David has helped organisations develop and implement their strategies for over 25 years, working as an independent management consultant since 2000. He is a Fellow of the Strategic Planning Society, and his book - ‘Strategy Journeys – a guide to effective strategic planning’ - was shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the Year 2018. As well as working with organisations on their strategic plans, his recent work has also included helping organisations to strengthen their strategic capabilities, combining logic and analysis with a people-and opportunity-focused approach, to guide businesses along their 'strategy journeys'.
1. When you’re at a networking event, how do you describe your independent career status, and where you focus your work?
I work with organisations to help them develop effective strategic plans, implement strategic initiatives (for example supporting specific change projects), and strengthen their strategy capabilities (developing strategic thinking skills, strategic management processes and strategic leadership).
I tend to summarise this as helping organisations with their ‘strategy journeys’. At its heart, strategy is about people in an organisation making sense of where it’s heading and how it can get there, developing a shared understanding about the future. It’s as much about exploration and learning as it is about analysis and sophisticated strategy tools and techniques.
Also, I try not to use career ‘labels’ if possible; although I am a management consultant (with a Certified Management Consultant qualification), my work also involves guiding, facilitating and coaching and supporting organisations in complementary ways, as well as advising and helping them to develop and implement their strategy.
I have been helping organisations with their strategy work for over 25 years, and prior to this I spent 20 years in business management, working for companies including United Biscuits, Grand Metropolitan and Smith & Nephew, so I am able to draw on a lot of experience and examples that might help – the key is to start talking and finding out what challenges the organisation is facing.
2. What are the specific benefits that you, as an independent, offer your clients? How do you explain the value your expertise brings?
I have a ‘first principles’ and strongly people-focused approach to strategy. The context is important: every organisation is different, and has its own issues and challenges at a particular time – my role is to help them work through these to develop an effective strategy, and I do that by working with them and complementing their existing knowledge and skills. Developing strategy in an organisation is all about considering perspectives, posing the right questions, and facilitating the ‘rich conversations’ and engaging people to answer these.
Often it’s a case of helping them with their strategic planning or strategic management processes – where to start, how to design the process and how to adapt this as it develops. For many organisational leaders this can seem a daunting task – I try to ‘demystify’ this, and help them build the organisation’s capabilities and confidence for the future. Learning – organisational and individual – is an important outcome (as well as helping the organisation to articulate a clear and effective strategy as a platform for the next stage of its development of course!).
I was commissioned to write a book, ‘Strategy Journeys – a Guide to Effective Strategic Planning’ to help organisational leaders and senior managers with this, and I was pleasantly surprised when it was shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the Year in 2018.
I’m also privileged to be a Fellow of the Strategic Planning Society, as well as President of the International Association for Strategy Professionals UK Chapter. The thinking about strategy and how organisations should approach this is continually evolving, so it’s important to keep learning and developing professionally.
3. Why do you think there is increasing global demand for independent expertise?
I think the clue is in the two words – ‘expertise’, and ‘independent’! There is always demand for the former, and independent objectivity is valuable where there are organisational dynamics and vested interests at play. The increasing demand, though, might also be coming from the changing way in which organisations now work: in a fast-changing environment there is a need for organisational agility and adaptability, and more work is being viewed in a project way rather than as a longer term core part of the business operation – so it makes sense to bring in appropriate skills and resources on a flexible basis.
Many forward-thinking leaders are recognising the importance of organisational learning, and bringing in independent expertise can help develop the knowledge and capabilities of the organisation for its future benefit.
4. Describe a recent or successful assignment in terms of scope, duration and any particular milestones in the results.
One of the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I have done recently involved helping a key specialist team develop its strategic thinking and influencing skills. This was in a UK financial services organisation, where they had invested in strengthening a particular function and were now wanting to encourage it to contribute more fully to future business strategy. The department was technically proficient and committed, but had limited experience of strategy and wasn’t influencing the organisation’s thinking effectively.
I designed a bespoke 3-month programme of workshops and set ‘strategy project’ work, and provided coaching support for the individuals and working groups throughout. It was great to work with them and see them develop their skills and confidence, and even more satisfying to hear how much they appreciated the programme and realised their potential to contribute more to the organisation’s future strategy, despite realising that it was hard ‘brain work’ initially as they started to stretch their hitherto under-used strategic thinking ‘muscles’!
5. What's your favourite thing to do when you're not on the clock?
I do a lot of Junior cricket coaching at my local village club here in Yorkshire – over the past 20 years we have developed our junior section for all ages and championed the development of women and girls’ cricket in the local area. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very satisfying to see everyone, of all abilities, enjoying themselves and developing their skills and confidence.
6. What is the biggest challenge you had to face in your career so far and how did you overcome it?
This is going back several years before I became an independent management consultant: I was working for a major UK company in the drinks and leisure sector and had developed a well-functioning marketing team that was contributing effectively to the success of the business. The business was then acquired by another company in the sector, and following the merger process I moved to a similar role in the new structure.
However, it soon became apparent that, despite the fine words about the intended values and culture of the merged company, the reality was very different: personalities and positions dominated, there was a reluctance to listen or accept ideas that had helped make the previous business so successful, and there was a lot of political manoeuvring. It was a disappointing culture, and reluctantly I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to influence it from my position and so moved on to a company with a healthier and more trustworthy culture.
The experience taught me that organisational culture is so important, and is demonstrated by how people actually behave rather than whatever might have been intended. I learnt also that personal and professional ‘fit’ is important to be able to work effectively and with enjoyment, and I’ve carried that forward into my consultancy work: there has to be a rapport and mutual understanding - a trusted relationship - between a client and a consultant to be able to work together successfully.
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