By Jolie Fong and Claudia Tan
Kenny is a Management Consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Southeast Asia Consulting, specialising in Customer Strategy, where he helps businesses reimagine and deliver the ideal customer experience by leveraging behavioural economics and human-centred design. His experience extends to Digital & Technology Advisory as well as Performance Acceleration projects across various industries in the Asia-Pacific region, specializing in Change Management capabilities. To find out more about Kenny’s professional background, you may find his LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sngkenny/.
I am currently a Management Consultant at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) Southeast Asia Consulting, specialising in customer and digital strategy — things surrounding customer experience, digital transformation, with a focus on the financial services industry.
I’ll give an analogy. Consultants are like fitness coaches or doctors. Just like how doctors diagnose and cure sicknesses, we solve problems clients currently have in their businesses through identifying problems and providing solutions. Just like how fitness coaches help you become fit, we help businesses achieve their vision through projects.
I see consulting as a very good platform to learn more quickly about business. Someone seeking to become a specialist in a given area would normally want to join a firm in a role with a particular niche straight after graduation. However, having taken a double degree in Business and Accountancy, I saw myself as a generalist to begin with, and I wanted to carry on that track by learning more about businesses from a bird’s-eye view.
The projects I have worked on so far have been quite transformational. Directly interacting with C-Suites has allowed me to learn a lot about many industries and companies, as well as identify their many functions and problem areas. My current projects are focused around customer experience and digitalisation, but back when I first started out, I did a lot of work on systems implementation (payroll, process mapping, operating model development, etc) I was also exposed to a breadth of industries – the public sector, transport and logistics, healthcare, banks, hotels, and much more. I feel that working in consulting provides you with a great variety, as well as a fast learning curve around many businesses.
When I was in secondary school, my favourite pastime was reading annual reports of listed companies – reading about, for instance, how they operated, or who was on their Board of Directors. I had the simple view that studying Business was the path for me, because I had that intrinsic interest to begin with.
I picked NTU because the idea of completing two honours degrees in 4 years seemed worthwhile. In retrospect, it was valuable to take up an Accountancy degree in addition to solely Business, even though I don’t really do Accountancy-related work as a Consultant. It provided me with a very strong foundation when dealing with numbers in the industry. There are a lot of rules and conventions to follow in Accountancy as well, so I also picked up logical reasoning skills and attention to detail.
The Business degree, meanwhile, taught me how to better manage projects and teams. Looking back, both degrees gave me the best of both worlds, and going into consultancy meant that all those skills I picked up were immediately transferrable.
During my time in University, I participated in a few case competitions, where I was able to get some real world experience. Additionally, it was at my Consulting internship where I was able to learn more about the industry and decided to go into it from there.
As for the content of the degrees themselves, I feel that by the time you graduate and start work, what you learned in school would not be the most updated or functionally applicable; you’d have to follow up and learn on your own even after university. The fact of consultancy is that to take on projects from different fields, you typically have to learn on the fly and give advice quickly. The soft skills you pick up in your university days are definitely more helpful than the theory itself.
I would recommend that students, who might be interested in consulting, should participate in relevant activities in university, such as the academic clubs, networking events and information sessions, because it’s especially relevant to the business development aspect of consulting, and it would be good to familiarise yourself with this type of platform from the start.
It really depends on the type of project I am working on, but there’s usually two key areas that we have to take note of for all projects. First, there is project management, which involves monitoring the scope of projects, the progress, issues and risks, and stakeholder engagement. A second key area would be data analysis, where you have to make sense of data in order to generate solutions.
In reality, each project is really different. I have had projects that have required me to go mystery shopping, do fieldwork and conduct public surveys.
Beyond projects, consultants also do broader business development work, which involves sales and proposals through building client relationships. Sometimes, we also attend and create events to generate interest in certain topics. For example, right now, there’s a lot of events talking about the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. We attend these industry-specific events and network with the leaders there, build bars around important topics and get them around what’s best in the industry.
Consultants are also quite lean in terms of support. Many help to plan internal events or employee motivators (for example family days, developmental workshops, or recruitment activities).
For me, the most enjoyable aspect is project delivery. This involves getting into projects and helping clients solve important problems.
The most challenging area is business development, because the industry is quite competitive in the sense that you and your company usually do not have a personal or unique relationship with any one client. It is also increasingly less difficult for companies to directly recruit talent around the world to build internal capabilities, rather than engaging a consulting firm. Moreover, with the ongoing pandemic and an unstable economy, many companies have chosen to cut costs and only focus on projects with the most strategic value. There are a lot of factors that affect their decisions, which makes it challenging for us consultants as well.
At least in Singapore, expect firms to have a regional setup. Southeast Asia is the fastest-growing region in the world; the culture is quite flexible as we need to be agile in order to be able to adjust to market demands and what is changing in the region. The organisation is also usually quite flat in the sense that there is no major hierarchy, and it’s also practical in terms of work-life integration.
In the past, people had the misconception that consultants need to have an MBA (Masters in Business Administration). An MBA still has value in that it brings together a pool of talented people you can learn from, but there’s actually no one qualification you absolutely need to do consulting. These days, however, there’s a shift from formal education to micro-learning.
In the consulting industry, I’m seeing a trend of taking minor, small online courses from, say, Google, Microsoft or even LinkedIn at your own pace. Some of these courses even provide you with a professional certification. Compared to a traditional programme, they are much more relevant if you want to go into a particular specialisation or better understand some aspect of the job. For example, during this COVID-19 period, I took a self-learning course on Marketing Analytics on Coursera. I didn’t have to, but through some of my projects I’d actually gotten in touch with marketing analytics and since I had the extra time, I wanted to better familiarise myself with it.
More than certificates, the best learning for any Consultant is on the job. You can take as many courses as you want, but it will not be nearly as impactful as actual project work that demands proper understanding and execution. I would say that the 70/20/10 model of learning applies – 70% of development is on the job, 20% is through coaching and mentoring, and the 10% is from theory and certification.
The two most important soft skills, in my opinion, would be building engagement and data analysis. As a Consultant, you will have to talk to people with different views, understand and empathise with them while sharing your own opinion, which is very important in building relationships and getting work done. For any project, you have to be able to digest a large amount of information, synthesise important insights and generate solutions from that information, which is where data analysis skills come into play.
Consultants are generalists by nature, but you can’t just bluff your way through either. You need to adopt a big-picture way of thinking in order to oversee projects, but be detail-oriented at the same time when it comes to things like drawing up slides or pitches and auditing.
A common misconception is that consultants “fluff” clients by telling them things they already know. However, this is dependent on the nature of the project, and the reason that consultants were engaged by the client to begin with. For example, they might seek out consultants to further convince internal stakeholders on the decisions the company wishes to make, or to encourage innovative thought-leaderships and explore new ways of doing things. Hence, even though the company already knows about the benefits of their decisions, hiring a consultant can help convince different stakeholders on these benefits.
More fundamentally, the main reason why people hire consultants is to orchestrate cross-functional areas together to allow management to see things with an integrated view.
Another misconception is that there is no immediate value from hiring a consultant. This obscures the fact there are different types of consulting such as high-level strategy consulting, strategy-execution consulting and technology-implementation consulting, with different time horizons for seeing any added value. For example, in order for a consultant to contribute to help implement new technology, the client has to first acquire basic capital such as skills and capabilities before any improvements can be observed.
Take on a lot more case competitions and learn how to prepare for them. Case interviews are often part of the consultant interview process; taking part in case competitions would have helped me to deal with them more efficiently.
I would also attend more industry sharing sessions to build my business acumen and career events to understand different industries.
I would participate in more hobbies and holistic activities such as volunteer work. Not only do these activities build my own knowledge, they would augment the skill set I needed for work, such as talking to people from a wide variety of industries. It’s also good to try new things and discover what makes you stand out from others.
I am very active in the Grassroots community, where I do engagement projects, work with new media and foster social inclusion. When I volunteer, I interact with people from all walks of life and from all levels of society, through which I learn to listen and empathise with them and generate amicable solutions or help. This skill of stakeholder engagement can also be applied to my consulting job. As a Grassroots Leader for example, I’ve contributed ideas to upgrading residential facilities to curating events, which is quite similar to advising companies on making their product more customer-centric. Taking time out to contribute to youth engagement initiatives like Advisory also helps me to reflect on myself and my work, as well as keep me updated in an ever-changing society. The experience I pick up when volunteering is immediately transferable over to my job as a consultant and it helps me greatly in my work.
I hope to build a T-shaped career, which consists of both broad-based (horizontal) and in-depth knowledge (vertical). For the horizontal aspect, I have been exposed to different geographies, industries and functional projects. In terms of functionality, I’m starting to specialise in customer experience and digital transformation prospects. However, going forward, I want to focus more on the vertical aspect, which is growing my speciality in a particular industry, likely insurance.
But ten years is a long time. It’s also possible that I would have gone into corporate as an in-house consultant or in a senior management position by then.
Generally speaking, students interested in any career should definitely take advantage of platforms that offer networking events and provide information on the job through interviews, seminars and mentorship programmes.
Specific to consulting, attend industry networking sessions around consulting where you can get the chance to understand how the industry works. Read-up and talk to people with experience in consultancy, get their perspectives, synthesise your findings and see for yourself what the consulting industry is really like. I would also encourage students to look for mentors that will share with you their knowledge and what they have built, and may even help connect you to the industry. Look out for things that can help you break the bubble on the misconceptions of consultancy.