The ultimate consultant

If there was ever an award for successfully stepping into an industry giant’s metaphorical boots, Lis Astall would be in with a shout.

After former CEO Ian Watmore’s amicable departure in May to become the prestigious new head of e-government, Astall, one of the few women at the top of the consultancy tree, took over on 1 September as UK country managing director for Accenture ƒ? ¬? the worldƒ? ¬?s largest and most ‘client-rich’ consultancy firm.

In such a position, you might expect Astall to be daunted at the prospect of leading and driving the future growth of such a large organisation.

Nevertheless she comes across as one of the coolest, calmest and most experienced people in her field – undoubtedly why she was chosen to take the ultimate upwards step.

With more than 20 years at the firm working across the consultancy sphere, Astall boasts an enviable mix of experience and knowledge of a wide variety of sectors.

‘I have a very broad blend of experience. I spent five years in financial services and commercial and retail banking, and five years in the products arena with clients such as Rolls Royce and British Steel.

‘The last 10 years of my career have been involved in government work with the DSS (now Department of Work and Pensions), the Department of Health, the Home Office, Customs & Excise and the Inland Revenue.’

But sector knowledge isn’t her only plus-point. Combine this with a spread of work from systems integration and development, and strategy and business architecture to five-year plans and transformational outsourcing, and you could almost be piecing together a jigsaw of the ideal consultant.

‘Knowledge of the government marketplace, being able to work on a variety of projects, keeping a close watch on our training and at the same time operating at chief-executive level are the things I’ve taken on, and talking too much of course,’ she says.

It’s all a far cry from Astall’s first weeks with the firm.

‘I don’t remember my first day, but I do remember my first project 20 years ago. It was quite a small systems installation project at a company called Burrows. ‘Some of the high points stand out more, such as meeting senior government officials and understanding how they work, helping them come up with long-term strategies that take the legislation and policy and then putting that into practice in the public sector.

‘I also really enjoyed working with manufacturing clients and going down to see how British Steel worked, and seeing the Rolls Royce engines coming off the production line ƒ? ¬? the more hands-on work.’

Having begun her career with what was then Arthur Andersen in the eighties, Astall arrived just as the accounting firm was taking its first tentative steps in the consulting market.

‘The main business then was accounting and tax, but I joined the consulting division so I never did any accounting at all. At that time we were a small part of the business and operated as a separate unit, but then gradually grew to become a large chunk of the firm.’

The Accenture of today is a very different beast to the firm Astall joined two decades ago. From its formation as a separate division, Andersen Consulting, in 1989 it has evolved from a small player largely reliant on accounting activities to the world’s biggest consultancy organisation, boasting 80% of the FTSE100 as clients in the UK, not to mention an immense portfolio of technology and outsourcing services.

However, the most significant changes in its history arose four years ago when it rapidly ditched its original name, Andersen Consulting, and severed all links with Andersen – the name now synonymous with the audit failure of collapsed US energy giant Enron.

Astall is keen to skim over the Andersen affair as she says she was not directly involved.

Nonetheless, as she recalls those difficult days, it’s clear the acrimonious split is still in the thoughts of the firm’s more experienced members of staff. ‘The split is pretty much on record. For most of the partners, the business was – and continues to be – about the clients’ service. It would have only been a small number of partners involved, while the rest of us were out doing day-to-day business.’

Steering clear of the disruptions of 2000 and 2001, the new UK leader says other, more productive changes have made the future brighter for Accenture’s 9,700 UK employees.

‘The move from being a partnership to a public corporation was very positive. Our aim is to retain the best of the partnership set up, such as stewardship. This involves making sure the next generation of consultants receive the same advantages and opportunities that we’ve experienced. This is a powerful motivator for staff to join us.’

Although Astall has seen an enormous amount of upheaval, change is clearly not a negative word for her. It is something she is used to both inside and outside the firm, and she firmly believes it is integral to the consultancy business.

‘I’ve never been tempted to do anything else. When you operate as a consultant you have a number of clients that you work for over a period of time, and the big pluses for me are the fact you can go out there and make a difference.

‘The quality of people you work with is fantastic and I would say the same about the clients. I happen to genuinely believe that the consulting industry can make a difference.’

It is here, particularly on public sector projects where she can influence change on people’s lives, that she is at her most committed.

‘The government sector is about making a difference to how people work and live. If you look at some of the projects around the NHS it is about how to improve patient care and reduce waiting times. These are fundamental to what each person in the project feels. It doesn’t matter where you are in the chain, whether you are a partner or the analyst, you are all striving for the same goals.’

Astall is herself deeply involved in the company’s public sector work, and she is closely monitoring the NHS’s national programme for IT where Accenture is the chosen IT supplier for two regions out of five, in the north and northeast of the country. And while Accenture is offering marketing and business support to London 2012 Olympic bid, she cites her biggest achievement as her time spent working with the Department for Work and Pensions.

‘I worked extensively on job-seekers allowance. Achieving the integration between government departments involved a mixture of working on the IT and business change and implementation. ‘Seeing those benefits come through in terms of the improvement to job centres and the reduction in unemployment is great. I’m not trying to claim I reduced unemployment single-handed, but I played a key role.’

However, working on public sector projects demands a spell in the public eye. Astall has survived the showpiece grilling handed out by MPs on the commons public accounts committee – in her case over Accenture’s controversial work on the Inland Revenue’s NIRS2 computer system.

Accenture will continue to run the system until early next year, at which time it will become part of the Aspire project, run by Capgemini.

In the consulting world, great shifts in strategy can mean great technological change, and as Astall holds up her favourite new gizmo – a digital pen that Accenture has been testing for two years – this proves consultants are often way ahead of the game.

‘The digital pen is my new favourite. It makes my life more effective but if you look at other areas where it could be used and applied such as the NHS it makes perfect sense. ‘If you go to hospitals, the nurse comes round, takes your temperature and jots it down. They now have the pens in one trial site in the south where nurses digitally record patient details, so if you need medicine at 4pm and the nurse administers it at 6pm, the information can be relayed directly to the doctor.

‘It’ll set thresholds. If a patient’s temperature reaches a certain level the pen can automatically dial the doctor’s home address. The pen doesn’t lie, whatever you do.’

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