Consultants are used to working away from the office, so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, moving the entire firm to home office was not a big issue at Kearney, a global management consulting company. But after months of remote work, employees were starting to feel the strain of a new work-life imbalance.

“Our main challenge now is to protect the privacy and personal time of our people,” says Christine Laurens, partner and chief financial officer at Kearney. Today, she is more mindful of how personal circumstances can impact people’s work: Some are lonely, others must deal with kids or live and work in small spaces, and some are coping well.

Strength in Sensitivity

The mental health of employees has become a top priority for Laurens, who is directly responsible for employee welfare. The team decided early on to conduct a survey with clients and employees to get a better understanding of how to apply some of the new habits and learnings to a future landscape.

For example, Laurens believes women in particular may benefit from working out of a home office. “In the consulting world, it’s been a challenge to keep women on board for logistical reasons, like frequent travel and extended stays at client sites,” she explains. “Greater flexibility will allow us to have a more diverse workforce. Less travel will also make it easier to meet sustainability goals.”

On the downside, Laurens has noticed a certain loss of creativity and spontaneity in the virtual environment. It takes more effort to engage with people and connect with other parties outside of the team. Lack of contact also generates a silo mentality, making it even more difficult to break down barriers.

Relocating to Chicago from her native home in France to take on the CFO job helped shape her empathy for employees experiencing change. For Laurens, it was a pivotal moment.

“This was my chance to make my voice heard and move up the ladder,” she recalls, adding that when she moved to the U.S., she lost her entire personal network. “At first, I thought I had to do everything by myself and not show any weakness as a woman. Now I know that asking for help is actually a sign of strength.”

In fact, she asked for an executive coach to help her better juggle the demands of a new job in a new country. She views her coach as a sparring partner for brainstorming. In hindsight, she wishes she had asked for one when she was 30. Asking for help may sound simple, but it’s not—you have to overcome your own insecurities before you can benefit from the give-and-take.

Advice on Going Digital

Kearney started off as a firm of accountants and management engineers in 1926. The common thread since then has been to maintain essential rightness in all interactions with clients and staff.

“Our purpose is to provide our clients with the right balance of expertise and empathy,” she says. “Consulting has always been about idea creation and strategic thinking. Our clients are asking for consulting that will help them transform in a durable manner. They need consultants who can co-create a product with the company’s own teams, who can then onboard it and run with the recommendations.”

In Laurens’ view, the COVID-19 crisis has prompted many companies to accelerate their digital transformations. Now they need to ensure that the transformation sticks. It’s important to build upon the learnings from the crisis. One thing she has noted is that going digital not only allows different ways of working, it also allows analytics to drive the right kind of decision-making, for example, in supply chain management.

“At Kearney, digital is under everything. It’s an enabler of transformation,” she says, adding that digital is embedded in how the company manages projects. “We apply agile methodology in our projects, just like technology companies do. Basically, we pilot small, learn, adjust, and then pilot bigger and launch.”

Addressing the Heart and Mind

As for changing the world of finance and administration, Laurens has learned that people can understand a change intellectually but reject it emotionally.

“You need to speak to the heart and the brain. People want to know what’s in it for them,” she asserts. “You can’t convince a businessperson by talking about tools. You need to address the user experience or the benefits to the business.”

To drive true change, she believes it’s essential to speak the language of your audience. People only care about what is important to them. One skill to develop is the ability to think and act in the interests of the business. Another is to use communication tools that consultants and clients will understand. For example, use visuals instead of spreadsheets to underscore key messages in a report.

When it came to Kearney’s own system overhaul last year, Laurens and her team spent four months developing a business plan to implement SAP S/4HANA and lay out the vision of the finance team they wanted to become. The idea, however, was sparked during a quick chat at the company’s espresso bar with the human resources IT lead, who told Laurens that such an implementation might not cost as much as she thought it would. That got her thinking.

Laurens also believes that people skills are as important as hard skills. “This may sound a bit fluffy coming from someone in finance, but even if you have all the hard facts, you still won’t convince someone to change if their heart is not in it,” says the Kearney CFO, who was selected Working Mother of the Year by Working Mother magazine in 2015.

She was also awarded CFO of the Year in the large-size private company category by the Chicago chapter of Financial Executives International (FEI) last year, mentioning the SAP S/4HANA implementation in her acceptance speech.

In her eyes, the diversity and the company’s global nature set it apart. With diversity comes empathy, and at Kearney, empathy is half of what is needed for lasting transformation. Expertise is the practical aspect. Together they create change that sticks.

The Path Forward is a series featuring trailblazing women in leadership and their inspiring insights and experiences.

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