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A few thoughts on professional development

Reflecting on many years in and around management consultancy, I thought it might be useful to draw upon my personal experience of professional development as a consultant. In part, this reflection has been brought about by the report recently published by the CMCE on what consultants want from the academic community, in an attempt to evaluate what part academia played in my own professional development.

My consultancy journey began in the Civil Service in 1970 working in Operational Research as part of an agenda to introduce new management approaches within a wider programme to modernise the way in which the Civil Service operated. Working from a unit at the centre of Government, a newly formed team of mainly new graduates were employed to undertake OR projects, with clients drawn from a variety of Government Departments. To support this activity, and especially to add experience and credibility in dealing with senior clients, a number of management consultants were employed from outside firms.

During these formative years, I began to realise how much there was to be learnt from the way in which these external consultants operated. These learnings included aspects such  as a disciplined approach to delivering against well-defined client requirements, working outside normal hours if necessary to deliver on client expectations and, perhaps most importantly, building a relationship of trust and respect with clients so that they valued your input on complex issues. This latter point was emphasised in a briefing given by one of the senior consultants on what management consultancy was really about – his view was that management consultancy was “99% beer”, a rather basic (and possibly now rather outdated) way of saying you needed to spend time cultivating relationships often in a social setting. Needless to say, I was happy to follow the more literal interpretation!

My next step in the Civil Service was to be given a leadership role in delivering information systems projects as part of the modernisation programme. A shortage of expertise and experienced resources meant that we made extensive use of outside consultants and contractors. Again this gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn from a number of highly talented people and, due to the fact that we collaborated with a significant number of external consultants (up to 80 were employed at one stage), I began to obtain an insight into how different consulting organisations worked.

One of the personal benefits of this exposure to outside consultants was that it gave me the confidence to believe that I might enjoy being a consultant in a commercial context and to have the capability to survive. As a result, and thanks to the contacts I had made with the consultants I had previously worked with, I joined the consultancy arm of a medium-sized accounting firm. A decision had been made to grow the consultancy and a number of senior professionals had been recruited from well-established consultancy firms to support this growth. These individuals were hugely influential in teaching me how to operate as a professional consultant. For example, when it came to how to write effective commercial proposals, presenting them to client and leading a team to deliver profitable assignments. I would like to say that I got everything right first time, but helpful and thoughtful coaching from my colleagues, meant I learnt a lot even from mistakes.

This experience then provided me with the opportunity a few years later to move to the consultancy practice of one of the major accountancy firms. Here there was a much more structured approach to professional development, mainly through internal training courses for aspects like assignment and practice management and the use of proprietary methodologies for undertaking different types of assignment, plus structured approaches to bidding for new work and undertaking assignments, including the use of quality management systems. However, I would argue that the most valuable aspect of professional development (and this remained true even when I became a Partner and progressed to senior practice management roles) was the opportunity to learn by working and socialising with hugely talented colleagues.

Interestingly, I also understood the importance of the power large consultancy practices had in having the investment capacity to develop innovative new approaches in consulting, based on their experience of client working. Beyond knowledge sharing, these approaches resulted in new methodologies which were made available internally through working papers and, in some cases, through external publications and books.

So, where have my reflections led me on the subject of professional development? Given the issue of the role of academia, my personal experience was that it had no impact on my journey in management consulting. The most important aspect in my professional development was by far learning from those around me in both work and social settings. Whist there are formal methods through which this learning happens particularly in larger consultancy practices, listening to others and observing how they operate is paramount. I am just very grateful to have met and worked with so many talented people over the last 50 years.            

John Corneille, Past Master of WCoMC

Wednesday 22nd June 2022
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