Careers: internal consultancy – On the inside looking out

Internal consultancy roles offer a number of advantages fore for an organisation’s best and brightest but they also provide a launching pad for a career in an external firm. Mary Huntington gets the inside story. consultants: they can provide a manageable alternative for those with young families or those tired of a high-travel workload; and they can be a launching pad to bigger things. Says Don Leslie, a director of recruitment agency Beament Leslie Thomas: “Internal consultancy is very much seen as a forcing house for the brightest and best in an organisation but it can also be a stepping stone into external consultancy.”

He says internal consultancies were reasonably common before the last recession. “They took a hit then but started to pick up again two or three years ago.” What is different, he adds, is the breadth of services they embrace. “Many large organisation’s IT departments will have consultancy bits attached to look at the human impact of technological change, something we didn’t see last time around.”

Then there are the full-blown internal departments like NatWest Consultancy, which performs across the group and competes on a cost basis with external firms. Some internal operations, like the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Business Consultancy Services, have begun to compete for business externally too.

Marlene Mason, head of business consultancy at the Nationwide, says that the building society’s 30-strong internal consultancy migrated from an organisation & methods department six years ago. “We do a variety of work, including full business reviews and strategic performance measurement systems,” she says.

NatWest Consultancy is a larger operation with around 100 consultants and offers its clients a range of consultancy services similar to those offered by the Big Five, with the exception of direct IT work.

NatWest consultant Jim Wadsworth sees a number of advantages for the internal practitioner. “The big one is the opportunity to see your ideas turn into reality. You gain personal satisfaction and clients can get help on any tricky bits of implementation.” A second advantage is what he calls “goal congruence”. “We and our clients are all working to the same P&L. That makes for a much closer relationship between client and consultant.”

He says an internal consultant has a head start when going into an assignment: “There is a reasonable chance that you or your immediate colleagues will know where the information is. As an external you can spend the first half of the assignment trying to find that out.”

Then there are the cultural aspects. “A key point in our recruitment proposition is low travel: 80 percent of what we do is in or around the City – that is a big differentiator.”

Someone who joined from Bain a couple of years ago describes the NatWest culture as much more “corporate”, he says. “We tend to work a 45-50 hour week and clearly don’t flog people as hard as the externals tend to do.”

There is a trade-off, though, in terms of remuneration. Says Wadsworth: “We benchmark ourselves against the big consultancies but we are not paying top dollar.” Despite that, he says, external consultants join each year.

“People make their own individual trade-offs around the triangle of travel, money and hours.”

Salaries do vary enormously, says BLT’s Leslie, depending on the remuneration profile of individual employers, but generally they are lower than those in external consultancies. And, he adds, companies based in the regions find it difficult to compete with City salaries.

Location may have something to do with Swindon-based Nationwide’s difficulties in recruiting, says Mason. The department has lost a lot of consultants to the Big Five recently. She adds: “Our training is second to none and our consultants are readily snapped up – but it is rewarding to see the success they have had.”

Although recruits do come from external consultancies, because they want more stability or shorter hours, the majority are coming from within Nationwide, at the moment, she says. She sees strong people skills as paramount.

“They have to get on with our clients,” she adds.

NatWest’s Wadsworth recruits a combination of graduates and job changers all year round. “One of the reasons we exist is as a development ground for NatWest Group so we are structurally set up to have a fairly high turnover.” Over half will go back into NatWest while the rest move on to other consultancies. “This year we have lost people to Cap Gemini, PwC and McKinsey,” he says.

At graduate level, recruits have to be bright, hard working and motivated, says Wadsworth. “At job changer level, we take a mixture of people from consultancies, from NatWest and from very different backgrounds. Apart from raw horse power, we want consultancy project experience and a powerful track record of fast career progression and achievement.” The firm uses a broader pool than some of its competitors, he says, with recruits coming from the voluntary sector and engineering in the past. “Our brand isn’t as strong in the recruitment market as McKinsey or PwC, for example, so we have to be a bit more creative.”

So what are the downsides of internal consultancy? Chris Sale of recruitment agency Prism believes that it is easier for external consultants to give difficult advice and that, sometimes that advice is more respected than that of internal consultancies. “Externals are seen as experts whereas internal consultants can be seen as slightly second best – which is rarely true but is a perception among some people.”

Getting internal clients to take recommendations on board can be difficult, says Simon Kingston, a consultant with Nationwide Business Consultancy.

“You have to show that you are adding value to the business by ensuring that recommendations are implemented and measured in terms of the success criteria set up. Unlike the externals we have to live with the client after the work and we live by the success of our last project.”

There are different climates within an organisation, he says. “In the marketing department, for example, they would expect you to have worked in marketing; there it is harder than in the more operational departments, which are keen to see us come in, respect our process knowledge and can see we can add value.”

A flagship project which really demonstrates results can put you on a winning wicket, he says. For NCB one such project involved a Nationwide subsidiary, UCB Homeloans. The department undertook a full business review of its people, processes and technology, made recommendations and then implemented them. “The benefits of our work amounted to #4m,” says Kingston, “which got us a lot of buy-in to the work we are doing now – through word of mouth between senior managers.”

NatWest’s Wadsworth counters the suggestion that working for a single organisation can be limiting. “While we don’t see different industry sectors we still get a broad range of project types. NatWest is pretty large and gives a fair exposure to different types of business culture.”

However, he adds: “We struggle to be up-to-date – we are not as well plugged in as a PwC might be to what is going on down the road at the opposition.

To that end we do a number of joint projects with external firms.” These are beneficial all round, he says. “The client gets internal knowhow and external market intelligence; the external firm is working with people who know how to do consultancy work, which is not always the case with client site staff; and our lot get to see what the external world is like and learn from the externals as well.”

A traditional question mark over internal consultants is how independent they can be. Says Wadsworth: “We strive to maintain our independence and give clients the same quality of advice that an external advisor would.

“It is sometimes interesting telling very senior guys which way is up,” he says wryly.

Although the consultancy competes against externals it rarely finds itself in competitive tender situations, he adds. “If we do we are really not doing our job in terms of internal marketing.”

Concludes Prism’s Sale: “A lot of internal consultancy is suitable for the early stages of your career. And it is a good stepping stone. There is an element of a jack of all trades and a master of none but, on the other hand, it can give breadth across disciplines.” But he warns against staying in it too long: “That could give you an unacceptably narrow range of skills in the eyes of a consultancy firm.”

Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist


Simon Kingston has been with Nationwide Business Consultancy for just over a year. He moved from a role as retail personnel manager for North region.

“With a business studies degree and an IPD qualification, my career had been in operational roles in retail or personnel and development and I wanted to gain greater understanding of the total business and some experience of a project management environment,” he says.

Within three months he was working on a project for the chief executive committee, looking at how best to take cost inefficiencies out of key parts of the business.

Four months later, Kingston was promoted to the management group. He is currently involved in a full business review of the society’s intermediaries market, and is very positive about his work. “I enjoy the exposure to different parts of the business, the variety of the role and the level I deal with.”

What he enjoys least, he says, is the troughs in the project environment: “Things slow down when a project ends. I like to be at an optimum level of output and I find the lull tedious.”

With twins of 15 months, Nationwide’s “family friendly” culture suits Kingston, whose wife is a personnel consultant at the organisation, very well. “At peak times I can easily work 12-hour days but in troughs it is nine to five,” he says. The journey from his home in Cirencester to work in Swindon takes only half an hour and he is able to drop off and pick up his children when he needs to. “The balance between two careers and a family is very important at the moment,” he says. NBC is very open to the fact that people have a life outside work, he says. However, once the children are in a routine, he would not rule out an external consultancy role.

“NBC is a very good training ground,” he says, “and quite a few of our consultants have gone to the Big Five and hit the ground running on salaries of #45-#50K.” An alternative option is a move back into the Nationwide group: “Overseeing staff development alongside my project manager role at NBC has maintained my personnel expertise,” he says.

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