Why autonomy, mastery and purpose matter most

Another year, another exciting influx of new talent. And as we raise the talent bar again I pause to reflect:
Can we now codify the DNA of the perfect Gate One hire?
How many applicants do we need to meet to recognise the stars?
What would have become of the gems who got away?

The last question is purely conjecture, of course. But I believe we can now answer the first two with some confidence.

Management consultancy demands an extraordinarily high emotional resilience as well as academic intellect and technical skill. Mastering the interpersonal psychology of the job has always been a crucial determinant of success, but these days more so than ever. Consultancy buyers are increasingly seeking not just well-crafted deliverables but expert opinion, coaching and facilitative brilliance as well. This goes to the heart of becoming a trusted advisor.

The all-important personal touch is what makes the recruitment game so fraught with difficulty and the cultural fit to any organisation so vital. It’s character, not just competence, that really matters. It’s why CV screening will soon become a fully automated task,  such is the universal prevalence of stellar qualifications and achievements among applicants.

Having interviewed literally hundreds of candidates over the years, the patterns are discernible. I believe there are three factors above all others – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose – that explain why the smaller, entrepreneurial firms are best placed to attract the most talented consultants in the market. The same three factors explain why, in my opinion, the big firm model is doomed as a long-term retainer of top talent – at least without radical change.

Here I am indebted to Dan Pink for his excellent framework of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivators that I have applied to the management consultancy context (and commend his thought-provoking books and talks for more on this topic).


“I feel like a number” is the most common push factor I hear from applicants from the big firms – the inference being that they have little or no influence over their project staffing, career progression or bench assignments. Sooner or later, big firm practitioners always seem to reach the conclusion that practice development is nothing more than a tick-box exercise: I must do this because everyone else is; because, if I don’t, I will be penalised in my appraisal. As soon as the consultant feels compelled to act due to extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators in this way, quality and enthusiasm inevitably suffer. Rather, the entrepreneurial consultancy offers the tangible prospect of hands-on business-build experience and the opportunity to create something, drawing on their personal war stories from previous firms (both good and bad).

Similarly, since the young entrepreneurial firm typically has lean infrastructure and big ambitions, there is boundless scope for individuals to align their individual passions to genuine business need, embracing the ‘blank paper’ stage of designing any number of facets of the growing business that need to be put in place. For example,

Ever wanted to design the world’s best performance management and incentives framework? – Go make it happen!
Never been given license to write that article or proposal on your brilliant new consulting insight? – Pick up the pen!
Always thought you could do a better job at designing the office environment you work in? – Now’s your chance!

For the entrepreneurial businesses who believe in genuine co-determination with their employees (all of them, you would hope), these are the magical ‘win-win’ moments that accelerate growth and take personal motivation to new heights. The consultant feels in control, rather than being controlled.


It is one of the many ironies of the big firms that – having promised limitless breadth and diversity of career experience during the recruitment process – they set about narrowing their consultants’ focus to the one thing that maximises their return on each individual as a ‘specialist’. Thus the consultant invariably finds him or herself working in the same industry/client/service line ad infinitum. Internal transfers are discouraged through red tape or the mantra of having to start again at building an internal network (sadly, so crucial for one’s promotion prospects).

Individuals may (or may not) develop deep technical specialism, but their value to their clients as trusted advisors is diminished on two counts. First, since consultants thrive on the variety of having new challenges and new problems to solve, their motivation (and therefore performance) inevitably wanes over time. Second, because true mastery in advisory work comes from being adept at managing ambiguity and complexity in many different situations. Clients rightly place a high value on the versatility and insight drawn from diverse experiences that transcend industry sectors and organisational cultures. Thus the small, diversified consultancy that must deploy its consulting team fluidly across clients and sectors is, counter-intuitively, able to offer greater diversity of professional experience and a more rewarding path to consulting mastery.

For clarity, I am by no means denigrating the value of technical skill. All consultants worth their salt must dedicate focus and energy to developing specific expertise of value to their clients. Rather, I believe that personal development and motivation flow logically from diversity of professional experience, not by repeating the same task or process a hundred times. The latter approach leads to competence, but not mastery.


Serving clients on their most important business initiatives demands significant personal sacrifice from the consultant, never mind the in-the-margins contributions to building a business. But sacrifice without enjoyment of one’s work is a short-term game. There must be genuine alignment at a more fundamental, values-driven level for the consultant to readily invest their professional future in someone else’s business.

The big firms are fond of quoting David Maister, the father figure of the modern day professional services firm, in this context. Maister understood the importance of meaning as an intrinsic motivator for any talented management consultant. His well-known mantra is that business owners must seek to ‘build a cathedral’ that their teams are proud to work in. Alas, the only structure too many of the big firms go about constructing is a pyramid – a rigid ‘up or out’ edifice in which peer is pitted against peer and whose only discernible purpose is to perpetuate the partner model (the pharaohs?).

It is not rocket science that personal motivation is unlocked where incentives are shared, career progression is meritocratic, and rewards are more transparently and equitably distributed – an approach to which we certainly subscribe. The harder part is building the commonality of purpose and values with everyone who joins the business. Speaking for ourselves, the Gate One cause is simple: to deliver Change That Counts to our clients, our team, our industry and society at large. This gives us an instant litmus test to apply to any potential assignment: If achieved, will this change make the world a better place? Can our client achieve this without our help? and, Is the work sufficiently challenging to enrich the career journeys of our consultants?

If we’re answering “yes” to these fundamentals then the delivery bit is easy – well, relatively!


Simon Dennis is a founding Partner of Gate One and responsible for people and talent development in the firm.