They began their journey as fledgling trainees with a great idea. Today, they are the lead team on a project that could revolutionize the way one of the world’s largest consulting firms does business. So how did three twentysomethings in London persuade PricewaterhouseCoopers — a global organization with 150,000 employees in 152 countries — to listen to them? By waging an unflagging (and incredibly successful) campaign for sponsorship within PWC.
It started almost two years ago. When asked in passing what kind of values should shape the culture of the newly merged firm, Amy Middelburg and James Shaw wrote a proposal suggesting a highly improbable notion: PWC should measure its business success not only by its financial goals but also by its effect on society and the global environment. In addition, the company should encourage its clients to apply the same values to their business practices. That was a radical idea for a mammoth consulting firm with a strong accounting pedigree and a history of being relentlessly focused on the bottom line. But the idea was nothing new for Shaw and Middelburg — now 26 and 28, respectively — longtime friends who were determined to be change agents, no matter where they worked.
Middelburg and Shaw had myriad ideas about how PWC might incorporate their vision, but they knew they wouldn’t get anywhere unless they got a senior leader to back them. “At that point, we had zero stature and zero credibility,” Middelburg says. “We weren’t even permanent employees.”
The two passed the proposal to one partner, who then passed it on to several more. Though one executive said it was the best-written paper he’d seen in his 10 years at PWC, the proposal went nowhere. So Shaw and Middelburg kicked into networking mode. At a conference in Stockholm for an international student group that both had participated in, Middelburg walked up and introduced herself to Jermyn Brooks, 60, a global managing partner at PWC.
“I went looking for him,” Middelburg recalls. “I found him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Amy,’ and proceeded to tell him all about our paper on values. He was intrigued, and later we ended up spending a whole afternoon sitting in his office, chatting about these ideas. It was incredible — the synergy was apparent from the first moment.”
Meanwhile, at the same conference, Shaw recruited a friend, Fabio Sgaragli, to join PWC. Brooks agreed to hire Sgaragli as a trainee to work on issues related to the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Working on such a major project would be perfect for someone who is interested in learning about key players and politics at PWC.
Next, the three worked on broadening the buy-in. With Brooks’s help, they secured meetings with other global managing partners. Sgaragli, 27, says they used different strategies for making pitches to various partners.
“Jermyn’s objective was to transform the firm. So our angle with him was, ‘How can we make this happen?’ ” Sgaragli explains. “We always went to him with a couple of proposals for moving the agenda forward. And we were clear about what we wanted from him — whether it was talking to someone or organizing a meeting.”
Similarly, when the three met with Bill Dauphinais, 54, global leader for brand marketing and communications, the trio focused on how the new values would distinguish PWC from its competitors.
As the three expanded their network, their reputation as a passionate and audacious team grew. Recalls Shaw: “One of the partners I used to work for said, ‘James, I can’t believe the access you have. I’ve been a partner here for 10 years, and I still haven’t met Jermyn.'”
Flushed and Embarrassed
About a year after Middelburg and Shaw drafted their proposal, visa trouble loomed. Work permits for Shaw, a native New Zealander, and Middelburg, an American, were about to expire. The firm’s solution? Ship Shaw to South Africa and move Middelburg to Australia, and keep them working in their current positions — not on the proposal. But Middelburg, accompanied by Sgaragli, accosted Brooks in his office and made an impassioned plea for full-time positions that would push social responsibility at PWC.
“I gave one of those speeches that makes you feel really flushed and embarrassed at the end of it, because it was completely from the heart,” Middelburg says. “It left him speechless. But soon after that, we were made a full-time team.”
Brooks, who is planning to retire sometime next summer, also made sure that the team got a project manager to help sustain the support of top managers. A PWC-retained lawyer, meanwhile, cleaned up the mess with the visas.
Kersten Lanes, 38, the New York City-based partner who came on board to work with the threesome, says the assignment is proving to be unique. “I usually run projects, and the people who work for me listen to me and do what I say. It’s not like that with this group,” Lanes laughs. “They’re just a total blast — they’re so ambitious and idealistic. They don’t know the rules, and they’re not afraid to call anybody or see anybody. We can’t have 100,000 people who don’t know the rules, but we can have at least three.”
Sgaragli explains it this way: “In Italy, we have an expression, faccia posta, which means ‘be shameless.’ We had nothing to lose. We were willing to risk failing.”
How Will It End?
The team’s next hurdle is a presentation to PWC’s global leadership team at a retreat slated for January 2000. The goal is to persuade the partners to endorse the proposal and commit to a plan of implementation.
The three won’t leave anything to chance. They’ve created flip charts that include the names of the members of the global-leadership team, their level of interest in the project, and their relationships to known allies. They’ve mapped out the events that need to happen — through 2001 — to make PWC an advocate for social responsibility. And they’ve signed on to the project an impressive list of outside advisers, including legendary environmental advocate Ray Anderson, who is chairman and CEO of Interface Inc., a carpet manufacturer in Atlanta.
Not that they believe that a win will come easily. “It’s always: ‘Is the firm really willing and able to change?’ ” Shaw says. “It’s a long shot, but it’s a chance in a million to affect the world’s leading business-advisory firm. The impact would be so significant, much bigger than the firm itself. Let’s put it this way: This is going to happen — it’s just a matter of whether it takes 5 years or 25 years.”
Brooks is hopeful but less optimistic than his young protégés. “If we’re successful in this first stage, we’ll have some people who will agree that it’s not a fad,” he says. “But there will be plenty of people whose noses are so far down to the level of delivering their daily targets, they’ll regard this as nice but basically unessential. My role will be to gain as many senior-level allies as I can so that when I’m gone, this project will continue.”
Win or lose, these three change agents are pleased with their progress. “We’ve had an impact on the firm because we’re starting conversations,” Sgaragli says. “I’m absolutely convinced that we’ve already planted some seeds of change.”
Coordinates: Fabio Sgaragli, firstname.lastname@example.org; James Shaw, email@example.com; Amy Middelburg, firstname.lastname@example.org
Change Manual: Built to Last
Working with two coconspirators, Amy Middelburg has introduced an audacious plan to revolutionize the way that PricewaterhouseCoopers practices business.
“Built to Last,” by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (HarperBusiness, 1994).
Although Middelburg hasn’t yet succeeded in effecting large-scale change at PWC, she hasn’t given up either, largely because of the proof-of-concept examples she found in “Built to Last,” an invaluable tool for people who want to help their organization change for the social good. “The book gives me hard evidence,” says Middelburg, “that we’re pushing for the right thing at PWC, on all fronts.” Even though much of “Built to Last” is directed at senior-level executives, anyone at any level can apply its insights. “Just because the corporation as a whole might not have a strong core ideology,” write Collins and Porras, “doesn’t mean that your work group should be deprived of one.”
Coordinates: $26. “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” HarperBusiness, www.harpercollins.com