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Episode 228: Walking in Our Clients’ Transformation Shoes—with Barbara Ray

Deborah Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. This episode is kind of cool. I actually like it; someone's going to come on and talk about a major transformation within an organization. Break down what that looked like, how that happened, and some of the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty of what actually made it work.

What's cool about it? It's actually a consulting firm talking about how they did it to themselves so that they had real-world experience as they go out to their clients because they've lived transformation and aren't just out in the world, talking about it.

So, Barbara Ray's coming on, and she is going to talk about what this looked like within their firm, and then how they apply it to the folks that they work with. So many good, juicy things in this episode. Let's get started.

I want to welcome to my show today, Barbara Ray. Barbara, welcome to the show.

Barbara Ray: Thank you, Deb. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Deborah Zahn: You bet. So, let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Barbara Ray: I am the President and Managing Director of North Highland. We're a global change and transformation consultancy, and I've been with North Highland now from, coming close to 12 years. So, seen a lot of growth and change, and happy to have that discussion with you today.

Deborah Zahn: Wonderful, especially since transformation and change are now complete constants in our existence.

Barbara Ray: Yeah. Yes. Absolutely.

Deborah Zahn: We're going to talk about transforming organizations, but with a twist, which is, your firm recently took all the skills and capability you have, of helping organizations and turned it on yourself. So, we're going to focus on that because I think that's relevant to consultants, and then we'll mix in how that works with external organizations.

First of all, why did you folks decide transformation makes sense for us?

Barbara Ray: The journey's been about, we'll call it five years or so, ongoing and continues to mature. North Highland was founded as a local office model consultancy. So, the differentiation to our clients and to our people was, that we were off the road, and we were local.

That worked for a really long time until that stopped working optimally. As a firm, we went on a journey with, "Who do we want to be? What do we want to be? What's the next evolution?" In about 2018, we landed on, "We want to be the leading change and transformation consultancy," and that's the direction we're headed.

So, we're going to do everything to align our firm around those tenants, and that work that we do for our clients, and wanted to get recognition by the analysts in these areas. We gave ourselves a 10-year horizon, and we hit all our objectives in the first three years, relative to what we wanted from the analyst community, and realized, we're here already. We're doing this.

That big leap from being, "We're local and we can solve all your problems," to, "We are global and we are the leading change and transformation consultancy," required us to look inward and say, "We're not organized for this. We're not set up for this ourselves. We have lots of legacy systems to include technology, legacy processes, legacy ways that we reward people and goal people that, aligned to the old way of doing things," and realized we had to really undergo a complete internal transformation to bring this intentionality to life.

That wasn't easy. I would say, that when we start talking about our clients, we can empathize because we've been on the journey ourselves. It's not easy. We can talk a bit about some of those steps. Interestingly, as we all know, in the interim between 2018 and 2023, we had this global pandemic strike us, which, interestingly, in choosing change and transformation, it became an accelerator because to your point, change and transformation, now are constant. It's not episodic. It doesn't happen once a decade, and then you ride the wave till you have to do it again. It's constant.

So, we've also even set up internal systems and a whole program how we are constantly maturing, constantly changing, and transforming. So, it wasn't episodic for us either. We have a whole program. We call it our Enterprise Business Agility Program, EBAP because consultants have to give everything an acronym.

Deborah Zahn: We have to.

Barbara Ray: We have to, EBAP. When I say EBAP, we know what that is. It is an internally run program with some dedicated agilists, mostly people side of the desk doing work for sprints and periods of time, to continue to look at how we continue to mature, whether it's operating model, whether it's around a product or a service, whether it's around how we further integrate industry into the work that we're doing. All those things are done now in our EBAP program. I said a lot there.

Deborah Zahn: No, no, no. Let's break some of that down because what I love about this is a couple of things. It's usually, that the cobbler's children don't have shoes, which is doing it to ourselves. How would we even do that? What steps would we look at? I've seen many a firm and many even boutique consultancies who forget the skills and capabilities that they bring to clients when it comes to looking at themselves.

So, I love it that you took this on. What were some of the hurdles of doing that, and what helps you break through that and say, "We're in this for the real deal"?

Barbara Ray: Yeah. We started, we did what we, sometimes criticize our clients for doing. We started with technology because technology's going to be the answer to all the problems. Of course, it wasn't. It wasn't it. It wasn't. We needed the systems and the new technology that we went to, but it wasn't the magic bullet, then therefore we were a new firm.

So, we did it the painful way. We started with technology first, and in fact redid all our systems, all at the same time. "Let's start all over again."

Deborah Zahn: Wow.

Barbara Ray: Then we wound up with lessons learned. We always tell our clients, "Don't start with technology. You need to have, what's the ultimate vision? How are you going to define whether you're successful or not? Then, what are all the component pieces and parts that need to be transformed?"

Technology is usually a piece of it, but it's not the only piece, we did exactly what we always say, don't do. We started with technology first, and then we just rammed everybody into new ways of working.

We adopted Salesforce, as an example. That was a completely different way to looking at our pipeline. Completely different behaviors we needed from our people. So, as we started to hit, I'd say, the wall of, "OK, this has been painful, but now how are we going to, not only get adoption, but get the value out of it?"

That's where we did a couple of things. Well, we did change our operating model. We consolidated all the commercial functions. Frankly, that's under my leadership now. So, all commercial functions are integrated together. We have developed and use integrated teams for all things go-to-market through to delivering work.

We created this Enterprise Business Agility Program as the place to solve whatever problems needed to be solved around adoption or around maturing whatever system we put in place or whatever processes, or solving any operational constraints.

It sounds somewhat simplistic. It wasn't easy to get to where we are today, where now it's a well-oiled machine. It took some starts and stops over, I'd say, probably 12 to 18 months to truly get this business agility program working for us. I can talk a little bit about how that's matured.

We started by creating growth pillars. We said, "We're a growing firm, so everything we do should be in service of growing." So, we created growth pillars, and what are all the tenets of how we grow. Then we organized teams around them. Well, the very first thing we did–mistake–is we organized the growth pillars around functional areas of the firm.

Deborah Zahn: Yeah. That's the default, right?

Barbara Ray: We inherently became siloed even in this integrated business agility program. It took us about six to nine months to figure that out through some painful things. Now we have growth pillars that are inherently cross-functional, that inherently require different functions to be a part, to solve the problems. We've gotten really good at chunking out the work to the small bites, to continue to deliver and add value to the firm.

We hit a problem, it goes into EBAP. It finds its way with the team. Over time, in small increments, the problem gets chipped away at, and it gets solved.

Deborah Zahn: I want to dig into that because I love this very much, and I work on transformation projects for clients, too. So, this is a wonderful way for organizations that have the right mix. What I'm hearing when I hear this is, it's a different way of leadership, sharing power and changing power dynamics. I hear hype that this is probably great for a high-trust organization.

Talk a little bit about the ingredients that enabled something like what you're describing to actually soar.

Barbara Ray: Yeah. Well, trust is significant. I would say, I'm fortunate to work in a very high-trust organization. So, I'd almost say it's a prerequisite. You have to have leadership alignment. In so many organizations undergoing transformation, that's the ingredient that's missing. Without that, you're not going to align.

Deborah Zahn: That's right.

Barbara Ray: You have to have strong leadership alignment, which requires strong trust, and you have to be able to translate what you're trying to accomplish to others because they have to do the work. Also, the work becomes very distributed, and it's no longer the senior leadership team getting in a room, deciding what the op model for the firm ought to be, and then come out and announce it.

Deborah Zahn: That's right.

Barbara Ray: You've got executives, non-executives, people more junior in their career working together, alongside each other to solve the problem. So, clarity of that vision and clarity of the results that you expect is imperative. You can't get that without strong alignment.

If I say, "This is what I want to accomplish," our chief marketing officer needs to be saying the same thing and our CFO needs to be saying the same thing.

Deborah Zahn: That's right.

Barbara Ray: When you get that, you can have the work distributed out to these teams, and you do get the results. To be honest, they're better. They're better because you're also getting the thinking of other people. You're able to really say, "Here's the vision and here's the outcomes. Go do it."

Deborah Zahn: That's right. That's right. You have folks who have to directly live with the consequences of those decisions, part of the decision-making process.

Barbara Ray: Yes.

Deborah Zahn: Oh, that makes me giddy. That makes me giddy. What other imperatives, do you think an organization has to have to pull off something that is such a distributed model as what you described, and an integrated model?

Barbara Ray: Yeah, I think there's ... Well, let's talk about integration. Integration is hard. Silos are easy. Most consultancies are matrixed in some respect. At the end of the day, we know who's in charge, whether it's that industry leader or that market leader, you know who's in charge. There's a matrix.

Integration isn't a matrix. Integration is truly where the responsibility and accountability are distributed and shared, and that's a really difficult muscle for people to build. Once you build it, as I say to people, "It's so much more fun. It is so much more fun to work in that way when you can get it." But again, in that respect, there has to be trust.

I think the other thing that has to exist is to be a teaching organization because in these models you're working with people in all different levels of their career. I had the good fortune to be the executive sponsor of what we call as our academy program. So, newer career employees, and I was the executive sponsor for about three years.

I would say to them in their onboarding, I said, "You have a unique opportunity at North Highland that you can be on one of these EBAP teams, and you can work with the president of the company. You can work with the CEO. You can work with a number of executives, and you're one of the team. They're not in charge. They're not the boss. You're one of the team."

I think that is a really unique opportunity, but in order to make that work, you've got to be a teaching culture. You have to value that, it's not going to be as easy to get the work done with someone that you might have to take along for a minute, but then you also get this wonderfulness of their experience, and their backgrounds, and their perspective, and how they see the firm, and what, maybe they might be participating in building. So, that is equally important.

Deborah Zahn: Again, I know part of what you have also done personally is worked on leadership initiatives. I recognize the language, new ways of working, which I know new ways of working become the norm, is how I think it's National Health Service in the UK defines sustainability. When you know that something's really in place.

Leaders had to have made transformations themselves to work in this new way. How did that go?

Barbara Ray: To be honest, some we lost because they weren't interested. This wasn't the journey they wanted to go on. Along the way of, as we matured into this integrated ways of working, business agility is at the core of how we get internal value delivered. Again, fully integrating across all facets of the organization, from marketing all the way through to delivering, we did a lot of it organizationally. So, it was a bit of a forcing function.

What you may have had, what your silo may have been yesterday is now gone. So, there's a little bit of a forcing function, but then, people force themselves out because it's not what they value in an organization.

I found more people, once you get over the hump, a bit, value it. Now, I don't think, could or would want to work in any other way. I find it's a very unique way of working. I don't know that many organizations of our size have found a way to truly integrate.

Like I said, we set up an organizational model with roles, responsibilities, people's objectives, et cetera, that make it all work. So, it's integrated all the way through from, not only what you do, but how we reward you and what we expect of you, is integrated all the way through.

We have, from an organization standpoint, we've got a small team on the commercial side of the business that leads all things talent. We've got a small team that leads all things operations, and it's not a representative form of government that, there's one of from every functional area. It's just a group of three people on each side that look at it across all things.

So, if the point of integration is at the CEO's office, it's not integration. The point of integration has to come down to lower levels. Like I said, we've set that up, and we've gotten to a point where we have won the hearts and minds.

Deborah Zahn: Wow, that's amazing. My head is just spinning in terms of all the ways that this relates to organizations, which I'm going to get to in a bit.

The integrated approach, as I imagine it, is also integrating. As you said, you had to break up those, let's organize by functional areas. When I see transformation with air quotes around it happening in a lot of organizations, they bring in their data person over here, they bring in their technology consulting over there, and then they bring a people and culture person in, to do some fun exercises, which isn't an integrated approach.

If you were in front of a company who was thinking of doing what you folks were doing, how would you sell them on why this integrated approach makes sense, and it's the right way to do things?

Barbara Ray: Well, number one, you've got to start with whatever value the client's trying to deliver. So, what is their objective? Are they an auto manufacturer that's going from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles? What is the journey that they're on? Do they have a clear vision of what that's going to look like? What does good look like?

So, if you think about the example I just gave, think about all of the requirements for the entirety of the organization to be doing things differently, and all of the requirements for the entirety of the organization to understand their piece of what is a very new world, against that of their peers and the other pieces.

Deborah Zahn: Yeah.

Barbara Ray: Right? So, transformations without integration is not the capital T transformation because you can never get it to the enterprise level. You could transform a piece, little T. If you're going to really transform your business and where you're going, all pieces need to align to that.

The best, most efficient way to get there is for integrated teams to help drive it. So, if the determination is, well, that's going to have an impact on supply chain in some way, shape, or form, well, all the people that need to work on that issue, to understand the new way of working, wouldn't it be better if they all got together to design it, say, as opposed to one group designing it, going, "Well, you don't know what that just did to accounting and billing. You weren't even considering accounting and billing," right?

It's the integrated way of working, from my perspective, is the only way to get to the capital T transformation. If you don't have clarity on what that capital T transformation is, and all the leaders understanding where we're going, by when, and how their piece is impacted, and then how they can explain that and leverage that with their peers and other parts of the business, you won't get there. It sounds simple, but it's not simple. Organizations are incredibly complex.

Deborah Zahn: Yeah, they're very complex. The truth of the matter is, and this is true for me, and I'm sure, lots of other consultants, is often when we have that first discovery process with a potential client, and if you talk to the CEO, you hear one thing. If you talk to the CFO, you hear another thing. If you talk to who's in charge of marketing, you hear a completely different thing, or slight variations that are going to matter in terms of whether you can do that capital T transformation.

So, I love what you're saying because you have to start there. If they're not clear, please don't just ... This is my plea to consultants of the world. Please don't barrel ahead, thinking it's going to work itself out because it will not.

Barbara Ray: It will not.

Deborah Zahn: What was the process by which you folks got clear of the vision because you could have been a lot of things? You had a lot of capabilities. When you decided you wanted to be the global leaders in change and transformation, how did that clarity come to be?

Barbara Ray: I mean, we did a lot of work, internally with small teams of people to really evaluate, what is it we do, do? What have we been doing? What kind of value do we bring to clients, and realized, this is the work we've been doing for a long time. We just didn't have clarity of vision. We didn't have consistency in how we delivered because if you got Barbara, you got it one way. It still worked. If you got Deb, you got it another way. It still worked, but we're bringing it all together and creating scalability, and not necessarily making it cookie cutter, but making some of the big things standardized, so we can teach people how to do things, right?

You're still always going to get the variety of, piece that the client needs, the piece that is personalized to them. So, I think it was there all along. The particular piece we do, we put people at the center of change and transformation. So, that could be your customer, that could be your employees.

The way we think about change and transformation is with people in the middle. I would say, what Covid did is it really amplified the workforce as the key component because as you said, if you don't get your people on the journey, starting with leadership alignment too, all of your people, they're not on the journey with you, you're not going where you're going to go. You're not going, dragging them behind you.

We put people in the middle, and really with a large emphasis on the workforce in the middle. So, that is the evolution. Realizing that, for years, we, North Highland has always put our client at the center, and ensuring their success, and always looked at, what are the obstacles to getting them to success?

I think it was natural with who we are as an organization. Like I said, it evolved and morphed into that, and now we fully embrace it and are able to point to others that embrace us too, from an analyst perspective, and the things our clients say about us.

Deborah Zahn: Very nice. Now, I imagine that not everybody can do what you just described. So, we talked about the leaders, and some of them exited because they're like, "That's not really the way that I want to go about my work."

I imagine, true for you folks and true for clients we work with, they're going to need, not just certain expertise, capabilities, certain temperaments ... What did you folks start to look for as you were bringing new folks on that, would thrive in an environment that you're describing?

Barbara Ray: Yeah. I think you need to have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit because as I said that integration is hard.

Deborah Zahn: Yeah.

Barbara Ray: So, it's the DNA that makes an entrepreneur. It's that willingness to test and fail, and test and fail, and learn and succeed. So, when you do things in an integrated way, and you go into clients, and we're pushing this into our clients as well, you have to be willing to test and fail.

I mean, business agility and our whole program is all about testing and failing. It's not, you design something perfect and you get it right the first time, but you have to be willing to test and fail. So, you need people who are willing to be in that kind of an environment, and that's not everybody. That's not everybody.

You also need a leader. We have that in our CEO, that says, "We can fail. That's OK. If we're not failing, we're actually, probably not doing enough. We're not trying enough. We're not pushing the envelope because you can't succeed at everything all the time."

So, that's a really important characteristic of someone who wants to grow their career at North Highland. I don't know our more junior people who start in their career, feel what I just said to you as much as you really ... They don't feel the integration with the same tension as you grow up in your career. You feel it because the integration points get more and more significant, the further you go. However, looking for that even in our more junior consultants is critical.

Deborah Zahn: Yeah. Now, so you've been through this wild ride of transformation with a capital T.

Barbara Ray: Yes.

Deborah Zahn: How has that changed the way that you then go out and work with your clients?

Barbara Ray: Well, number one, when I go out and talk to clients, I talk about our transformation all the time because we've lived it. We've lived it. It gives credibility for me to say, "I know where you are, and we've worked with you enough. I know why you're not going to make it with what you're trying to do. I can tell you what's in front of you. I can describe what you just went through and where that's leading you."

So, there's a credibility to that experience, and there's a significant difference in the experience you have because you went through it, and you made all the mistakes. Right? We did not go through it perfectly, on the perfect roadmap. We made mistakes, and we learned, and we corrected. It's different than when you're doing that for somebody else.

Deborah Zahn: That's right. I love the credibility piece because, often the frustration a lot of folks have with consultants is, they haven't lived it, they haven't been through it. They don't necessarily have operational experience, or whatever. They don't have transformation experience. So, it's all theoretical, and you folks aren't theoretical.

Barbara Ray: No, and we've never been. I think that's been a point for us from the beginning. It's about, how do we really get the client to where they want to go? I think now we've got greater tools in our toolbox to do it faster, better, more effectively with our clients because of our experience.

Deborah Zahn: That's fabulous. If someone's listening to this and saying, "Oh, she knows my pain. They know my pain," and they want to get a hold of you, how can they find you?

Barbara Ray: Well, you can find me, I'm at, and you can certainly go to our website at and look at our case studies, look at our information. You can see how we're structured, and I'd be happy to talk to somebody.

Deborah Zahn: Wonderful. So, let me ask you this last question because transformation, I know can take a lot, and working with folks who are doing transformation takes a lot. How do you get your balance in your life, however it is you define that?

Barbara Ray: I would say, sometimes I do it better than others, to be honest. I'm now more mature in my career, so I'm also more mature as a human being. At this point in time, and I don't know that I could have done this the entirety of my career, I work when I need to work, and I work incredibly hard. When I don't need to work, I don't.

So, I have given myself permission to say, "It's Saturday. I don't have anything due Monday morning. I don't have to work today."

Deborah Zahn: Nice.

Barbara Ray: Yeah.

Deborah Zahn: Love it. Love it. Well, Barbara, I really appreciate you coming on. It is rare that an organization, particularly a consulting firm that went through such a significant transformation is willing to be so transparent about it. I think it's really helpful for folks to hear. So, thanks so much for sharing with us.

Barbara Ray: Thank you. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I enjoyed the conversation.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.

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