When the full economic impact of the coronavirus lockdown kicked in, Irene Molodtsov remained upbeat.
The UK CEO of Sia Partners, a management consultancy employing 1,800 staff across 16 countries, says the experience of seeing her own business recover from a major shock, allows her to think positively about the current challenges. “I have been here before- emotionally,” she says.
In 2014 a sharp fall in the global oil price collapsed the income of energy sector-focused Molten, a consultancy she had launched with business partner Rory Colfer a decade earlier. “Client after client closed their door on us, and our business shrank to half its size within about eight months. It was a tremendously difficult time,” says the Australian.
But instead of cutting staff and making redundancies, Molodtsov and Colfer took an alternative approach. They pivoted away from being sector-led to being proposition and service-led, focusing on business transformation.
“We had to adjust really quickly, we had to pull ourselves together and adjust our operating model and our business model, to what was happening in the market.
“We said we’re going to lead with a proposition around change management and project management. We put everything on the line and invested at a time that felt really painful, when we should have cut back, even investing in a bigger office,” she says.
“By changing the way we went to market and shining a light on our new proposition, we quickly were able to suck up some of the stuff that was lost. Most importantly, we didn’t cut jobs,” says Molodtsov.
The move paid off and the firm continued to develop, being acquired by Sia Partners two years later- with both founders becoming the larger firm’s joint UK CEOs. “It worked wonders because we survived and flourished and business picked up. We were able to get into other sectors that we couldn’t get into before,” she adds.
Molodtsov says she is looking to take the same positive approach in Sia Partners, where global CEO Matthieu Courtecuisse has committed to maintaining the firm’s staff numbers throughout the coronavirus crisis. “He said he would like to come out of this crisis with the same headcount we went in, which I think is an interesting and powerful statement. That tells you something about our balance sheet as well,” she says of Sia Partners, where annual revenues reached $300m for the 2019/20 financial year.
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Molodtsov, who worked at Big Four firm KPMG after graduating with a business degree from University of Melbourne, says that Sia Partners has been able to rapidly respond to the challenge of coronavirus.
“When coronavirus hit, we were able to mobilise quite quickly and effectively to the crisis because we were already working in an agile manner. We’ve got tools to operate in a flexible approach, macro managing our people.
Sia Partners formed a global Covid-19 squad, putting out about 50 global propositions, that are coronavirus focused and related, and a dedicated website, for our clients, our people, our suppliers,” she says.
An area the firm is advising on is flexible working, says Molodtsov, offering clients tools and techniques, “to pivot their organisation in this new environment,” she says.
This approach builds on the changing approach of Sia Partners, that she describes as a traditional consultancy focused on sectors such as financial services, energy and pharma, that is increasingly embracing data science in its offer.
“Through what we call augmented consulting, we advise on demand forecasting, with regression analysis, looking through what’s going to happen in the future,” with clients that include Microsoft and Facebook in the tech sector.
“We started a journey to ‘Consulting 4.0’, four years ago, moving away from the traditional model of undertaking a project and then moving on and repeating it somewhere else, for a model in which we support c-suite decision-making based on data,” she says.
Molodtsov says this approach has involved engagement with companies operating in a more dispersed structure, interpreting a changing environment. At the same time, Sia Partners has launched a programme called ‘Consulting for Good’ looking at how to maximise the benefits of a diverse workforce, bringing women with children into the workforce, as well as encouraging people from minorities and with disabilities “to be part of Sia Partners’ ecosystem,” she says.
“Having those two pillars- consulting for good and data science- within the overall consulting wrapper and a strong balance sheet, has allowed us to pivot our business model quite quickly, and be able to react to this crisis, on a macro level,” adds Molodtsov.
Looking at new ways of creating value in the workplace is entirely in keeping with the reaction to the ‘new normal’, says Molodtsov. “In response to cries of what do we do, we respond and we change and we adapt to the market, and produce propositions that are going to feature higher,” she says.
Big changes are afoot across the corporate landcape, says Molodtsov. “As well as hot topics of cost control, pivoting for growth, innovation, move from analogue to digital, we are talking about how to pivot to more flexible working,” she adds.
Brave new world
Molodtsov is convinced the business environment will be changed forever by the impact of coronavirus and the need to find new ways of working and living under lockdown. “I think we’re beginning to see the end of the commute, because what has been demonstrated globally with a quarter of the people being locked down, is our ability to work professionally in a very agile way, and actually be delivering business as usual,” she says.
Through the use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Whatsapp as well as the firm’s internal tools, Molodtsov says her staff are interacting more effectively together, whether it’s a 10-person meeting or an 80 strong Town Hall. “It’s something of a paradox that the level of communication has gone up, as well as efficiency and what we are able to deliver,” she says.
At the moment, Molodtsov says three of the four business areas she works on with Colfer: financial services; energy and utilities; business transformation are performing well with only the growth and innovation segment falling back. “That’s because a lot of what we do in that area is kicked off with face to face meetings, but already our clients are adapting,” she says.
Reflecting on the financial services sector, she says: “I think banks have been very slow to plan outside of the normal budgeting and forecasts process, leading to gaps. Call centres have been struggling to meet demand, while branches have been shut down. That operating model needs to be looked at, as soon as possible.
“There’s going to be a big emphasis for leaders this Summer on how to operate in models for coping with events of this nature. We will see more demand for skilled change architects and implementors, as organisations respond to regular change and market pressures and demands,” says Molodtsov.
“There will need to be new operating models from head to toe. It will be a distinctly different agenda at Davos in 2021, as Covid-19 has changed everything,” she adds.