View from the Top: Paul Cook, Challenge Consulting

We spoke to Paul Cook, Consulting Director at Challenge Consulting, about his career in consultancy, his typical day and Challenge's success at this year's MCA Awards.


Why did you choose a career in the industry?

I started working in the civil service and received fantastic training but knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever; I enjoy change and variety too much. I started working in systems and people change at News International and worked for and alongside consultants. I enjoyed the work and that was what made me decide I should join one of the big consultancies. The rest is history. If you thrive on change and helping influence people to deliver tangible benefits, it’s a great career.


Describe a typical day

My role involves marketing Challenge, selling new business and delivering consultancy. I could be meeting a client for the first time and trying to understand their problems. I might be working with my team to write a proposal and work out how we’d help a client and what it might cost. I may well be meeting the team on a client site and discussing the progress they’ve made and helping them with the difficult problems. I might be tweeting or writing some thought material about something I’ve seen in the news. I could be working with my colleagues to shape the future of Challenge. Or I might be producing the bills! When you’re part of the leadership team of a small firm, it’s hugely varied and certainly never dull.


Challenge won the Change Management in the Private Sector award at this year’s MCA Awards for its work with Hitachi Capital. It is reported that Hitachi have now doubled their profits since working with your team. What would you say were the key factors that led to such a success?

When we first started work with Hitachi Capital, they functioned as four discrete businesses and after their CEO retired, there was a leadership void. We identified this and helped their Management Team fill this void. We defined their roles and helped them to set ambitious targets. When they worked together, they could see how each business would grow to offer finance solutions to all types of businesses from SME to large blue chips and also consumer finance; effectively their growth filled gaps across the market.


As well as Challenge, a number of smaller consultancies were victorious at this year’s awards. What advice would you give to smaller consultancies who need to make their mark?

We believe that small firms have a valuable place in the industry. There’s four areas of advice we would offer:

  • It goes without saying that you have to deliver work of the highest quality for any consulting firm; as a small firm, this is really critical.
  • Where we believe we can compete is in our expertise in our niche. We are really clear on what our niche is in both the market and our offering to it. We focus on this niche and aim to be the number one player in it.
  • Having worked in both large and small firms, niche consulting firms have to work in different ways with the client; we have small teams who work shoulder to shoulder with the client team showing them how to do things. We think it needs to be very hands-on.
  • We also feel we have to be bold; we’re always ready to say what needs to be said, and have the difficult discussions when we need to.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I’m a firm believer that the niche companies have a role to play and provide an alternative way of working to the big firms. I’d like to make sure small firms remain competitive and are a sustainable alternative. We’re working hard to grow Challenge and that’s where my immediate sights are set. Beyond that, I’d like to repeat the process perhaps in another niche.


Are there any current threats to the industry?

At the moment, I think the big threat comes from clients wanting and perhaps thinking they can do what we do. Everyone has read a change management book, how hard can it be? Our approach is to work alongside the client, help them do what we do, lend our experience but quite quickly, leave them to manage the change themselves. But I do think they benefit from some help along the way. Obviously economic conditions are tough but this has always been an opportunity for our industry to change the focus of our propositions and continue to help companies manage their way through crises.


Any advice for consultants?

I loved my spell at PwC, they gave me a great training and I worked with some very smart people. I think everyone has to spend some time working in a big firm.

I think you have to look for development in everything you do. To some extent you may not be able to control which roles you do, but you can always maximise the lessons learned.

Never stop asking questions, be persistent and look to improve everything. Keep asking why.

Everything you do has to enhance your CV, you’ve got to keep learning and developing as an individual