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A bigger idea of success: What this means for us and our clients

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In this episode of NousCast we turn the spotlight on ourselves as we launch our new value proposition – “A bigger idea of success”.

We interview Nous Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Principal Tim Orton and Nous Group Chief Marketing Officer Lauren Douge to find out more about “A bigger idea of success” and how it applies to the work we do.

About NousCast

The NousCast podcast brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. In this episode Ari Sharp interviews Tim Orton, CEO and Managing Principal and Lauren Douge, Chief Marketing Officer. 

“What we’ve found is in working with organisations, once they start to make something happen, more things become possible. … It’s better to do stuff than to talk about it too much. ‘A bigger idea of success’ is an argument for action, it’s not a philosophy alone.”

Tim Orton, CEO and Managing Principal, Nous Group

Ari Sharp:

Hello and welcome to a very special episode of NousCast, the podcast of Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I'm your host, Ari Sharp.

As many of you may know, late last year Nous launched a new value proposition, that is the way we distill what we offer to clients. That value proposition, a bigger idea of success. When it was announced to us at Nous, there was a real buzz of excitement with lots of people thinking about how it applied to their work and the way they're helping their clients to deliver positive influence in the world.

In this episode of NousCast, we're digging deeper to find out more about a bigger idea of success, and who better to talk about it than the two key people who brought it into the world. Joining me is Tim Orton, the CEO and Managing Principal of Nous Group, who founded the organization nearly a quarter-century ago, driven by a strong sense of purpose. And Lauren Douge, the Chief Marketing Officer at Nous for nearly a decade, and the creative driver behind the new value proposition. Let's get into it.

Tim Orton, welcome to the NousCast.

Tim Orton:

Thank you. It's great to be here, Ari.

Ari Sharp:

And Lauren Douge, great to have you on the NousCast.

Lauren Douge:

Thanks, Ari. Great to be here.

Ari Sharp:

Lauren, if I can start with you. For nearly 25 years Nous has been around, purpose has been at the heart of its existence. Since then, we've seen a lot of other organizations wake up to the significance of it. So tell me, when we talk about a bigger idea of success at Nous, what do we mean?

Lauren Douge:

So when we set out to re-express our brand and what we stand for, we wanted it to reflect some enduring truths of who we are, aspects of how we think and work as a firm that have really always been there but that needed a new and fresh articulation.

So a bigger idea of success is a helpful expression because it captures three of these truths. The first being what we call bigness. So this reflects our ambition and determination to achieve positive influence, the purpose you referred to before. So we've always existed to improve people's lives and to have a positive influence. But with this new expression of our brand, we're signaling that we're not satisfied making a small difference. We want to improve people's lives in significant ways and at scale. So this means we challenge ourselves, and we challenge our clients too, to think on a bigger canvas, to make faster progress at times, and also to avoid trade-offs. So that's the first truth.

The second truth is what we call being more than the sum of our parts. So now that we have more than 700 people servicing five countries, we have a really broad range of capabilities, and we know that the best and the more interesting answers tend to come from bringing these different capabilities together for our clients.

So for example, blending human-centered design with regulation, or health with economics, or say, policy with leadership. The really exciting possibilities sit at the intersection of capabilities. So this means we challenge ourselves to really excel at bringing different people and capabilities and analyses together. And also blending those seamlessly with our clients capabilities as well. That's an important part of it too. So that's the second truth.

And then the third is being great traveling companions. So we really want our clients to achieve great outcomes working with us, obviously, but we also want them to enjoy the journey and importantly be strengthened by the experience as well. So we challenge ourselves to build capability as we work with our clients so they're much stronger and better placed for the future at the end.

So a bigger idea of success is a simple phrase, but it's got three important meanings.

Ari Sharp:

And Tim, if I can bring you in. I mean, Nous works with an enormous breadth of organizations. There have been hundreds over the years from government agencies to private companies and not-for-profits, defense to healthcare to education across three countries. What might a bigger idea of success look like to these different organizations?

Tim Orton:

Yeah, thanks, Ari. And let's jump into that question through some examples, although I will maintain the confidentiality of each of the clients. And I'm actually going to try and draw on Lauren's three truths.

So the first one, which is sort of what might you achieve in terms of the challenge the organization's been set. We were working with a university who was in the middle of COVID and its funding had been substantially reduced by the government to the point where its overall funding was down about 15%.

The simple response of that university would've just been to downsize everything by 15%. We said to them, "Yes, we can help you do that, but." If you think about never wasting a crisis, then the bigger idea of success is to consider how do you profoundly change the way you operate your university so that actually you sustain the same amount of resources to your research effort, to your teaching effort, to your community impact effort, and just make yourself run far more efficiently and effectively than you may have been able to do before. And over a two-and-a-half-year period, it was intense, but we helped that university achieve that outcome of fitting within its new budget envelope within a profoundly different operating model.

Second example, which is how do you bring all of Nous to the task? We'll often think bigger than that. So when the Australian Department of Defense asked the market who would be best placed to provide an entirely new way of thinking about leadership for the Department of Defense, which includes the military services and also the administrative services that support the military services, we thought to ourselves all of Nous could do this very well. Nous working with a partner, with an academic partner would do it even better.

And so we partnered with the Australian Graduate School of Management and have put together a world-leading program called Journey Leading Transformation. And we think the program itself is far better because a bigger idea of success in this case meant not just Nous, but meant Nous and the AGSM.

The third one, to pick up the better traveling companions. We've been working with one of Australia's preeminent transmission and distribution businesses. Privately held, but going through, as we all know, the biggest energy transformation that's occurred since electrification some hundred years ago.

And their challenge, of course, is to how do they design a system that is reliable, affordable, and increasingly low-carbon footprint? And so we've worked with them over an eight-year period through a series of projects. And the reason they've engaged us is not just because we know a lot about energy and a lot about decarbonization, which we absolutely do, but because we're really good traveling companions. We partner with them well. We help them get the best out of themselves. They help us get the best out of Nous.

So it's three examples, Ari, of a bigger idea of success, one in terms of your ambition, two in terms of how we bring all of Nous and sometimes more than Nous to the task, and three being really good traveling companions.

Ari Sharp:

Thanks, Tim. And Lauren, can you help me understand a bit about what that looks like in practice at Nous? What should clients expect to experience when they work with us?

Lauren Douge:

I mean, I think there are some really specific things that clients should expect that were coming through in the examples that Tim provided there.

So I think our clients should expect us to stretch their thinking and raise their ambition. And that means we might ask questions like, "Why don't you do this in three months rather than six?" Or, "Why are you trading off morale as you turn around the performance of your business? Why don't we try and strengthen culture and transform at the same time?" So they should expect us to be looking out for ambitious but realistic opportunities, to be thinking more in terms of and, what's the additional benefit or thing we can achieve here, rather than thinking in terms of or and making trade-offs that may not be necessary. So that's one part.

I think they should also expect to see a real diversity of people and thinking being brought to their issues, and through that some really productive and colorful debate, sort of big, robust, interesting conversations. And then they should see us thinking really carefully and deeply to integrate and calibrate all that different analysis and those different perspectives to find the smart answer in the middle of all of that.

And I think finally, they should expect us to work really effectively with their people, so from internal project teams to the executive to the customers and also to industry groups, and demand that we're generous with our knowledge. So here it's sort of an expectation that we're generous in our knowledge from start to finish, that we're really building understanding and capability as we go.

So our clients have told us they really value these qualities and these specific things we do, and we think that helps explain why our Net Promoter Score at +81 has been consistently higher than the global average for professional services for a few years now.

Ari Sharp:

Tim, so we've heard from Lauren about what it means for the client experience, but what's the broader impact across the organization? How does Nous reflect a bigger idea of success internally through its leadership strategy and culture?

Tim Orton:

Yeah. So I guess the first point I'd make, Ari, is that firstly, the bigger idea of success is first and foremost about what we achieve with our clients. But you're right to note that it should also have a significant shaping of who we are as an organization. And it certainly does.

Firstly, we think of our currency as positive influence. I know a lot of firms that think about their currency as market share or as profitability, return on equity. We think of our currency as positive influence. Our challenge that we put to ourselves each week, each month, each year is are we able to have more influence now than we had previously because of the quality of the work we're doing, because of the way we're engaging with clients?

As a result, we've been really pleased that through COVID, prior to COVID, we were about 400 people. Now we're about 800 people. And so the way that we're able to work through COVID in what was certainly the most challenging period for businesses over the last 30 or 40 years has given us assurance that the way we're operating is both attractive to clients, but as importantly is attractive to people who want to join and stay at Nous. And so the fact that we have been very successful in recruiting really high-quality people with fabulous characters and values through this period is we've been really pleased with.

At the same time, we've also developed how we think about our leadership in Nous, and we've developed a program and an approach to leadership that's distinctive to Nous. We call it the Nous Leadership Way. Perhaps lacks a bit of innovation in the name, but I can tell you in terms of the quality of the program and in terms of the effect that it's having on our organization, it's quite profound.

And so inevitably, you're right to say a bigger idea of success manifests through our leadership, our strategy, our growth, our culture, as well as, and most importantly, what we can achieve with our clients.

Ari Sharp:

Tim, we know that people are becoming more discerning about the places that they work, and they're looking for an employer whose values align with their own. What does a bigger idea of success mean for people who work at Nous?

Tim Orton:

Effectively, a bigger idea of success really captures, I think, the essence of what we've held to be important ever since we've started. And indeed, when I started Nous more than two decades ago now, I didn't have an idea of growing a sizable consulting business. I just wanted to do really great work with people I liked working with, with people who I thought were expert at what were they doing.

What's become clear is that there are a lot of people like that as you say. People want their work to be purposeful. They want to work with colleagues and they want to work with clients that they value a lot. And so the reason we think people are joining Nous and sticking at Nous is because their everyday experience is one of a bigger idea of success. But not just what they receive, but more importantly, what they're creating also creates a bigger idea of success because they have a sense that they're helping others achieve more at clients within Nous itself.

And as a data point, we run a pulse survey every month to see how everyone's feeling, how their work is helping them have a sense of fulfillment, a balance of enjoyment. But also we put ourselves forward to be externally tested every now and again. And we were really pleased last year when we won the Best Places to Work Study in Australia for organizations of more than 100 people, that we thought that was a fabulous affirmation of what we're aiming to achieve, and really gave us a positive sense that we are achieving a bigger idea of success in terms of the experience that each of us has as part of Nous as well.

Ari Sharp:

And Tim, with the global economy looking like it's entering some choppy waters. We've got high inflation and a potential recession. I'm interested in how the relevance of a bigger idea of success changes for organizations that might be confronting some big commercial challenges.

Tim Orton:

It's a really interesting question because in a sense, what organizations focus on is absolutely shaped and rightly shaped by the strategic environment within which they're working. What will they need to do differently to work successfully within a high-inflation environment? What will they have to do differently in working in an environment if it continues in which it's hard to find high-quality employees? Those things are all true. The question we'll always ask, whatever the circumstance is, "Yes, and should we just focus on achieving this, or should we look for something a bit bigger as well?"

Now some clients will say, "This is big enough, thanks very much. If we can just solve this problem, then we're well-placed." Other clients would say, "That's such a good question. We think we can solve this problem. And in doing so, can probably address a couple of other issues as well that we'd love to pick up."

So the fact the world is changing really just reinforces the importance of a bigger idea of success. But it does say how we think about it and how our clients think about it will continually evolve. And we've got to be responsive to that changing demands that they have.

Ari Sharp:

Some organizations might agree in principle with the notion of a bigger idea of success, but have difficulty reaching a consensus in their organization about what that bigger idea is. What advice would you have for leaders who are in that position?

Tim Orton:

It's almost always the case that they'll be diversity of views on issues. Our response would often be let's get started. Let's not turn this into a philosophical discussion. Let's get cracking on the first thing. Because what we've found is in working with organizations, once they start to make something happen, more things become possible.

So we'll often say to an organization which has not changed for a long time, "Let's get a couple under your belt. Two that are relatively easy. The third will then look more possible, will be a bit more challenging. And let's work our way up to bigger and bigger changes, bigger and bigger transformations." But we'll start at a level that makes sense for your organization. But it's better to do stuff than talk about it too much, in essence. A bigger idea of success is an argument for action. It's not a philosophy alone.

Ari Sharp:

And I just want to understand a bit about how it plays out in different markets. So Nous operates in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, each of which are in quite different economic and social situations. How are you finding that thinking about a bigger idea of success is varying across those three countries?

Tim Orton:

The really interesting thing, Ari, about those three countries is all of them would say we have some similarities and, as you've observed, important differences, which means that they're fabulous sources of learning for each other.

And so one of the reasons we've chosen to operate in those three countries is because we think that the expertise we bring from each strength will provide insights and strength in the other two. And so in some sense, being those three countries in itself is a manifestation of a bigger idea of success. If we can do this range of stuff in Canada, then some of that will be relevant to the United Kingdom, but in turn, the United Kingdom will have some lessons for Australia or some lessons for Canada. And so in a sense, the triangle of the three countries is mutually reinforcing. It creates a bigger opportunity for success than would otherwise be the case.

And we're always, as one firm where we're all in one firm together, it's incredible how much learning and information's moved around the organization overnight. And I would say overnight, because of course, with the time zones, it really is overnight. But every morning you wake up and there's some new insights from a colleague from another place. It makes waking up quite good fun, to be honest.

Ari Sharp:

And Lauren, if I can bring you back in for one final question. Can you tell us what we can expect next? How do you plan to deliver on the promise of a bigger idea of success?

Lauren Douge:

As your question indicates, I think the most important part of the promise is delivering on it and consistently, which Tim referred to before. So supporting our colleagues to really embody a bigger idea of success is our main focus. And this is particularly important during a period of rapid growth when we have so many new colleagues with us. So we're currently making sure there's a real accent on a bigger idea of success in how we recruit, develop, and communicate with our people across those three countries.

And then also from an external communications perspective, we're having a lot of fun developing creative ways of sharing this message with the market. And because our people are in essence our brand and need to embody it, we're taking what we call an inside out approach to brand management. So this means we get to invite our people to be active participants in our creative processes as we develop messages, campaigns, and other creative devices. And this is a great way both to crowdsource ideas, but it also really helps our people internalize what the brand represents. So we look forward to doing a lot more of that this year as well.

Ari Sharp:

Lauren Douge and Tim Orton, thanks for talking to the NousCast.

Lauren Douge:

Thanks, Ari.

Tim Orton:

Thanks very much, Ari. Great discussion.

Ari Sharp:

That was Tim Orton and Lauren Douge, the CEO and CMO of Nous Group. You can find out more about the work we do at Nous on our website. That's www.nousgroup.com. That's all for this episode. Thanks for listening to NousCast. We'll catch you next time.

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