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PA Consulting encourages generosity in its teams




Business Digest

30 September 2013




Interview with Anita Chandraker, Head of the IT Delivery Practice at PA Consulting Group, September 2013.

The idea of encouraging generosity in a business environment may be surprising, but it’s central to PA Consulting’s values. The firm’s culture of giving receives acclaim from employees and also demonstrably enhances organizational innovation capacity. 

Anita Chandraker first met Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, in 2011, when she attended an executive education program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where Adam Grant teaches. After the program ended, they kept in touch, and she later attended a talk he gave in the UK, where she works at PA Consulting’s London headquarters, supervising a team of 200 people. “I found his thinking so powerful that I applied it in my own business unit,” she says. Adam Grant’s basic message — that nice guys, or “givers,” can finish first — resonated with Anita’s own values and is also central to the culture at PA Consulting. “If I pull out one of our core values, it’s achieving success through shared endeavors. The way we work is to ask, ‘how can I help you so that we all deliver something great?”

Evaluating giving behaviors

Anita’s experience has proven to her that generosity tends to pay off in the end. She recounts how she regularly over a period of two years with a business contact – someone who gave little indication of being a promising business prospect – ultimately led to her securing a contract worth over a million pounds for the firm. But how does PA Consulting convince all its employees of the worth of giving? To reinforce “a culture of giving,” the firm has formal processes to reward giving behaviors. “The evaluation and promotion system has ‘hard targets,’ such as revenue,” Anita explains. “But we also place a significant weight on contributions such as developing others through training, mentoring, and creating new insights for others to share with their clients.” The subsequent performance score has a strong influence on annual bonuses so it really matters to employees. In addition, the company offers small monthly “spot bonuses” to people who have done something special. It also uses informal means to encourage givers and discourage “takers.” This is important because client projects often necessitate calling upon specialists in different areas across the company. “We have a lot of autonomy about how we work and who we work with,” Anita explains. “If my client needs something that I’m not an expert in, I have to come back and find the right person to help me.” She would naturally choose someone who was more of a giver than a taker. In this way givers are rewarded and takers excluded just naturally.

A culture of giving promotes collaboration 

Taking the company values one step further, lately Anita has been making changes in her practice to emphasize sharing and cooperation. Previously, her technical experts often came up with ideas about how to use new technology but only within the confines of the IT practice. She says, “That’s fine, but it’s hard to create ideas that help solve particular business problem when you work in isolation. To drive real innovation, we needed more collaboration with other parts of the firm.” The solution was to create a structure that allowed for more collaboration and experimentation. Anita explains that, “We created an innovation Investment Board and invited consultants to form cross-functional teams and come and pitch their ideas. The team then sets out how they plan to investigate/pursue it, how much time or money they need to take the idea to the next stage – we review and discuss it and only then grant (or reject) the request. This structure keeps all parties honest and has also meant that we debate and often improve ideas earlier.” She continues, “We’ve changed the culture so it’s much easier for teams to work together and share their thinking and generate new ideas, so now we have great examples of innovative cross-functional teamwork.” 

Collaboration fuels innovation 

One successful project had its beginnings when a life sciences expert had the idea of combining publicly available cross-industry patient data with Google’s data analytics tools, and the technical team’s expertise. This led to a working group with skills in diverse areas such as drug safety testing, big data, and information visualization creating a tool known as CLASS (Clinical and Safety Intelligence Technology) that will give pharmaceutical companies access to information about clinical trials worldwide. This could ultimately be used to improve the way safe and effective drugs come to market. It was sharing knowledge across departments, supported by the company’s culture of giving that led to this development. Anita notes, however, “sometimes projects don’t work out, and that’s fine too, because you can learn from failure. We’ve made it acceptable and challenging to try. That’s created a real buzz around our office.” And not only around the office. PA Consulting was named Google’s 2012 Global Partner of the Year for its Cloud Platform and won two UK IT Industry Awards in 2012.

But what about the impact of a culture of giving on Anita personally? It turns out that she too benefits from the giving behavior of someone else: her mentor. She responds to surprise that she herself has a coach with a laugh, saying, “Everybody needs mentoring.” In fact, she believes that encouraging more people to ask for help is one thing that can really change a culture. “Nobody knows everything, and you can always learn from others in your immediate circle and beyond. Knowing how to ask for that help is one of the enablers to getting the giving dynamic going.”

Creating a “giving’ culture” through mentoring  

At PA Consulting, new hires get both a buddy and a mentor. The buddy helps employees settle in to the company, and the mentor is a more senior person who offers advice in a less formal capacity than a supervisor. In her leadership role, Anita receives many requests for mentoring, so she has learned from experience to set some ground rules.” I could end up spending more than 50% of my time coaching people and that would mean I’d fail on my own targets,” she says. The process she has created is:

1. She determines if she is the right person. If not, she helps the person find another mentor. 

2. If she agrees to mentor the person, she contracts with the individual, agreeing together what the mentee wants out of the process. 

3. After each session, the mentee writes down his/her commitments and Anita does likewise (for example, she might agree to send the person an article, or connect them with someone).

“I find it quite interesting that as soon as you make a commitment in writing, it becomes more serious,” she says. “This small thing makes the relationship much more productive and efficient.”

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