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PA Consulting CEO Ken Toombs on the company’s history of leading with purpose


26 April 2021

PA Consulting CEO Ken Toombs speaks with Fortune’s Susie Gharib about PA’s history of leading with purpose.

Fortune’s Susie Gharib: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your company PA Consulting. Tell us what kind of consulting work you do and how do you deliver on your promise of bringing ingenuity to life?

Ken Toombs: Well, thanks Susie for the time and the question. First and foremost, we like to remind people that we are purpose-led firm above all else. And I like to say that everything we do we should do on purpose. We believe in the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future and that purpose acts as our North Star and has for years, it guides our decision making it. It's really a part of the fabric of the firm. And so what do we do for our clients? Well, the number one imperative for our clients is really around growth. And so they're looking for us to help them to build new revenue platforms. They want help building new products, new services, both physical and digital, and with exceptional customer experience. And this applies in the Public Sector as well, where improving services and experiences for citizens is also critical. And we do that in the way that's very different from other firms because we bring together a breath of skills that are so specialized that no one else can compete with us. That's everything from high end design skills, applied science. We have biologists, chemists, epidemiologists on staff. We have engineers from all walks of life, mechanical, electrical, software. Supply chain experts, technology experts, etc. And we bring this seamlessly together. Our clients get the best of all worlds and they get a one stop shop for their end-to-end innovation requirements.

Susie: Well, that's a lot of capabilities, much more than what we usually think when we talk about a consulting firm. And I understand that PA Consulting played a critical role in building ventilators at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic, when they were badly needed. Tell us how you orchestrated the manufacturing, new technology, training workers to pull this off and still to deliver those badly needed ventilators in record time.

Ken: Susie this is a project that I think the entire firm feels incredibly proud about for a variety of reasons. It seemed to be a daunting and undoable task. When we got to call in March 2020, the UK Government was worried that there would be people who needed a ventilator that wouldn't have a ventilator and would die. And the estimate was that another 30,000 ventilators were going to be needed. And so we, with a number of other firms, put together a consortium to try and figure out how to actually build 30,000 ventilators within eight weeks. And as we led that effort, what we found was we had to do all kinds of things that no one would believe. We set up what was essentially a billion dollar company in a couple of weeks. During a three week period, we actually ordered 40 million parts from over 21 countries and had them delivered in three weeks. We did all kinds of things, like looking at new designs, we looked at people who manufactured ventilators to see if we could help them to manufacture faster. And a great example is Penlon, a terrific manufacturer of ventilators, we helped them to build more ventilators in one day than they've built in 10 months.

Susie: That's just such an amazing story and effort. You've also been working with a Swedish company PulPac to replace single use plastics with a sustainable alternative. What is the common thread in all of these examples?

Ken: Well again, I think the themes are the two or three that I've mentioned, really around improving health care for people, increasing sustainability in the world, and then keeping people safe. Almost all of our projects fit into one of those categories.

Susie: Well Ken one thing that I’ve been noticing about CEOs these days is that they talk about the importance of redefining the purpose of their companies and the power of leading with purpose. What does that mean?

Ken: Well I think for PA, one of the things that I’ve always felt great about is that PA has been purpose led for many years, long before the US Business Roundtable came out and said ‘focus on more than just shareholders.’ PA has had the same purpose and bringing ingenuity of life has been something we've been living for a number of years. I think the important part for us has always been how do we weave that into everything we do in our company and how do we make it part of how we make decisions on a daily basis?

Susie: Why is still critical for today's businesses? As you know many CEOs like you are strong believers in this but there are others who say this is just a fad.

Ken: Well I think if you having been in the industry for a long long time I can tell you that there was a real struggle 15-20 years ago between doing good and doing well, and often economics was the thing that kept us from doing good. Today there are so many alternatives with the technologies that are out there, mobile technology, disruptive material, science. There really is no trade off between doing good and doing well anymore. It's a false trade up and it's one we should give up well.

Susie: Do you think that this pandemic has influenced how companies feel about their role in society and maybe have converted some of the skeptics to see that doing good is also good for business. Do you think that it’s had an impact?

Ken: Yeah, I'd like to think so. And I think certainly the clients we work with have seen this and have said the same thing. We had a roundtable with CEOs a couple months back and this was the whole topic of discussion. How do we now embed purpose into everything we do? Because you know some of the things we saw during the pandemic is employees working remotely are incredibly trustworthy. In fact they work even harder than they did when they were in the office in many cases. So really what this means for people in purpose is thinking about outputs. What do we ask people to do, not how do we ask them to do it? Thinking more broadly about how work is done and how we help people who are in need has now come together into a real purpose led approach in many industries.

Susie: Ken, you’ve been CEO of PA now for about six months. Do you find that you need a different set of leadership skills to run a purpose driven company? What's been your experience so far?

Ken: I would say you absolutely do, and I think it's a few things. One is, you need to have some humility because what you're trying to do is engage people, and by showing people that you care about what they think and how they think you start to engage them. When you get engagement, you start to create an inclusive environment. And for me, that's the number one idea behind leading a great company. An inclusive environment creates a playground for diversity. And quite frankly, diversity is what is the fuel for ingenuity, and that's our secret sauce. So trying to create that inclusive environment through engagement and humility. Those are the kinds of skills I think you need CEOs to see as critical these days.

Susie: So you didn't feel that there were any adjustments?

Ken: Well, for me, the adjustment was more of all those things, right? I think we always had humility and we always tried to create engagement, but I think it became top priority much more than the financials, for example. So today I would tell you financial results are a byproduct. Having the right purpose, having a strategy, and then dealing with people in a way that engages them in a way that they feel good about themselves.

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