How to hire helping hands�

The public has got management consultants all wrong, says Alan Leaman, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association. They are, he says, an important tool for increasing business performance. So where does the bad image come from? E&T asks the questions.

Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association, Alan Leaman spent "a lot of time in politics" before taking up his current position. From 1988-93, he was head of office for the Rt Hon Paddy Ashdown MP, responsible for media relations, policy advice and acting as chief speech writer. He subsequently worked for the IBA, a trade body in the insurance industry. Leaman's appointment to the MCA in 2008 was widely seen as a move to bring the association into a more public, higher profile campaigning position. "It's important," he says "to provide services to our members, but it is equally important to be addressing wider audiences." He was awarded an OBE in 1999 for public and political services.

Engineering & Technology: What does the MCA do?

Alan Leaman: We're here to represent and provide a voice for this extraordinary and important industry. But also we have to make sure that buyers of consultancy - either public or private sector - find it easy to do so, and that when they do, they get good quality. One of our roles for instance, is to be an upholder and advocate for high standards in the industry. And then we have a code of practice to which members must adhere. So there are twin roles: one is to ensure our voice is heard and the other is to ensure that there is the willingness and drive in the industry to keep standards high.

E&T: How does the association go about fulfilling this?

AL: There are two standout services. First, we run the industry awards, so one of our objectives is to encourage, and then to celebrate, excellence in the industry. The winners of these awards are really the examples of top consulting work in the country. When I go to talk to politicians or journalists about what consultants really do there's my raw material. Second, we are the collector of data about the industry. Because we have access to the data, we can fully understand the trends in the industry, how growth is developing, what it is the clients are asking for and so on.

E&T: Presumably another of your roles is as a public spokesperson for the industry?

AL: Yes. I think the industry as a whole - and this won't be news to your readers - thinks that not enough people understand what management consultancy is about, what management consultants do, and why their work should be valued. So what our members look to us to do is to ensure that we do a lot more explaining as well as making sure that when people make ill-informed judgements about our industry, we're out there arguing the case effectively in public.

E&T: How much of your members' market is in the SET sector?

AL: It's difficult to say because the market tends to be broken down by the services provided. But we have quite a few engineering-specific consultancies among our membership. That particular sector has been growing quite powerfully in the past few years and they are important members. Clearly, a lot of the skills and attributes that good consultants bring to the table - identification of problems, provision of solutions - can be seen working in parallel with engineering.

E&T: What are the main benefits? Is it simply that management consultants can provide a fresh pair of eyes?

AL: That's precisely one of the reasons, and a very important one. And to do so in a way that is objective and independent, because often it is as important to get this perspective as it is to get expertise. One of the roles of the industry is to spread the latest thinking and best practice around the client base.

E&T: One of the stereotypes is that management consultants are henchmen hired in by HR departments to make people redundant...

AL: It's certainly fair to say that different people will have different perceptions of why management consultants have been brought in. That's natural. But the bottom line is that consultants are called in because performance has to be improved, whether that's in a downturn, as we are in at the moment, or in the upswing when you're fighting hard for market share. What you're looking for is good work that will improve the performance of the organisation and there might be casualties along the way, and that is regrettable. Of course there is an element of politics in all this. Sometimes it is better if an outsider delivers a message that you know your staff won't like. But our research shows that this is, in fact, a relatively small part of the proposition.

E&T: What would you say to those who have the impression that management consultants are expensive?

AL: You've got to think about the value you are getting back, and that will enable you to make a judgement on this. There is a lot of fixation about daily rate, and I understand that because we read in the Daily Mail and places like that about how high the rate may be, but you are paying for all the on-costs as well. They key is to understand not what the cost is but the value. This is the gaping hole in everybody's understanding really. At individual project level, clients can see the benefits - whether it's reduction in cost, extra value, growth that they've gained from it - and often they will say to the consultants "You cost us £100,000 but you have saved us £50m." This is the order of magnitude we are talking about. What the MCA is trying to do is to find a way of aggregating that in order to get a picture for the whole industry.

E&T: How is the recession affecting your members?

AL: The general picture from our data is that the rate of growth has clearly slowed. There's not much in the way of new product launches or the initiation of new IT systems going on at the moment. Downturns really tend to concentrate the minds of senior management about the efficiency and performance of their organisations. They're looking for help in becoming more efficient and often they are looking for ways to keep their best people. One of the key points about consultancy is that it's very adaptable. The best companies will move quickly when they see how the needs of their clients are changing.

E&T: What would you say to someone considering hiring a consultant for the first time?

AL: Make sure you're clear about what your need is. Be prepared to listen to the advice. Don't just look at price, look at value.

E&T: What attributes do management consultants need?

AL: Many management consultants work very hard and very long hours, and so I think stamina is a key one. You need a depth of expertise and an understanding of your client's business and the pressures on them. You need to communicate well, have the ability to translate some of the technical and management theory into people-friendly proposals, and you need to be able to bring people with you. Imposed solutions don't really work - solutions that are understood by the people who are going to be working with them are very important.

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