We’re super excited to share a new post in our Consulting Secrets blog series.
JBM has always worked with a number of entrepreneurial consultancies, in particular boutiques, and have built a great network of inspiring consultants. We wanted to create a series for consultants, to showcase what it’s like to work for a boutique consultancy and what the differences and benefits are.
In each blog, we will be chatting to a consulting leader who will be talking through their journey in consulting as well as sharing advice for people who are thinking about moving from a bigger consultancy to a smaller one.
This installation of the series features Andry Cottrill, Partner at Q5.
Andy initially had a career in consulting at Accenture, before spending a number of years in the civil service across a range of different government departments, including counterterrorism and immigration. He decided to join Q5 when it was a year old and since then has helped the business grow in both the UK and US.
Aby: Before we begin, this series is called Consulting Secrets – Can you tell us a secret about yourself that not many people know?
Andy: I’m a football fan, which a lot of people might know. What they don’t know is that I have the achievement of completing the Panini World Cup Sticker album. It’s where you get all of the stickers of footballers and stick them on every page. I was in my mid 30s at the time, when I was living in New York, trying to convince my American nieces and nephews to get into soccer. I think I ended up getting a bit more obsessed with the sticker book than they did, as they lost interest after maybe a few minutes. I’m very proud to say that I finished it, it was my Everest!
How did you get into consulting and what interested you in working for a boutique consultancy?
I got into consulting originally because it was a good, varied option, and I didn’t quite know what to do. I think that’s relatively common – people not knowing what they want to do. It bought a bit of time and an ability to work in a sector that built some skills in a very transferable way. Joining Q5 was very much a choice between large and small and that was about the ability to make an impact, the feeling of having a small business to grow and be a part of, and the risk and reward that comes with that. I’d been at two very large institutional organisations at Accenture and then in the civil service, I’d been a freelancer for a little bit and having that feeling of team and the fluidity of a really small organisation was something I found quite exciting.
What would you say the benefits of working for a boutique consultancy are versus a larger one?
I describe it as trade offs between large and small organisations actually, and I think when anyone is interested in joining Q5, we try and have a really open and honest conversation about that. In smaller firms, things can be a bit more fluid; that creates some challenges but also some huge opportunities. It means you can make an impact very quickly in that type of organisation versus a 10,000+ person consulting firm. You’re likely to get more stretched and I would say there’s nowhere to hide, meaning you will learn incredibly quickly and be given responsibility based on your aptitude, attitude and performance a lot faster than you might do in some more traditional, larger businesses.
I remember when I started in consulting, lots of people were on the treadmill – you have to have a certain number of years under your belt and you had to tick certain boxes in terms of the types of project you need to do before you progress. I think smaller firms are often a bit more entrepreneurial and give that responsibility when it’s right for the individual. In terms of development, in larger businesses, you probably have far more formalised development, you have big training courses, you go away for a couple of weeks to be immersed in the core capabilities etc. But in the smaller firms, it’s the ability to learn on the job. And often, the culture therefore around mentorship and the team supporting one another can be a lot stronger, because you don’t have as much of the formal mechanisms to rely on, people really do have to step in to guide you and share their experience and best practice.
The opportunities to shape what you’re going to do is often harder in a smaller firm, and you’re less likely to have the suite of projects that guarantee that, for example if you’re interested in customer experience, large firms are more likely to have projects that specialise in that even if it’s not their core specialism. At a smaller business, they’re less likely to have those but you’re better able to shape it and you’re better able to get surprising experiences.
After a couple years at Q5 I moved out to New York to set up our US business which was an opportunity I wouldn’t be able to have in a in a larger place. We’d been talking about opening a US office for a while, actually when I was speaking to the founders about joining the business, it was a carrot, a potential thing I could do. We’d run a few projects out there and my other half had the option to go and work in New York so I asked Q5 if I could do it. Honestly it felt a little bit premature to go out there because as a business we were still doing a bit of due diligence on it.
If there hadn’t been that push, we could have been thinking about it for another couple of years. And I think that the organisation got a huge amount of benefit, both in growing the business and growing our footprint, but also in demonstrating to people in our UK business that we are a firm that was going places and also it paved the way to open other offices around the world. I think that is a good example of Q5’s philosophy on growth and development; balancing the personal and the business imperatives. There’s a similar story for our Australian office too!
We try and do that more and more, to give people the opportunity to own a sector or a bit of a business and drive it or open an office somewhere, which gives people that experience of building a brand, which is almost impossible to get larger firm where the brand’s already established and there are lots and lots of people that formally own different chunks of it.
How would you describe the culture at Q5?
That’s a question that you’d have to ask every Q5er. I would say there is a dedication and devotion to clients and doing the best work we can do. But at the same time, it’s an incredibly supportive environment. For me, that’s the most special thing about the organisation and the most challenging thing as we continue to grow. We want to grow as an organisation because we fundamentally believe that’s what gives people the opportunities that they’re after in their own personal growth. As we grow, we protect and nurture that culture, and the beneficial things about feeling like a small firm. Everyone at Q5 is overwhelmingly supportive.
We have a magical balance between having an incredibly hard working and ambitious environment, but we’re also quite laid back and don’t take life too seriously. Sometimes I warn new joiners not to underestimate the strength of the work ethic we have, because it seems like we’re relaxed and joking around.
In a consulting firm, when the work is hard, the projects are hard, and you’re dealing with a client’s most stressful organisational issues, that pressure can seep out a bit too quickly, and that’s what can harm people’s well-being and mental and physical health. The balance of support and dedication is something that is really precious.
What do you think makes a good consultant?
Curiosity is an absolute must; to be interested in almost anything. You might get put on a project that isn’t in your initial area of interest but being able to find something that can interest you in it is really important.
Intellectual curiosity as well; looking for the next thing, seeing how you can improve and not just wanting to sit in a role.
Adaptability and attitude; being able to adapt and cope with ambiguity and having the attitude to throw yourself into something.
There’s a huge amount of empathy and EQ that’s needed for consultants as well as being pretty smart and a good problem solver. Knowing how to empathise with your clients and understand where they’re coming from is important.
Going back to what I mentioned earlier, it’s about not taking things too seriously. It’s often stressful work and clients will be going through periods of stress when you’re working with them. That can create pressure, outbursts occasionally, and can create things that if you took at face value, you could end up being overly affected by it, and end up making the wrong decisions. Having a bit of confidence and calmness under pressure, is a huge asset for any consultant.
Definitely – you have to be intelligent, but you have to also be emotionally intelligent to deal with those situations. What is the biggest challenge that you have overcome in consulting so far?
I don’t think I’ve overcome necessarily any of the challenges! I’m still overcoming them.
The biggest thing for me is building a strength of conviction. Trying to treat every conversation and every consulting engagement as a peer to a peer. Often you can get yourself in an unhelpful customer service provider relationship with your clients if you’re just trying to please them, rather than giving your advice. I’ve grown some confidence in knowing that what I’ve seen over the years in consulting is worth quite a lot. From the consulting side, I think it’s not holding one’s tongue if you see something the client should be aware of and speaking openly about it.
In Q5 terms, it is that balance between nurturing the culture of the organisation and keeping your eye also on the growth of the business.
That’s super interesting. What advice do you have for anyone looking to work in a firm like yours?
I would say to speak to people working there. Have as many conversations as you can about the way the firm feels. A lot of consulting businesses do similar work and they solve similar problems. But the way in which they do it can be drastically different. There are lots of claims made to the culture, philosophies and values of organisations, and occasionally that promise is not necessarily fulfilled when you get into the organisation. Do as much due diligence as you can and trust your gut around that.
Just throw yourself into it! In a firm like Q5, don’t ask for permission, go where you’re most interested in, ask to help solve things, and don’t wait for someone to come to you with something fascinating, otherwise your plate will quickly fill up with other jobs to do. If you can be on the front foot in defining the areas that you’re most interested in, whether that’s the aspects of building the firm or particular types of project or particular sectors you want to work in, be as communicative and upfront as you can about what those are. Because a good firm, and a firm like Q5, will do their best to try shape those opportunities for you.
If you’re absolutely open to anything, and you don’t know what your preferences are, then that’s great, too. That’s a dream for a consulting firm quite often! Because it means that you’re incredibly flexible about the kind of things that you want to work on and that hunger for learning comes through quite clearly.
That was great advice. Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat to me today.
Likewise, if you’re currently exploring roles in consulting or you’re a consultancy looking to grow your team, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org