Account-Based Mindset

Business Leader Expertise: Why Your C-suite Clients Demand Adaptability

Riley Smith
Content Contributor
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A Big Four senior consultant tells us how to adapt to Fortune 500 companies and their leaders.

Our interviewee today is a senior consultant at one of the Big Four consulting firms. She and her team have worked with the big guys in every industry, from Google and Amazon, to Walmart and Kroger, or Johnson & Johnson. 

When working with these large clients, she’s their expert on human capital consulting and strategic change management. From designing new teams to switching up how HR operates or implementing new software company-wide, handling change and helping Fortune 500 organizations adapt is her bread and butter.

What does “adaptability” mean to you?

When I hear this, I think about being flexible, being able to react to something you didn’t expect, and being able to pivot, if needed, what you’re doing right now based on a new situation.

It means trying to reach your goal, the original objective, even though an unexpected situation has arisen.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin

What does adaptability mean for your Fortune 500 clients?

In each industry, it’s different. In the case of retail, companies are thinking about their customers. What are the things that are changing with customer demand? 

They’re also thinking about their workforce. What is changing about their workforce? What do their employees need? Should they change the workplace because a competitor is offering better benefits, a better lifestyle, or better values that align with what the employees want more?

During COVID, that was a huge change. A lot of organizations are trying to adapt to the new world, right? 

So for our clients, the definition is the same as what I mentioned earlier, but for them, it’s on a bigger level. 

How can their organization, or a part of their organization, be nimble enough to detect the signals of change and then consider what the organization needs to do to meet the new demand? That’s a concern whether it’s for their customers, their workforce, or it could even be for their suppliers. All of these relationships require adaptability. 

So post-COVID, even the biggest companies are concerned with adapting both externally, to their customers’ needs, and internally, to their employees’ needs?

Yeah, it’s been talked about, this idea of The Great Resignation in the US. I think COVID gave a lot of people time to rethink their lifestyle, what they want to achieve with their careers, so a lot of people are switching jobs.

Employers are thinking about how they can still maintain their attractiveness to the greater workforce.

Photo by Anna Gru

With that in mind, what are your clients doing to become more adaptable?

Our clients are more interested in hearing what their employees have to say. They are more open-minded now, after going through COVID. They’re providing more flexibility.

For example, where do people work? Some people may want to have a hybrid workstyle, sometimes in the office, sometimes remote at home, to better cater to their personal needs. I think companies are trying to be more flexible with their policies, because they see that new mindset.

People are like, “This worked during COVID. Maybe in the future, this could be the new norm.”

So our clients are trying to explore the possibilities there, and see if that works, if it’s sustainable.

 What role does adaptability play in your recommendations to your clients?

It depends on the project, but when we give a recommendation, often it’s more directional, and there is room for the clients to iterate and test out if the approach works. They can test it, and we also advise them on what they can do if it doesn’t work.

I think it’s important to keep an eye on how things are working. Things change all the time. It’s important to have that flexibility in the planning and leave room for trial and error. Also, we allow a lot of room for the plan to pivot if it doesn’t work. 

So you never say, “Do this, this, and this, and you’ll have success for the next 10 years?”

Yes, and we also call out the risk factors. “With this plan, here are the risks if you go with this approach. Here are things you need to keep in mind.”

This is talking on a broad level. The level of flexibility varies case by case depending on the project. 

Photo by Benjamin Child

How does adaptability help reach and influence the C-suite?

I think that’s the core of the consulting service. We don’t have a list of recommendations that we ship out to every client. It’s more of a partnership with the client to co-create the solution based on their specific needs and goals, even in the specific time frame they have in mind.

Adaptability is the core. We need to really listen to the client. What exactly are they looking for? What’s the problem? What are they trying to solve? What is their objective?

And then we go from there and adapt our approach to help them solve the problem.

So adaptability permeates everything you do?

Yes, and a lot of times we’ll have a first draft of a solution, and then the client provides feedback, and then we have to adapt to the feedback, tailor our solutions, or even do a completely new iteration. 

Does this personalization help move the C-suite and executives to action?

Yes, because they want you to think about their business specifically. The more you tailor to their needs, the easier it is for them to take action. 

How does data help us be more adaptable?

I think data helps us detect the signals. What is changing? What is the new trend? What do we need to pay attention to?

For example, customer demand could change, workforce demand could change, what suppliers want could change, all of these things.

A lot of companies right now are really looking at their data collection and analysis approach throughout the organization, to try to operate better, smarter, and also provide better products. It permeates every part of the organization. 

Especially the more forward-thinking companies. They’re definitely trying to invest in that area.

It’s helping us catch things before they happen, and come up with better solutions that are tailored to what’s really going on. 

Photo by Brett Jordan

Where are your clients investing the most, to become more adaptable?

Many of our clients are investing a lot in the AI and data analysis parts of their organization. That team supports all the other parts of the organization, including marketing, supply chain, demand forecasting, and others, so they’re investing in AI and data to provide better predictions.

Can you share a time when being adaptable helped your team meet a client’s needs and reach their goal?

You mean a personal story? Okay, let me think of a good one!

I would use this example: our client was trying to implement a new warehouse management system. There’s a lot of change management that goes into this implementation. It’s very large scale. 

When I joined the project, the client already had their internal change management team, as well as another consultant from our firm, working on it. 

When I came in, I really needed to understand: what are the client’s needs? How can I tailor my knowledge and skill to what they need? I also needed to understand the current working relationship with the consultant already on the project, and what are his strengths? How do we play off each other’s strengths?

There’s a level of adaptability there as well, figuring out how we could best adapt to each other’s work styles, skill set, and strengths to help the client reach a better outcome.

So before you even get into the project at hand, you have to understand your environment?

Yes. I also need to understand the client’s personality, their work style, so I can communicate with them in the most efficient way. 

And also, I need to understand the current phase of the project. What exactly do they need right now? Do they need more planning? Do they need more big-picture thinking to figure out the different components? Or is the plan already set and we need to go into execution mode?

Having the understanding of my client’s work style, I knew that what they needed was more organization and structure on the project to make sure the execution was as flawless as possible. So that’s how I adapted to both the needs of the project and the work environment.

Photo by Jens Lelie

When you walk into a fresh project or new situation, what are the first things that you do?

Usually, I will first have internal “connects” with my team or whoever the point of contact is from my company for the project. They help me understand the scope of the project, the relationships with the client, our objective, and our project plan. What are we here to do, how much time do we have to do it, what’s our team… there’s a lot of questions I need to ask my internal team first!

The second thing that I will do, after understanding our relationships with the client, I have similar meetings with our client counterparts. Usually, these are just to introduce myself and get to know them more so we can start to build rapport before we get into the tasks of doing the project.  

What taught you this skill? How did you become more adaptable?

I think the nature of consulting taught me. Usually, we’re not the experts on the specific topic, but we’re there to help the client to think through a problem. Then we bring in a different set of skills to help them get things done. 

A lot of times, you have to assess the situation, know what role you can play, and know what skills and knowledge you can offer to the client.

The very nature of consulting requires adaptability. You have to learn and know how to work with different people, react to different requests. Sometimes the client request will change or the direction of the project will change, and you have to adapt.

So this environment has given me a lot of practice!

If someone wants to become more adaptable, how would you recommend they build this skill?

I think the first step is paying more attention to your surrounding environment. Noticing, sensing the people who work around you. Sense what they need, how you can better collaborate with them.

Or pay attention to new things that are happening, such as what’s happening in the market more broadly. 

So the first thing is paying attention! 

The second thing is being more open-minded to different possibilities. Sometimes, it’s easy to hold on to what we know and what we can do, but being adaptable means having that leap of faith, knowing “We can do something else, too, based on what we’re seeing and what’s changing. We can adapt to be successful.”

So adaptability takes a certain amount of optimism?

And courage! Both on the personal level, and the organization level. 

You need courage to be able to experiment with something that is new.

This blog series on Adaptability was inspired by the first episodes of our podcast, REACH. We interviewed a mountain climber about his journey to the summit of Mt. Everest, and how he adapted to face life-or-death challenges and reach his goal. For you, what is your Everest? 

What I want to do personally, my personal Everest, is being more brave. I want to have the courage to explore more opportunities in life. 

I want to take more risks. I think that would make life more full and interesting.

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