Although it’s been around for 25+ years, not much is known about Atlanta-based North Highland in the broader community following the industry. After publishing our North Highland firm profile last week, we have a special treat for you today. Our guest writer was a consultant at North Highland’s London office, and currently consults at a Big 4 firm. Below, his unfiltered thoughts on life at North Highland London.
For my money, North Highland is the best boutique IT consultancy experience you can have in London. I joined the Consulting function soon after graduating from university and quickly developed a core IT consulting skillset – with exposure to the full project lifecycle. While at North Highland, I had the opportunity to work with some of the most recognized £1B+ organizations in the UK. Generally speaking, London has a large and dazzling client roster of FTSE 250 companies.
Most of my projects were anchored at the executive CIO level, and our teams led the way in PM/PMO and CX capability. I found North Highland London to incentivize and encourage innovation – I actually won an internal business idea competition while there and was awarded funding to develop a new client offering. I came to know the London Market Lead as a truly inspirational and high achieving individual with strong business acumen. It also doesn’t hurt that the firm has just transitioned into a cool, new office in Holborn!
In general, my time at North Highland London was spent working with exceptional “people” people – I quickly learned that the model is to hire those whose spike is in interpersonal and people skills; even if they aren’t smarter than MBB consultants, they know how to build exceptional relationships that extend beyond the workplace. There is decent training available for developing soft skills and IT knowledge, and the absence of an “up or out” policy also has fostered a meritocratic environment without the ruthless edge of top tier firms. Overall, North Highland London’s office was fun, quirky, non-judgmental, relaxed, and warm-natured. I found it to be less formal than the Big 4 and feeling more like a Management Consultancy rather than an Audit firm.
The benefits were acceptable – unlimited annual leave; dinner after 8pm expensed; profit share, and equity in the organization. I was treated like an individual, and not locked up in corporate processes. I found the work-life balance to be amazing – this is a job for people who do not define their life by the job they do. You can often finish by 6 pretty much every day if you use your time well and get in at a decent time. On the flip side, this may have the potential to frustrate the very high achieving and ambitious – and I quickly became frustrated. In addition, I experienced low to no travel – nearly all of my clients were in central London or within the M25.
After 3 years at North Highland London, I am now working with a Big 4 firm advising CEOs and CFOs of billion-pound organizations on strategy and transformation – so the skillset is transferrable and exit opportunities to Big 4 and Tier 2 firms are good if you performed well. MBB exit opportunities however are almost non-existent – I can recall 2 people who transitioned into MBB from North Highland, and even those were not directly. Hopefully I can be the next!
One thing to be aware of: IT and implementation consulting is completely different to the Strategy and Management Consulting done at MBB. You will almost never meet a CEO or CFO, and will mainly move from IT department to IT department. Your knowledge becomes very functionally skewed to technology: people at North Highland understand how an IT department works well but have almost no clue of how a wider business works well enough. There is also no central approach to problem-solving since much of the work is either in execution (problem has already been solved) or resource augmentation (you become a resource seconded by the client onto one of their teams). North Highland is a young company and if it continues to grow based on its IT and delivery excellence, it could break into the boardroom and across into more business focused operational consulting. If you want to be a part in building that, or want to get involved in technology consulting, I would highly recommend North Highland over Big 4 competitors, Capgemini, and other smaller competitors.
What I Learned
The work at North Highland truly is cross-sector, however, the sector almost becomes irrelevant due to the technology focus – most IT departments are trying to do the same thing.
My project experience covered Omni-Channel, Digital Transformation, PMO, IT Procurement and Technology Transformation. I left with a very rich understanding of how an IT estate serves a large organization: my functional knowledge focused on systems and applications, IT operating models, Agile software development, and program management. I’ll be the first to admit: not the most exciting stuff!
I did, however, strongly develop my written and verbal communication skills, with a focus on building slide decks in PowerPoint, managing client staff, and persuading senior IT managers to act. I did not learn any problem-solving techniques given the execution focus of engagements and very rarely conducted any financial analysis or business case development. After 3 years, I found my skills really lacking compared to Tier 1 and 2 strategy consultants, but on par with IT consultants at the likes of Accenture, Big 4, Capgemini, and others.
Where I see North Highland heading next
There are 3 areas I see North Highland actively working to up their game:
– Type of work: The biggest issue at North Highland London is well known amongst staff – the resource augmentation model. Due to a serious focus on winning work and bringing in revenue, Partners (called VPs at North Highland as everyone owns equity!) are very guilty of selling consultants into yearlong roles seconded to clients. This characterized my time at the firm – in 3 years, I worked on 4 engagements with 4 clients. Compare this with my current employer – in 18 months I have already worked on 7 engagements, with 5 clients, each in a different industry.
– Training: Although there is a solid training curriculum, all training is delivered by junior consultants with 3-4 years of experience (if that). The relative youth and inexperience of the trainers limits how useful the sessions are. At my current firm, Partners or Associate Partners deliver the training, and I am a huge fan of this model – Partners teach the next generation the skills that led them to the top.
– Business acumen: Moving from IT department to IT department means you possess very specific functional knowledge, and it’s tougher to focus on the wider business. Teaching the basics of financial analysis, business cases, and strategy would certainly contribute to North Highland consultants becoming better rounded.
Does boutique IT consulting excite you? Or perhaps you’ve been there and done that, and are ready for a new challenge. Whether you want to break into consulting or transition to a different firm, we can help! Book a Power Half Hour, and build a personalized game plan with an ex-MBB coach to help you achieve your goals.