After former Accenture CEO Ian Watmore’s amicable departure in May to become the prestigious new head of e-government, Astall, one of the few women in such a senior position in the industry, took over in September as UK country managing director for Accenture – the world’s largest and most client-rich consultancy firm.
You might expect Astall to be daunted at the prospect of leading and driving the growth of such a large organisation, but she is a model of the cool, calm and collected consultant – one of the main reasons she was chosen to take the ultimate step up.
With 20 years’ experience in the business and the consulting arena, Astall has an enviable mix of experience and knowledge of a wide variety of sectors. ‘I spent five years in financial services and commercial and retail banking, and five years in the products arena with clients such Rolls-Royce and British Steel. The last 10 years of my career have been involved in government work with the DSS, Department of Health, Home Office, Customs & Excise and the Inland Revenue.’
Combine that sector knowledge with her experience of systems integration and development, strategy and business architecture, five-year plans and transformational outsourcing, and you could be piecing together a jigsaw of the ideal consultant.
‘Knowledge of the government marketplace, just 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 ð and talking too much, of course,’ says the self-deprecating MD.
Astall says her most vivid encounters have been working alongside her peers. ‘My first project 20 years ago was quite a small systems installation at a company called Burrows. The high points of my career have been meeting senior government officials and understanding how they work, helping them come up with long-term strategies which incorporate 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, seeing the Rolls-Royce engines coming off the production line ð the more hands-on work.’
Having begun her career with Accenture, then Andersen Consulting, in the 1980s, Astall was not brought up within the boundaries of accounting but in a firm that was taking its first steps into the consulting market.
‘The main business was accounting and tax then, but I joined the consulting division. At that time we were a small part of the business and operated as a separate unit but we gradually grew to become a large chunk of what we do now.’
Astall has seen a great deal during her time at the firm. From its formation in 1989, Accenture has emerged from the shadow of its now defunct parent company Andersen to become the world’s largest consultancy organisation with 80 of the top 100 FTSE clients on its roster in the UK plus a vast portfolio of technology and outsourcing services.
The biggest changes in its history arguably arose four years ago when it speedily dropped its original name, Andersen Consulting, and severed all links with the group most associated with the audit failure of Enron, the collapsed US energy giant. Astall is keen to skim over the affair as she says she was not directly involved. But it is clear that 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 is about doing the clients service, and it would have been a very small number of partners who got involved while the rest of us were out on the frontline doing day-to-day business. I joined the consulting organisation and you grow up in the organisation that you’re in.’
Steering clear of the disruptions of 2000 and 2001, the new UK leader says other more positive changes have made the future a brighter place for her and Accenture’s 9,700 UK employees.
‘The move from the partnership to being a public corporation was very positive. Our aim is to retain the best the partnership set up, such as stewardship. The theme we’ve always had is making sure the next generation gets the same advantages and opportunities.’
Although Astall has seen an enormous amount of upheaval during her time at the firm, helping other businesses change is still her key driver.
‘I’ve never been tempted to do anything else. The quality of people you work with is fantastic and I would say the same about the clients. The big plus for me is that you can go out there and make a difference.’
It is here, particularly on public sector projects and where she can influence change in other people’s lives, that Astall is at her most committed and passionate.
‘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. It doesn’t matter where you are in the chain, whether you are a partner or the analyst on it, you are all striving for the same goals.’
Astall is closely monitoring the NHS’s National Programme for IT, where Accenture is the chosen IT supplier for two of the five regions. However, she says her biggest achievement to date came during her time working with the Department for Work and Pensions.
‘I worked extensively on job seekers’ allowance. Achieving the integration between government departments involved a mix of working on the IT and business change and implementation.
‘Seeing those benefits come through and what you see today in terms of the job centres and the reduction in unemployment and all those things linked together is great. I’m not trying to claim that I reduced unemployment single-handedly but I played a key role.’
In the consulting world, great strategy change is accompanied by great technological change, and as Astall holds up her favourite new gizmo ð a digital pen that Accenture’s French laboratories have been testing for two years – she shows just why consultants can be way ahead of the game.
‘The digital pen is my new favourite. It makes my life more effective but it makes perfect sense in areas like the NHS too.
‘In a hospital the nurse comes round with a clipboard, takes your temperature and jots it down. They now have the pens at one trial site in the south of England where nurses can digitally record the patient’s details, so if you need your medicine at 4pm and the nurse gives you it at 6pm that 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 call the doctor’s home when it is placed back in the machine. The pen doesn’t lie whatever you do.’
The digital pen is just the beginning. Over the next 10 years the NHS, to name only one high-profile contract, will undergo some of the biggest changes ever seen in the public sector.
With a general election looming, the contract couldn’t be higher profile. Astall, and Accenture, will be in the spotlight for some time to come.
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