Gemma Sarjeant on her move from a Big Four to a boutique consultancy

18 May 2018 8 min. read
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Having worked at a Big Four firm for almost a decade, Gemma Sarjeant decided the time was right for a change. In 2016, she joined business transformation firm Gate One, and after one and a half years adjusting to life at a specialist consultancy, she believes she is now more fulfilled in her work.

Having graduated from the University of Warwick in 2007 with a first class honours degree in Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics, Gemma opted to join a Big Four professional services firm as the first step in her new career. She was not alone; the strategy and management consulting industry is the most popular sector for graduates looking for work, while PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY are all among the top 40 destinations for graduates in the UK.

In Gemma’s case, this meant joining the multifaceted KPMG – a firm she would spend more than nine years with – working to deliver programmes in the Supply Chain, M&A and Operations spaces. Over her stint with the firm, she became a Management Consultant in KPMG’s Operations Advisory wing, however despite the practice’s diverse workload, she was left feeling like she was missing something.

Gemma said, “After several years of not feeling completely fulfilled at a big four consultancy, I was struggling to put my finger on what was wrong. I was enjoying the client work, and ploughing through the internal extras that I signed up to… Then, one day, I met someone from a specialist consultancy called Gate One.”

The employee’s enthusiasm for his company and team was something which Gemma stated she had never experienced before, immediately prompting her to find out more. After a whirlwind of interviews and a three-month notice period with KPMG, she had arrived at Gate One as a Manager. 18 months later, Gemma is keen to encourage others to make the similar leap into specialist consulting.

Gemma Sarjeant, Manager - Gate One

Unlike life at the Big Four, consultants at firms like Gate One often have a more definitive ‘mission’ for clients, she says. Founded in 2013, Gate One is a fast growing consulting firm, focused primarily on complex business transformations. The specialist works using small teams of experts who embed alongside client staff, working to get to the heart of problems quickly, before shaping and delivering solutions.

Gate One’s growing stature comes as part of a broader trend in consultancy. The rising cost of services from larger firms which are often seen as providing broader, one-size-fits-all solutions, is causing executives to question if they are actually getting value for their money, pushing many toward smaller, specialist firms in pursuit of more value. This is exemplified by small businesses in the UK, which collectively spend £60 billion per year on professional services, yet feel that more than £12 billion of that figure is wasted on unnecessary or bad advice from larger, less specialised firms – something which has manifested itself in the fact that now 75% of all companies believe boutique firms will have an important role in their future.

Life after the Big Four

Commenting on what attracted her to Gate One over life with the Big Four, Gemma explained, “It was a big step for me to leave the comfort and security of a big consultancy after nine years, but I can confidently say it is the best career decision I have made. For me, it boils down to three things that mean Gate One has the edge over ‘just another consultancy’, and why I would encourage others to consider Gate One for the next step of their consulting career.”

First, she asserted, “We really do want what is best for our clients.” This is particularly important as clients search for a greater added value from their consulting spend. Gemma elaborated, “I’ve been in discussions where we’ve talked about how we could finish a project early as it’s ready to hand over to business as usual before the expected finish date – even though it might mean less fees for us. We look to put the best people on every job, rather than shoe-horning in whoever is available, and our large network of experienced associates helps with this, and gives our clients the best value for their money.”

Second, firms like Gate One provide more of an opportunity for entrepreneurial staff to engage in the building of the business. According to Gemma, due to the smaller team of the specialist set-up, there is an opportunity for everyone to pitch in with the day-to-day building and running of the business. The smaller structure facilitates this in a more agile manner, as unlike larger companies, there is no dedicated training department, events team or CSR unit – so consultants can bring their ideas to any aspect of the business.

Quote Gemma Sarjeant

The main benefit of this approach is apparently that Gate One can design parts of the business around what works for them, quickly, rather than have to funnel all developments through a team in head office. As well as boosting the attractiveness of the boutique consulting scene, this agility, and potential for personal development is also one of the major reasons why consultants opt to leave large consulting firms to go ‘freelance’.

Gemma commented, “If there’s something we’re passionate about, we’re able to join the team and get involved in shaping it. I recently led the team planning one of our away days – trawling venues, planning workshop sessions and testing my creativity to the max. It’s something I’ve never had the opportunity to do before and I learnt as I went along, which was both terrifying and immensely satisfying.”

Finally, the culture of Gate One is also a top asset for the firm, according to Gemma. She pointed to one experience in particular to highlight what she meant, as the firm’s annual get-away in Austria last year, “I looked around the room and honestly felt like I couldn’t believe my luck to be working with such an awesome bunch of people. We were in the middle of a challenging but inspiring two day workshop planning the next few years of the business; we were all in Austrian-themed fancy dress in a castle somewhere near Vienna; and we had just had the annual awards where we celebrate all manner of successes.”

As the UK labour market tightens due to digital skills shortages, an ageing population, and the limitations Brexit may place on the sourcing of talent from the continent, consulting firms are preparing themselves for a talent arms race. While the Big Four et al are attempting to use gender pay data releases and a range of CSR and work-life-balance initiatives to make themselves more appealing to skilled workers, however, the larger firms are often perceived as impersonal, compared to the smaller, more tight-knit teams found in boutique consultancies – something which could make the difference for prospective employees looking to choose between jobs.

This is something felt keenly by Gemma, who concluded, “It’s hard to articulate what really makes the culture that we have at Gate One, but I will try: I have never had such a fantastic group of intelligent, entrepreneurial, fun and supportive people to work with. People who make time for you. People who encourage each other. People who can have difficult conversations when they have to. People who love to have fun. People who want to continuously learn and develop. People who really believe in doing a good job for their clients.”

See the page News | Interviews for an overview of all interviews with partners and consultants at consulting firms.