Synergy Group partner Sally Dorsett on a career in consulting

27 November 2019 4 min. read
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Sally Dorsett has over 25 years of experience in management and human resources, of which over five years human capital consulting. The partner at Synergy Group, one of Australia’s largest consultancies servicing predominately government clients, shares her advice for those considering a career in consulting.

Be curious

I have always been a connector and communicator and I think this is essential in the work we do as consultants. I have always been interested in how different people see the world. I think that being curious about people is critical in not only working with our clients but also in the way we go about understanding problems and developing solutions. If you are not interested and curious then I think you tend to fall back on cookie-cutter solutions. All the challenges we take on as consultants are unique and we can best help our clients by keeping an open mind.

At Synergy Group, consultants from our People & Organisation Development and Creative practices recently launched a unified identity project – CreativeXPeople – which is a journey of exploration through practice to uncover an approach to behavioural change that is supported by techniques that are grounded in a more complete understanding of human psychology and behaviour in the workplace.

The CreativeXPeople project came out of our reflections on the findings of the Hayne Royal Commission into banking. The Royal Commission showed how organisational systems, culture, and behaviour combine to produce poor performance that impacts on people. We thought the usual approach to culture and behaviour change had become stale and mechanical, which led some business leaders to discount its importance. It was a reminder that we all need to be careful not to take a set-and-forget approach to culture and behaviour.

Synergy partner Sally Dorsett on a career in consulting

Consulting is a team sport

I think consulting is a team sport. I have worked in teams all my life; sporting teams, military teams, leadership teams, and now in consulting. The power is not in the individual parts but the way the whole works together. It sounds a bit cliché, but I have always found the best way to start on any job is to get the right people working together and let them at the problem.

We make sure our teams have a mix of ages, skills, and abilities. I hear a lot about the ‘idleness of today’s youth’ but my experience is the opposite. I have found Gen Z to be thoughtful, engaging, hardworking, and insightful. I want them in our teams.

Culture and behaviour is local

We work with leaders to bring about cultural and behavioural change. If we do it properly, it is hard, intensive, and emotional work. We are often dealing with people when they are most resistant and vulnerable. We need to be respectful, but we also need to work with leaders to improve performance. Sometimes, that’s not easy.

In my experience, culture and behaviour are local. Leaders talk about ‘one team’ but that aspiration is only achievable by working your way up from the bottom. To change behaviour, we need to get underneath what we see in the workplace. We need to understand what is shaping and influencing the way people think and what they do. I really enjoy the detective work that is required to get to the core issues. It is always interesting, exciting, and surprising.

In my work, I always pay attention to the history of the workplace because decisions made some time ago can continue to influence the way people think and behave. A lot of the behaviour we see in the workplace is learned over time, and from those around us. Importantly, I look closely at the alignment between purpose, direction, and role at every level.

“Consulting is often ambiguous and uncertain. Believing in yourself and focusing on your strengths means you are better placed to adapt and apply your skills in different environments.”

Go with your strengths

I have been fortunate over the years to find that most of my work led me in the general direction of consulting. It was not deliberate; I just went with what I enjoyed doing and I worked with my strengths in relationship building and leadership. It turns out my strengths aligned well to the world of management consulting.

My advice to those looking to start a career in consulting is to go with your strengths. I remember that years ago I worked for a leader who was an expert in emotional intelligence and leadership. He taught me to own my behaviours and idiosyncrasies. He taught me that being “me” was a good thing and that was my greatest strength. I don’t have to be like everyone else. I don’t have to conform. I often reflect on what he taught me, particularly when I feel underconfident or I’m about to do something that could be overwhelming, I say to myself, ‘just be me, because being me is pretty cool’.

Consulting is often ambiguous and uncertain. Believing in yourself and focusing on your strengths means you are better placed to adapt and apply your skills in different environments.

My biggest piece of advice is to back yourself and show by doing, rather than spending time questioning or justifying. I am a very practical individual so the power for me in my career has come from demonstration. People want to work with genuine, and effective people, so focus on your own achievements and the rest will happen.