Management Consulting

<<Presentation to University of Aberdeen — full text>>

Alisdair Menzies
17 min readFeb 4, 2021


I am here today to talk about some of my experiences as a management consultant and hopefully through this help you understand some of the scenarios I have faced, how I managed them and the tools that I have used to manage them. Thanks to Luciana for inviting me here today to talk to you all about my experiences.

Some of these tools were shared with me by other consultants and others I studied at university as a part of my degree. Others have been down to my own internal need to improve the organisations I worked for.

I live in Edinburgh and currently I am a senior delivery manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments. I studied at the University of Aberdeen. I suspect the experience now as a student, is somewhat different given the global pandemic and Brexit and the challenges this has created. For me, it has resulted in me spending all of my working day, here, in what was meant to be an occasional home office.

The good news for you all, is that these challenges create great opportunities for management consultants. Where there is poor clarity, management consultants can bring their maximum value.

Russ Ackoff quote

To kick off my presentation to you all, I would like to start with a quote from Russell Ackoff, Ackoff was a pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking and management science

it is generally easier to evaluate an organisation from the outside-in than from inside-out — Russell Ackoff

As an industry, management consulting continues to grow. When I was born in 1980, there were approximately 20,000 management consultants worldwide, by the time I had graduated there were over 450,000 and today external consulting is a $300bn business.

While 2020 was the first year in the history of consulting, there was a drop in global revenues, indications for 2021 and beyond are that there should be an increase, as investment decisions put off last year cannot be deferred further.

For context, the big 4 audit firms, Deloitte, PWC, EY and KPMG are estimated to employ around 1 million people worldwide with a significant number working in management consulting. The combined total of the top 3 pure play management consultancy’s, McKinsey, BCG and Bain, employ around 55,000

On a personal note, I assume many of you seek to join the world of consulting. This of course has been extremely fulfilling and at times particularly challenging for me. Clients expect greatness from you, and this can, in turn be demanding and at times stressful. You should seek be self-aware and understand how you respond to stress. By understanding this and recognising this in yourself, you will better equip yourself to deal with any challenges. Learn to spot the signs in you, and those you work with. We all respond differently to stress however by being self-aware will allow you to develop effective countermeasure and ensure you have the right balance. People when stressed are unlikely to make good decisions or produce great work.

10 years in consulting

after studying at the University of Aberdeen I joined RBS

I have, in some form, spent more than ½ my career in consulting. 7 of those years were as an internal consultant. While Russell Ackoff’s quote remains true, there is a significant market in internal consulting.

Firms, including RBS, configure internal consulting practices in a similar way to internal audit. This may not seem like a great way to win friends, it allows for a, outward-in view, while having a deeper knowledge of the business you are supporting. The pros and cons of external vs. internal consulting are hotly debated and, from my experience, I recognise the value in both.

This was my entry point to management consulting.

Worked Alongside Mckinsey

After 2008 and financial crisis, it is no secret that RBS was badly in need of transformative change. Under the leadership of Fred Goodwin and the folly of ever burgeoning books, a disastrous take over of ABN Amro at the worst possible time (to remind you Lehman Brothers had just gone bankrupt) the organisation, RBS, had failed. It had overreached and had been forced to go cap in hand to the government for a bail out. RBS was bankrupt, and too big to fail. As I am sure you can imagine, it was a challenging few years working there.

Following the bail out and looking to transform in order to repay some of the debts, RBS looked to leading consultancies Mckinsey.

Fast forward 2 years and I was offered the chance to work along side McKinsey to join an internal consultancy to address a wide range of the most challenging issues RBS faced. I worked alongside these consultants, and the internal consulting team, for the best part of 7 years in a range of roles, transforming operations, the supply chain, and digital functions.

Worked for boutique consultancy

This led me to a role with a boutique management consultancy in 2016 working with some really interesting and challenging clients over 3 years.

Working for a small consultancy allows you to challenge yourself and get involved in a wider set of clients and industries than you might not see working for a large consultancy and I was looking to widen my experience from banking. You also get to be involved in a much wider set of disciplines as a part of the business cycle including bidding for work, defining service offerings, and trying new approaches.

Plain sailing

I have had some challenges that are impossible to anticipate. After 2 days on a client site, I’ve had the head of a business unit hijack me with the Functional director and offer the director an ultimatum — him or me (fortunately for me, they chose me to continue to support the business transformation). I stepped back from the conversation, calmly and allowed the politics to play out between the 2, and focused on the needs of the business.

I’ve also had someone walk off with my shoes on in airport security. In London city airport I took my shoes off, placed them onto the conveyor belt and they disappeared out the other side. What was left were a pair of shoes, a different colour and 2 sizes smaller than the shoes I arrived with.

From the surreal to the ridiculous these are where you are likely to not be able to control the situation, only how you respond.

Today I’ll focus on areas that can be prepared for. Human behaviour, rationality and shoe size are much harder to account for.


In most organisations, you will be exposed to some form of politics and I always choose to listen, observe but not interact with these as ultimately this will distract from the objective of any engagement. As you can tell from the prior example between the head of business unit and director, these can seek to draw you in. Be aware of them, do not participate. You are likely supporting an organisation for a finite time and rarely will your participation in politics be virtuous.

By being aware without becoming part of the politic, allows for better syndication of ideas and can even help with the framing of an outcome.

Ready for change

No matter what engagement, and the nature of it, consultants are rarely called upon because things are going well. As with the reasons RBS sought advice from McKinsey, management consultants are brought in to help with significant challenges. Prepare for some resistance. You can also acknowledge the change curve, as this will enable those affected by it to talk about it in similar terms — people look for a common language to cope with and manage change.

A more challenging aspect that is at the forefront of minds now, is with most of the office working happening remotely, the nonverbal cues are missing. I know, when driving change previously, a key part of this, was reading the body language, and responding to change in individuals. With this now missing from the toolset, in the past year I have made a lot more time for 1–2–1’s and the softer leadership tools.

Where often issues could be visible, or discussed informally, in the world of remote working time must be intentionally set aside to engage with teams and leaders. I say this of course as a delivery leader in Aberdeen Standard Investments and not as a management consultant today, but the practice would still be relevant.

Thought leadership.

As a consultant, people, clients and stakeholders will expect you to have answers — and having a set of tools that you trust and know well, helps with this and you can use them to re-frame problems into a context that allows you to better communicate.

Experience of course helps and allows for a wider context to be offered, however even the most seasoned consultants will seek similes and will have to rely on tools as much as experience and expertise.

This is not to try and confuse or mislead clients, but allows you to demonstrate strategic thinking and offer insight where you may not have a full picture. These should be used to backup how you present ideas, not front and centre and this could detract from your messaging you aim to achieve.

Don’t mistake the tools you have as panaceas for your client’s challenges. They are not, but they support the hard work you will do in asking the right questions, setting out a great framework to get lasting results for the client.

Navigating organisations is difficult.

Organisations are rarely designed optimally and often create resilient systems to both resist change and complex structures, structure charts and stakeholder maps are your friend.

Some organisations even put-up legal barriers and obfuscate roles and responsibilities. A role you may think you re familiar with, may be completely different in a different organisation so the questions you ask will be pivotal.

I have chosen a particularly fraught and challenging example, with a Global energy company, that ended up being extremely rewarding and allowed me to learn a lot about consultancy and myself in the process.

I have chosen to frame these examples through the assumptions I made and what I learned from these assumptions.

Setting the scene, this global energy company had approached the firm I worked for to undertake a 2nd generation tender for the digital delivery for the global organisation, estimating that they would be spending £120m over the coming 5 years.

Initially the score was very narrow.

we had been approached to manage the tender and negotiation process through a short 3-month process.

In this example, due to the nature of an energy business and the risks involved, they had to separate many parts of the organisation legally, creating complexity that this was orders of magnitude more complex and political that many similar sized organisations in different sectors

Modern organisations add to the complexity through having local and global partnering models that may work against one and other.

They key to this is to look for tracers through the models, and note what you find to share with colleagues, peers and sponsors — don’t be afraid to be wrong with peers — use them to test assumptions and the conclusions you make, you don’t get this with the client, no matter what they say!

A quote from colleague I worked with, at the start of my consulting journey is “agree and seek consensus in public, disagree and challenge in private”


As previously sighted, this was supposed to be a relatively simple tender process, in spite of the size of the deal.

Initial conversations prior to starting the project in anger, had raised some questions about the ability to deliver the tender in time. They wanted to take a range of short cuts in the process, they didn’t want to include the current suppler and there was a sense that this was focused on tactical change to fix a wider issue.

On site in Europe. it was quickly apparent the relationship with current supplier had broken down, there was a level of disarray about the future and what the overall vision was. Things were chaotic and while not in complete disarray I could see that there was an act-sense-respond mentality.

It was also apparent to me and my colleagues that to achieve a successful outcome for this company was going to talk longer and needed additional resources to undertake a level of analysis and design.

At this point I recommended an arbitrary maturity model, a maturity assessment, across the digital business and within the consulting team, use the Kotter 8 step model to look at where the organisation was, across in its capability, maturity and ability to deliver and adapt to change. This allowed for the team to interview staff, partner organisations and allowed the overall tender process to remain within its NDA.

It was also useful to use the Eisenhower matrix and Rumsfeld Matrix to take stock and prioritise effort and identify known gaps

While the results were not where the business wanted them to be this allowed for a difficult, albeit fact-based conversation to build relationships.


This leads us into the second assumption — that clients know what they want. This dynamic and challenge led to considerable changes in the expected outcomes for the energy company. We were now looking at the way the business is designed and as this dynamic evolved we had to take the lead in defining a future state.

Based on the use of maturity modelling and diagnosing what was under the hood of the ‘digital’ organisation, how it worked with other business units and how it could work better.

They also had very poor models for capturing any form of metrics. There was no way the were able to say, for example, how long a project took to deliver consistently. KPI’s, measures and SLA’s were all misaligned, if they were there at all.

The other interesting part of this example was that where there were data points, these were driving the wrong behaviour because they were managed by the wrong roles.

In this company, they had adopted agile methodologies, however this was some form of ‘cargo cult’.

Scrum masters were accountable for budgets and the unit heads measured the burn down of story points.

This was counter best practice and to their responsibilities and created conflict in individual roles.

Scrum masters worried about budgets but were not focused on helping team performance.

Story points were relative to each team — you should never compare these from one team to another.

The teams, due to their focus on the work, could not see how this was manifesting and creating friction at the middle level of the business.

All these observations indicated a need for training, and a look at the operating model, the metrics in place and how this was manifesting in how the teams could better perform.

We had to work closely with the sponsor, and this leads on to assumption 3.


Perhaps naively, I took a view that when you are there to support an organisation, they want you there, individually, and collectively, however the drivers that lead you to work together are often not virtuous.

Consultants are, as previously highlighted, not used when things are going well for an organisation. They can have significant internal challenge or face an existential threat to the business model.

In this example they had been struggling.

- With their suppliers

- With meeting commitments

- Being able to deliver

What came to light is that some significant projects had failed to deliver the outcomes that were required and that one of the drivers behind the initial SoW, was that the blame had fallen onto the supplier and not the operating model. The buck had been passed.

We were shining a light on many of these failings. This had the potential to make our client nervous and could embarrass the sponsor our key stakeholder within the client business. I recognised this and acknowledged that the approach had to be a collaborative one with a wider scope.

Addressing this I looked at the communication (style and content) the impact and how to ensure the team in the energy company had ownership of the delivery and change. Again one of the tools to hand was Kotter’s 8 steps to look at the level of mobilisation for change and sponsorship we were able to alleviate some of the internal defensive behaviours

In the context of a client conversation, you would never state — oh this is kotters model. The dialogue would be typically driven from PowerPoint slides you had created and you would flag the stages of the journey for the client.

You would use their own language and voice

You would reframe the problem statement for them and, crucially, the context should be focused on the value they are trying to drive — in this case improve delivery and satisfy their customers.

It was also valuable, both from client engagement perspective and understanding the future state to apply some lean process techniques and service design to look at key opportunities to target as a part of any future Target Operating Model design


Having worked through these issues and surfacing the challenges, perhaps less of an assumption and best practice is to give strategy, direction, and a plan.

This was an aspect, that due to the turbulent start to the project that took a back seat, however when refocused, this serves a number of key purposes

- Directs consultancy efforts

- Sets out a range of communication tools for the team

- Opens up additional opportunities to support the client.

- Can be used to test approach against known change models (with my preference being for Kotter) and Demings PDCA model.

With this in mind I was able to set direction for the energy firm and focus efforts on 5 key areas

1. operating model design — how was the company going to set itself up with the right processes, tools, and people to deliver value in the energy sector. How would this give them the competitive edge.

2. the tendering process, while the main reason we were there initially, it was clear this had a dependency on the right target state and operating model

3. knowledge capture and transfer, with an outline to design the approach around a service design approach rather than a cost centric approach, working with the cost controls team to understand how to better measure supplier performance.

4. onboarding new suppliers and ways of working. In this scenario, the incumbent supplier had been collateral damage. It would only be possible to try to manage the transition to new suppliers effectively in the future and any effort to repair the relationship we deemed to be wasted effort.

5. Putting measurable metrics in place, and where these were not measurable, understand why. Vanity metrics and the misalignment of metrics had been very damaging to both the client and the suppler in this instance.

The lack of data, was a critical point, as weak data and information was driving decision making that in many cases was unqualified. It made KPI’s impossible to enforce and they were not balanced, being focused wholly on cost and nothing else.

The result of this initial 3-month engagement resulted in an 18-month engaged with the client, and measurably improved delivery, and the client’s internal customer satisfaction scores increasing by 40% in the final 3 months of the client engagement.

I think there are some real tacit benefits I took from the work with this client too. The genuine value in being able to frame difficult conversations with facts.

Really understanding the damage poor metrics can drive and how easily we spotted the disfunction between suppler and client as external consultants, being distant from the day to day running of the business.


Through this I have mentioned some key tools that I use time, and time again.

Some of these are engrained in the way I work, such as Deming’s PDCA cycle.

Other tools such as the influencing model are more useful as a framework and a check to see if all aspects are covered. Are you a good role model, are teams well trained, are there clear expectations and are processes in place that enable the people, teams, departments and partners to work effectively together.

This was shared with me by one of the consultants in McKinsey and has proven time and again to be a useful tool.


I’m not suggesting for an instant, that these tools are as precise as the tools in a surgeons hands. Many are more artful than scientific and absolute. There are some that are more scientific such as lean and six sigma tooling that allows you to take measurements, but in many cases the data will not be there.

The lack of data itself, presents an opportunity. Poor or missing data should generate the need to baseline so that you don’t set the client teams up to fail.

I once sat with a graduate consultant while at RBS, and they were bursting with energy and itching to use the tools they were trained in. they wanted so badly to share the tools and tell the whole world about them, but after working with him for a week I could take no more.

I could not but help admire their enthusiasm, but I sat him down on a Thursday evening in the airport lounge.

“stop” I said.

Perplexed look. “What?”

I felt like I was about to burst their bubble. their honeymoon as a graduate was about to be burst.

So, I went through the feedback I had for them — tempering responses, observing, reflecting, using the tools reflectively.

And then there was a moment of truth for them. The tools could be used rationally to manage what they do. We then talked about the influencing model, role modelling. I let it sink in.

It made a real world of difference to their approach and I’m happy to say we remain friends and they are successful to this day.

The key here is starting with why, be that with the client and understanding their needs, or reflecting yourself on why you are using a particular tool.

I’ve been guilty of this too. I like data and ways of using it to tell a story.

when I find new ways to present data want to use it — look up circos and Sankey diagrams as examples, however I generally resist — often these can be lost in translation when they are not familiar with the representation, and take away from the storytelling you might want to go through with a client. A pie chart or histogram might be just as good.


I know that some of the tools I refer to, date back to the 70’s such as Demings PDCA cycle and Kotter the mid 90’s — and I recall covering these in tutorials and lectures.

I’m not sure, that when I studied these, I recognised the value, what’s more painful is the more logical the model, the more likely it is to fall into the ‘common sense’ trap. I say trap, as often they are not common and make little sense out of context. As a management consultant I have made myself more aware of the basics. Its all to easy to use complex word however the best messages are the simple ones that all of your stakeholders can understand.

Others, such as lean, I learned due to my desire to improve things at the start of my career. When you land in a big organisation, it can be overwhelming and, for me, I found very frustrating as devastatingly bad processes could exist. For me this compelled me to understand why and change it.

Of all the tools mentioned, the most influential for me has been the lean toolset. Lean, was bourn out of pre WWII Japan when Toyota wanted to make their first vehicles and were frustrated with the associated waste.

Where waste can often be easily traced in a manufacturer, it is often hidden in a corporation and the lean tools and principles can be readily adopted to work well in corporate environments.

This opened the door to me, to work with Mckinsey. It exposed me to PDCA and the influencing model.

Building on lean for me, were agile and service design and the shared common principles of

- customer value

- understand the flow of value.

- improve that flow.

- focus on customer pull.

- striving for perfection.

In conclusion.

- Build a great relationship with the client. This often does not need to be build on friendship, but respect and trust are far more powerful in the client — consultant relationship.

- When presented with a client proposal test the assumptions yourself or as a team. Use your colleagues from the consultancy to test ideas — agree in public.

- Prepare to challenge the client constructively to enable the best outcome for them, they might think you are there to mark their homework but you can take a much wider strategic view than they ever could

- Always give the client a way forward. In the example I have given this was virtuous and enabled a longer working relationship. This will not always be the case, but you should always focus on the client needs.

- You are also likely to travel a lot, so sign up to hotel and flight loyalty programmes as I’ve had quite a few first-class flights on points and luxury hotel stays for free!

- Enjoy it. I did and continue to apply these tools and approaches in my current role.

Thank you very much.

Any questions?