Guest Interview with Corinna Christophorou - Strategy Consultant and Interim Director
Corinna, firstly can you tell us a bit about your career to date and what projects you have undertaken in an Interim capacity?
I work with businesses going through change; whether this is for commercial, cultural or economic reasons. My remit frequently combines strategic and operational roles, making strategic recommendations and then implementing them. Many of my assignments have had an international dimension and prior to my consultancy career, I led business development and communications operations for three global firms. I have also advised on the business development and communications aspects on nine mergers in the US, UK and across Continental Europe; often as part of the core negotiation team.
What do you consider to be your core specialisms?
I have 20 years’ board-level experience in the business to business and professional services sectors; including over ten years as an Interim. My core skills comprise business and client development, change management - often within the context of merger and post merger integration - as well as strategic communications and marketing, brand and reputation management. I have recruited and led multidisciplinary teams, both large and small, developing talent and aligning resources to deliver competitive advantage for the firms with whom I work.
The Legal sector has evolved hugely over the past few years especially with the advent of the Legal Services Act so what do you think are the main challenges for that particular market right now?
The Legal Services Sector is one of UK’s most successful invisible exports and has displayed considerable resilience during the downturn. However, many firms in the ‘squeezed’ mid-tier of the UK top 100 have found the going especially tough, particularly those heavily reliant on the UK market. Inevitably, this will give rise to further consolidation in the sector as firms combine to compete with the global players for cross-border client mandates.
I predict that new entrants to market post LSA will change the sector dramatically in the long term - and not just at the commoditised end of the market. The traditional partnership model, particularly those dominated by lock-step, is beginning to look outdated. From clients’ perspective, there is an expectation that the structure and culture of their advisers should reflect their own. Indeed, there is considerable potential to re-engineer the law firm model at the profitable ‘quality’ end of the market. A flatter, less hierarchical structure, intelligent use of technology to reduce costs and an enhanced service delivery would directly benefit clients in terms of lower fees whilst still providing high quality advice.
By the same token, for Generation Y now entering the professions, be that in accountancy or law, partnership is not necessarily viewed as the ultimate prize which in contrast to previous generations. Their ambition frequently lies in achieving a more defined work/life balance, which is not easily accommodated in the highly competitive culture of a City or White Shoe firm.
Hourly rate billing, considered by many clients as rewarding inefficiency, is rapidly being replaced by alternative fee arrangements as clients increasingly use professional procurement to drive down cost. The ongoing challenge for all firms is to maintain profitability whilst continuing to deliver a high standard of client service.
Can you see what you do changing in the short to medium term as a result?
More than ever, firms have had to factor change into the management of their businesses. The need to compete in a global market, the rapid pace of technological advances and the impact of the Legal Service Act means that no business can afford to stagnate. All of these factors play to the skills of the professional Interim as managing change is what we do. Many professional service firms have readily adopted outsourcing and offshoring but the use of interims is still relatively new to the sector.
On the flip side, what do you think are the main opportunities?
UK professional services firms have been hugely successful exporters of advisory services but until the banking crash in 2008, they were largely eclipsed by the financial services sector which has always enjoyed a higher profile. The sector deserves greater public recognition for work that it does in promoting the UK abroad and it represents a positive counterbalance to the continuing difficulties besetting the banks - a sector with which UK PLC is still so closely identified.
Growth opportunities continue to be predominantly outside the Eurozone, with many of the larger firms expanding overseas; either through organic growth or merger. The name of the game is to be able to service clients wherever they do business, so international operations will mirror that of clients and focus on sectors in which they are active. Many firms are targeting BRIC and increasingly CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) markets, although opening offices in some of these countries is problematic due to local restrictions on foreign firms setting up shop. Australia is another key region where global firms have been particularly acquisitive of late, highlighting its growing regional significance, particularly as a centre for the mining and natural resources sector.
How have these affected/ are affecting your own career?
Much of my experience has been gained with international and global businesses and I have greatly enjoyed working with different nationalities and cultures. Having a European name and heritage has helped as it gives me an insight into cultures outside the UK and has enabled me to build effective working relationships with colleagues abroad. This has been particularly useful on some the international combinations on which I have worked, as well as with facilitating post merger integration.
You’ve worked in numerous professional service firms in different sectors in the UK and across Europe and US so how difficult is it to bridge diverse cultures and interests?
The Holy Grail is integration. I have worked in businesses with spectacular global networks on paper but in reality were a series silos. The challenge for US and UK global firms alike is to leverage their international operations effectively by factoring integration into their business planning.
In many countries outside the US and UK, there is a natural wariness of the Anglo-Saxon business model as it has the potential to be seen as the modern incarnation of Imperialism. That’s why it’s important to build trust and respect for the cultural nuances of the country you are working in, rather than a heavy-handed approach of ‘one size fits all’. As firms move into new markets - such as Africa, Brazil and China - cultural awareness becomes ever more critical.
From experience, firms that manage with a light touch and genuine inclusion tend to get the most out of their networks. Integration can’t be imposed or left to chance – you have to sweat the detail and that takes time, money and resource to achieve. However, the reward for that investment is a more profitable and cohesive network bringing greater commercial resilience.
The same principle applies to making senior appointments and allocating leadership roles. It’s critical to have a diverse range of nationalities running operations within a firm; rather than restricting senior roles to the home country. It sends a powerful message that the firm is truly integrated rather than just paying lip service to being an international business.
Many professional service industries were hit hard after the 2008 crash so have you seen attitudes towards Interims shift since then?
Whilst the economic outlook remains uncertain, professional services firms will remain cautious – and rightly so. Most firms have streamlined their businesses and managed their bottom line effectively, but they now recognise there is a real need to grow the top line after a long period of consolidation.
There has been reluctance across virtually all sectors to invest in recruitment, both interim and permanent, whilst trading conditions remain challenging. As we emerge from recession, many firms recognise the need to bring in additional expertise for specific projects but are wary about committing. For that reason, an Interim represents a low risk and cost effective option for many seeking to grow following a long period of economic stagnation.
What do you think are the main benefits for a company that employs Interims?
Over and above bringing in skills and experience to a specific discipline, an effective Interim can be an adrenalin-shot, helping a business to move forward by applying objectivity and focus to the task in hand.
Taking on a senior a senior Interim is undoubtedly an investment, but I believe one well that is worth making. Indeed, hiring an experienced Interim in certain circumstances is a more viable alternative to a permanent hire; for example, pre or post merger, on a project where specialist skills and experience are required or when the economic outlook is too uncertain to commit to a permanent appointment.
Finally, any words of advice for readers of Perspective who may be thinking of becoming an Interim?
Being an Interim means you have to be prepared to stick your head above the parapet. The role carries the expectation of delivering significant results often within very tight timeframes. This can mean intense pressure on occasions. You will frequently be tackling complex and intractable issues, some of which will have been neglected for many years. So, not for the faint hearted perhaps but there’s a fantastic sense of achievement on the successful completion of a job.
Relationships matter. Leading change within any organisation depends on the ability to build trust and credibility amongst colleagues at all levels in order to bring people with you. Ensuring you have the necessary support at C-suite level is particularly critical to getting the job done. Key attributes of a successful Interim are resilience, stamina and having integrity. However, most of all, having a sense of humour!
There will come a time in each assignment where you will need to put things in perspective – and remember, just as in Life of Brian, ‘always look on the bright side of life!’.
You can connect with Corinna here.