We’re delighted to share a new post in our Consulting Secrets blog series, this week with 2 inspiring guests!
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.
Tom was the first Partner at RedCompass, 20 years ago. After his MBA, he set his sights on the City, and has been with RedCompass ever since.
Kusum wears multiple hats at RedCompass; she looks after Quality Assurance (Testing) and is the Director for Talent, Resourcing and Development. Before joining RedCompass, Kusum worked at a high end American broker-dealer for 14 years.
Aby: This series is called consulting secrets. Can you tell us a secret about yourself that not many people know?
Tom: So before I did my MBA, I spent my 20s working in the music industry. I didn’t have to wear button down collars to work so before I became a grownup, I was wearing jeans and t-shirts and running a record label!
Kusum: I live and breathe and eat and sleep and dream, finance; that’s what I’m passionate about now. But if you’d asked that very same question to the 11, 15, or 18 year old me, I was going to end up in medicine, I was going to save the world. That was my story. I love the human body, it’s just fascinating. I did go into the medical field and I started in dentistry. I went into my first surgery as a dental student of a six year old child that was having all of their teeth taken out. The surgeon took out the first tooth, put it in my hand, and I aptly passed out. That was the end of my career in medicine!
How did you get into consulting and what interested you in working for a boutique consultancy?
Kusum: I’ve been with RedCompass for five years. Previous to that my career had all been with big banks, big names and big broker dealers. Predominantly because those names got you to the next big job on your CV; everyone knows HSBC, Citibank, Lloyds etc. I spent a number of years at a particular broker dealer. I was at a senior level in risk / cash management, I’d had 3 children, and I didn’t feel I was moving as quickly as I wanted to move.
I think destiny plays a hand in where you end up, because one of the interviews that I had at a new bank was with a Senior Partner at RedCompass. Now, interestingly enough, I didn’t get the job with the bank. And Tom very often likes to say ‘well done bank for not taking Kusum on, because we got to have her instead!’ He reached out and said ‘come and speak to us, we are a very different boutique consultancy’ which wasn’t something that I had considered before.
I’ve always been in big banks, in part of a huge team, I’ve always worked in the global footprint, and been the true SME in my space, so I needed to consider what it meant to move to a much, much smaller business, and more niche. It took a year of conversations to really understand what it means to be an expert in a field and what it means to be able to carve out the type of role that I wanted, which RedCompass really allowed me to do. In larger corporates, I was always working my way to the next promotion and the next job description was already there. Whereas at RedCompass, it was actually how high do you want to go? And then defining that. That’s what swung it for me in terms of making the jump.
Tom: We spent a year extracting Kusum, and then she went off and got pregnant, so we had to wait longer! When her baby was born, we were sending her flowers hoping the bank didn’t also send her flowers! It’s definitely hard to get good people to take that step because they leave behind a lot of the prestige of the brand and the halo effect of the brand, and it’s nice at dinner parties to say you work for a particular company and people know who that is.
If you’re in a smaller consultancy, you’re clearly not here for the power and politics. We are here to solve problems. To get our teeth into really large and complex problems, solve them, and move onto the next huge problem. Our motivation was never about brand, just about the size of the problem.
The second thing is that you are only going to get hired by clients if you are world class. You’re not going to get hired for your brand. They will only pick us because we are the best at what we do. So as we grow the business, we are always thinking about how to become the best at what we do and still be world class.
Kusum, how would you describe the change from that large organisation to to a smaller player?
Kusum: The biggest difference for me in a large organization is that you get two things. Number one, you get lost. And number two, you get caught up in the definition of where your next role is. I’ve been lucky in my career to have seniors that I’ve looked up to and I recognize the importance of that, but they almost dictate that journey of your career path. When I say you get lost, I mean you get lost in terms of being recognised for the talents that you have on your own. You almost need advocates; you’re constantly being told you need to be out there, finding people that can sing your praises.
The difference coming into much smaller organisation is number one, people are paramount. Your growth, your ability to grow your demonstration of who you are, and what you mean is nothing without the people. In a smaller boutique consultancy, you get recognised much, much quicker for the talents that you demonstrate both on client site and internally. That investment in me is almost effortless, it’s seamless, because it’s what we put first, as a boutique consultancy.
Tom: To add to that – of course there’s the flipside. People often come to smaller businesses and it doesn’t work out. You are very seen in a small organisation because there is nowhere to hide.
When you’re in a small organisation, you haven’t got the momentum of billions of dollars worth of revenue behind you to keep your organisation going. It is continually having to prove quality to the client. It is a difficult place to work and prosper if you’re used to taking your foot off the pedal every once in a while and letting the rest of the team carry you. There is nowhere to hide.
What are the benefits of working for a boutique consultancy versus a bigger one?
Tom: To touch on what Kusum was saying before, it’s your voice. It’s the quality of the idea and the quality of your thinking rather than how long you’ve been here. The opportunities you have in a smaller consultancy are compared to your talent, not longevity.
You may find this in a larger organisation, but you would definitely find this in a smaller one, is the collegiate atmosphere. You know everyone and they know you and they help you because they know you, not because it could help their career. We really have that around us.
Kusum: I think for me, it’s two main things. One is inclusivity. Everyone has an opportunity to be able to be present on any engagement. I cannot tell you how many hours in a week go into talking about people and who’s going where and how do we put the right person in the right job, not only because it’s right for us, but because it’s right for them. If you have the skill set, if you have the talent, and the capability then we’re going to be talking about you in our resource meetings.
Secondly, and I think it’s really important for me and the journey that I’ve had with RedCompass is having a voice – you get invited to the table, because you have a voice. And it’s an open forum to be able to use that voice. It’s that opportunity to be able to say what’s on your mind. We have a very flat structure. Everyone’s got a voice, you’re at the table because you matter. So use your voice, if you’ve got something to say we’re here to listen to it. That definitely stands out for me.
What do you think makes a good consultant?
Kusum: Tenacity. Drive. Enthusiasm. And being able to say when I don’t have it, when I’m not okay or I don’t get it. This is just as important as saying that I’ve come from a really experienced background, I can build that project plan for you and I can manage teams, I can manage stakeholders. Often when I do interviews, I’m not only interested in how good you are and how much can you tangibly demonstrate what’s on your CV. I’m also really interested in what you failed at, what you’ve done wrong and how you learnt from that. Being a good consultant is having both ends of the spectrum, being able to show your competencies, what you’ve grown in, how you’ve developed and nurtured yourself and come into the field that you’re looking to recruit for. But at the same time, it’s really important to be able to reach for help, to be able to work collaboratively with teams. And it’s ok to say you need help.
Tom: I love that. If you look at a lot of people who have come from big consultancies and big banks, they’ve been competing their whole life. Normally they’re top of their class, get into a good university, graduate top of their class, then out of thousands they get a good job. It’s compete, compete, compete. And they can’t always ask for help and say, I can’t do this. I think a good consultant collaborates and understands the power of a team.
A good consultant looks to draw upon their peers to solve the problem and supports their peers in solving their problems. But I suppose that comes with being secure in who they are, what they’re good at and what they’re not good at, so there’s a maturity angle too.
A good consultant is resilient. It’s not easy, it’s a really difficult role and you have to be resilient.
The third thing is that ultimately you are the trusted advisor to your client. The only way you can become a trusted advisor, is if you truly care about the person you’re advising. What makes a great consultant is someone who actually on a human level cares about every single client that they’re working with and wants to make them shine.
What is the biggest challenge you have overcome in consulting so far?
Tom: It has to be around Kusum’s point about the projects that didn’t go well. The biggest challenge that I’ve overcome is the acceptance that I can’t do it all and also knowing my weaknesses. Starting to trust the team around me and accepting that it’s not about me, it’s about the outcome, the team that delivers it, and the client. So in essence, the biggest obstacle was myself, my own insecurity, my own worries, and my own desire for status. Overcoming that is what actually set me free to to be a much better consultant.
Kusum: How do I follow that?! I’m probably going to say something that people don’t expect still exists today. And that’s one of gender bias in the industry, it’s unseen and unspoken about. Gender bias, ethnicity bias, being the brown female at the table that stands there talking like she knows what she’s talking about. Being able to walk into an engagement and present yourself, not as a sex or colour, but as someone that is here for the benefit of the client. Someone that is there for the benefit of her team, that will put people first, that knows how to listen to the client, will give you a solution that works and whether or not I wear heels or whether or not I wear makeup, has no bearing. I remember walking into a couple of my first engagements into a whole new team of people thinking, how do I get them to listen to me? and that comes from confidence. Sometimes in my mind I have bubbles over my head that literally say, ‘I got this.’ I walk into a room saying, ‘I got this.’ The reason I’m here is because I have the background, I have the intelligence, I have the competencies. It’s not about the way I look, it’s not about my gender. It’s not about my colour. But it is an unseen bias that many of us do still face. Overcoming that has been about the confidence in myself to say, ‘I got this.’
I think you followed that well! What advice do you have for anyone interested in working for a firm like yours?
Kusum: Come in with an open mind. I guarantee the job you think you want is not always going to be the job you’re going to end up with. When we recruit, we’re not recruiting for the skills on your CV, we’re recruiting for what we like to call talent. And often, that’s talent that you may not have yet recognised in yourself. I know this from experience – Tom has put me in positions where I literally felt like I couldn’t do this – or it was more I don’t want to do it. Tom told me to give it a try as I might like it. You need people that are gonna encourage you into a role that you may not have necessarily thought of first. It’s inherent behaviour, you leave University thinking, I’m going to do this job and I’m going to earn this much money, and then I’m going to get a mortgage and a house, and then I’m going to do this job. That all fell away from me. Climbing the career path at RedCompass for me, has been about being open to opportunity, and being open to saying, ‘yes, I’ll try that.’ We have the support network, so you’ve just got to be open to opportunity, because often the career path you travel is not the career path that you wrote down on paper.
Tom: I agree. And if you’re not open to opportunity, your chances of survival are a lot less than you think. A lot of people who come from large organisations think that they’ve swam in a big river and this is just a smaller version, so they can do this easily. Once you take one step into the small RedCompass creek, you have to understand you’re in a different terrain, it’s steep and fasting moving and you have to change and adapt daily. You have to become all about the solution. And this is the moment in your career where it doesn’t matter who you work for, all that matters is what problem are you solving.
People that still need that status and brand will never make it. It’s too hard. We only get asked because we’re small, to solve really, really difficult problems that haven’t been solved by the Big 4. You have to be doing things above and beyond what you ever did before. If you’re interesting in solving problems, welcome to RedCompass.
That is a really lovely place to to end. Thank you so much for for your time, it’s been such a great conversation with you both. Thank you.