View from the Top – Deborah Feakins, Partner in Change Management at Practicus

Deborah Feakins, Partner in Change Management at Practicus, discusses the role of Change Management, its place in UK consultancy and the significant growth of MCA member Practicus.

With over 15 years’ experience supporting and advising clients on change programmes, what do you mean by Change Management, and how does it fit into management consultancy more widely?

For me Change Management is about successfully delivering ROI by thinking through the human impact – before, during and after transformation.

Ultimately transformation is delivered by the people adopting it. If you wish to see the benefits, you need to get to the end as quickly as possible. That means getting people to embrace a new way of working as quickly and as efficiently as possible. You need to understand who is impacted, how they are impacted, how to engage and educate them and how to ensure that they will commit to the changes in the long term.

Change Management for me is really at its most mature when it is fully integrated within the project or programme delivery approach. Although not complicated, it is often wrongly treated as an after-thought.

Much of UK business is changing fast – either reluctantly or with great enthusiasm. From your experience, how good are we in the UK at realising the benefits of change?

I think it’s fair to say that there is a growing awareness that to deliver organisational change successfully, a rigorous approach is required. However, many are still at an early phase of maturity. Organisations should embrace and develop Change Management capabilities.  This needs the support of leaders and the development of the right governance structures. If you look at organisations that are really mature around change, you will see that they have this in place.

What are the challenges when the opportunity of growth is there?

Some companies are still in a habitual mind-set of cost reduction. Asking them to look towards growth is quite a big step. I would encourage executives to look forward and think about what they need to do in order to keep commercially viable and competitive long-term.

My concern is that when organisations look to cut costs they don’t always then consider how to maximise the subsequent energy that they release. Questions need to be asked about how the money produced is invested to support growth strategies and customer focus. 

Are there particular types of people who make good Change Managers?

An effective Change Manager needs to be positive and able to understand and motivate others. It is about being a good listener, being persuasive and being perceptive of the emotions that are swirling around an organisation. A lot of transformation that has taken place since the financial crisis has been around headcount reduction and role changes so you cannot breeze in and be overly positive. Integrity and sensitivity are key attributes and crucially the ability to work in tandem with the business to deliver the changes.

You have recently ended your tenure leading the Change Management Institute in the UK (CMI). What impact has the CMI had in the industry of Change Managers?

I think there is a general desire in the UK marketplace to professionalise disciplines like Change Management and to provide a clear career path. We saw that occur with Project Management over the last 10-15 years.

You tend to see a lot of recruiters asking for Change Managers but without really knowing what they are asking for. In fact, understanding is still consolidating in the business world as to what makes a professional Change Manager. The CMI has been trying to bring some consistency to this by developing a competency model and it is now used by some of the country’s biggest organisations. Subsequently the CMI produced the first Change Management Body of Knowledge and has an accreditation programme. These are important foundations if good Change Managers are to gain the recognition and reputation they deserve.

Practicus is still a relatively young business, being founded in 2004. It is now approaching 500 employees and practitioners deployed across the world, has expanded internationally and has featured on the Sunday Times Fast Track list twice. How have you managed to grow so fast and so effectively?

The Practicus approach is about making the lives of our clients and their stakeholders brilliantly straightforward. Our proposition is simple, we help them to better deliver change and we have an equally simple mission statement:  change the way people feel about consultancy. These seem to resonate really well externally and internally.

A key element in fulfilling those promises is the ability to provide the right team at the right time backed by strong quality assurance. We have a broad pool of both internal and external practitioners, and this means that we can focus on providing the best fit for the client requirement and not get distracted by bench utilisation and other internal measures that are irrelevant to the client.

A lot of effort has gone into making our practitioners feel part of a community. You don’t get people excited working somewhere because you provide them with gimmicks, what gets them excited is a real desire to connect with the aspiration of the company. It is essential to make sure that leadership is giving them information about where they are going and how well they are doing. All our practitioners are fully engaged, inducted and mirror the same values. Permanent employees are not necessarily considered for a job over others, only if they truly have the skill sets that meet the client’s need.

We have also taken a relational approach to contracting with our collaborative client agreements, actually putting down the behaviours that both we and the clients are going to exhibit when we collaborate. We recently won an innovation award from The International Association for Contract and Commercial Management for the design of our contracts. Most contracts detail how everyone will sue each other when it all goes wrong. The difference with ours is that we also articulate how we have agreed to work with each other to ensure that everything goes right. It’s more than just playing with words, it’s about making the contract a practical document that is alive in day-to-day interaction and underpinning a healthy client relationship long-term.

Despite Practicus’s growth, I have been quite astonished that it still has its entrepreneurial approach. I think this is largely because the focus of the leadership has been on maintaining the culture of innovation that the company started with. Keeping a balanced portfolio has also been key during the global financial crisis, with the firm not being dependent on any one industry. Lastly, our practitioners have had a variety of work to do, and this is wonderful because that keeps them engaged and involved.

What advice would you give to any young consultants starting their career in consulting?

Find a company who is passionate about what they do and work with people who really want to make it work for the client – who will go the extra mile, not just follow a template.

After you have done some time as a generalist, find an area to specialise in quickly and really get steeped in it. Look for opportunities, find a mentor, go to conferences and become an expert.