Getting the maximus out of leadership

Vanessa Gavan is the head of Maximus International, a consultancy with a bent towards leadership development. The company is turning over more than $6 million, and counts clients including Telstra, Suncorp and Xerox.

Gavan spoke to SmartCompany about her history in consultancy work and the challenges of taking a business beyond its first 10 years.

I spent the early part of my career in larger consulting organisations. I was about to make a move into a different organisation, but my husband suggested to me that I had done it three times, so I should go and try and make a business for myself.

Consultancies were traditionally large, very corporate organisations. I wanted Maximus to be more results-oriented.

A lot of firms have a process methodology. Sometimes that puts blinkers on in the way you tackle a problem – you just do it the way you’ve always done it. I think we’re more entrepreneurial.

I’m a psychologist by background. I’m interested in human behaviour, and the business was about pushing people in their businesses to the next level.

Our work is certainly not quiet. Organisations are looking to push their people to the next level, so it’s always pretty constant for us. In the local market and throughout Asia we’re always finding organisations that need some work.

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You’ll find in a lot of consulting operations, staff are trained to focus on doing a specific piece of work rather than working on the end game.

Consultancy requires a lot of coaching and mentoring. We do a lot of that with the leaders but we need to make sure that’s part of the way we operate as well.

The first few years are rewarding. I was quite young for the industry, so every time I walked into a board room I felt like the eyes were on me and focusing on how old I was.

I’ve been running Maximus for 12 years. The first four or five were challenging, but I think the results speak for themselves. We have a blue-chip client base, enormous amounts of referral business, but it’s always challenging. We just have new challenges.

Running a business can be both challenging and lonely. When there are problems, it’s on your shoulders to solve them. But at the same time, you’re creating something that has meaning and an environment where people can perform at their best.

Finding talent and appropriately talented people is incredibly difficult. It typically takes us several months to find good quality consultants.

We work really hard to retain good talent but it does take effort. You need to make sure they’re evolving, that it’s a participatory culture. These are intelligent people who want to be stimulated, so you need to give them interesting work.

At this stage, we’re at a level of self-sufficiency. You can step up things a little bit and not always be the day-to-day production leader. It means I can focus on committing to grow the business at a sustainable rate.

The goal for us is to be a leader in our domain. We want to be the top consultancy in Asia.

There aren’t really great options for developing leadership capabilities in Asia. We’re a leader in our space in the Australian market; we’re often compared to business schools. Companies will come to us when considering whether to send someone to business school, or for a customised alternative.

We have a strong leadership team here. For us, the future is about taking our business to the next level in the region and to build a great firm we’re incredibly proud of.

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