Leading Self, Others, and the Firm: Leadership Development at North Highland

Leadership Development
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How does a management consulting firm handle leadership development, engagement, and succession planning? By keeping it simple.

North Highland is a midsize management consulting firm of approximately 7,000 employees worldwide. Within the US, North Highland has 20 offices and approximately 1,100 employees, including 250-300 with people management or project management responsibilities. Focusing in 4 key areas–customer experience, performance improvement, technology and digital, and transformation–North Highland strives to build capability within client organizations by “teaching them to fish” (i.e., teaching them how to do the work themselves).

Recently I spoke with Kimberly Currier, Senior Vice President for People Strategy at North Highland, on the LEADx Leadership podcast. She explained that as a management consulting firm:

“one of the most important things to our people is the ability to continuously learn and grow, whether it be from a client management perspective or through an expertise perspective.”

In fact, the continuous development and growth of employees are so important that front line managers are actually called “coaches.”

While comprehensive, the leadership competency model North Highland uses as a framework is simple: leading self, leading others, and leading the firm. Key components include:

  1. Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI)® : All employees complete the HBDI typically within the first thirty to sixty days of joining the organization. This assessment helps define and describe the way individuals think to enable better communication, decision making, and problem-solving. Unlike other companies where results are quickly forgotten, the language of HBDI is part of the North Highland culture. According to Currier:

“People often talk about what it means to be a blue thinker or have a preference for yellow thinking. And it's definitely part of who we are and what we do. We work really hard to not become labeling people, but we do approach many of our firm-wide communications trying to think from all four quadrants.”

  1. Enabling High Performance (Coaching) Program: Before people move into a coach (manager) role, they are encouraged to complete a two-day coaching program provided by Inside Out Development. The first day of the program teaches the classic “GROW” coaching model (i.e., goals, reality, options, way forward) providing a common language, structure, and process for having effective developmental discussions. The second day focuses on processes, systems, structure, and tactics needed to be a coach at North Highland.
  2. Corporate University: The corporate university includes a leadership development curriculum which is available to everyone. It’s an entry into the leadership mindset including topics such as influence, lateral thinking, strategy, and communications.
  3. Success Makers Leadership Development Curriculum: Two years ago, North Highland launched a high potential training program. Every 18-20 months a cohort of 30-35 people considered to be potential future leaders are selected to participate. The program includes three live meetings and action learning assignments. The three live gatherings focus on leadership from the perspective of leading self, others, and the firm:
    • Leading Self – This session focuses on a comprehensive 360 assessment of leadership capabilities, and also includes exploration and content on building a personal vision and understanding personal mastery, resiliency, and growth.
    • Leading Others – This session focuses on influence, communication and messaging; how to enroll others into a shared vision.
    • Leading the Firm – The final session includes visiting a client and exploring how to advance business for the firm.

The action learning projects that accompany the live gatherings are sponsored by the firm’s managing directors. The class is broken up into teams who tackle real business problems.  The projects also give the participants the chance to engage with senior leadership. Currier explained that these weren’t just abstract learning projects:

“Last year we implemented parts of, if not the entirety, of every single one of the solutions the teams brought forward.”

North Highland also tackles employee engagement on multiple fronts.

  1. Vision Makers Leadership Development Curriculum: Similar to the Success Makers Leadership Development Curriculum, this curriculum is designed for senior executives.
  2. Quarterly Engagement Surveys: Engagement surveys providing input on 50 drivers are delivered quarterly, with results analyzed and reported to the manager each quarter and to the employees and the board each year. The surveys are mobile-enabled, don’t take more than 10 minutes to complete, and the questions are cycled in and out so that the same question is not asked more than twice a year. The organization is very transparent about what the scores are and what initiatives come out of it.
  3. Local Consulting Model: Perhaps the strongest driver of engagement is related to the local consulting model. Each office has its own People Experience Lead, an executive located in the office that helps connect people within the office and connect the office to corporate leadership. The People Experience Lead has a budget to do office celebrations and activities and to facilitate the local office culture. The fact that the organization tries to keep its consultants local with no more than 20% traveling on an annual basis can’t hurt either.

When asked what’s next for leadership development at North Highland, Currier mentioned she’s thinking about what the firm will need in terms of competencies three to five years in the future, as well as succession planning. She explained:

“We've done a lot of work in the last two years on our most senior managers, our C-suite and so on, but how do we start to build succession benches? Who is going to be our next mid-level leadership group?”

Today, North Highland offers a variety of resources for their “coaches” and more senior leadership. But what advice does Currier have for peers who are just starting out? What should companies building a leadership training program for the first time keep in mind? Currier’s advice:

“The first thing you have to do is really get a clear definition of what leadership means for your company. And then do a quick analysis of where the low-hanging fruit is around that. For us, it was coaching training. The first thing we stood up, within months of starting a program, was the InsideOut coaching model. Don't overcomplicate it. You have to keep it simple and usable, and then progress from there. But the quicker you can get something out, the quicker you can learn from the people and you can identify the bigger, more important or longer-term gaps that you can fill with your leadership development vision. But you got to get out there.”

North Highland’s investment in culture, engagement, and strong leadership has certainly paid off. In addition to high client satisfaction and retention, in recent years North Highland offices have won Best Place to Work awards, and its training programs have won awards from the Association for Talent Development, Brandon Hall, and Chief Learning Officer Magazine.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.