For an industry that has had a reputation of all mouth and no trousers, it’s
somehow fitting that the Management Consultancies Association has appointed a
CEO with a strong background in PR and political communications.
But Alan Leaman is unapologetic about a CV that includes several years as
Paddy Ashdown’s head of media relations, policy advice and chief speech writer,
and an OBE for his services to the public and politics. He has more important
things to worry about; such as sorting out the industry’s reputation.
‘It was a challenge I couldn’t resist,’ says Leaman.
The task of representing a £6bn sector includes convincing the media, public
and government ministers about the valuable contribution the industry makes.
This task has been sharply focused with the recent sacking of PA Consulting
from its £1.5m contract with the Home Office after it lost a data stick
containing confidential prisoner information.
But in truth, a long and undistinguished line of larger project failures
between government and consultants exists, and PA ‘s loss hasn’t altered the
urgency of Leaman’s task.
‘There was a view from staff and members that there was a big job to done
here. We’re at the stage where they want an effective, powerful organisation
representing us that can punch the industry’s weight,’ says Leaman.
It’s not as if consulting is a new thing. Advisers helped with restructuring
businesses as after the Second World War for example, and businesses work much
more effectively following lessons from the Y2K debacle. But government and
consulting? They don’t seem to gel.
Leaman agrees that there’s plenty to do on that front: ‘There are issues. I
wouldn’t say the relationship is in anyway ideal, and needs to be improved.
We’ve opened discussion with the Office of Government Commerce and others,
partly about the industry making sure it communicates that it’s adding value: to
talk about that more effectively.’
So the way they work together is not as bad as we think?
‘The bottom line is there’s a heck of a lot of good work going on: public
sector projects delivering real, good, high quality innovative projects.’ Leaman
cites the aforementioned PA Consulting’s work to improve the way the Highways
Agency watches over trunk roads, and IBM’s work on the tax disc project.
But there is plenty of room for improvement. ‘We need intelligent
discussions, and move from rather primitive slogan swapping.’
An example of the battle Leaman and the industry faces was illustrated by Lib
Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable, who made what Leaman refers to as a
‘throwaway’ comment about the gravy train of management consultancy.
‘That is sloppy, shallow thinking,’ says a clearly riled Leaman, ‘there’s no
attempt to analyse that [statement], justify or substantiate it. That sort of
talk just does a lot of damage to the industry but equally to the way that
people think of the public sector as a purchaser. So that’s what we want to get
stuck into and improve.’
Leaman’s frustration comes from his belief that management consultants’
reputation is paramount to their future success.
‘The importance of communications and reputation management in the 21st
century can’t be underestimated and applies to individual companies their
relations to customers, employees and industries as well. The management
consultancy industry is saying “we’re ready to play in that place and invest in
But ‘improvement’ goes beyond the MCA talking a good game on behalf of its
The association is looking to advocate high standards in the industry through
tough entry criteria into the association, and perhaps more importantly a code
of practice, ‘so membership is seen as a real badge of quality’.
Leaman credits MCA president and Accenture senior executive Hugo Were for
kickstarting the review of the MCA. ‘I’ve come in halfway through so lots of the
groundwork has been done. He thought “let’s do a stock-take”, which has been
productive and energised a lot of people.’
An aspect of altering the perception of the MCA arose during this review. As
the ‘voice of the industry’, the association has lots of important things to
This autumn it will publish details about the nature of the economic downturn
face, and what has been learned from previous lean times.
For an industry that traditionally sees its revenues dry up when times get
tough, this piece of thought leadership will surely extol the virtues of
consultants when times are tough, not just when the cash is rolling in.
‘In lean times, the first reaction of clients is to cut consultancy,’ agrees
Leaman, ‘but at the moment it’s not showing up from our surveys or
anecdotally…so maybe the better relationship between our members and private
sector is a result of being able to use [consultants] in down times as much as
in up times.’
There are a number of compelling reasons for this, he argues.
Business has a generation of senior managers that have not faced an economic
situation as bad as this, and they want help on operational and financial
restructuring, cost-cutting and downsizing. They are also looking to protect
their talent pool.
For an industry looking to build a good reputation, this very issue is also
key for their clients. Will they too enter into reputationally harmful
strategies to stay afloat: ‘Will you screw suppliers?’ asks Leaman.
The industry’s efforts to provide counter-cyclical services, something
accountants have worked on for years, sees it ‘better prepared for economic
With the current financial services turmoil intensifying, Leaman sees no
chance of consultants taking the blame for poor risk management and controls
among banks and investment houses: ‘In the end boards and managers are
responsible for their companies – plus it is heavily regulated.’
Instead, it’s the reverse. ‘It will put enormous pressure on companies to l
ook at their information and management control issues. Even in financial
services (where consultants have made plenty of money in the past) I can see a
lot of work there [for the profession].
Another issue that reared its head at the association last year were concerns
that IT services giants should not be classed as management consultants.
Deloitte threatened to withdraw its membership, with head of consulting David
Owen warning at the time that the MCA had ‘segmentation issues’.
Leaman says that the association is ‘determined’ that members have management
consultants on board. ‘Even though our members are very diverse they must have a
management consulting arm,’ he says.
As a result of the hoo-ha, the MCA has revised the way it analyses the
industry in its reports, and, for now at least, everything seems quiet on the
The MCA chief’s brief ties in nicely with the announcement from the Treasury
of a new professional services group, headed by economic secretary to the
Treasury Kitty Ussher and Kingston Smith senior partner Michael Snyder.
The Professional Services Global Competitiveness group will look at medium
and longer-term issues affecting professional services. Accenture’s MD Simon
Whitehouse sits on the panel, and the MCA will imminently put in a paper on its
‘Consultancy was cited as an area they wanted to work on. That was
encouraging and we want to build on that as part of the family of professional
services,’ says Leaman.
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