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The art of being a chameleon

Susanne Svendsen
16 January 2008

Interview with Alan Middleton, the new CEO of PA Consulting Group

A perfect consultant must be a chameleon, have many contacts, and international experience too. The latter is the biggest challenge and an obstacle for many Danish consultants, according to the new CEO at PA Consulting Group, Alan Middleton, who has worked in consultancy for half his life.

He is aware that the title of 'consultant' has a sullied reputation – and is a title that anyone can use. “My wife gets her nails done by a nail consultant, and my son is taken care of by a child care consultant,” Alan Middleton explains ironically.

However, it is not that kind of consultant that the new top manager wants to talk about. It is real consultants. Those who help companies with anything from management advice to improving processes to redesigning complete organisations. This is exactly what PA Consulting Group has been doing since 1943 in countries such as Great Britain, Denmark, and the US.

“It is no longer a question of being the smartest guy in the room; it is about having the right contacts. The world today is all about networks and contacts. Without the ability to network you are dead in this business,” Alan Middleton states from his headquarters in central London.

This is the reason why we run a search on potential candidates on so-called social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace, to see if they are capable of making contacts and have relevant and targeted networks.

“This is what I keep telling people: if you just sit there waiting for the phone to ring, you will live in disappointment for the rest of your working life. Because it is not going to happen,” says Alan, who takes a deep breath before he answers the obvious question:

If it is all about having a great network, how can you be the right person for the job, considering you have been in the same company since 1988?

“It is true that I have been working for PA for 20 years, but I have also worked closely with about 150 client companies. Even though I am the new CEO, I had five client meetings last week” says the 41-year old top manager, who himself is online on – under an alias though – “Just to keep up with things ‘out there’”.

“It is about being able to interact with all types of people, otherwise you will never be a successful consultant” says Alan, who is an engineer by training and in his own words somewhat introvert.

“Being introvert is not a negative characteristic, it's negative only if you are not capable of changing your behaviour. Being a chameleon is what it takes to be a consultant”, says Alan, adding:

“It is not about being false. However, we all know of talented colleagues who are great at their job, but not very talented when it comes to working with others. As a consultant you must be able to work with any client. The ability to be outgoing and wanting to meet new people, even if it feels somewhat unnatural to you, makes a good consultant – together with good grades, a personality profile that shows drive, and an understanding of how to work in a global company”.

An island culture

The understanding of working in a global company does not always come easy to Englishmen – and Danes: “This is similar to an island culture. However, what is frustrating to me is that some of the best consultancy work takes place in Denmark, and we would like to export this across borders; however it is not easy to get the Danes to work abroad. This is unfortunate for them and for Danish companies”.

“In general, Danish consultants need more international experience. Without an international flavour, it is impossible to advise Danish companies which operate in a world which in many ways has no borders.”

Alan Middleton decided years ago, when newly qualified, to leave his job as an engineer in Scotland and move to London to begin a career at PA Consulting Group. Today, 20 years later, he manages 3,000 employees – including partners – at a consultancy firm which is among the largest in Great Britain and Denmark. However, globally PA Consulting Group cannot compete in size with competitors such as Accenture and McKinsey.

“It is our deliberate strategy not to fight. A company of our size simply cannot compete with a company which employs 130,000 people. We have our niches and it works well,” says the CEO, who, in the future, must try to live up to yearly earnings of £40 million. “Every five years we experience a common fear in the consultancy business. First it was the development of several new consultancy firms, then it was the many in-house consultancy firms, and now it is the fear of India. Yes, we are in a business under pressure, but it is all about delivering consultancy in whatever the clients need. At the end of the day, it is up to ourselves whether we have a future,” says Alan.

Last year, PA Consulting Group decided to close down its offices in Australia and Singapore as the company is concerned with profitability – not the size of business.

Soft skills

“As a consultant, you learn soft skills in an exceptional way. You get to work in several different sectors and, during the first two or three years of your career you are constantly challenged intellectually. This is why I took the job back then. Even though it paid 60 percent less than other jobs at the time,” says Alan, and adds: “It is a weird decision for a Scot, isn’t it ? But I advise young people to consider the first years of their career as an investment period. Your future jobs will depend on these years. Think twice and search for a job where you are being challenged and will develop a great network.”

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