Human resources consultants appear in a variety of guises and meet many challenges that are familiar to other specialisations, says Sarah Perrin. But there's another side to their job too - because HR is always about people.
The types of role filled by HR consultants vary hugely. There are jobs for pay and benefits specialists, search and selection consultants, employee communications experts, counsellors, trainers, and leadership development facilitators, as well as those specialising in the people aspects of change management projects. Accordingly, the types of firms operating in the sector range form the Big Five generalist consultancies down to niche firms focusing on a particular aspect of human resources. Demand for such services is strong, says Sally Binns, manager in the HR department at Watson Wyatt, whose service offerings range from pay and benefits advice, to consultancy on issues such as leadership, communication, change management and integration after mergers and acquisitions. “Our core purpose is defined as ‘to create financial value for people and through people’,” Binns says. The HR department at Watson Wyatt is growing strongly. “Our graduate entry programme now numbers about 60 people a year just in the UK. Four years ago it was probably about 20. Over the next couple of years we would also be looking to take another 20-30 actuarial consultants,” Binns says. “Part of the demand comes from recognising that an organisation is only as good as the people who work in it. But part is due to the fact that there is greater risk (for businesses) from losing somebody critical, for example, if they go to work for the opposition or get stressed and drop out altogether. There is a recognition that some people are critical to the business and you have to get the package, the environment and the opportunities right.” Nicholson McBride, a firm of business psychologists based in London and Boston, handles a wide variety of projects, but they are all something to do with people, and with attitudes and behaviours, says Charles Sutton, director of consultant development at the firm. Nevertheless, he adds, in all cases there is a very clear business focus to the firm’s work. All Nicholson McBride’s consultants have a psychology qualification. “What we bring to the party is a solid basis of knowledge of occupational psychology and how that is interpreted, because there is a gap between theory and practice,” says Sutton. “What academics say often hasn’t worked its way through to practitioners, or what the academics say isn’t ready yet because it hasn’t gone through the crucible of practical testing.” Projects to which Nicholson McBride consultants contribute their expertise include change programmes. “These are mostly to do with enabling an organisation to operate in its market environment more effectively and might be something to do with structuring, with governance, with brand values, with enabling people to move from a small, national focus to an international one,” says Sutton. Other projects concern the human aspects of M&A activity, making sure there is “procedural justice” when staffing issues are addressed. “Whatever happens in the organisation has to be seen to be fair,” says Sutton. “We also deal with survivors. Often organisations focus on the people who are going, and in the best cases, they provide a lot of support. But they often forget the survivors in the assumption that they should be happy that they have got a job. In fact, survivors go through a whole variety of attitudinal changes which are associated with guilt, including a realignment towards those who go and those who stay on.” The consulting team also provides coaching and one-on-one executive mentoring, for example, to help new managing directors or other senior management through their first hundred days in a role. “It’s an interesting market because a lot of the things we do can be done reasonably effectively by the organisations themselves,” says Sutton. “But they need people with a reasonable depth of knowledge. These projects also require quite a lot of resource, both in terms of time and money.” Those who work as HR consultants come from a range of backgrounds. Sutton took an interesting path into his current consulting role. After a first degree in psychology and biological science, he held a scientific post in industry, before completing a second degree in theology, becoming a priest, managing a residential centre, and finally tutoring in a management college, before becoming a consultant. “It all made sense at the time,” he chuckles. Unlike Nicholson McBride, most firms don’t expect psychology qualifications. Nor do they all expect industry experience. Binns at Watson Wyatt says the firm does recruit some people from industry, but the majority are taken from other consultancies. “The key thing we are about is being a consultancy firm, so you have to have some consulting skill to be successful here,” she says. Jo Bond, managing director of Wright Management Consultants, specialists in HR and career issues, says having a diversity of people from different walks of life is good for the firm. “It’s important to have worked outside a consultancy environment, though not necessarily in HR,” she says. “But consultants must have a sympathy and empathy with HR people. If they come in thinking HR people are a bunch of old overheads, that’s clearly inappropriate. I like to have a healthy mix of people. In a former life I was an HR manager and before that, a personnel officer. That helps because I was the target audience to whom I’m selling at the moment.” Simon Crockett, who is operating director of recruiter Michael Page’s technology and consultancy arm, believes industry experience is useful. “You need to have an understanding of the process in practice to have credibility,” he says. “Application in a commercial environment is a key criteria. It’s easier to train people in consultancy skills than it is to gain four, five or six years of functional competence and experience, assuming the individual has got the right qualities and attributes in the first place.” Jason Botelho, a consultant at DLA Recruitment Consultants, notes that those trying to enter consultancy from industry need more experience than those looking to move between consultancies. “If you are coming from an industry background you probably need around ten years’ operational experience, whereas if you come from a consultancy background you need not less than three,” he says. Demand is inevitably affected by the roles candidates have filled and the specific work they have done. “I am specially interested right now in people who have been involved in organisational design and change, people involved in HR systems, and those with proven experience in designing remuneration packages or executive rewards,” says Botelho. “Ideally they will have played a leading part in those projects, for example, communicating the change to people.” HR consultants must be personable, says Sutton. “When clients choose consultants, they must do so on the basis of their knowledge, skills, track record and do on. But in the end a key question has to be, Can I see myself working with them? Do I like them?” Also important are the generic skills that are required of all those choosing the consulting life. Wright Management Consultants’ Bond comes up with a long list, including client focus and business acumen. “You must have a real understanding of current economic trends and the pressures in business, including things such as e-commerce,” she says. Computer skills, communication skills, and an understanding of organisational dynamics are all required, as are a results-oriented approach, team effectiveness and the ability to manage projects, including costs. “Accounts management ability is also vital,” she says. “It’s all very well winning new business, but you have to manage the relationship.” If consultancy firms are choosy about those they employ, then so should HR consultants be selective about the consultancy that they choose to join. “It’s important to choose a consultancy where you get the necessary emotional, professional and developmental support,” Bond advises. “All our consultants are professionally supervised by a chartered occupational psychologist,” she says. “We take our counselling (that we give) very seriously and it’s important in such a situation to be supervised. So on a monthly basis all our consultants have an opportunity to meet up and have a personal, one-to-one consultation. They can talk through challenging cases they have on the go, but also about themselves and how they feel about life, the universe and all who sail in her.” Sutton, of Nicholson McBride, stresses the importance of keeping up to date with both the theory and practice sides of their skills. “We make sure that people stay up to date, but it is a challenge,” he says. “For most consultants it’s difficult to focus on yourself because we tend to be outward looking.” Sutton also believes that it can be hard for consultants to stay fresh when working on several different projects at once. “It’s rare to be working on one assignment full-time for a long time,” he says. “One challenge is that we want people to be fresh and sharp when working with clients; not to drag out old ideas, but be appropriately creative. However, we all have our seasonal fatigue syndrome, which can be affected by how hard you’ve been working or what you feel about a client. So one challenge is being in performance mode all the time.” If there are challenges for the HR consultant to overcome, there are also healthy rewards, including the normal consultancy benefits of good pay, a challenging career, and personal satisfaction from jobs well done. “We all get an immense satisfaction from seeing individuals who are going through an enormous personal transition,” says Bond. “They may come to us when they are very low, they may have just lost their job, and they are having to decide how to begin the next chapter of their lives. It’s a voyage of discovery for them, it’s progression, it’s growth for some. Knowing we have added value is personally very rewarding. Wright Management Consultants is very much a commercial organisation that is profit-making, but we get some personal satisfaction that ethically and morally, we are doing something of great value; something that touches individual’s lives and the lives of their relatives and friends. You feel good.” Sutton also enjoys a strong sense of personal reward from his work. He sums up what many of his colleagues must feel. “For me, the satisfying part is seeing the difference we make, which shows itself in all parts of ways,” he says. “It can range from a difference in the big picture, a corporate difference, right down to seeing the light go on in people’s eyes.” Sarah Perrin is a freelance journalist. AN HR CONSULTANT’S VIEW Patrick Kavanagh is senior manager in Deloitte Consulting’s Change Leadership practice. He moved into consultancy three years ago from industry, where he had held an HR management position. “I had been in one sector for a long time and decided consultancy was the way to get fast-track exposure to different sectors,” he says. The Deloitte Consulting Change Leadership team, which specialises in the HR dimension of change management projects and culture change issues, has a “healthy mix” of consultants from industry and those from a pure consultancy background, Kavanagh says. He has enjoyed his work in the practice. “There are lots of challenges and lots of variety,” he explains. “The aspect I have found perhaps most challenging is building up the consulting skills around the sales side, for example, responding to invitations to tender and getting the pricing right. That was all new to me.” One of the toughest aspects, he reports, is going into a client where a project is being imposed on staff who don’t want it and who may have had bad previous experiences with consultants. The best approach for dealing with such a situation, Kavanagh says, is to make sure you deliver what you say you will when you will. There are plenty of upsides. “It’s fun,” he says. “The most satisfying part of the job is going into the unknown, having to go up a learning curve really quickly and come to a position where people are seeking you out for advice and counsel.” Kavanagh reels off a long list of the skills required of those thinking of making a similar move into consulting, including good business and communication skills, the ability to influence and persuade others, self-confidence, high integrity, trustworthiness, diplomacy, innovative ability, pragmatism, a streetwise approach and metaphorically broad shoulders that can cope when things don’t quite run to plan. “You also need a sense of humour,” he adds.