“He who whispers down a well
about the wares he has to sell
will never make as many dollars
as he who climbs a hill and hollers.”
So Ogden Nash wrote, and Richard Popple quotes, with meaning. The president of the Institute of Management Consultancy plans to make his year one of spreading the word.
“The most important thing for the Institute now is to climb a hill and holler,” says Popple. “It has a lot of good things going for it, but it just isn’t well enough known.” Hence one of his aims for 1999 – to mobilise the members. He wants to get them talking – to everyone – about the IMC and what it does, but he recognises there is some explaining to do first.
“It’s very easy if you are in the middle of it, if you are in the suds up to your elbows and working on the thing the whole time, it’s very easy to assume that other people know what you know – and of course they don’t.” One of Popple’s priorities, therefore, is to distribute to all IMC members a handy reference sheet, perhaps pocket-sized, explaining clearly the IMC’s purpose and services. If anyone then asks the members about the IMC they can whip it out and use it as a prompter for their reply. Some confusion on the part of the membership is understandable, given the changes the IMC has been going through – notably its revised governance structure and the development of the new Certified Management Consultant (CMC) assessment process, a project Popple master-minded. Now he wants to make sure everyone has a clear picture of what’s been happening.
Making sure everyone understands what’s going on is a priority first set for Popple during his 28 years in the Royal Air Force, where he was commissioned in the Administrative Branch and trained in RAF administration, accountancy and law. “The RAF never asks you to do anything that it hasn’t trained you to do,” he says. “I wish the same could be said for civilian life.” He has carried the ideal with him, right into the IMC. “You shouldn’t really ask people to do things unless you tell them what to do and how you want them to do it,” he says. “Just to launch someone into being a regional chairman and to say, ‘We want you to represent the IMC in your area,’ but not to tell them how you want them to do it or what the principles of the thing are, I don’t think is really fair.” Inspired by that belief, Popple organised the induction process for new members of council last November. “I now want to extend that process to people away from the centre – to regional officers and to the officers of special interest groups,” he says. The induction process encourages participants to talk about what they hope to achieve, as well as understand the IMC’s aims and their roles.
The formalisation of such procedures helped the IMC win recognition as an Investor In People (IIP) in March, marking the achievement of Popple’s first goal for the year. He believes there have been clear benefits from going through the IIP process. “There has been a quite remarkable change in the degree of collaboration between the volunteers and paid staff who were really two quite separate and distinct bodies of people until about a year ago,” he says. “Contact between them was really very much on a one-to-one, personal level. Now the executive directors and the next level down are all active members of the IMC council, taking part in the discussions and decisions.”
The RAF, apart from instilling the conviction that people should only be asked to do what they have been briefed to do, had another profound impact on Popple. He spent a year at the RAF Staff College, the airmen’s in-house business school, which gave him an excellent training. “We all came in as specialists,” he says. “Either as administrators or aviators or engineers, doctors or whatever. We had all really just practised in our specialisation. The whole purpose of the Staff College was to expand your thinking so that you could understand what the other branches did and what the RAF as a whole did as part of the national defence strategy and part of the political and economic scene. That was the philosophical bit. The other part of it was the actual practical training in problem solving, doing studies of situations, working out how to deal with problems at a strategic level. It was invaluable training. I have been using it ever since. That was the most formative year of my adult life.”
But how does an RAF Wing Commander, the rank Popple reached, go on to become president of the IMC? After 28 years he left the Air Force because he could see the opportunities for career progression running out. Having built up specialist skills in career development, managing the postings and training of his fellow officers, it was a logical step to his first civilian job as head of human resource planning and control at West Midlands County Council. After a year he was “sought out” by West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) to become senior personnel officer responsible for 8,000 employees. But after another promotion he was encouraged to go for consultancy when the PTE disappeared as a result of deregulation.
In 1986 he went into business for himself as an independent consultant.
His first clients, a set of barristers’ chambers, needed major work to update their administration and accounting systems, a project that lasted almost two years. “That was fortunate because it meant I had a secure income until I found my feet,” says Popple. His work now falls into three main types: executive career development; general organisational development; and teaching practice management to solicitors.
Popple’s involvement with the IMC dates from the start of his consulting career. “One of the first things I did as a consultant was to join the IMC,” he says. “It was enormously helpful because of the networking.
That was where I got a lot of my work from and I met some very nice people.” As his presidential year unfolds, apart from spreading the word about the IMC, he plans to keep up the momentum of the change programme. “One of the things we want to do is to bring a couple of external directors into the council,” he says. Popple is talking to influential contacts for recommendations. “When you have a council which consists of all consultants you get a lot of good initiatives,” he says. “The risk is that if you get a group of people all of the same kind there tends to be a mutual acceptance of excuses (for inaction). If you have someone from outside, they will ask questions. You need someone to come in who doesn’t just think (like a) consultant and who will bring in a different pattern of thinking.”
The year ahead will be a busy one. “My biggest concern is in terms of the very limited resources we have to talk to all the people who want to talk to us,” says Popple. “There are other institutes that have got consultants, there are big employers that have got in-house consultants, there are academic people who want to talk to us abut the development of the profession. You really need about 100 ambassadors.”
As a sole practitioner, albeit with trusted associates (all IMC members as a matter of policy), Popple will have a particularly busy year juggling professional and Institute commitments but three months in he appears impressively unruffled. He credits his RAF background with having helped him develop a calm attitude to work stresses. “Problems aren’t sent to worry us, they are sent to exercise our minds,” he says. Popple has a tried and tested technique for dealing with occasions when he could start feeling “overloaded”. He explains: “If everything is spinning round in your head, my technique is to sit down and do nothing for 15 minutes.
By the end of that time your subconscious mind will have selected the thing that is most important to do and you go and do it. It works infallibly.”
Sarah Perrin is a freelance journalist.
Richard Popple MBE
Born: Boston, Lincolnshire
Educated: King Edward’s School, Birmingham
Career: Royal Air Force for 28 years: Commissioned in the Administrative Branch; trained in RAF administration, accountancy and law. Specialist officers’ appointments and career development; final posting in the Ministry of Defence, Officers’ Policy Directorate. Made MBE in 1976. Retired in the rank of Wing Commander.
Civilian employment: Head of human resource planning and control, West Midlands County Council (one year).
West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, senior personnel officer (two years).
Management development and training manager (four years).
Consultancy: Full-time management consultant since 1986, specialising in executive career development, general organisational development, and teaching practice management to solicitors.