Three skills consultants need to become a good CEO

26 March 2020 5 min. read
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Many former consultants land top jobs in private sector – however, just a small fraction make it all the way to becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). As well as a background in consulting, Arthur D. Little Partner Arnaud Jouron has years of CEO experience under his belt. He believes that there are three main skills that consultants need to become a good CEO.

Arnaud Jouron is currently the Head of Industry and Operation, Paris at Arthur D. Little. Before taking up his latest role in December 2019, however, Jouron’s career has included a diversity of both consulting and executive work. Having started his career 27 years ago with Bossard Consultants, he spent a total of 13 years in advisory work – largely with McKinsey & Company, where he was an Associate Principal – before taking the decision to go into industry, taking on a succession of senior roles at steel and mining company ArcelorMittal.

Jouron initially worked as the firm’s European Chief Financial Officer for stainless and long carbon, before taking on the job of Chief Executive Officer in its tubular division. Having held that position for over five years, he returned to life as a consultant in 2015, but believes that other members of the industry could also have plenty to contribute to businesses beyond the advisory world. According to a recent article posted on his personal LinkedIn page, there are three key skills which consultants need to hone if they are to successfully make the leap to industry leadership.

Three skills consultants need to become a good CEO

Accepting accountability

According to Jouron, one of the first things consultants will need to be prepared for is how their input will carry a great deal more scrutiny. While they will be used to putting forward action plans for businesses to improve operations, they will have usually done so on a purely ‘advisory’ basis. While people within an organisation might have disliked that advice, then, the accountability ultimately will have stopped with the management team that decided to put it into practice. When they take a CEO role, consultants will have to adapt to the fact they are often solely accountable for the decisions taken, in particular “wrong” decisions.

Jouron expanded, “A case that occurs fairly often is a situation where the decision taken is fine but implementation goes wrong. This phenomena is reinforced by two patterns. First, as a consultant you have sufficient time to collect all information and facts that ensure that the decision is the right one, as a leader you have so many decisions to take that you don’t always have all the facts and time to identify all the risks and pitfalls linked to all decisions.”

Second, Jouron added, as a consultant professionals are part of a team where communication is fluid and transparent, while even young consultants have “an obligation to dissent”. Due to this, work as a consultant involves many interactions around the way a question is answered. In stark contrast, as a CEO, former consultants may find themselves starved of such a rich discursive environment. The more rigid hierarchy they find themselves atop is one where not everyone dares to speak up and challenge the “bosses.” Ultimately decisions and their outcomes will rest on the shoulders of a CEO then.

Managing time horizons

“Consultants are used to manage mainly two time horizons; the projects and the development of new projects and offers,” Jouron explained. “Projects are always very structured, and usually organised along a normalised “approach and methodology”, so this time horizon is pretty simple to manage.”

By contrast, an operational job sees executives confronted with both daily issues to be urgently solved, and strategic planning to be ready for the future. While taking care of both these priorities, executives need to ensure that monthly and quarterly results are aligned with expectations.

Jouron advised, “The trick is not to spend all the time on solving daily issues, or preparing the five years plan, but to make sure that the appropriate care and time are spent on each time horizon. Finding this delicate balance was one of my main focuses when I started my first operational job.”

Managing profiles

Finally, CEOs must manage a high variety of profiles. The Arthur D. Little Partner explained that while a consultant’s colleagues usually have “standardised profiles” (for example consultants of the same nationality usually all come through the same schools, while those of different nationalities have often followed similar education tracks from their childhood) that is rarely the case in industry.

Due to this, Jouron warned that while “in the consulting world, there is a 'standardised way' to look at issues, to solve problems and to write your recommendations across the globe” thanks to this homogeneous profile, as an executive, the situation is quite different. This is because “people with whom you work are coming from a much broader set of environments, many worked hard to move up the career ladder. Even inside the same nationality, people have very different education tracks and are coming from very different social environments.”

“As a consequence, the ways these people handle issues arising are different, the same goes for the ways they make forecasts,” Juoron concluded. “Even daily habits and practices are very different (e.g. in Germany and in Switzerland everybody arrives in advance so meetings can start on time; in France executives often arrive late to show their time is important). Therefore, much more time needs to be spent to ensure everyone is aligned and that every individual understands what is expected from one another.”