Morphing management consultancy: A&M’s Oliver Stratton outlines the sector’s shifts
As clients place more value on the depth of experience a management consultant can provide, people in the sector need to demonstrate their ability to drive change and deliver results more than ever. We talk to Oliver Stratton, managing director and co-head, Asia, at professional services firm A&M, to find out how the job market for management consultants is changing and what other skills are becoming more desirable in the sector.
How has the landscape for management consulting changed both globally and in Hong Kong in the last five years?
While the sector has continued to grow rapidly, there have certainly been changes as a result of an increasingly interconnected and complex global economy; more capital being invested in disruptive technologies and business models; more sophisticated customers; and more competition. Equally, the shelf life of a strategy or an operational solution has become much shorter. Many larger companies have internal staff who have consulting experience, and are therefore more specific in their requests for consulting outsourcing.
In response, consulting firms have specialised by industry sector or functional area; upgraded their internal processes to be more efficient in accessing and processing data, and in sharing knowledge; and have developed better approaches in collaboratively working with their clients to accelerate implementation.
In Hong Kong the consulting market has also grown rapidly. There is more focus on China, which typically means that consulting firms are basing more of their resources on the mainland.
How are recruiters responding? How will the job market for management consultants change over the next 3-5 years?
Given the importance of human talent in consulting firms, recruiting (and retention) has become a key driver of success. Finding the best talent and investing in their development is a strategic priority for all the major consulting firms, and requires the full engagement of the whole organisation including the most senior partners. While major consulting firms will continue to hire more of the best and brightest, the one change I am seeing is the increasing focus on diversity – partly of backgrounds, but in particular of experience. Firms such as A&M are looking for ambitious and capable individuals who have also worked in operating roles in “real” companies to drive change and deliver results.
While job roles for management consultants vary massively, what common targets and responsibilities tie together careers in this sector?
Common responsibilities include problem solving, team leadership and development, and client leadership. A common target is results delivery. This is consistent across all types of consultants, from strategy to operations, from technical or functional to turnarounds and interim management. In many cases these characteristics are tightly linked.
For example, client leadership is integral to problem solving. One cannot solve a problem without convincing sceptical clients of the need to change what they are doing, and to embrace and implement the recommendations. How you measure results may vary from consulting firm to consulting firm – in some it could be a technical solution, or a well-defined change of strategy. At A&M we’re very focused on how we actually deliver sustainable value for all stakeholders.
What separates a great person in your profession from an average one? What do you look for when hiring?
A successful consultant has to be a combination of a good problem solver and somebody who can work with an organisation to overcome challenges and get things done. This requires an ability to bring clarity to complex situations, to simplify things down to the key decisions that need to be made, and then to present fact-based logic to support those decisions. It also requires strong communication skills in order to both quickly build relationships that enable a consultant to derive unique insights on a situation, and to influence stakeholders to act on recommendations.
When hiring, we look for people with an energy to make a difference to any situation, a willingness to challenge the status quo, an ability to think out of the box, and the people skills to work with client teams to implement solutions. With A&M, as we are generally hiring more experienced people, we are also looking for a track record of accomplishment as a professional, and ideally also in operating roles.
What qualifications are useful in the profession?
It’s less about the qualifications per se, but more about personality, business experience and problem solving skills. From an academic perspective, our professionals at A&M have all kinds of undergraduate degrees. Some will say that an MBA provides a great pathway to consulting – and it certainly helps – but is by no way a prerequisite. At A&M many of our team have accounting or law qualifications, while others have none. My perspective is that it’s the diversity of our team that makes us unique, and collectively very powerful in solving our clients’ problems.
How does one usually move from an in-house management role at an organisation to becoming a consultant at somewhere like A&M? What are the benefits of making such a move? Is there anything one needs to be careful of?
At A&M we are always looking for talented managers who want to apply their operating experience in a different environment. While there is no “ideal” background, it certainly helps to have had exposure to different types of roles – such as change management or project situations – and to have demonstrated an ability to get things done. We rely a lot on referrals from clients and former staff, as well as recommendations from our current team.
It’s relatively easy for people to reach out and have a conversation to see whether a consulting role is suited to them. The benefits of such a move are the exposure to a wide variety of clients and different situations, the development of new skills, and the opportunity to work in a diverse and talented team environment. The transition, though, is never easy as one has to move from the relative stability of a well-defined management role into a professional services role. Consultants are often inserted into unfamiliar and challenging situations where there are high expectations of changing the status quo and delivering results, often with limited direct authority.
Is it common for management consultants to move the other way, i.e. take up a permanent position, perhaps in a company with which they have consulted previously? What do consulting firms do to hang on to their talent?
This certainly happens as companies typically value the impact that consultants can make to an organisation. In many cases, it represents a great opportunity for those consultants and a logical next step in their careers. They may be looking for a different type of leadership role, or more stability in their lifestyle.
While we don’t like to see our best consultants leave, it’s important that we consider what they want to do in their careers, and it’s critical for us to manage this in a positive way as those alumni will often become clients and will also refer potential recruits to us.
Consulting firms invest heavily in retaining their best talent. This is done through training and development, enabling consultants to focus on areas of specific interest, attractive client opportunities, promotion to partnership, and attractive compensation. Most of all, it’s about having a compelling vision for the business that the consulting team want to be part of.
Is there a clear career path for management consultants and if so, what is considered typical career progression for management consultants?
When I became a management consultant nearly 30 years ago, consulting was often seen as a “stepping stone” to an alternative career in industry or banking. Most of my incoming class went to business school after a few years and the majority then went on to new opportunities with companies in industry or other professions. Consulting was seen as a profession for young people, and very few stayed on to become grey-haired “senior advisors”.
That has all changed as consulting firms have expanded and matured, and with the increasing specialisation that demands real depth of experience. Clients value the depth of experience that consultants can provide, not just the analytical insights. As discussed earlier, management consultants can easily transition into corporate roles, or into other professional service; if they have the right skills, they can transition back to consulting. I’d say there is no “typical” progression anymore, but that it is a profession that provides a rich exposure to learning and can lead to a wide variety of opportunities within or outside consulting.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Shifting strategies.