By Soong Hung Hao and Julian Rocero
When large companies face problems, they employ a ‘fixer’ – someone who can step in and solve their problems. Oftentimes, this fixer comes in the form of a consultant, just like Mr. Andy Soh. Andy is a consultant at Accenture, a leading giant in the consulting space. Working specifically in the technology and management consulting space, his role involves making sense of confusing data and innovating real-world solutions alongside his clients.
The dynamic work that consulting offers enables him to interact with broad swathes of people in the professional world, most notably C-suite executives and senior management. In this in-depth piece with Andy, his ‘tell-it-as-it-is’ advice reveals major insights into the coveted industry of consulting.
I am a consultant with Accenture, and mainly specialise in management and technology consulting. I graduated from NUS in 2018 having studied a Double Degree Program (DDP). I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering (Industrial Systems Engineering & Management) and a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration (Finance specialisation).
My workdays are rather varied and depend on numerous factors, such as our current client, project scope, and project phase. However, there are several common categories of activities that I perform in general.
Firstly, I regularly meet and engage with clients – by collaborating with our clients at every step of the way, we are able to exchange ideas, gather feedback, and adjust our next steps based on their needs. Over the years, I have found that projects are typically more successful when our solutions are co-created alongside our clients. Our meetings take on various formats: they can range from interviews and focus-group discussions, to prioritization exercises and steering committee meetings, all of which are conducted with different corporate populations. Through these engagements, we hope to create a relevant solution that would more likely be adopted.
Secondly, I also spend significant time working on the problem itself, which is typically a team-based effort. This involves engineering a solution for our client, including digesting and analysing gathered information, designing solutions, building top-notch presentation materials, and more. Especially in the initial stages, it is important for consultants to translate a diverse set of data into meaningful insight – sensemaking is truly at the core of what we do.
Lastly, I also perform administrative day-to-day tasks, such as managing project work schedules and email communications.
I will explain this with respect to the value chain of our work.
Let us start with strategy consulting. Strategy consulting addresses broad, open questions that companies may have, such as ‘how can I future-proof my organisation over the next five years?’. After engaging clients on such problems, consultants may provide a set of recommendations to address the client’s needs. Sometimes, the company’s leaders may neither have the risk appetite nor the financial firepower to embark on all the recommendations, so they may instead shortlist areas to work on.
This is where management consulting then comes into play, building upon the earlier broader recommendations to provide tailored, specific advisory. Such work typically helps to analyse the on-the-ground impact to the organisation and details plans to operationalise the initiative. Armed with these details, the organization may then implement the initiative and make any necessary adjustments along the way.
If a technology solution is required, technology consulting may then be involved in designing and architecting the solution. Some of the other downstream professional services may also include developing, testing, and managing such technology solutions. Depending on the organisation’s needs, such technologies may range from commercial off-the-shelf products developed by existing software providers to custom-made solutions. Many of these solutions are enablers – freeing employees from low-value work, or providing access to data or information that was previously difficult to obtain.
In my role, I work predominantly in the management and technology consulting space, although I have also worked on some strategy consulting projects as well.
The beauty of consulting is that it values a diversity of skill sets and experiences, and there is no ‘ideal’ background or pathway for one to become a consultant. This is crucial, as most client problems that we face cannot be solved by textbook answers from a single field. People from varied backgrounds each bring something different to the table. Diversity lends us a more holistic perspective and enables us to employ a variety of tools and techniques. That being said, there are definitely certain qualities that make a good consultant.
Perhaps the most important quality is problem-solving skills. Accenture places great emphasis on adopting the right approach and process to drive the right results. This usually means adopting a rigorous approach while still working within practical constraints, such as time and availability of information. Many of these approaches are based on field-tested frameworks and may sometimes be complex. However, I personally find that simple frameworks often work just as well as complicated ones. For instance, 5W1H questioning (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?) is one of my favourites when familiarising myself with a client situation and the lay of the land.
Adaptability, the skill to navigate different client environments, is also another key quality for consultants. Managing different projects, stakeholders, working styles and cadences requires finesse.
In addition, communication – the idea of listening well, articulating clearly and adjusting your language to fit your audience – is equally important. When clients share their pain points and challenges, you must be able to vicariously empathise.
Consultants have a great deal of work cut out for them. You must actively look out for potential pitfalls and value-add opportunities. Being proactive and having a sense of ownership in your work trains a keen eye for identifying them.
These qualities are all essential to consulting.
There are three main reasons why consultants are hired. Firstly, the nature of work may be short-term and temporary. Rather than hiring permanent staff for a project that may only last a few months, consultants offer an ad hoc service that is wrapped up once the issue has been resolved. Secondly, the work may be laborious and time-intensive, resulting in the client having little incentive to embark on the project on their own. Lastly, clients may lack the knowledge or experience required, and we can fill this gap by bringing in our external perspectives and deep industry experience. These are some of the reasons why consulting remains in-demand and useful to our clients.
Accenture boasts a wide breadth of services across the value chain. Few companies can claim to offer consulting in such a holistic, end-to-end manner, covering everything from strategy consulting to implementation. Furthermore, we provide this breadth of services across 40 industries in five industry groups. This enables us to deliver excellent cross-industry work, by tapping on our vast resources in different teams, industries, and countries. Accenture currently employs over 700,000 people in over 200 cities — a strong testament to our capabilities and the resources at our disposal.
I would describe it as a culture of cultures, as there is diversity throughout our very large organisation. However, there are a few core values that underpin how we act and make decisions. One of them that I am reminded of frequently is ‘Best People’, which refers to attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent, challenging our people, and fostering a collaborative and supportive environment. Indeed, I work with and have the privilege of learning from many good people in the firm. Not only are they thought leaders in their fields, but also role models in how they lead teams with humility, engage stakeholders with integrity, and mentor their people. As cliché as it might sound, much where I am professionally is owed to the fact that I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
Accenture has also recently introduced its 360° value reporting, measuring value for our stakeholders in multiple directions. Two elements that have more recently come to the forefront of public attention would be inclusion and diversity, and sustainability. Regarding the former, Accenture is proud to be a supporter of gender equality, with women making up 47% of our employee base and on track to reach 50% by 2025. Our other areas of focus include ethnicity, LGBTIQ+, religion, persons with disabilities, and cross-cultural diversity. In addition, we have volunteer groups and internal initiatives that champion these causes and aim to spread greater awareness within the firm. On the sustainability front, we are constantly working towards a more sustainable and equitable future aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 85% of our offices now rely only on renewable energy sources, and we aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2025.
Apart from this, we are a company that ultimately aims to deliver good experiences to our clients, all while keeping our bottom line in check and cultivating a talented team of consultants.
I am very thankful to have had great mentors along the way in my career. One of them was Susan Murphy, who happened to be one of my first managers. During a town hall, I found it challenging to network with so many new faces, as a wide-eyed fresh graduate barely two months into my first job. Despite having only worked with her on my first and then only project, Susan graciously introduced me to countless senior leaders in the firm and vouched for my abilities. Till today, I am incredibly grateful to have met a leader like her early on in my time with Accenture and for that remarkably kind gesture.
My second story also occurred when I was relatively new to consulting and the firm. As part of the project engagement, I found some resources from our online repository that I found relevant but that I needed additional clarification on. I decided to reach out to the Switzerland-based senior manager who uploaded the materials, unsure if anyone would bother with an inquiry from a mere analyst halfway across the world. You could imagine my surprise when she reverted not only with the clarifications, but also an offer to jump on a call within the next couple of days with me to resolve my confusion. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, but also immensely proud to belong to a firm where people put our core values into practice – in this instance, ‘One Global Network’.
The nature of consulting entails being thrown into a new project after the current one has been wrapped up. This often means a steep learning curve and having to quickly adapt to new client environments. Despite the knowledge and perspective that our team possesses, there still exists some level of uncertainty when we are introduced to a new project. Different client firms, though in the same industry, could have vastly different internal processes. We thus engage clients with the mindset that we do not have all the answers and are not a panacea to all their problems; instead, we would be keen to embark on a journey of co-discovery with them and build solutions with inputs from all stakeholders.
Learning to be confident in your work can also be challenging. Stakes are often high in our projects, with both our and our clients’ reputations on the line. We recognize and are mindful that our recommendations would have very real impacts when executed on the ground. After time, effort, and money have been invested in the project, there would still be a chance that things do not pan out as we expect them to. Having the resolve to let your self-doubt take a back seat and be confident that you have performed reasonably within the limits of what is possible for the project – this is a challenge that I am working to overcome even today.
I believe that engineering has equipped me with the technical skill sets required in the workforce: analytical problem-solving, computing skills, statistics knowledge, and general numerical literacy. However, I felt that I also needed to see how my work would fit into an organisation and the broader business world. That was where business school came in and helped me understand much better how organizations are run and the contexts in which businesses exist. As a consultant, having both business and engineering degrees also enables me to bring vastly different perspectives to discussions and offers me more agility in where I can contribute.
To be frank, I did not have a ‘dream job’ from the very beginning. After graduating from university, I applied to countless jobs, including consulting firms, banks, conglomerates, and FMCGs. I was very practical and did not want to be limiting my options from the outset by being picky – it was only when I received multiple offers that I could decide which was best for me. At the time, Accenture stood out because I felt that it would offer me the diversity of experiences that I wanted and equip me with transferable skills that I could bring to future roles.
A piece of advice I received earlier on is that one must draw clear boundaries on what they are willing and, more importantly, not willing to sacrifice in their personal life. In the corporate world, many firms are huge machines that are ready to consume as much as you are willing to give. Setting aside time and energy for other aspects of your life enables you to bring your best self to both work and family, but of course, there have been instances where I had to sacrifice time and energy to meet urgent deadlines. It is, however, crucial to take the time to rest and avoid burning out. This keeps things sustainable in the longer term.
The hard truth is that working hours are not short in consulting. Yet, the exposure you get from being a consultant – solving different problems across diverse industries and clients – may accelerate your career progression. As consultants, many of us know this and are willing to make the trade-off to gain this exposure that would come in very useful in the future.
Through my interaction with them, I have learned to elevate my thinking and perspectives to better empathize with them and address their concerns. Many of them are also very sharp in their thinking, yet humble and hungry to continue learning more from others. In addition, they have keen abilities to weigh problems and make decisions. I find myself looking forward to interactions with them, in hope that I would be able to model their attitude and glean some of their wisdom as well.
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. It is important to take care of yourself so that you can go the distance without burning out.
While doing good work is chiefly important, it is imperative to also demonstrate your good work – to the right people. This is so that you might be fairly recognised for your work, which in the longer term, would benefit both you and the organization you work for. In the same vein, as leaders, we need to be aware of how our people perform, where they can improve, and reward them fairly.