3 reasons why smaller consulting firms are attractive workplaces

29 March 2016 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read
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Simon Dennis, a Founding Director at London-based management consultancy Gate One and responsible for People & Talent development in the firm, reflects on why smaller consulting firms are gaining terrain in the industry when it comes to talent attraction.

Approaching our 50th hire as a business in our third year of trading has caused more than a few moments of reflection recently: Is there a magic formula for finding the perfect hire for our business? How many people do we need to meet to recognise the stars? What would have become of the gems who got away? The last question is purely whimsical conjecture, of course. But I believe I am getting closer to a scientific answer to the first two.

Professional services – and management consultancy in particular – demands an extraordinarily high emotional resilience as well as academic intellect and technical skill. Mastering the interpersonal psychology of the job has always been a crucial determinant of success, but these days more so than ever. As transactional services become increasingly commoditised and client capability grows in traditional consultancy strongholds such as programme management and process improvement, clients are increasingly seeking expert opinion and facilitative brilliance as well as well-crafted deliverables. This goes to the heart of becoming a trusted advisor.

The all-important personal touch it what makes the recruitment game so fraught with difficulty and the cultural fit to any organisation so vital. It’s why many firms have now abandoned reviewing applicant CVs altogether, such is the universal prevalence on paper of stellar academic qualifications, prior work experience and personal achievements.

Small entrepreneurial consultancies

I have worked in both big and small consultancies myself (Dennis previously worked for among other consultancies Moorhouses and Deloitte, as well as the NHS and TUI), so I can relate to the recurring narrative I hear from applicants; the patterns are discernible. Having interviewed literally hundreds of applicants from across the consulting industry over the years, I believe there are three factors above all others that explain why the smaller, entrepreneurial firms are increasingly well placed to attract the best talent in the market. The same three factors explain why, in my opinion, the big firm model is doomed as a long-term retainer of top talent, at least without radical change.

The most common refrain I hear from applicants from the big firms is “I feel like a number”. Sooner or later, everyone who has worked in this model comes to regard practice development and business development as a tick-box exercise: I must do this because everyone else is; because, if I don’t, I will be penalised in my appraisal. As soon as the consultant feels compelled to act due to extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators in this way, quality and enthusiasm inevitably suffer. Rather, the entrepreneurial consultancy offers the tangible prospect of hands-on business-build experience and the opportunity to create something, drawing on their personal war stories from previous firms (both good and bad).

Similarly, since the young entrepreneurial firm typically has lean infrastructure and big ambitions, there is boundless scope for individuals to align their individual passions to genuine business need, embracing the ‘blank paper’ stage of creating any number of facets of the business that need to be put in place in a growing business. Always wanted to design the world’s best performance management and incentives framework? Go make it happen. Ever thought you could do a better job at designing the office environment you work in? Now’s your chance. For the entrepreneurial firms who seek collaborative co-creation of their business with their employees (all of them, you would hope), these are the magical ‘win-win’ moments that accelerate growth and take personal motivation to new heights. The consultant feels in control, rather than being controlled.

It is one of the many ironies of the big firms that – having promised limitless breadth and diversity of career experience during the recruitment process – they set about narrowing their consultants’ focus to the one thing that maximises their return on each individual as a specialist. Thus the consultant invariably finds him or herself repeatedly working in the same industry/client/service line ad infinitum. Internal transfers are discouraged through red tape or the mantra of having to start again at building your internal network (so crucial for one’s promotion prospects).

Autonomy - Mastery - Purpose

Individuals may (or may not) develop deep technical specialism, but their value to their clients as trusted advisors is diminished on two counts: firstly, that their motivation (and therefore performance) inevitably wanes over time. Management consultants thrive on the variety of having new challenges, new problems to solve. Second, because true mastery in consulting advisory comes from being adept at managing ambiguity and complexity in many different situations. Clients rightly place a high value on the versatility and insight drawn from diverse experience in multiple settings and sectors. Thus the small, diversified consultancy that must deploy its consulting team fluidly across clients and sectors is, surprisingly, able to offer greater diversity of professional experience and a more rewarding path to consulting mastery.

For clarity, I am not denigrating the value of technical skill – all consultants worth their salt must dedicate focus and energy to developing specific expertise of value to their clients. Rather, I am making the point that personal development and motivation flow logically from diversity of professional experience, not from ‘playing it safe’ by repeating the same task or process a hundred times.

Delivering client service on their most important business initiatives demands significant personal sacrifice from the consultant, never mind the in-the-margins contributions to building a business. Sacrifice without enjoyment of one’s work is a short-term game; there must be genuine alignment at a more fundamental, values-driven level for the consultant to readily invest their professional future in someone else’s business.

The big firms are fond of quoting David Maister, the father figure of the modern day professional services firm. Maister understood the importance of meaning as an intrinsic motivator for any talented management consultant; his well-known saying is that business owners must seek to ‘build a temple’ that their teams are proud to help create. Alas, the only structure too many of the big firms go about constructing is a pyramid – a rigid ‘up or out’ edifice in which peer is pitted against peer and whose only discernible purpose is to perpetuate the partner model (the pharaohs?).

It is not rocket science that personal motivation is unlocked where incentives are shared and rewards more transparently and equitably distributed, as in many of the smaller firms. The hard part is building the commonality of purpose and values with everyone who joins the business. Speaking for ourselves, the Gate One cause is simple: to make the difference on the things that make a difference. This gives us two simple tests to apply to any potential assignment we are asked to support: 1) does the role we have been asked to play position us as the linchpin in the client’s organisational change, enabling us to make the difference between success and failure? and, 2) do we believe that the client’s desired change goal stems from the affirmative intent to make a positive difference to society? Get these two things right and the rest is easy (well, relatively!).