Management consulting needs more women at the top

17 September 2015

In recent years, the management consulting industry has seen a slow, but steady improvement in its female diversity, with the number of women in partner ranks and senior positions on the rise. Yet according to Fiona Czerniawska, founder of Source Information Services and Sandra Guzman, Director of nbi, an international human capital consultancy, the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to female leadership. In this article they reflect on why a few women isn’t enough.

I had a road-to-Damascus like moment recently, talking to some senior women partners in a Big Four firm. We collectively realised that while the proportion of women partners remained low, individual women partners tended to have a higher than average percentage of women working for them. Women, it seems, attract other women.

Women attract other women

And it’s a point that comes through again in recent research from Source Information Services in collaboration with nbi, a human capital consulting firm. Together we interviewed almost 40 senior people in leading consulting firms around the world. One partner in Australia described how her early career had involved several occasions in which she’d had to choose between a relationship and her job (she chose the latter). Eventually married and with young children, she found herself working for a senior female partner alongside other women who were also juggling their home and business lives. “The partner didn’t have the best reputation internally, so it was her who reached out to us, rather than us choosing to work with her. But she created in my experience a uniquely supportive environment in which we all helped each other.”

No one was made to feel bad when they had a childcare issue or domestic crisis; everyone worked together. Another interview made a similar point: “If a senior woman is working part time, actually that is something that is desperately relevant for making women feel supported. Flexi-working is desperately relevant for women, and I can do that, I can help with advice and I’m a role model.”

More women at the top mean more women lower down, because women who feel part of a supportive team are less likely to leave when they start juggling work and families. Crucially, they’re also working alongside people who recognise that work doesn’t come first: “I don’t have to sell my soul,” was the way one woman put it.

Clients prefer to see more women in teams

That’s important because our research has found that nine out of ten clients of consulting firms would prefer to see more women in traditionally male dominated teams. Two thirds say that, if they had to choose between two consulting teams and all other factors were equal, they’d often or always hire the team that had more women. Consulting teams which have a greater proportion of women are seen by clients to be capable of delivering better quality solutions, relevant not only to the client’s own organisation but to those organisations’ end customers. Women, in other words, are perceived to help consulting teams to think more laterally and to consider the longer-term. They’re also seen to be faster at developing relationships, more gifted coaches, generally more efficient and better at gaining trust.

Yet of the people we spoke to in our latest research only one in ten thought that there was a sufficient critical mass of women at the top of their organisation – certainly not enough to pull through the women beneath them, to keep women who might otherwise be tempted to leave (and two thirds of our interviewees say that consulting continues to be a difficult profession for women to work in). “At a recent partner conference, the support staff assumed I was a secretary, because almost all the partners were men,” said one woman partner.


More positively, many of our interviews felt that there’s less pressure on the women who do make it to the top to follow male blueprints of behaviour. “When I first started as a consultant, the very small number of women in senior positions were ball-breakers,” said one. “There are [now] many more models of how people can be effective and influential without having someone who is talking all the time or is super central within discussions.”

With the proportion of graduates entering the consulting industry now more evenly balanced between the genders, the next challenge is to ensure that the proportion of senior women goes up substantially. Solving that problem will go, our research suggests, a long way to ensuring that firms can retain their high-calibre female consultants at all levels – and keep their clients happy as well.


Accenture's push into the creative sector is an identity crisis

18 April 2019

In its latest push into the creative sector, Accenture Interactive acquired New York and London-based ad agency Droga5 earlier this month, adding illustrious clients such as HBO, Amazon and The New York Times to its roster of clients. With the latest in a long line of similar purchases, Accenture Interactive further demonstrated its ambition of becoming the globe’s leading trusted advisor to chief marketing officers. Yet according to Ben Langdon, Chairman of Class35, Accenture’s strategy may be heading in the wrong direction.

A press release on Accenture’s website announcing the acquisition sits next to a quote stating that “brands aren’t built through advertising” – a huge contradiction from a consultancy firm hell-bent on becoming the ‘CMO agency of choice’. It’s not alone of course. The entire consulting industry wants a piece of the creative pie right now. In addition to Accenture Interactive, recent acquisitions by PwC Digital, IBM iX, and Deloitte Digital meant that in 2017, for the first time ever, four of the world’s ten largest creative agencies were consultancies.

So just what it is that Accenture wants to achieve from this? For one thing, it’s clearly trying to be a digital transformation business. A one-stop creative shop rivalling more traditional models, it wants to lure CMOs in with the promise of lower ad spend and a “more impactful customer experience”. At the same time, though, it’s still in thrall to those same slinky, shiny branding and advertising agencies it’s attempting to disrupt. The Droga5 acquisition and that of Karmarama a few years before are both testament to this.

There’s a fundamental problem with this, though. Digital transformation businesses don’t sell to CMOs. These people have enough on their plates trying to transform their own marketing skills in order to keep up with an ever-changing market – they just don’t have the time or the energy to concern themselves with digitally transforming a whole business. If Accenture’s purpose is digital transformation, then going after creative agencies is barking up the wrong tree.Is Accenture's push into the creative sector an identity crisis?

Worlds apart

Perhaps more importantly, these two industries are worlds apart in terms of the way they think. Creative agencies are all about ideas, campaigns and consumers. Digital businesses, on the other hand, are customer-driven – they think in terms such as lifetime value, measurement, and efficiency. Customer-led thinking is an entirely different beast to consumer-led thinking.

The reality is that the arrival of digital and an all-encompassing obsession with technology, measurement and social has led to the death of agencies in a reductive, zero-sum, efficiency-focused battle with brands. Indeed, agencies have become so obsessed with the latest tech fads, they’re beginning to forget how brands work. Worse still, they’re beginning to forget how brands are built. And, by forgetting, they’re destroying their own values.

Killing creativity

All things considered, it really feels to me as though Accenture is a chip leader in a game it doesn’t understand. Expensive acquisitions like these show that they’ve got the big money, but they don’t appear to have any idea what they’re doing with it. Take talent, for example. The best talent in the creative industry right now is out in the market; it’s not tied to any one agency. Both agencies might well be at the top of their game, but why would a consulting firm waste so much money on buying them when they could hire high-quality creative talent on a contingent basis instead?

As their presence in the top 10 creative agencies shows, there is a growing trend in which Accenture, like many of the other big players, are buying up agencies as if they were nothing more than keywords. What they’re really buying, though, is a collection of credentials, clients and IP. Unfortunately, the talent that created those credentials aren’t going to stay at the business, the clients that hired the agency in the first place won’t be interested in buying what is basically just another part of Accenture, and the IP never really existed to begin with.

Droga5, for example, was one of the few agencies that did great brand work the old-fashioned way – undoubtedly something that made it attractive to Accenture in the first place. The irony, though, is that by leading it further away from the way of working that made it so special, the consulting giant will kill its creativity.

“Accenture Interactive has been dazzled by its ambitions to become the CMO agency of record…. But, in flashing its cash, it is spending millions on acquiring nothing of any value.”

If pressed, the recently acquired agency staff at Accenture will tell you just how dysfunctional the new arrangement is. They’re largely unfulfilled. Rarely do they feel their work has any sort of meaning or purpose. What’s more, the different disciplines have found little or no common ground, and find it hard to work together as a cohesive whole. It’s not surprising, then, to see talented people leaving in droves.

Beyond the window dressing 

It’s clear, then, that consulting firms and creative agencies are no easy bedfellows. But in his company’s defence, Accenture Interactive’s Senior Managing Director for North America, Glen Hartman, described its culture as being “far, far away from what a stereotypical consulting firm would look like. Our office and studios look a lot like Droga5’s.”

In demonstrating a belief that office design equates to workplace culture, this statement serves as an illustration of how confused Accenture is right now. It wants to justify its new strategy so badly, it’s started dressing like a creative agency. But if you look beyond the window dressing and see that you and your partners are speaking a different language with a different purpose, selling to different people in a different market, there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re different.

Accenture Interactive has been dazzled by its ambitions to become the CMO agency of record, and it wants to dazzle others with its new direction. But, in flashing its cash, it is spending millions on acquiring nothing of any value.

Related: Space between consulting firms and creative agencies is converging.