Henriette Smith of A T Kearney speaks to workingmums.co.uk about why the consultancy firm won the workingmums.co.uk 2014 Top Employer Award for Career Progression.
In 2004 a group of consultants at A T Kearney came back from maternity leave and put together a proposal for flexible working. They presented it to the UK management team who approved a pilot. The pilot went well and in 2006 it was adopted as a formal policy, subject to annual review and incorporating feedback from employees and employee networks such as the women’s network. In 2008 after further input from employee surveys and more people coming back from maternity and paternity leave the company created a global work life programme, Success with Flex, with the UK unit being seen as a leading light in flexible working within Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Since then the programme has evolved according to changing workforce needs. All the consultants who set it up are still with the company and all the women have progressed up the career ladder, demonstrating how the benefits of the programme both for individuals and the company. Its success has won it the 2014 workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for Career Progression.
HR manager Henriette Smith says flexible working is becoming the norm at AT Kearney as more and more people request it despite the fact that consultancy offers very particular challenges. “We tailor what we offer to different people’s needs,” she says. “The variety of what we offer in the UK is quite vast. It ranges from people who work 80% of full-time hours and do not have a fixed day off to people who work one day from home to people who leave the office earlier and come in earlier.”
Consultancy work involves a lot of travel and the company looks at options such as minimising travel or offering alternative roles for mums returning from maternity leave, recognising that they might not want to be away so frequently. “Many of our clients are also implementing flexible working in their own organisations so they understand where we are coming from. It is important, however, to consider each project individually and take into account the different circumstances. It is vital that we do not have one stringent policy in place,” says Smith.
Henriette says management consultancy tends to attract a certain type of fairly ambitious person who doesn’t want a 9-5 job. The challenge is matching that with flexible working and career progression. Solutions might include leave of absence over the summer so people can spend time with their families.
All the consultants have mentors who champion their careers because they do not have traditional line managers due to the nature of their work. The mentors represent them at their performance reviews with HR and a team of Partners and Principals forming the review committee.
A T Kearney is open from the start of the recruitment process that it has a flexible working programme and that everyone can apply. This is mentioned on its website, in its recruitment presentations and in campus recruitment sessions. Henriette says the most popular form of flexible working is 80% hours, either as a four-day week or over five days but leaving earlier or starting later. She says lower than 80% can be difficult for consultant roles.
The Success with Flex programme also allows for alternative career paths, for instance, consultants can move to non-consultant roles or work on internal projects for a period. The HR team always have available alternatives and are alert to consultants who might want to step out of consulting for a short period. “It allows them to keep their options open and they can provide an internal resources for us. Some make a permanent switch,” says Henriette. Other alternatives are three- or six-month secondments to other departments or clients so consultants can enrich their experience. “It is beneficial all round,” says Henriette. “It gives them a different point of view and makes them better consultants.”
Those working in management services are easier to manage as they are office-based. Each unit has a flexible champion who is a senior consultant or partner who has worked flexibly at some point and works with individuals and HR as different cases arise.
Flexible working agreements are discussed openly and every agreement is reviewed every three months to see if it is working for all involved. “Individual situations change,” says Henriette, “so reviewing the process is useful. We want to give the message that it is okay for everyone to ask and look at options. It also means we can trial something and if it doesn’t work we can try and find an alternative solution if possible. It’s so different for every person, hence why we have guiding principles for flexible working and not a tick box approach.”
As part of an extensive Learning and Development programme for all staff, managers are given specific diversity training, including a managing diverse teams course for senior managers. The sessions cover everything from learning how to build on everyone’s competencies to how to communicate effectively. All other staff have a mandatory webinar on diversity and inclusion.
Henriette says the main challenges of the flexible career structure at A T Kearney is striking a balance between individual and business needs. “It’s about having open, honest conversations about what works well and about the potential challenges. Consulting is what it is. It is not a regular office-based role and you do not know when or where your next role will be. It is a demanding environment and it is fast paced – people have to perform and progress to the next level. It is subject to a rigorous performance management process for that reason, including regular reviews. For some it is a career and for others a stepping stone,” says Henriette. “But we want to help people achieve that next progression and reach their career goals and aspirations.”