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Previous business strategy consultant for Ernst & Young in the Asia Pacific region talks employee engagement

 Abisheg Elijah is responsible for Eliron Advisory’s ( Strategic Marketing Practice. He is currently helping HR tech start-ups that focus on employee engagement, performance management and leadership. He has consulted on business strategy for Ernst & Young in the Asia Pacific region and also worked with large Indian IT services firms – Infosys & Cognizant – and consulted for major US based retail chains. He asnswered a few of our questions about employee engagement.


What are the major obstacles to engagement that Big4 firms face today?

There are countless obstacles to engagement in the workforce today. Some obstacles are similar to those you’d find at any large corporation, while others are more unique to the Big 4. For example, a poor leadership style can be a big roadblock to engagement regardless of the type of company you work at. On the other hand, dispersed teams and recommendations that aren’t implemented by clients are obstacles that are more specific to large consulting environments.

It’s quite common for a consultant to be holed up in difficult client environments most of the Abisheg Elijah week with little or no interaction with their team. For example, while at EY, I spent several months in remote places like Bhutan working alone with a client that wasn’t too friendly – and that was probably when I was least engaged.

Another issue with large consulting firms is that half the time, a team’s carefully crafted recommendations end up left on the shelf. At any point, a client may decide not to proceed with a project, and this can be discouraging for the consulting team that worked long hours to create the strategy.

Why is this a big deal? Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that “money doesn’t motivate us at all.” If money doesn’t motivate us, what does? According to Pink, it’s autonomy, mastery, and purpose – and if your well-designed project gets abruptly shelved, you probably aren’t going to feel like it had any purpose at all.

 What needs to improve and how?

These days, it’s imperative for companies to provide their employees (especially the millennials) with a sense of purpose. By 2020, 50% of the US workforce will be millennials. According to a recent study by Deloitte, 75% of millennials believe businesses are too fixated on their own agendas and not focused enough on helping to improve society. This is especially true at Big4 companies, where employees often tend to feel disconnected from the leadership. The larger the team, the more challenging it is to foster a meaningful, engaging environment.

There are many ways to improve on engagement, and different strategies will work for different teams. For one thing, employees need to be recognized for their accomplishments. This needs to happen specifically on large teams, where there’s potential for employees to feel lost or overlooked. Another way to inject some soul and purpose into everyday work is by investing in Corporate Social Responsibility, and involving your team in the process. Studies show that CSR is one of the largest drivers of employee engagement worldwide, and that involving your employees in it helps infuse their work lives with purpose and motivation. I’m currently consulting with a company called Co.tribute that links the causes an employee is passionate about with their everyday work. It empowers employees to be a part of their company’s giving process – both financially and through volunteering, in turn giving those employees a deeper sense of fulfillment in their work (which also leads to some significant financial returns).

 What are some of the reasons that people leave the Big4 firms?

From what I’ve seen, people often leave because they want to be a part of something that’s more meaningful, allows for sufficient time with family, and provides better mentoring and professional growth opportunities. People also tend to leave when they aren’t feeling recognized or valued by their managers. In fact, two of the most valuable psychological needs we have as human beings are the need to be appreciated and the need to “belong.” A dislike for extensive travel or a career opportunity with more growth potential also contributes to the turnover rate at Big4 firms.

 What recent changes have been made to retain talent and enhancement?

One of the biggest changes at the Big 4 in recent years has been in performance management. Over the last year, Deloitte has significantly changed the way they measure performance. They’ve dropped archaic methodologies such as fitting employees on a bell curve, instead asking a specific question to managers: ‘Would you always want this employee on your project team?’ They have also replaced annual or half yearly performance reviews with weekly check-ins that are focused on coaching.

Another change has been the increased focus on employee recognition. Over the last 3 years, Pricewaterhouse Coopers has set a solid plan in motion to increase engagement. They did this by putting relevant milestone awards and promotions in place, adding training and mentoring programs, introducing paid sabbaticals, and more. Ernst & Young has successfully launched a global exchange program that rewards high performing consultants and managers with 18-24 month overseas engagements that help them grow professionally.

Other companies, like Slalom, have made an effort to reduce extensive travel requirements by strategically assigning teams to projects in their localities. This has helped them attract travel-weary talent from the Big4.

 What does the future look like?  

In the 80s and 90s, based on Michael Porter’s research, companies started focusing on strategy. The Big 4 responded by adding strategic consulting and porter’s frameworks to their toolkits. Over the last decade, based on Peter Drucker’s research, the focus shifted to fostering great culture. As a result, the Big 4’s HR teams widened their focus to the softer issues that influence culture. Over the last two years, thought leadership by Adam Grant, Daniel Pink and the like on purpose, motivation and generosity is driving the next shift in corporate focus. The amount of research being done in this space is tremendous, and the results show without a doubt that today’s workforce needs to find meaning in the day to day routine. The Harvard Business Review has found that deriving a higher level of meaning from work is associated with 93% greater engagement. Based on this shift, I believe that the Big4 will soon start reimagining their CSR efforts by involving their employees and linking the causes they are passionate about to their everyday work.

I also feel that the emergence of online consulting marketplaces like MBA & Co., SpareHire etc. will put some significant changes in motion. These types of firms serve up consulting opportunities to experienced consultants who want to direct their own futures, and will likely force Big 4 companies to create new career paths and offer a better work-life balance.


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