Sayeh Ghanbari is a Director in Ernst & Young's Advisory practice and winner of the MCA Award for Change Management Consultant of the Year 2013. We spoke to Sayeh about her success at the awards, the challenges that are facing the industry and her tips for anyone looking to have a career in consulting.
You were awarded Change Management Consultant of the Year at this year’s MCA Awards. What do you feel makes a world-class Change Manager?
Probably not to call yourself a Change Manager! I have a recent example of my holiday in Zambia where I stayed for a few days in a small camp in a remote part of the country, by one of the national parks. On my last day there, the general manager was telling me and some of the staff about a visit she'd received by a change manager who had proposed to her that she needs to replace the paper based ordering system in their little restaurant with an electronic one.
The staff were all up in arms about the change manager proposing change for change's sake. Without telling them what I did for a living I started asking some questions. Why had he proposed an electronic system? What was the problem he was trying to solve? Turns out there's a lot manual work and duplication in transferring orders and payments in the restaurant to their financial accounts and often things go wrong or go missing in the process.
I started exploring what that transfer to accounts process looked like and whether a system would solve the problem or whether there was a way the process could be improved, without investing in the technology.
The general manager however wasn't worried about that at all; her concern was that she could tell from the handwriting who had made the mistake in the books and thought an electronic system meant she couldn't trace the users. Of course, I told her she could just supply her staff with logins for that but what I'm trying to illustrate is that managing and delivering change is complicated.
Firstly, you need to apply IQ and understand what the problem is you're trying to solve and find the most effective and efficient way of doing so. Secondly, you need to apply EQ because even the most logical solution can derail when people start getting involved and the things that matter to them may not be what you expect. Influencing skills, patience and tenacity in spades are also helpful qualities!
Has your degree in Aeronautical Engineering played a role in your consultancy career?
Indirectly, yes. I've never had to use my knowledge of flight and turbomachinery or my skills in computational fluid dynamics, but there a many things that I learnt when studying Aeronautics that have applied to my career since. There are some really obviously transferable skills, such as an analytical mindset which helps structuring and solving problems and being very numerate which aids commercial understanding.
Having said that, the most important thing I learnt is how you get through solving a problem or assignment that you have no idea whether you can really get through, because the task seems too difficult- it's daunting, but the satisfaction of the accomplishment is worth it!
What did you most enjoy about helping to deliver the 2012 Olympics Games? How were you involved?
I was involved in the early stages, about 4-5 years before the Games and worked with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) on two assignments. The first one was to work out the key strategic issues faced by the organisation in the run up to 2012 and work with the Executive team to develop plans on how these issues would be dealt with. The second assignment was to work on the organisation structure and shape (in terms of size, skills etc) that the ODA would need to take at different stages in the lead up to the Games in order to deliver on designing and building the infrastructure for the Olympics and then hand it over to the Organising Committee to use, whist still managing the facilities.
Both projects were hugely interesting and the ODA was a fantastic organisation to work with. Above that, I really enjoyed having the once in a lifetime opportunity to be involved in some way in helping deliver the Olympic Games in a city that I love.
How did you find working on a project of such national importance as preparing a response to pandemic flu?
Daunting! It was a difficult project because we were working on an eventuality rather than anything that was real, yet it was of huge importance. This meant we had to find innovative ways of scenario planning and role playing to test that what we were setting up. We had to be prepared to distribute antivirals during a serious outbreak of avian flu, to minimise deaths and curtail the spread of the virus. I wasn't actually expecting to experience a pandemic flu outbreak but with the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009 it was amazing to see all the people, processes, systems and governance in place to respond.
What are the current challenges the industry faces?
In my view, there are three key challenges that the industry faces right now. Firstly, as our clients are becoming increasingly more global organisations that nevertheless want local input and insight, it is our job to be one step ahead. This is not always easy; particularly as many consultancies are not necessarily globally integrated or have enough local presence themselves.
Secondly, the buying patterns of our clients is changing as they are seeking more value from their advisors. To be successful, consultants need to show increased skin in the game with their clients' business and demonstrate tangible benefits from their involvement. If not, they risk becoming just temporary support, filling a gap in capacity rather than delivering any real change.
Finally, the challenge to attract and retain the best people is becoming harder. Not only do people no longer see their careers with one or two organisations, people switch careers more often and have greater opportunities to do jobs that did not even exist 10 years ago (who ever thought setting up a website to connect students at Harvard could turn you into the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company?).
The combination of these three factors creates an exciting time ahead for consultants and consultancies but I believe this also means the industry is likely to change significantly from what it is today, in the same way that it is a very different industry today to what it was in the 80s and 90s.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry?
Irrespective of whether you are joining the industry as a graduate or as an experienced hire, as a consultant, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity and be flexible with your approach as things change all the time.
Whilst this may sound straight forward, it can be tricky if you are new to this sort of environment. This can take some time and sometimes make the transition from industry to consulting tricky. Once that is overcome, it is a very rewarding career, full of variety and challenge.