My career has been deliciously unplanned

James Hall is the head of Andersen Consulting UK. He read politicalormous change in his 22 years with the firm. He talks to Marc Brenner about the way his career has developed, his philosophy and his plans for the future. studies at Aberdeen University and joined Andersen Consulting as a graduate trainee in 1976. He has P&L responsibility for the automotive, travel and transportation sectors around the world. He was a member of the independent Commission on British Business and Public Policy under the chairmanship of Professor George Bain and contributed to its report Promoting Prosperity, published in January 1997. He’s a trustee of Save Britain’s Heritage and a member of the council for Cheltenham Ladies College.

Why did you decide to join a consultancy straight from university?

Even now I’m slightly suspicious of graduates who come along to interviews and say, ‘I’ve always wanted to become a management consultant’. My career has been deliciously unplanned. Consultancy was one of a number of options: it just so happened that I enjoyed the consultancy interview most. I was drawn to the business because they struck me as people who wanted to get things done and not just talk about them. They were focused on results and on making a difference. It was made clear to me that I could be part of that change.

You’ve been with Andersen for 22 years. Isn’t there a danger that you can be too immersed in one company’s philosophy?

There are a number of factors that prevent that from happening. Our business has changed enormously over that time. The scope and nature of what our clients ask of us has changed so much. When I started topics such as outsourcing, change management, and strategy didn’t really exist as services, as we know them now. You also have to remember that working with such a wide range of clients means that you are absorbed into the way they work. You can’t walk in with an Andersen way of doing things and impose that no matter what. You change and adapt with each job.

Although you always aim for the optimum results, you don’t spend 22 years preaching the same message.

You can either hire a cracking MBA graduate or an experienced industry figure. Make your choice.

Depends on the position I’m hiring for. Although we do hire industry figures who can bring valuable skills to the organisation, I’m wary of candidates with no consulting experience whatsoever. There is an art and science to being a consultant. You have ask yourself why someone who has been successful in business would want to make the change to consultancy.

Why would the buyer of consultancy want to become a seller of consultancy?

To be honest, the perfect candidate would be someone I’ve poached from another consultancy firm. Such people know about the intricacies of the consultancy business; the management of client relationships and the demands of project management.

You’ve worked across a wide range of sectors. Is that a prerequisite to attaining senior partnership?

To me it was very important. However, I work with some outstanding partners who have always worked in one industry who are fascinated by it. I’ve been more interested in working across sectors. When people hired me as a consultant it wasn’t because I was a particular expert in their industry, but because of the breadth of knowledge I could bring to bear in order to solve their problems. The important thing is that you are able to prove expertise – it doesn’t matter whether you work in one sector or across 10.

With all of your responsibilities do you still have the opportunity to work closely with clients?

I spend 70 percent of my time dealing with client issues and a major part of my time is still spent on-site with clients. It’s not the same as spending five days a week with a client working closely on problems and opportunities. I absolutely loved that part of my job when I started out but my job has changed. I’m now leveraging my experience and coaching people. I also help our clients get the best out of Andersen Consulting.

I resolutely refuse to look back. I don’t deal in regrets. Enjoy what you do today and look forward to what you’re doing tomorrow.

What are you doing “tomorrow”?

We are going through a significant process of change, from being a company organised geographically to one organised by sectors and industries.

We’ve changed because our clients have changed. That’s the way they are beginning to work. Managing this change has been, and continues to be a major challenge. Tomorrow’s work is about putting together international teams and harnessing skills globally.

Be honest, what part of your job could you do without? What stops you getting things done?

The regulatory hindrances that slow down your ability to work globally.

Within the European Union great strides have been made to make things easier, but there are still tricky tax regimes and detailed rules that can slow you down. In fact, the tax implications of moving resources around the world is a major headache.

Why did Andersen spend #27.5m on a recent ad campaign?

It’s a global multimedia campaign covering 20 or 30 countries. There are multiple audiences we are trying to reach. We are trying to reach customers. We don’t expect people to buy from us directly after seeing an ad, it’s more of an awareness campaign. Although the adverts are not recruitment calls they have had an effect on potential candidates who have been impressed by them and we have also had a very positive response from our own staff, who feel proud to see such coverage for their company.

We are also trying to reach those working within our client companies.

It helps to raise an awareness of Andersen’s personality among those staff at grass roots level who will be working with us on projects.

Some consultants are having to work hours that junior doctors would baulk at. What are you doing to remedy that?

The issue of a life balance is a major one. We’ve been pretty successful driving programmes forward in this area. However, the business world is not getting any easier. Our clients are working harder than they ever had to. A few years ago consultants used to work much harder than their clients – things have changed. We have to be careful about the extent to which we can adapt to allowing for balanced lifestyle. That said, no-one is going to run a successful business treating people like galley slaves. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

As you say, the business world isn’t getting any easier; where will the recession hit Andersen Consulting?

We can’t blithely assume that we will be immune from the effects of the economic environment. In the short term, we are very bullish about our growth prospects. Work in the technology field is booming – that work will not just dry up. In the medium term, we do expect hiccups due to the recession. When will it happen? If I was an economic forecaster then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, but 1999 will clearly see a slowdown in the economy. Andersen came through the last recession well. The nature of our work changed, we undertook core work for our clients. Those tasks still need to be completed whether there is a recession or not. Our recruitment plans are strong, we’ll take on 500 graduates next year.

Consultants do have a reputation for preying on managements’ weaknesses.

Is this the case?

No. Our best clients are among the best managed companies in the world.

What is true is that poorly managed organisations are poor buyers of management consultancy. Consultants must have a high regard for the clients they work for. Among our clients, BP, Shell, Glaxo Wellcome, Zeneca and SmithKline Beecham are models of superbly managed organisations. They have an incredible track record of operating and prospering internationally.

It’s the key success factor for British business, you will never be a top 1000 business on the domestic market alone.

What of your future? Are you set to become one of a long list of Andersen’s star alumni working in industry?

I’ve always said that I’ll only turn up to work if two criteria are met: one – that I make money; two – that I have fun. While they are being met, I’ve no intention of going anywhere. There are a lot of things still to do here. However, I wouldn’t want to stay so long that I was being manoeuvred around the building in a Zima frame.

If you fix one thing about the British economy, what would it be?

I would like every business in the UK to have the ambition and aspiration to be the best. This country has a relatively long tail of under-performing businesses. Too many of them are hamstrung by wanting to maintain the status quo. It’s a highly risky game to play. Nothing can remain static.

I would like to see SMEs push for excellence.

You’ve a passion for conservation. If you were at the helm of National Heritage or the National Trust what would you do?

Mount Snowdon was recently bought by the National Trust. A headline ran “Snowdon Saved for the Nation”. I thought what absolute rubbish.

Was it about to be exported or dismantled? No. We’ve got to get away from thinking that our heritage should be treated as a museum piece or kept in aspic. The Trust does tend to treat history as a museum piece.

Our heritage is a living and breathing thing.

Which companies would you cite as being models of British business?


Write Hall in Subject Box.

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