• Bio: Tabitha Elwes is currently one of six partners leading the London office of strategy consultancy firm Value Partners Management Consulting. Her focus is on media and private equity.
  • Role: Strategy Consultant

Tabitha Elwes

That first step

As the end of university approached I found the prospect of choosing a career overwhelming. I had no vocational calling as such (that dream of being an opera singer fortunately stymied by complete lack of talent). As a result, this being 1987, I decided to follow the crowd into investment banking. The fact that banking was both fashionable and offered sums of money beyond my wildest dreams was certainly an incentive. However, what made banking particularly appealing was that it would allow me to keep my options open.

I chose Lehman Brothers primarily because as I trawled through the milk round, they were the people with whom I felt the greatest personal affinity; not the most systematic approach, but it served me well (and should not be discounted). Lehman’s had just started a small corporate finance team in London and the first 18 months was really an experience of being thrown in at the deep end and learning to swim.

If I had realised what I was getting myself into I would probably never have taken the job, but, much to my surprise, I loved the work. I was given huge amounts of responsibility; worked extraordinarily long hours and found that I really enjoyed rising to all the challenges.

After 18 months I was sent to the New York office and became part of a more structured career programme which included three months of comprehensive training alongside all the new MBA recruits. I was asked to specialise in one area – which I think was valuable at this stage as it allowed me to start to build confidence and a reputation. I chose to work in the media team, because it was an area where there were huge amounts of change and there was an interesting range of clients.

Business school

After four years with Lehman’s I decided to go to business school. Again, it was for a mixture of reasons. First, though I enjoyed my job I was not sure that I wanted to stay in finance (it was the media industry that fascinated me rather than the balance sheets). Second, having worked extremely hard for four years I wanted to have a year where my only responsibility was to myself. Third, I felt that I needed to complement what I had learnt at Lehman’s with more systematic learning at business school.

I chose INSEAD because I’d been in the US for two years and wanted to go somewhere different; because the course was only one year and because I had friends who had loved their time there. It was a wonderful year – very intensive teaching and extremely hard work but very stimulating. I learnt most from the team work – at INSEAD they put you in teams that are designed to be provocative – and it really works. It was also a year of enormous fun, wild parties, cabarets and jazz bands.

After business school

Coming out of business school I was nervous that whatever career decision I made would be definitive (in fact that is not the case and some of my contemporaries have shifted directions successfully several times since leaving INSEAD). I chose a management consultancy firm (Booz.Allen) because I felt that I needed to consolidate my learning from INSEAD with further project based experience and because they had a strong media team. My original plan was to spend a couple of years at Booz before going into an industry position.

My experience at Booz was broad – three months helping to restructure a news gathering agency, six months working on a fixed licence bid for the second network in Hong Kong. I learnt a lot but felt a bit like a cog in the wheel of a large firm. As a result when I was asked to join Spectrum Strategy Consultants I leapt at the chance.

As a founding member of a small firm, I have had the benefit of working over the years with my colleagues to build that firm.

From start up to establishment

There were six of us involved in the starting up of Spectrum. The founding partners had recognised that there was a huge amount of work in the convergent services sector that was not being addressed by the bigger consultancy firms. It was highly speculative for the first year – we had only a limited amount of capital and did not know how quickly we could build the business. As a small firm, we all quickly became adept at turning our hands to whatever was required. Though I have continued to focus primarily on media – I have been sent to manage telecoms projects in Asia when the need has arisen.

Over the course of the last thirteen years I have grown with Spectrum. I rose basically by broadening my experience base taking increasingly senior roles in projects – rising to manager and then partner. I never imagined that I would stay in consulting for so long but it is so stimulating – every project brings something new. In addition as a founding member of a small firm, I have had the benefit of working over the years with my colleagues to build that firm – that is both exciting and nerve wracking at times.

Eight years ago I took a twelve-month sabbatical to work in Africa on HIV and AIDS (after eight years at Spectrum I needed a break but did not want to leave). I then returned to focus on running our commercial media practice. I now work part-time as I have a small daughter. This gives a good balance to my work and family life and, to date, has worked successfully.

My experience of consultancy has been very positive – on successful projects the team sees the benefit they are delivering and there is always a new challenge and problem to solve. However, it is not a cushy life: it can be very hard work and can be unpredictable – ‘We need you to be in Johannesburg on Monday for the next four weeks’ may sound exciting at 21, but one’s enthusiasm for such trips quickly wanes. However, despite this, I am still a consultant fifteen years after leaving business school because I love the challenge of the work and the joy of working with intelligent, stimulating people.

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