Life at the top

Mergers, breaking into emerging markets, restructuring and embarking on joint ventures are just some of the hurdles faced by a chief executive in an average year. Behind the scenes, chief executives have to cope with running their businesses, delivering shareholder value, and ensuring that their firms develop new products and take into account community issues.

Politics is a constant battle, but that is where the chief executive relies on his relationships with senior partners within consultancy firms to help him through. And, as management styles have changed, so too have the views of business leaders. Today, senior consulting partners are regarded by chief executives as confidantes who can provide industry advice and solutions, rather than menacing figures ready to retrench and rationalise.

“Power is not the optimal word in consulting. I think it’s influence,” says Vernon Ellis, Andersen Consulting’s managing director of Europe, Middle East, Africa and India (EMEAI). Ellis believes that, at the top end of consultancy, there is more to it than senior partners being used as a source of internal clout. The perceptive client must develop a deep relationship with a senior consultant as a neutral person.

“So much of our work involves building and deepening relationships over time, rather than making a big bang sale,” explains Ellis.

Indeed, holding a position of influence at Andersen Consulting entails not only intense relationship building but also extensive travel. Ellis’ activities vary from one week to the next.

Between 30 to 40 per cent of his time can be taken up with meetings on the future of the business, presentations to consultants and partners, and external presentations to industry groups. In the latter, his focus is often on informal discussions with business leaders about salient industry trends and worries, rather than the hard sell approach.

“Last week I was in Dallas discussing with senior people how to balance the high growth in the emerging markets with the rest of the firm, and how to create models and interfaces to do that. The week before I was in New York for the worldwide executive committee. And next week I am going to speak at a major oil conference in Stavanger with the firm’s Norwegian Group.”

Direct client work takes up 20 per cent of Ellis’ time. He is currently excited by the prospective merger of the London and Frankfurt stock exchanges. He has retained senior client partner responsibility for each and devotes a third of his time to stock exchange-related issues.

A supporter of corporate citizenship, Ellis sits on the Board of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, exploring the role of governments and non-governmental organisations in transition economies. He is also a member of the Advisory Council of the European Movement.

Subtle leadership

In balancing these key roles, Ellis is clear about the leadership qualities required: “One of the tasks of leaders in this business is to set the direction, communicate it, and look at how to bring the partners with you,” he says. “But you have to bring people along in such a way that they feel they have got there themselves. It is quite a task, particularly in a professional services firm where you have many intelligent, independent-minded thinkers.”

But he rose to the challenge. Ellis started with Andersen Consulting in 1969 and was managing partner for the UK firm from 1986

to 1989. Since then he has been MD of EMEAI, runs business operations in 27 countries, has more than 21,000 employees and a turnover of over $2bn. In the late 80s and early 90s he also managed the firm’s transition from serving its clients on a national basis to the global “supranational, inter-dependent” business unit that is Andersen Consulting today.

“The task of a leader is to be ahead of everybody else, but not so far that you get disconnected,” Ellis says. “But, more important than that, it is about setting vision, setting and understanding the context, and creating a shared mission for the future.”

Motivating people and getting them to believe your answer is the right one, he says, is all down to good communication, leadership and negotiation, whether that includes persuading, cajoling, threatening or waving sticks.

One of the key changes in the transition from consultant to senior partner is what Ellis calls “the time horizon”. At junior levels, consultants have to concentrate on more short-term horizons such as client projects.

Further up the ladder it is about driving actions through and considering the long-term strategy of the firm.

In terms of career progression and exposure to wider issues, Ellis is probably luckier than most. While he does not believe that he was formally groomed, five years after he entered as a graduate in 1969 he became a manager in the financial services area. Soon after he was made partner in 1979, he was working with chief executives on strategy, profit improvement and large-scale change.

With hindsight, he feels the opportunities he had to get involved in high-profile work for the then UK managing partner of the Arthur Andersen organisation, Don Hanson, gave him the background necessary to understand the workings of the firm. Hanson commissioned Ellis to do profit analysis on the audit, tax and consulting division. (In 1989 audit and tax were separated from consulting and the firm split into Andersen Consulting and Arthur Andersen.)

And Ellis’ contribution to the chairman’s advisory board – a worldwide body of young partners of which he became chairman for a year – singled him out as future senior partner.

Groomed for success

At senior levels, training for leadership is more subtle and mentoring forms a large part of that training. “Up-and-coming partners are chosen to serve on task forces, but you also learn a lot on the job from the person you are working with. For me that person was Martin Vandersteen, who was managing partner for 13 years and only retired last year aged 62. He was a mentor and remained one, although he was working for me later on,” says Ellis.

Just before Ellis became UK managing partner in 1986 he had some additional training. He went on a four-week management training programme run by the Cabinet Office; neutral ground on which to discuss and work on management issues with top business leaders and civil servants.

Indeed, training plays a vital role in moulding leadership qualities.

Robert Samuelson, a director within Corporate Finance at Arthur D Little, strongly advises consultants to take a course in negotiating and client relationship skills.

Samuelson also echoes Ellis’ views on the importance of influence rather than power: “It’s much more subtle. The power you have is more behind the scenes, so that clients do not realise you are behind it,” he says.

“I’ve been in a situation where I’ve helped change the entire board and the managing director and nobody would know I’d made it happen.”

Samuelson, too, is an advocate of the mentor/role model approach: “It’s a process of finding someone who is going places and can help you up the ladder,” he says. “But, should that partner disappear, you need to have an insurance policy, so you need to work with two other senior people who have good reputations.”

Once at the top, Samuelson’s advice is, be a self-starter, keep busy and seek out opportunities. Sift out the jobs you don’t want and build on your successes: “Don’t let others decide how you use your time; you have to be able to say no.”

But, beware, it is lonely at the top and succeeding in a senior role depends on making other people successful and also being seen to help others with their careers; this applies when working with colleagues as well as with clients.

“You must have the courage to give people more responsibility and trust them with it,” he says. “It’s also about providing information to individual clients and helping them with their careers. If you make them look good, they will thank you for it.”

Samuelson found that working on high-profile projects such as managing Eurotunnel’s #8bn bank debt and interest repayments, followed by the flotation of Orange in 1996, created optimum awareness and played a crucial role in his progression up the ladder.

Gaining credibility and being dependable are two top requirements for the job. While it’s not just about appearances, it is important to show people you understand their business and that you, as confidante, can make all the difference. Samuelson says that “just by voicing an industry or economic viewpoint you reposition yourself”.

“It’s all about learning how to hold peoples’ interest. It is not only about formal presentation, and whether you can create impact, but it’s about bumping into someone in the elevator and playing on that person’s interests or fears.”

Have you got what it takes?

Ian Tomisson, operational head of management consultancy for recruitment consultancy Douglas Llambias Associates, looks for the following qualities when headhunting senior partners:

1. Someone who is doing the same job in another major management consultancy.

2. People with strong contacts in business, who have strong client development skills and who are specialists or gurus in a particular sector, such as Emu.

3. People who are good at people management, business management and have strong interpersonal skills.

4. People with a successful business track record, who have put together successful business plans which grew the partnership and gave them high status, partnerships points and the greatest profit share. (Points are gained for successful expansion of the business).

And, if all you lack is incentive, one final thought: those who make it to the top of the pyramid can earn in excess of #500,000.

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