A.T. Kearney wants to be the most admired global consulting firm. Chief Learning Officer Stephen Parker’s flexibility and global mindset might just get it there.
by Kate Everson
March 12, 2015
Many learning leaders can probably find a connection between their jobs and Stephen Parker’s description of a rugby game: “It’s an interesting mix of planning and chaos.”
Parker knows what it’s like to be on the field — he was an amateur player for Saracens R.F.C., a London-based first division team, at the beginning of his career — in addition to working as a learning leader.
As international consulting firm A.T. Kearney’s chief learning officer and global head of talent management, Parker has seen how the nature of rugby and its strategy applies to leading development and talent efforts for a global company. A.T. Kearney has 3,500 employees in more than 40 countries, and its services extend across industries.
In June 2013 Johan Aurik, managing partner and chairman of the board, introduced Vision 2020, a business goal to turn the 89-year-old firm into the most admired based on its culture and talent. That same month, Parker came on board to lead the global learning and talent development function, through which he creates programs and promotes a culture that coincides with the firm’s vision.
A Change in Game Plans
“In rugby you can plan for lots, but then immediately it’s a free-for-all,” Parker said. “The team that wins covers for each other quickest and has the greatest versatility to deal with that level of ambiguity. The teams that fail are brilliant at a few things, but when it doesn’t go to plan they can’t get rid of their rigidity.”
He’s used that lesson about the value in adaptability his entire life, and it’s a key factor in how he got to where he is now. The Liverpool, England, native grew up in a divided home. He and his brother were fans of the Everton soccer club, while his sister cheered for Liverpool, the club headquartered a mile away. The friendly rivalry was rooted in a similar passion for the game that influenced Parker’s schoolboy aspirations.
“As well as being famous for The Beatles, Liverpool produced three types of people: soccer players, comedians and musicians,” he said.
Parker wanted to be a soccer star, but St. Edwards College’s Christian Brother Grammar School didn’t have a team. Luckily, a growth spurt turned him into an ideal player for the sport they did play, rugby, and he soon fell in love with it.
Unlike soccer clubs, the Rugby Union required all players to be amateur when Parker began playing, so there wasn’t an option to go pro. Instead, he got a degree in physics at Imperial College in London in 1987 while playingin differnt parts of the world for the Saracens.
During this time, London faced financial deregulation, and the price of oil crashed. Lloyds Banking Group offered him a job that allowed him to grow professionally and continue playing rugby. These were all the signs Parker needed to continue working outside the physics field. For two years, he played rugby while working in a general banking role.
Parker suffered multiple knee injuries on the field. But as his rugby playing days ended, his career began. Lloyds moved him out of London to Surrey, where they had a management training center. After three years of working there, he fell in love with the learning field the same way he fell for rugby and Lloyds — in a way that veered away from his plan.
“I quickly realized I was a small cog in a massive organizational machine,” Parker said. “I wanted to find something where I could make a difference more quickly and grow a business.”
He found it at BlessingWhite, a global leadership development firm where he worked for 16 years. The job began in London but moved him to Chicago in 1997, then to Princeton, New Jersey, in 2000 as managing director of Europe and executive vice president of consulting. In 2001, he became a partner during a management buyout.
In 2009, it was time for another change. Washington D.C.-based executive development firm Healthy Companies International recruited him to be its president, where he worked for 3 1/2 years on wide-scale change and executive coaching plans for clients.
“I started to wonder what it would be like if I were to do the whole thing,” Parker said. “Instead of providing just the input and insight and helping with execution, what would it be like if I had to put my money where my mouth was and see the whole thing through from start to finish?”
He found his answer in June 2013.
The Dynamic Duo: Talent and Learning
Parker called it happenstance when AT Kearney approached him to be its chief learning officer. To him, it was an opportunity to lead projects and people, run part of the business, act as an executive consultant and design a firmwide transformation.
All three companies Parker has worked for since 1987 had a common theme: a commitment to personal values and strength-based development and growth. This same philosophy translates to his work at A.T. Kearney and its Vision 2020.
“Being admired is a stretch goal,” said Phil Morgan, A.T. Kearney’s chief human resource officer. “It’s an aspirational target … and has expanded possibilities and increased the energy within the firm.”
Morgan said the “most admired” target affects not only the firm’s recruitment efforts but also the engagement levels within it. Talent on the outside is attracted to A.T. Kearney’s value-oriented growth goals, and current employees work for more than just a paycheck.
Parker’s dual title of CLO and head of talent management allows him an overview of the entire talent lifecycle outside the actual hiring, which is led by the company’s HR management branch. Splitting the roles might be common practice at most firms, but A.T.Kearney’s workflow is suited to the hybrid position.
“The ethos in a consulting firm is how do you grow, and do you grow sufficiently so you can go up in the organization or decide you’re going to do something else?” Parker said. “Growth and learning is a constant. It’s managing the talent pyramid.”
By staying tuned in to employees’ performance and development, he makes sure talent management performance systems lead to meaningful conversations and growth opportunities. He uses succession planning to make sure people learn the right skills, which makes it easier to identify the organization’s next generation of leaders.
The hybrid structure also allows learning to beat the natural barriers associated with A.T.Kearney’s consultancy setup. Parker said most employees spend very little time in one office, which means the one time everyone in the firm is together is during learning programs.
When everyone’s together, Parker’s real job begins. His first order of business is to help people at all levels of the organization understand that learning is constant, not a single hour when 16 people sit in a room.
He started doing this by redefining the master-apprentice model. Everybody has to play the role of a master to help others develop expertise and experience, regardless of which level they’re in at the company. It’s no longer a hierarchically bound structure but a skills-based one that encourages different levels of the firm to collaborate rather than reign over each other.
“If we want to be the most admired, we have to comprise the most admired individuals,” Parker said. “Our role is getting more of our people to be at their best more of the time.”
One of Parker’s proudest achievements is Expanding Horizons, an international immersion program for the firm’s partners built with the London Business School. Like many organizations, A.T. Kearney assumed the people at the top needed the least development — an assumption that led to its partners’ leadership and consultancy skills being ignored.
Expanding Horizons includes 10 days of learning in London and six days in Mumbai separated by four to five months of coaching, action learning and feedback. The program launches every quarter with 25 partners in each cohort. The aim is to use locations to enhance learning by giving different perspectives and experiences.
Parker said it was a risky initiative that could have been rejected by the firm’s leaders. And, it was — at first. Jeff Sorenson, president and partner of A.T. Kearney’s Public Sector and Defense Services, said one of the first days in London included a workshop on theater masks, which led many participants to question why they were playing with putty instead of improving their job performance. As the curriculum continued, however, Sorenson and his cohort began to understand how it all related to their jobs.
“When we met each other at global meetings, we carried this ‘we are who we are because of what we do,’ ” he said. “It was all about how to see who’sbehind that mask.”
Metaphorically lowering the masks helped to develop each partner’s self-awareness of his or her own values, skills and vision, which helped them find common ground with others despite differences in background or job description.
All 300 partners are expected to go through Expanding Horizons in the next few years, but Parker hasn’t forgotten the majority of A.T. Kearney employees at home. A curriculum called Consulting Content has been designed for all levels of the company and equips users with the core skills of consulting: how to analyze problems, lead with ideas and communicate in a compelling fashion. Parker designed different layers of the program to apply to employees who have joined the company right after getting a business analyst degree, post-MBA associates and those in the pre-partner principal role.
Although some of the initiatives are produced by the learning and development group, they also rely on employees’ desire to teach each other. A.T. Kearney, like a winning rugby team from Parker’s athletic days, has no shortage of employees who want to support others.
In the future, there will be more programs that reach all levels of the organization. Parker’s goal is to re-examine all content, refresh it and make it more compelling to those in the firm’s global offices.
Feeding the Beast
Xavier Mesnard, a partner and the head of the firm’s global strategy corporation practice, works in Paris but found the Expanding Horizons program as useful as stateside employees like Sorenson. The program pulled international employees together, but it also helped the eight-year Kearney veteran to work with other generations.
“Being elected a partner is the pinnacle,” he said. “Except we expect people to become partners between 35 and 45, so you have another 20 years, if not more, of professional life to go through.” The program offered a way for older and younger partners to come together while building their skills.
Having a hunger for learning is a mixed blessing for Parker, who said one of his greatest challenges is keeping up with the company’s development appetite. Not only does he have to build new learning approaches that match employees’ ambition and the company’s goals, but also he has to figure out how to deliver them. Face-to-face is preferred, but it’s not always possible. He said he’s found versatility in mobile and social learning.
One of the toughest challenges most CLOs face is how to carve out time for self-development. Parker said he’s a voracious reader who sometimes binges business books and recovers with fiction. His favorite author is John le Carré for the way he adapts the spy genre to fit different audiences — like author, like learning leader.
A.T. Kearney’s learning leader also credits his “gene of curiosity” as a driver for his personal development. Asking questions and seeking answers leads to insights and growth he rarely expects, which usually become experiences he never forgets.
“That’s what learning needs to do,” Parker said. “As much as it has to teach someone new skills, it’s also about creating a broader breadth of view and either nourishing or creating a greater sense of curiosity in people.”