Over his career, Dirk Frame has led and been part of countless projects and teams. Looking back over a 30-year consulting career, he explains how working together and communication are fundamental to success, regardless of the challenges.
Interview: Amy Faulconbridge
Dirk, you started your career as an engineer. What made you want to move towards consulting?
I had been based in Turin on a joint venture between Ford and Fiat, and was put on a management training program where we worked with many people from different disciplines and backgrounds. I had previously studied and worked in Germany and also spent a few years in banking, and wanted my career to develop internationally and encompass a greater commercial and business content. After about five years in automotive manufacturing, consulting seemed like a good way of achieving these aims.
As a young man with little experience, did you find it difficult to advise your clients?
This is a classic issue – and one that is often cited by people who are skeptical about the ability of younger consultants to deal with challenges that some clients with 20 years’ experience feel outsiders – especially inexperienced ones couldn’t possibly understand. At least I was able to say that I had “a proper job” before becoming a consultant and had worked in a series of manufacturing and service jobs for small and large companies in three countries. That gave me some confidence that I could relate to problems firsthand, and hopefully this came across. On top of that I had some very experienced senior colleagues who were highly demanding but also very supportive. I have used what they taught me ever since.
You’ve been a consultant for approximately 30 years. Is the consulting business the same as it was then?
When I was younger, consulting seemed like a glamorous job. I have to admit it is great fun to travel to places, see things and meet people which ordinarily one wouldn’t, and that’s still true today. But in many respects the reality was and is usually very different – leaving home on a Sunday afternoon and returning on Friday night was the norm. Arriving at a client’s premises before them and working late and often through the night was expected. Today we try and work a little smarter, but the need to demonstrate a clear level of value add is still there. At that time, and for many years before, high output seemed to be the defining factor of what value add was. We are still expected to do certain things faster and in more depth, but the element which we’re trying to demonstrate is insight, not just the number of calculations, spreadsheets or slides we’ve completed in a short time.
How has the role of the consultant changed?
Back in the day, most consulting engagements were strategic in nature. Strategy was a big thing and was seen by many as a sophisticated niche which ordinary client staff couldn’t do. It wasn’t really true then and it’s not true now, but for different reasons. Much of strategy revolves around a vision and a keen sense of pursuing the necessary activities to achieve it. Change the very senior management and you often change the strategy – for better or for worse. Strategy as a concept hasn’t changed, but strategy is only meaningful if it can be genuinely realized and if events aren’t so unpredictable that it can be negated overnight. We’ve seen the latter a lot in recent history – so I’m not so convinced by event-independent strategy, but I am convinced by strategy which depends on achieving fundamental levels of performance or flexibility and responsiveness.
Does that mean that strategy and conception as key fields for consultants are becoming less important than implementation?
It can sometimes seem like that, but it would be a mistake to relegate strategy to a secondary activity. As I said, the general building blocks of a strategy are easy to create, but formulating it clearly and concisely is still quite difficult. Just think about how many companies have a mission statement which cannot easily be differentiated from their strategic statement or one which could apply equally well to any commercial enterprise in any market. Further, think of how many seem vacuous or generic.
So it’s not that strategy is unimportant, it’s just that it is still not often done very well. What I mean by that is that a strategic vision must be accompanied by elements which make it possible. Seen from another perspective, one could make a comparison between a musician and a great composer. I suspect there are many people who are very capable musicians, and if Beethoven had simply wanted to earn money he could have just focused on playing the piano. However, without great composers there wouldn’t be much need for pianists. A successful consulting firm is like an orchestra in that it needs inspiring works to play, the guidance and control of a conductor and excellent musicians to turn that into memorable listening pleasure.
Are your clients more intelligent that they were before?
We’re probably all more clever than we used to be from a knowledge point of view, so it’s becoming more of a level playing field. As consultants we still need to add value, but whatever superior and aloof attitude that consultants might have shown in the past really doesn’t have a place in today’s environment. It’s not enough anymore to confine discussions to the uppermost echelons of management and presume that the rest of an organization would somehow follow. Consultants need to immerse themselves in the fabric of an organization to understand it and be capable of influencing the outcome themselves. If they can earn respect and credibility through their proximity to real events and interaction with staff, the chances are that they’ll help implement better, more significant projects faster and more assuredly.
Are there fields in which consultants know more than their clients?
It’s not that simple. There are many clients with PhD degrees, immense knowledge and experience who can be regarded as intellectually superior to almost anyone – but sometimes it’s more about how a different perspective or shallower but wider experience might bring a benefit. I think knowledge is overrated. Pure information can be acquired easily nowadays through a myriad of sources. I’m a believer in application and collaboration. Having the right (or best available) people in the room together for even a short while in a structured engagement can achieve significant results in a way which the most gifted could never attain by themselves.
Identifying the problem, opportunity and the root causes is a skill. Sometimes consultants can bring that particular skill to the table and determine what needs to be changed. Because organizations and people generally are averse to change, we find that this particular aspect is underestimated by our clients. The number of people within most client organizations who understand and drive change are few and far between.
With regard to change management, which challenges do you face in implementation projects?
If a client organization appreciates that change is a constant and not a discrete part of their business we’re off to a good start, and some businesses, departments and people have a better grip on this than others. Sometimes it’s because they have been forced to constantly adapt to reducing budgets and stiff competition. Having said that, it’s still surprising how other companies or departments within the same sector or even people within the same organization can be almost oblivious to external factors and the need to change. As one would expect, the difficulty in achieving change is multiplied where there has been little staff turnover, the people themselves are nearing career end and generally where sectors have been protected.
How do you prepare your teams for these challenges?
As stated before, one of the most important factors is to find and train people who are approachable, hardworking, bright and credible. These are the kind of people who can earn respect. You’ll notice I didn’t say young or old. People learn and develop worthwhile experience, knowledge and skills at different points in their life, and confidence and ability are not the preserve of the more senior among us. I must be realistic and say that generally in the environment, people much under 30 just won’t have been exposed to enough situations or made enough mistakes to find it easy to relate to many of the situations we’re asked to deal with. Interestingly, there are other sectors where the opposite applies and those of us over 30, maybe 35, find it difficult to be taken seriously.
Which personal qualities does a consultant in your team need?
In property people talk about location, location, location. In our business we’re equally convinced that it’s communication, communication, communication. In addition to being technically proficient, our consultants also have to demonstrate what might be called emotional consulting intelligence. In concrete terms this means things like understanding the ratio of listening to talking, getting the balance right between challenging and accepting, telling and asking and developing a sense of timing. These are aspects which I think differentiate us as a business. We have the technical skills, but we also have people who can manage significant change.
What are the criteria that ultimately make projects successful?
Collaborative effort with our clients is very important. That doesn’t mean telling them what to do, how to do it or demanding they find a solution, but working with them to jointly assess and determine potential and the necessary steps to implementation. You can imagine that the very people we need to work with are the ones who are already heavily loaded and in key positions of responsibility. We nevertheless have to find ways in which their contribution can be managed and this often has the secondary benefit of forcing us to find, train and coach people who can fill the gaps. This is effectively accelerated succession planning and ultimately leaves a less stressed environment in which more people contribute and earn recognition.
Working together in any environment achieves some effect, but this is magnified greatly by a steady, consistent level of senior management involvement. It doesn’t need to be aggressive or overwhelming, but it does need to be a visible sign of leadership and interest. If one wants genuine sustainability, then this element is imperative. Further, when actions and targets are set, these should be against a challenging time frame. By that I mean a time frame which is not impossible or wildly disruptive to normal business, but one which makes it clear that the outcome is needed quickly and slippage is unlikely to be acceptable. The glue that holds all this together is communication. Whether we are dealing with works councils, unions, suppliers, customers or employees generally, clear, concise and timely information flow is imperative. I can’t say that enough.
As a company, you describe yourselves as experts in Asset Performance Excellence. Which specific expertise do your consultants have?
Fundamentally, all our consultants are completely at home in an industrial environment. They understand the theory, practice and realities of Asset Management and Operational Excellence. We don’t claim they can physically operate a single piece of machinery better than any client, but they do have the expertise to optimize resources, processes and organizations to run assets efficiently and effectively.
I should say that in addition to our consultants we also have a group of industrial specialists we call T.A. Cook Engineers. They bridge the gap between consulting and doing – which in some instances satisfies a specific client short-term requirement. As two groups within the same company we learn from each other and the confidence gained from this collaboration means that we have therefore been able to take on specific roles and even complete management of large-scale TAR projects.
Which qualities on the part of the client do you particularly value?
We deal with many different types of clients around the world and they all run successful businesses in what is currently a very difficult an competitive environment. The workload and pressure they face is considerable, so being able to spend time with us and provide personal insight and commitment to change is something which I find valuable and appreciate very much. Other aspects which are always welcome are an openness to new ideas and a recognition that meaningful change takes time.
Coming back to your colleagues, if I were to compare a consultant with a good red wine that needs to ripen, how would you ensure the ripening process of your team?
Okay, to use the analogy that we run a cellar, the market is always on the lookout for interesting young wines and needs to give them the time to mature so they can develop to their potential. At the same time, we find it hard to resist an excellent bottle that can be savored immediately. Depending on the client engagement, our sommeliers can always offer clients something that suits their taste. Consulting is a people business. It’s an overused phrase, but whereas our limited physical assets can be switched with minimal inconvenience it is very difficult to imagine offering our clients unknown or untested personalities. We therefore take a great deal of time and trouble to find, develop and retain people.