredibly important skill and one of the hardest things you can do in any business.” 

Results soon followed. Already in charge of a sales team, he was asked to become product manager for the launch of Prozac, which turned out to be the “blockbuster” drug of the 1990s. It generated US$1.2 billion in sales in the first year and saw Harvey dealing with ad agencies, the press – and a new kind of restlessness.

“I was in a fine organisation, but I just didn’t feel ‘called’ to pharmaceuticals or that I could be in it for a 30-year career,” he says. “Then, I got an offer from Gemini Consulting and felt the time was now right.”

He worked on strategic sales and marketing projects, left in a rush of enthusiasm to launch a tech start-up in the dotcom boom, and then teamed up with former colleagues to move back into consulting with more emphasis on the financial services side. A corporate shakeout in London saw Deloitte stepping in and Harvey coming across too, almost by default. “Luck plays a big part in business. You can be smart and creative, but not necessarily end up in the right place,” he admits.

His current role, he says, is about strategy and influence rather than operations and control. In view of the international partnership structure, it is to set the direction for various parts of the firm, without giving direct instructions. The leadership challenge is to understand people’s needs, and work within constraints.

“It boils down to the fundamental belief that a business like ours can only be successful with a laser-like focus on our clients. We have to understand what the market wants and build solutions accordingly,” he says.

“Without doubt, the most challenging and most rewarding part of my career has been to see the business here double in size in terms of revenue and people in the two years I’ve been in Hong Kong.” says Harvey, who has become a keen weekend hiker. “For me, the single most important thing is to leave a legacy in the organisation which lasts long after I’m gone.”

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