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Leadership Lessons from consultants in business series - Part one: Knowing the basics

Although many consultants carve out their whole career within a big firm or even potentially setting up their own freelance boutique firms, there is a growing trend for consultants to move into corporate businesses themselves. The vast array of skills that consultants can bring to the board room from their experience of advising many different types of board rooms across industry sectors make them extremely valuable in the corporate world. Our research into CEOs of the FTSE 100 for 2015 revealed that 12% had a consulting background. Considering consulting is an industry that has only really boomed since the 1990s, that is an impressive number, especially when the number of women is still, disappointingly, only at 4.6%.

We've taken a look at the advice given by some of the top CEOs who have consulting backgrounds for those looking at making the switch. What are the most important things to be aware of when moving from a firm into a leadership role in a corporate business?

Knowing the basics

  • Know the Values and Culture of the Company – All employees need to deeply understand what the company is based on but this is even more important for leadership teams. This is because the values and culture of the company create the boundaries for what you can and cannot do. Those who are leading in an organisation uncertain of these essential principles are wasting a lot of time – both their own and the company's. 
  • Importance of Speed and Efficiency – All businesses need to take care of the details, but speed and efficiency in decision making is vital for business leaders. Without it, companies begin to stagnate and ideas and proposals get lost at the middle level. Helge Lund, former McKinsey consultant and now CEO of BG Group says 'I highly regard leaders that can implement quickly. They recognise the importance of pitching together strong quality processes but without jeopardising the ability to move quickly and be decisive.' Equally, Liv Garfield of Severn Trent, (the FTSE's youngest ever female CEO at 35 and with a consulting background at Accenture), has a self-confessed low tolerance threshold for 'faffers', and despite juggling the demands of a young family and a demanding career, the mother of two prides herself on her time keeping.
  • However, accept that organisations move slowly – This is probably one of the harder things for consultants to grasp when moving into corporate business. Speed and efficiency in completing your own responsibilities is paramount but do not expect that change will happen overnight. This is not 'consultant time' anymore where ideas and solutions need to be thought up quickly and billed accordingly. Large organisations need time to adapt and implement change.
  • Know your staff – Leaders who inspire confidence are those who engage with the whole range of employees who are involved in their company. CEO of Diageo and former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant, Ivan Menezes, writes his very own weekly blog to connect the top levels of the organization with the business as a whole. Diageo’s 'Partners for Growth' performance management and people development program allows employees to discuss and set their goals together with their line managers. Leadership teams should want to meet those who are out there doing the job the company is involved in; 'smelling the aroma in the bakery' as Helge Lund describes it.
  • Positive image on all fronts – Leaders must ensure they are presenting a consistently positive image in order to legitimate claims to responsible capitalism. This means showing that the business is competitive and responsible not only employees within your own building but across the organisation, including suppliers and stakeholders as well as the local and global community. Helge Lund calls this process 'purifying and refining' the image.

In sum, understanding a couple of basic concepts could help you to become a top business leader; look out for the next parts to our 'Leadership Lessons' series.