Winning the war for talent

Chris Seidler and Larissa Lawrence, Tata Consulting Services

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The war for talent in the consulting sector feels more intense right now than ever before. After a chaotic 2020, the market has bounced back strongly in 2021—putting many firms in a position where they’ve found themselves without sufficient resources to keep up with the pace of client demand.

At the same time, many firms have reported that the competition for talent has diversified; not only are they having to compete against other consulting firms and other parts of the professional services industry, they’re also fighting for talent against a wide range of other industries—including, in many cases, their own clients. To find out what consulting firms can do to win this war for talent, we spoke to Chris Seidler, Managing Partner for Business Enablement for Consulting & Services Integration at Tata Consulting Services, and Larissa Lawrence, the firm’s Head of College Programs for Consulting & Services Integration.

How difficult is it right now for consulting firms to find and hold on to talent—and to what extent has the pandemic influenced that level of difficulty?

Chris: In the early part of the pandemic, it was very difficult to find anyone in the industry who was considering a career change. This dynamic presented challenges with recruitment on one hand, but on the other, led to considerably lower than usual attrition. Now, however, things have swung in the opposite direction. A lot of big firms started going on hiring sprees towards the end of 2020 and in the first half of 2021, and that's led to a lot of movement of talent within the industry. While we've found that it's still relatively straightforward to find candidates, getting an offer over the line is a lot harder than it used to be; candidates have higher expectations for salaries and signing bonuses, and more of them are abandoning the hiring process partway through in order to accept an offer elsewhere.

So is it fair to say that there’s more competition for consulting talent now than there used to be?

Chris: The competition for talent has become more diversified; the candidates we're considering are often fielding offers from multiple other businesses both within and outside of the consulting sector. We've also seen counteroffers become more frequent and more aggressive. On the positive side, however, the rise of remote working has allowed us to take a bit of a broader approach in terms of who we try to recruit and where we look for that talent. It's not a prerequisite anymore for a career in consulting that you have to be willing to be a road warrior—which means we can target people who have a different set of career expectations. And since people are spending more of their time working from home, we can also now consider candidates who aren't based close to our offices.

Larissa: We're continuing to compete for talent against our direct competitors—but at the same time, we're also seeing an opening up of the talent market. Businesses in every industry are recruiting more broadly than they used to; so someone graduating from an MBA programme now has a lot more options to consider than they did historically.

Are you seeing that competition for talent translate into increased attrition rates?

Chris: TCS has historically had very low attrition rates compared to our competition; every year, we expect that we'll see a big spike in people leaving after bonus season, but that's never really materialised. I think a big part of the reason for that is that we've built up a strong sense of culture. Much of that culture is rooted in our commitment to social responsibility; we've always been keen to find ways to give back to our communities, for example. One of the big challenges we're thinking about now is how to find ways to grow and nurture that sense of community and culture even when people aren't physically working alongside each other.

You mentioned the increased degree to which consulting firms are competing for talent against other industries. What kind of message should firms be sending to prospective candidates in order to win that war for talent?

Larissa: Consulting still offers a lot of opportunities for fast-track career development—the types of opportunities it's hard to find in other industries, even tech companies. There's something about the pathway to the partnership that is very appealing for people who are looking to hit the ground running and grow their career at an accelerated pace. It's hard to find a career where you can do that, while also having a positive impact on the world. Consulting is one of the few places that offers both of those elements.

Are there any initiatives you’ve launched within TCS to make your firm more attractive to those sorts of people?

Larissa: Back in 2011, our CEO decided that it was very important for us to start developing closer ties with the most prestigious business schools. That led to the creation of the TCS Accelerated Leadership Programme (TALP); a small, elite programme focused on MBA recruitment. The idea behind the programme is that it gives us a way of providing additional mentorship and project selection opportunities to people with the potential to be real catalysts for growth within our business. We're now coming up to the ninth year of the programme, and it's proved to be a very effective way of ensuring we have a steady supply of top performers coming into our organisation.

Are there any individual skills or capabilities that are particularly highly in demand within your firm at the moment?

Chris: Cloud is an area where we're seeing a lot of demand from our clients right now, so we're working hard to find consultants with expertise in that area. People who are experts in cloud environments like Azure and AWS are in very high demand right now. But we're also looking for people who aren't necessarily cloud specialists, but who know how to work in the cloud—people, for example, who know how to do enterprise resource planning work in a cloud context. Cybersecurity is another area that's very hot right now. And we're also seeing an uptick in organisational change management projects, so people with knowledge in that space are likewise near the top of our priority list.

Over the past few years, what do you think have been the most important cultural shifts when it comes to what people are looking for from their careers, and how they relate to their employers?

Larissa: A lot of the qualities that MBA graduates are looking for in a job are largely industry independent. A lot of the people entering the workforce today have an incredible hunger for learning; they want to work in an environment where they can work with managers who are present and who are good at providing rigorous feedback. They're also looking for a sense of purpose and fulfilment and work. And they're interested in careers that will provide good exit opportunities. That's part of the reason that tech companies have become such an attractive place to work for new graduates; if you spend some time at one of the big tech companies, that opens up a lot of doors for you.

Chris: One of the big challenges for any consulting firm right now is finding ways to command and generate loyalty among its workforce. These days, people are more willing to switch to a new employer—and it's become easier than ever for them to do so. For prior generations, moving to a new job was something one almost never did. But over the course of my career, I've seen that attitude gradually erode over time. And the pandemic has taken that erosion a step further. When you're working from home, you don't even have to move to a new office to move jobs!

What kind of lasting impact do you think the pandemic will have on how firms manage their workforces?

Chris: Recently, we've started to see a reluctance to travel among consultants that didn't exist prior to the pandemic. When we interview candidates, everyone wants to know what our long-term plan is for how much consultants are going to travel—and how much of that will be governed by the decisions of individual consultants versus how much will be dictated by company policy. In fact, we've even had some people flat out tell us that they're not willing to travel anymore. Given those changing attitudes, it seems unlikely that we'll ever go back to the frequency of travel that we used to see in this industry—but whether we end up doing 25% the amount of travel or 50% is hard to predict right now.

Larissa: Consulting has always been predicated on an apprenticeship model; younger consultants learn how to manage projects by spending time working shoulder to shoulder with their more senior colleagues. By removing that in-person aspect of the role, the pandemic has certainly had an impact on the speed with which consultants can develop their skills. Hopefully in the long-term, we'll see an organic shift back towards more in-person working; but in the meantime, we've taken some steps at TCS to compensate for that and ensure that our consultants are still getting the same development opportunities they used to. For example, we're providing all of our consultants with peer mentors within their practices, as well as executive sponsors—to ensure they still get to build relationships with senior-level people within our firm. We're also looking at rolling out more courses and certifications, and creating a more comprehensive and formalised foundational training programme for our junior consultants.

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