You can lose alone… but you can’t win

Jan-Willem Broekhuysen has been managing director of AT Kearney inamwork is the most important element in consultancy, closely followed by leadership and integrity. He talks about his career, his company and the issues facing it to Marc Brenner. the UK for three years. Under his stewardship the company has grown to a headcount of 400 staff.

He was previously head of AT Kearney’s Benelux operations where he merged the Amsterdam/Brussels offices, built a new professional team and introduced English as the official language.

Before joining AT Kearney in 1993, Broekhuysen was a partner and vice chairman of Coopers & Lybrand in Holland, managing 250 staff. It was during this time that he built up the Business Planning consultancy team and headed assignments in strategy organisation and management of change in telecommunications, transportation and consumer products.

Broekhuysen started his career at Philips Electronics where he advised on business strategy and marketing logistics management.

Why did you make the move from industry to consultancy?

At Philips you had to be extremely patient if you wanted to be in any position of influence. If you wanted to get things moving you had to be prepared to watch wheels turn very slowly. I was in my late 20s and could see a very long road ahead before I could be in any position of influence. Most corporates place employees within functional silos, so that you must progress in a single discipline before moving to another area of experience. When I left Philips I was involved in logistics which allowed me to practice across silos. However, for the most part departments operate separately. Sales and marketing have very little to do with manufacturing, who in turn are quite separate from other departments. It was very frustrating.

I wrote a PhD and started to work in the academic field but within a very short amount of time I realised it wasn’t for me. After experiencing the speed of commerce, academia seems slow in comparison.

Coopers & Lybrand called me about this time as they were setting up a new Dutch office. They asked me to take the number three position and the offer came at the perfect time. I didn’t have any particular perception of Coopers & Lybrand at the time, it was the nature of the work that attracted me. I’m interested in building from the ground up.

You built up considerable experience in the Benelux countries. When you came to the UK what major cultural difference did you perceive in the way that UK consultants work?

The decision making process in the Benelux countries is very similar to that in the United States. Everything happens very fast and the decision-making chain is fairly short. Generally speaking, the CEO in an American company has about a two-year life span and that concentrated amount of time means that decisions are taken quickly. Having experienced that atmosphere in Benelux, it was not a major culture shock when I came to work for AT Kearney. In the UK, I do find that the decision-making process is much slower, much more deliberate. It’s a consensus-driven system.

A sense of urgency is sometimes lacking over here.

Why did you leave Coopers & Lybrand?

I’ve talked about the cultural differences between UK and US consultancies.

I felt that Coopers’ operated as a UK company and that they were not always quick to make decisions. I also felt, at the time, that the auditing side of the firm did not take the consultancy side as seriously as it should. The consultancy division wanted to be more prestigious: but it was difficult to achieve. The accounting practice generally strikes up long-term contracts with clients, much longer than those consultants achieve.

This meant that the accountancy division took priority when pitching to a new client. There is always a tension when you try to mix accountants and consultants.

How would you describe AT Kearney’s personality to a potential client?

Our personality is always developing, which is as it should be. However, at the core, we are extremely action-oriented, results-driven and aim to provide “powerful contributions today”. We have a strong ambition to make a difference. Since the early ’90s, we have added a lot of strategy people and have become a truly global organisation. I spoke before of the constriction of working in silos. A lot of consultancies still make the error of working in this way. They have their IT consultants and their strategy consultants. We aim to provide fully integrated solutions.

It’s what the clients are asking for.

Give us an impression of your typical working day.

I still retain a great amount of client contact. I regularly give presentations to both potential and existing clients. I’m also involved in advising Anglo-Dutch organisations on outsourcing. Although I’m not able to have the hands-on contact with clients that I used to have, the strategic nature of my job has not really changed. Nowadays, I practise those skills within my own organisation rather than with a client.

If there was one aspect of your job that you could do without, what would it be?

Aligning all the different AT Kearney interests around the world is a very difficult part of the job. I don’t know whether I would want to do without it but it’s the biggest challenge. Our company’s geography has expanded enormously. That has to be managed. Across the world, we have industry groups and issue groups working for our clients. Those groups must be co-ordinated in order to serve those clients. The best people must be assigned to the right jobs. We are not so interested in individual country markets any longer – we serve a client’s structure.

While everything must run smoothly, we don’t want to make the mistake of having too much inflexible order so that our own organisation becomes too rigid. It takes the creativity and the fun out of consulting. In order to tap that creativity, sometimes things do need to be a little bit of a mess. You need to strike the right balance between mess and order.

What qualities make an AT Kearney leader?

It’s not enough to be a good “ideas” person. You need to be able to see things through. You need to be focused on delivery. We evaluate our consultants using three criteria; leadership, teamwork and integrity.

A strong mixture of those three elements will make a good consultant.

It doesn’t matter what consultancy they work for. Teamwork is, perhaps, the most important of the three elements. The ability to bond and co-operate with colleagues is the true benchmark of an AT Kearney employee.

You can lose alone, but you can’t win alone. A genius sitting in a room alone dreaming of new strategies and policies will not be of any use to us unless they can work with others in order to put those ideas into practice.

Once again, the ideas are not enough, the delivery is all. AT Kearney is a high-value business. Our turnover per consultant is in the top two or three in the world. Everything that we offer to our clients must bring high value to their business in a very short amount of time. You cannot bring those benefits unless you are part of a team.

You stress that AT Kearney provides a totally integrated solution made up of strategy, IT and operations. Does that mean that come a recession, you’ll be hit squarely across the board?

I guess so but that assumes that a company doesn’t know how to take care of itself during a recession. Historically, we have done very well during recession. I’m not a pessimist. I do feel that there is an air of pessimism in this country. There will be growth next year, but not at the same rate that we have been used to. Our clients are very sophisticated buyers of consultancy. The nature of their purchases will change. Some say that there will be a dip in IT demand. I think it will be the reverse.

For the past 10 years we’ve experienced 10-15 per cent growth each year.

We are not expecting the same next year; however, we are planning expand our workforce by 10 per cent.

Where will you get the new employees from? Newly qualified MBAs or industry-folk like yourself.

We are taking our senior consultants from industry and from other consultants.

I think that next year we will be taking more from this sector. MBA graduates are very valuable but recently that has been questioned. Do they have enough general experience? Do they have enough work experience?

Even ex-industry consultants take six months to a year to train up so that they can make a valuable contribution. With an MBA graduate it can take three to four years.

Do you feel that the newly introduced CMC qualification is important?

Not really. Clients are well-versed in what a consultant should provide.

If you do a bad job, you will not be re-employed. It’s as simple as that. I can see some benefit for a qualification for a consultant working in a smaller operation.

Are clients becoming more sophisticated in their purchase of consultancy?

Absolutely. I think that the major reason is that there are now many consultants working within companies who know exactly what to look for.

They not only have a very strong idea of where the problem lies but how it can be solved. References are being thoroughly checked and your previous work is held up for scrutiny.

I realise that consultants are often accused of having a bad image.

I believe that real marketing of consultants is not done through advertisements or by campaigning, but by our clients. They are the real benchmark by which we are judged. Word of mouth is vital to this profession. Recommendations are all.

If tomorrow, you were appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, what would be your first task?

My feeling is that a major investment must be made in infrastructure.

The transport system in this country is very poor. I would, naturally, immediately lower, if not abolish interest rates and then return to Kearney and reap the benefits. Returning to government, if you will allow me to skip to another department, I would choose the Department of Trade & Industry and try to sort out some productivity issues that I think this country has. Generally speaking, there is an air of xenophobia here to the idea of European Union that is, for a European, difficult to understand.

If you could get your hands on an institution and turn it around, what would it be?

It would be government. The public sector is very successful at keeping the status quo. The business world has changed dramatically and it continues to change. I believe that over the next few years government will have to restructure in the same way. It cannot stand still. It’s not just a problem with the UK government, it’s the same the world over. I do think that the business world will be instrumental in forcing that change.

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