Life after Chartwell - What's next for Adrian?
Posted: 17 June 2021
Chartwell catches up with Adrian Howe as he becomes the first Partner to take the step away from the business
We caught up with Adrian as he starts life after Chartwell, becoming the first Partner to take the step away from Chartwell and look forward to some more time with his family and his aeroplanes.
What moments will last longest in the memory?
There have been so many of them. It’s hard to pull out one or two – there are so many times when you feel you’ve done good.
One of my very first projects was near Bristol. I was working with a gentleman, John Sidnell, who as something of a company doctor was sent in to businesses that were in need of turnround. Everyone thought this one would close and we got it turned round in six months. A couple of years later, it had a massive investment in new technology and doubled the size of the workforce.
That was a real standout moment, to be able to go and genuinely save the livelihood of a couple of hundred people, many of whom at the time, did not believe that it was going to happen.
Another standout moment for me was in January 2017. We were standing in the morning meeting at Landis+Gyr in Stockport, in front of the KPI boards with Nigel and the team. Someone said, “you missed the 200K target by 1,800”. Nigel started laughing and replied “No, we didn’t. We beat it by 2,500. We got the numbers wrong”. I’ve got a photograph of it that I really cherish – a massive cheer went round the whole building.
What is it about these moments that stay with you?
Some people will describe it purely in terms of success, but I think of it in terms of helping society, and our impact environmentally, socially, economically – and not just for shareholders. It’s more about the sharing of a common success. I watched a number of Royal Air Force stations close and the devastating impact it had on local economies. I always wanted to do something to stop that happening in industry; to help make businesses grow and in turn give people security, give people opportunity, get rid of waste and pollution.
It’s all of that, not the individual success. I think that is what many of us in Chartwell share: a deep pride and desire to do things that are greater than ourselves.
Of course, it’s nice to go through the career curve, to get that promotion or bonus letter. That’s good, but that’s a fleeting moment and happiness for most people doesn’t come from that alone. For me, happiness comes from that common thread of shared experiences and achieving something with others.
And what about non-project work?
There’s the conversation with Andy Redfern back in the summer of 2012. Andy and I were both working in manufacturing and we used to speak every week about things that got in the way of improvement – I’m sitting in the car park and we cooked up the idea to form a new business.
‘Why don’t we just go back to what we like and what we’re good at?’ And from that five-minute conversation it was crystal clear. We knew we had to get others on board because it was not going to work with just two of us.
That led to making Jon Willis our first hire at St Pancras Station over lunch next to the Eurostar – we just went around picking up waifs and strays at the time. We then started going to universities for recruitment every year. I absolutely love it there, love meeting new people and watching their growth after they join.
If I think back to those initial cohorts, who were maybe 22, 23 years old, I’ve watched them grow up from being late teenagers, if you will, into mature rounded men and women with gravitas.
It’s satisfying to think that, in some small way, I’ve contributed to folks’ development. At least, if nothing else, given them an opportunity, knowing that their innate character and potential was always there.
As for quotes, I remember two from my old friend Mark Gravatt: “Adrian, take your work seriously, but not yourself” – and I think I’ve stayed true to that one. The other, “This is Adrian. He’s an industrial guerrilla…G-U-E-R, not the primate.” And in a way we are, because we are knocking down traditional systems and making disruptive change. You’ve got to challenge the status quo in a positive way.
What’s your biggest career challenge?
Of course, there are difficult projects. Some go swimmingly but there are always projects that are difficult. We’ve all had them. But from them you come out stronger and more experienced, knowing that you wouldn’t deal with certain situations in that way in future.
I think that has improved Chartwell’s offering over time, because we now focus more on the underlying leadership and cultural drivers, like having fierce conversations with leaders to help them realise that they’re going to get what they are prepared to put up with. Learning how to deal with those conversations has been a challenge and it’s a fine line to tread.
And then the biggest challenge was getting to the point where I am now, in making the decision to leave Chartwell. That required a lot of conversations with family and a couple of close friends. Ultimately, I knew that to bailout of the aeroplane now would leave Chartwell with plenty of people that can fly it safely.
What has been the biggest change in operations consulting during your career?
There have probably been a few key changes in my time:
One is that the original offering – when I first joined consulting at Hagen & Co – was essentially to ‘do enough screwdriver fixes so you don’t have to touch the organisational and people stuff’. That was the simple message. Great, but never really true.
We’re now into full-blown change programmes with the Chartwell High Performance Operation model, and drawing on inspiration from John Kotter’s Leading Change. Of course, there’s still a way to go, but we are determined to play the long game for clients, not just to make the graph go up in the short term only for it to fall over again six months later.
Another change is that there are lots more people in this field now, both internal and external competition. Of course, our challenge in Chartwell is to differentiate sufficiently that people understand the difference. One of those key differences is our performance guarantee: at Chartwell, we measure success – and our fees – on quantifiable metrics.
I understand from talking to people that we are relatively unique in that respect. And of course, people say the key difference is leadership and the depth of the science and engineering that we go into.
One of the most profound things I’ve seen that has changed is decision making in client organisations. 20 years ago – and probably even 15 years ago – people would phone you up and say “Can you see me on Monday? Can you start tomorrow?”
I think that’s because they had the buying power to make the decision without reference to other people. You don’t see that as much anymore. I recently quantified the value of a client delaying the decision to start a project, which was much bigger than the highest value item on the opportunity pareto. It highlights how slow decision making also has a cost, which can sometimes go unrecognised.
I really like the burning platform concept – you need to realise that the opportunity cost of not making improvement is real money. If it were your business, you wouldn’t think about it that way.
What advice would you give to those starting their careers now?
For anybody coming out of University who reads this is: try to know yourself. Know what you like and what you’re good at. That’s sometimes difficult but is one of the biggest conversations to have with people at this stage in their lives.
The other point I’d make is to understand as quickly as possible how to be effective as a coach versus a consultant. This comes under the three stages of the learning trajectory: from cognitive, to associative, to autonomous.
People can very often in this career burn themselves out very quickly by thinking, ‘My project is not going well, I must do more’. They work longer and longer hours thinking that sitting on a computer in the evening doing analysis is the answer to everything.
There are certain scenarios where that helps, like during a project kick-off. Beyond that, it’s more about understanding what makes you effective as an individual and as a team and how to engage the client team, so that they can understand and solve problems autonomously.
It’s important to be continually conscious of what you choose to do and not to do. And as you become a senior consultant, the Modus Operandi that you use forges the model that other people will follow.
So read Covey [The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People] and practice it voraciously, for the benefits to your work and for the benefits to yourself and those around you. I think that’s really, really important.
What will you miss most about life at Chartwell?
I will miss the things that made me want to do this: it’s the building something, it’s the people, it’s the camaraderie, the teamwork and the deep bonds of friendship. Of course, those friendships will remain and there are those that you will be bound to life with, like in a three-legged race, and that friendship, that bond will last you a lifetime. And I genuinely hope it does.
I will also miss the ideas generation, the cross fertilisation, the Fridays in the office, Chartworld, the Winter Event. When you’re working for yourself, you’ve only got your own perspective on things. But it’s not like I’m going to Saturn and never coming back, I’ve always said that if I’m in town on a Friday afternoon we can go to the pub.
I will also miss the sharing of success. When you see people have done a really good project – it doesn’t matter whether it’s been easy or like crawling over broken glass – it’s their achievement.
Where’s the best place in the world to do a project?
The thing I’ve always said to people during recruitment is that you get to places that you wouldn’t go to as a tourist. It might be somewhere North of Minneapolis and it’s minus 30 outside in the winter. It might be to Tianjin in China.
My absolute favourite project location is Pensacola, on the Florida Pan Handle, staying on Pensacola Beach for weeks at a time. Just an idyllic spot with pristine beaches and wildlife that nobody in the world knows about other than Americans. Just a beautiful, beautiful place and fantastic people.
What is in store for you in life after Chartwell?
It won’t be a hard stop – I am signed up with a non-exec network so I’m always open for requests for help. Some of those requests will be in my wheelhouse and interest me. Some of them might be beyond my capability as an individual and will definitely be in Chartwell’s bag, so I will pass them along.
So there will be some aspects to it that are very much about sports science, team and individual coaching as opposed to a classical rapid results team. And it is just an interesting space to be working. I really thrive on doing that.
And I can take the time that would have been spent on running the business and turn that into white space in the calendar to do what I want to do with the remainder of my days on this planet, which is to spend time with family, travel and to focus more on flying.
We all have things that keep us centred and for me that’s always been aviation. For the last couple of years I haven’t done much and it’s only when I came back that I realised it’s such an intrinsic part of me.
I went up after Lockdown ended and it’s like riding a bicycle – it’s so embedded in your muscle memory. When you’re up there you get this sense of calm and peace that I don’t get from anything else. It’s a very unique thing to me.
I'm not the worst competition pilot in the world, and I never will be world champion, but that's OK. It’s nice to have some medals. I’ve taught some people to win medals, but ultimately it comes back to going up into a big blue sky and seeing stuff that’s down below that changes your perspective on the world and yourself and pushes you to your physical and mental limit. You see a great deal of beauty.
Whether over the North Sea in a single engine aeroplane going 300 miles with no land in sight, or flying over the forests of Scandinavia, which are so extensive, just green and lakes as far as the eye can see. You can get a sense of three dimensions that you probably only really get in a jet fighter or in a space rocket.
Are there any parallels between operations consulting and aerobatics?
The point about aerobatics is it’s a community of people who are striving for perfection.
There is science involved. There is engineering. There is risk and safety management, teamwork, preparation, execution and debrief and do it again, do it again, do it again until you get it right enough to win medals.
I was never good enough to be a fighter pilot, but I try to adopt the same professionalism regarding preparation, maintenance, execution, operation, you name it. In order to improve continuously throughout your life it is a continual journey. There is always something you can do better, more precise.
I take some pride in doing that safely and getting other people to be able to it too. It’s the same skill really, it’s the same feeling, in consulting as in aerobatics. Getting others to be able to execute something to a very high standard, often better than your own.
And the people in Aerobatics tend to share the same values as those held by the people that formed Chartwell, and by those that we seek out to continue our work.
Any final thoughts?
What a journey, what a journey. If you look back over two and a half decades – particularly the last decade in terms of launching Chartwell from just an idea – I feel that we’ve put it up and it’s on its way now. It’s out of the atmosphere and going sufficiently fast that I am able to step back.
This has been thanks to the effort of many, many people over a lot of years. And this isn’t just about the client-facing staff, it’s the people that sit in the background. They make Chartwell work because without them we couldn’t do what we do. So I’d like to recognise the applied effort and development of our product and people.
Most importantly, the companionship. If I pull out one word that I think is important, it’s the companionship of some really, key individuals over the last decade of my working career.