“I love the big stage, but over time I’ve noticed that my biggest impacts come from smaller, quieter work”.
Philippa is one of the best consultants I’ve ever met. She’s at her best when an executive team is struggling, lost in the challenges and possibilities on the table. She doesn’t allow the conversation to collapse into premature decisions. She helps find ways to get the uncertainties and ambiguities acknowledged, explored, prioritised, and thoroughly considered. Through that rigour and clarity of process, decisions and agreement can come closer, the work gets done and the team grows in confidence.
She brings what she terms a “thinking, analytical nature”, and a love of the stories about “how things are” in organisations. Philippa says, “I’m nosey. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to look into organisations. I like hearing the things that some people just don’t hear”. Harness that curiosity to her razor sharp mind and you have some sense of what Philippa brings to her work.
Philippa was initially drawn towards big-ticket consulting, leading large change programmes, facilitating strategy events on a huge scale. Over time she’s changed her view. “I’ve come to see that the things that really seems to make a difference are the one-to-one conversations”, she says. “As I’ve become older my arena has become smaller and, I hope, the impact has become bigger”. There’s still a place for large processes and events, it’s just that the heavy lifting is done elsewhere. An example brings this to life.
In a big strategy project working across a transformation project at NTU, Philippa reflects on where she most “nudged the system”. It was in small, intimate conversations – with the client the OD director, helping her to think through her option and prepare for critical conversations about those options with her key stakeholders. “I notice that I seem to add most value when I’m having conversations that help people have the courage to do something different, or at least to think differently about something”. Reflecting a little further on this you noticed that “I have realised that I’ve tended to downplay coaching. I’ve seen it as a side-project to my bigger interventions. But maybe that’s where some of my biggest impacts come about”
Philippa is both fearless and skilled in noticing the tiny signals, the small patterns that matter, and taking the risk of pointing these out. The risk is a calculated one: “sometimes it does feel risky, but it is also important to say it”. It’s not that there is no anxiety for her in this, there is always the possibility of putting a senior client “offside”, and “you have to be at the table to shape things” so she doesn’t want to get excluded from such conversations in that client. There’s a tacit consulting skill here that arises from years of experience that can seem natural and invisible, but in fact it is part of the hard-earned craft skill of the most effective work.
Philippa always wants the work she does to be real and impactful. She doesn’t like doing “whitewash” work, that sometimes consultants are asked to do: to answer an irrelevant question, to justify a decision that’s already been made. “I wouldn’t play that game now. The work I want to do has real impacts despite sometimes also some failure to really live into it. This I notice is where the small stuff makes the difference, where the small stuff actually is the big stuff”.
Some consultants are moved by a vision of future organisational possibility – how organisations are or ought to be. Philippa has never had much inclination towards this: “I have never come to my work with an agenda about what organisations should be like”, she says. Her interest is more in helping them to work better, from wherever they are in service of wherever they want to be. Paying attention to the small, the relational, the psychological, as well as the intensely practical and structural realities of how things happen.
“To be honest, if I can make a profound impact by work on one part of the system that almost certainly has more value than creating massive plans for global change based on models that tend not to get taken into effect … In the smaller work I see a chance of something really important and meaningful actually happening. I am sceptical of large projects in glossy packaging”.
“Work is the rent we pay for life. I work, my clients work: I am trying to help them, one by one, team by team, to do their work better”.