The UK Consultants Award

Date: 19-11-2007
Source: The Sunday Times

There is no single strategy for success in the world of business advisers - and the range of options is what attracts many to the profession. The MCA Consultant of the Year career-stage award winners talk to Wendy Sloane.

Becoming a management consultant wasn't the fulfilment of a lifelong dream for Paul Vivash. In fact, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life when he began studying economics and politics at Southampton University.

"I ended up being elected to the national executive board of AIESEC, the international student development organisation," he says. "Through that I met reps of Deloitte and other consulting firms, and at the same time a number of my peers were going into consulting roles. Hearing about their experiences made me realise that consulting was something I wanted to try. The variety of both the work and the clients appealed to me, as did the problem-solving element and facing different challenges."

Vivash, now 27, proved he was more than up to the challenge when he joined Deloitte in September 2005, working on a variety of projects as an analyst in the technological integration practice. He is the winner of the MCA Best New Consultant award - not bad for somebody who has been in the business for less than two years.

Getting on-the-job experience played an enormous part in Vivash's success. When he left university, he decided to broaden his outlook by working abroad and took an unpaid six-month internship for the Dutch bank ABN Amro in Mumbai. He helped to recruit Indian staff into finance, HR and IT roles and conducted an operational review for the firm's Indian offshore operations.

When he returned to the UK in 2005 he accepted an offer with Deloitte because he liked the variety of the company's blue-chip clients. As the job didn't begin until December, he took another unpaid internship, working for the EU integration team in Constanta, Romania, arranging bilateral partnerships with other governments.

"My advice would be to get some experience before you start full-time employment. I'm glad I did those two internships; they have helped me tremendously in my career at Deloitte," says Vivash, who also taught English in Slovakia for six months before embarking on his management career. "It helps to do something hands-on before you rush into your career after university. Although I got into debt during the two internships, I was willing to do so as I saw the value in them."

To help pay his bills, Vivash did a variety of temporary jobs in his home town of Portsmouth, such as data entry for the local electricity company.

Despite working in technological integration, Vivash doesn't have a strong background in technology, but Deloitte's skills training has helped him. "One of the first things the company does is take you through an intense two-month induction where you cover all the necessary technological skills," he explains. "I and another analyst who also didn't come from a technological background tend to work on the business side of technology. Having an understanding of business is just as important as understanding technology."

One thing Vivash likes about Deloitte is the variety of work, both in terms of projects and location. He is currently based in Norwich but spent a year working on a project in Amsterdam and has also worked out of Bristol and Reading.

Adaptability is a quality he believes is paramount for consultants. "Think about what kind of lifestyle you prefer before you choose a career," he advises. "Being in management consultancy, you are away from home a lot, travelling a lot, and that may not suit some people. Others may thrive on a situation where there is so much variety and change."

Maintaining a fresh outlook is also important, he says, although that's not always easy. "You need to get used to starting afresh with every new engagement, and with every new project you have to become productive as soon as possible. Teamwork is also very important because you work a lot in close-knit groups and with challenging deadlines, that becomes crucial."

A determination to achieve is vital. "That's a characteristic I see a lot with people at Deloitte," he says. "It's one thing I like about the culture here, the focus on achievement and delivery to the client."

In his spare time, Vivash is studying with the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply. The three-year qualification will lead to him becoming a member of the institute. "I wanted to get more experience in the process of selecting vendors and setting up those deals," he explains. "I do a lot of running, so balancing work, studying and my personal life is quite a challenge."

He hopes to reach manager level in the next five years. "Five years from now I'll be more likely to make a decision of where to go next, either getting experience in industry or carrying on in consulting. I enjoy consulting now, and I also greatly enjoy the travelling. But once you get to a certain point in your life, I imagine it could get to be a strain."

In the past 14 months, Ernst & Young senior manager Isabelle Bailey has started a new job, got married and moved house. She has also found time to win the MCA Future Consulting Leader award.

"The last year has been pretty busy," admits Bailey, 29. "But I am very driven, have a lot of energy and am very focused on what I do. I focus on getting my team to deliver."

She joined Ernst & Young in September 2006 after working for several different organisations gaining varied experience. She started her career with a small consulting company that handled mobile communications.

"I initially didn't want to work for a big company as I didn't think it would give me the robust training I wanted. I got experience as a junior, then after a couple of years decided to jump to a multinational, focusing on delivery rather than the strategic element," she says.

"From there I worked on various different projects, both public and private, all over the country, doing a number of roles, from providing programme management support to a large IT implementation to running customer focus groups with clients in a public-sector organisation.

"Since I've been at Ernst & Young I've been working primarily on one project, helping a client to bring in a new human resources policy. It's interesting because you're talking about bringing in changes that make a material impact on the way in which people work. It has challenges because any change is difficult."

One of the reasons why she enjoys the job, Bailey says, is the high calibre of her colleagues. "They have challenged me intellectually. And in terms of the experiences they bring, I have learnt a lot from them. Also, being part of an organisation that is growing at a tremendous rate has been a balance of having a lot of support but also being given the opportunity to flourish."

The daughter of a French mother and a British father, Bailey grew up speaking French. After graduating from Christ's College, Cambridge, with an honours degree in history, she decided to teach English for a year in Shanghai.

"I was teaching a wide range of people, from little children to adults, individual tuition to groups of 250, often with relatively few facilities," she says. "I probably learnt more about myself than anything else, and that put me in good stead when I decided to go into consulting. You get to work with interesting clients on different challenges and you see real results."

What is her advice to future leaders like herself? "I would say get the core skills, don't be afraid to ask questions, listen and learn lots, and get out there and practise," she replies. "Get onto clients' sites, work with clients and understand what their issues are. Help deliver successfully using the skills you have picked up."

Bailey says her leadership style is unique: "I am quite small physically and am not necessarily the big leader. When you think of a leader, you think of people who make grand speeches that change the world," she laughs. "I have a vision in the sense that I am very definite about what we are aiming for. My style is very team-focused, where the sum of the parts makes the whole.

"We focus very much on making people clear about what their accountability, responsibility and focus are and giving them the skills to accomplish that. It's also essential to pick the right team and work them in the most efficient way possible."

Having the right people skills has been essential to David Wilson, who has more than 18 years' experience of delivering large-scale business and IT change with Accenture and Price Waterhouse.

"As you get more senior, building leadership skills is crucial. The people management side and the leadership side are both very important," says Wilson, 41, a partner in Accenture's UK financial services practice. "The start is getting feedback of how people view you, being very aware that you are a role model.

Often, leading by example is the best way.

"Being approachable and making an effort to interact with everyone is incredibly important. That doesn't mean interacting just with the people who are directly reporting to you, but talking with all levels of the team working for you."

Wilson has won the MCA Best Partner/Director award, beating other seasoned professionals with a similarly impressive wealth of experience. He believes that being successful means gaining expertise across a wide range of situations and continually looking to challenge yourself, developing both personally and as a professional.

"You need a balance of relationship skills, business skills and the ability to deliver project work or business results. You need to be able to have goals and work to achieve them," he says.

"Also, as you get more senior, more of the things you do are judgment-based, so the ability to develop judgment and make decisions becomes increasingly important, as does using your experience to home in on likely issue areas so you can focus your time on what's most important."

Wilson's ascent up the career ladder began with studying mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge. Unsure of what he wanted to do in the long term, he then worked as an electronics engineer for a year. "The logical thought process and problem-solving ability has been useful, and very transferable in terms of how you break down problems. That has been a big factor in a lot of our delivery work - the ability to tackle problems logically and solve them," he says.

"I found engineering reasonably interesting and intellectually challenging, but from a people-relationship perspective I was looking for a more varied career, which is why I went into management consultancy."

Wilson initially joined Price Waterhouse, where he spent four years before moving to Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, in 1993. He reckons he has worked for 12-14 clients since then.

"What I find most interesting is being able to work with multiple clients at different times in my career. They all face varied business challenges and working with them to improve their business performance is what has motivated me. That and the variety of the work," he says.

There are different focuses as people progress though a company, Wilson says.

"When you are first with the business you are building up basic skills of understanding project management, as well as building core skills."

The more senior you become, the greater the need to interact with senior clients.

"To be successful at the top end you have to be able to talk to business executives, understand their business problems and work out how we can help those companies to meet those skills."

He has no regrets about not studying for an MBA. "Consulting is a broad spectrum.

For people who are doing strategy work, an MBA may be of value. Accenture does a range of consulting services, from strategy to business change to systems delivery, and quite a lot of our business is outsourced, so an MBA is not a requisite."

Wilson doesn't believe it is necessary to move from consultancy to consultancy to "see different cultures" at work. "The nature of consultancy is that we work in many different client environments. I have worked for at least 10 different financial services companies, so you do get different exposure to how companies work. I have always found that sufficient to develop myself."