View from the Top: Harry Gaskell, EY

Harry Gaskell, Managing Partner at EY, leads the firm's UK advisory services practice and has over 20 years consulting experience. On its 10th anniversary, Harry reflects on the growth of EY's advisory practice, discusses its future and shares his tips for young consultants.

Looking back over the past decade, it’s been quite a journey building a major practice at the same time as the industry and the business climate, have been changing. What are your reflections on the journey?

It has been hugely good fun. It’s very rare that you get a chance to build a business from scratch; normally you take something over then try and build on that. But actually what EY did was to say we’d like you to build a business, we’d like you to build it under a fantastic brand and here’s some investment in it. To build it up from scratch was extraordinary good fun. It has the consequence however that when you look round the organisation, anything you don’t like is your own fault!

Moving from a very buoyant economy to one which resulted in a brutal few years for our clients when they cut back dramatically on consulting, it was difficult. But I am proud we grew every year of the 10. One year it was only by 0.3% but it was never negative.

Now we are back to growth. But the economy is on the verge of arguably its biggest shift since the industrial revolution which is the digital revolution. So preparing for that is what we will be involved in for the next couple of years. It has been a very interesting 10 years!

10 years is a long time in consulting. In headline terms, do you think the business of being a good consultant has changed from what it was 10 years ago?

I think it’s changing, I think 10 years ago consultancy was still very much about providing advice and providing service by the hour. Now it’s much more about solving problems and creating value for clients. I think that can only be good and I think that change will continue as we go through the next few years. In fact I think our industry will be unrecognisable in 10 years’ time.

Looking ahead to 2025, how might it have changed by then?

I think the business model will have changed. We’ve always helped clients grasp opportunities or solve problems, but I think it will be much more about going into partnership to do that with them and then being paid out of the fruits of that partnership.

A lot of the work we currently do with people will be done by analytical databases and by smart algorithms. It will still be taking knowledge and insight but you will do it through technology as much as you will do it with people. My guess for EY in 10 years’ time is that it will be double or treble the size but with probably roughly the same number of people and higher up the value chain.

The MCA’s Year of Growth is focused on the connection between what our industry does and the performance of the economy as a whole. Where do you think the issues are for UK plc in terms of achieving sustainable growth and how is consulting playing into that?

There are two big issues for me. The first, helping UK based businesses deal with being in a global world. For me this is a key part of enabling growth e.g. which markets do you pick, how do you enter these markets, how can we be successful in these markets?

The second issue is around new technology. We use this word digital, but what do we mean? We mean mobile internet, robotics, machine learning, data analytics, big data, drone technology, all those kind of things. That presents all of our clients with massive growth opportunities and the trick therefore is to figure out what are the right ones to pick. That is where we consultants can be very helpful to our clients over the next few years.

When we talk to MCA members about business issues, recruitment and retention along with diversity and inclusion are often top of the list. You chair the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI). Can you explain how that plays into consulting and what it can achieve for consulting?

Again I would start with globalisation. When I first came into consulting, I led teams who were mostly like me. So actually leadership in that environment wasn’t terribly difficult. Now my teams are from all over the world; they are men, women, straight, gay, able bodied, disabled. Trying to get the best from a team like that is very difficult. It is particularly difficult for a generation of leaders who were brought up in a different environment.

If you can get the best from a diverse team like that, they are much more innovative as management consultants and are better at solving problems because they bring different experiences and ways of thinking.

But doing that and making sure that everyone can contribute and see that they have a career path, isn’t straightforward and that’s what the ENEI is about. It’s not the kind of organisation that you join if you want to show off your progressive nature. It’s an organisation which at a very practical level provides experience, hints, tips and training on how to become an inclusive leader, how to deal with things like unconscious bias, how to run a global firm in a world where everybody’s laws and opinions on diversity are different. It’s real practical stuff.

In which sectors do you see innovation and drive in the UK and what would you say to people thinking of investing Britain?

I think our tech sector is still quite unrecognised, but it is incredibly good. Some of the leading thinking and brilliant products that will change the world in five or six years’ time are being developed in the UK. If you go out to Hackney Wick and east of Silicon Roundabout, there are some amazing start-ups. We are actually very tech savvy, although funnily enough we don’t seem proud of that as a nation. I think those ideas going into the mainstream will fuel growth.

Our creative industries are absolutely world leading. Again I think our conventional businesses don’t tap into some of the creativity that we could use, design in particular is one. Over the next few years you will find mainstream industries using much more of that creative design than they currently do. I think tech and creativity are the bits of the UK economy that we do better than anyone else.

London at the moment is the capital of the world. If you want to go on being the capital of the world, the one thing you need to do is invest in infrastructure, starting with ways of getting in and out of the country.

What tips would you give someone who wants to join the industry?

There’s no better time to go into consulting. Consultants prosper when there’s lots of change. We’re good at helping our clients with change. It’s a terrible cliché but the pace of change is greater than it’s ever been, so the opportunities for helping and advising people have never been better.

However I think people will need to think about their careers in a very different way to the way I did. I don’t think you start as a graduate and work your way up to partner. I think you probably need to think about your career as sometimes working for organisations like EY and sometimes working on your own or in another sector. And even more than that, in today’s world, never stop learning. Knowledge goes out of date really quickly and unless you are continually refreshing your knowledge, you won’t be current.