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How Skipp Williamson’s consulting career started with a free flight

Catherine Robson spoke to PIP's Managing Director, Skipp Williamson, the challenges of consulting in Australia and why she embraced a digital workforce.

How Skipp Williamson’s consulting career started with a free flight




Skipp Williamson is Managing Director of Partners in Performance, a global consulting firm spanning Europe, Africa, North and Latin America, Asia and Australia. She’s been named in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac Group 100 Women of Influence awards but the advice of her high school careers advisor was to get a job as a builders labourer.

In this week’s success story Skipp talks with Catherine about how her consulting career started with a free flight, the challenges of consulting in Australia and why she embraced a digital workforce.

After Skipp completed a high school careers survey, her career advisor delivered the news that Skipp would be well suited to a role as a builders labourer. Luckily, it was a conversation that didn’t last long and Skipp went on to do a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Auckland, Master of Engineering at MIT and Master of Philosophy at Oxford.

During her time at Oxford, Skipp applied for a role with consulting firm, McKinsey & Co, but she was more motivated about a free flight home than a career as a consultant.

“A bunch of us at Oxford had, for a laugh, done interviews at McKinsey & Co because they used to fly you home for your final interview and obviously as a student, an airfare back Down Under seemed like a pretty good deal for a couple of interviews,” Skipp recalls.

She landed the role and stayed at McKinsey & Co for 5 years. As she learnt the ropes, she picked up flaws in the traditional consulting model which she saw as working on the assumption that clients need a strategy or ideas, without much follow up on the implementation.

“For the first year, you can go with the party line that it’s client’s fault that they aren’t implementing, but after a while, you got to say, maybe we’re solving the wrong problem”.

Armed with this insight, Skipp made the decision to leave McKinsey and start her own consultancy with a focus on helping clients execute strategies, not just proposing them.

Skipp sees entrepreneurship as a lucrative form of self-expression, but after launching Partners in Performance in 1998 without a strong network, she struggled to win business consistently, riding a roller coaster of feast and famine.

“In Australia, it seems to be very much about who you know, so it took us 7 years to figure out we needed to hire grey haired men to open the door for us. Just to get us through that threshold of trust that would even get us a meeting,” she recalls.

Skipp’s grey haired men strategy paid off. Partners in Performance scaled and has helped clients across a raft of industries worldwide identify and deliver bottom line improvements to the tune of $20 billion dollars.

The Australian market can still pose a challenge when it comes to thinking outside the square, with some companies baulking at the idea of professional fees based on outcomes rather than hours.

“I think in the Australian context, there is quite often a concern that you’ll do too good a job and they’ll have to pay a high consulting fee, which, to me, means management are not sufficiently connected to the EBIT of the business,” explains Skipp.

Shunning a traditional head office set up, Skipp opted to virtually manage a workforce of hundreds of consultants working remotely around the world from Argentina to South Africa. She sees the shift towards this lean, virtual type of workforce transforming what the 9-5 ‘office’ looks like in 10 years.

A hands-on Managing Director, she juggles a hectic schedule and hopping flights several times a week is the norm. Keeping all balls in the air is thanks to a fantastic EA and an ability to ruthlessly prioritise.  Skipp might be leading a digital workforce but she hasn’t lost her love for the good old pen and paper.

“My greatest technology is writing down in my notebook what my priorities are and rearranging them constantly. I think just making your life completely transparent to your EA so they can completely manage your time,” says Skipp.

To keep her sanity in check, she regularly swims, cycles and practices yoga, wryly pointing out if she adds lawn bowls, she’ll have all the retirement hobbies nailed. But retirement is a long way off for this remarkable entrepreneur who thrives on the challenge and uncertainty of steering a company which has revolutionised the consulting industry.

Listen to the full interview to hear Skipp share how making her service obsolete is the end goal for her clients and when it comes to community support, why giving money isn’t as rewarding as giving time.

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