Recently, we sat down with Ian Madell, President and Managing Partner of Level5 Strategy Group, to discuss his perspective on Canada’s ever-evolving market and how Level5 helps our clients across various industries to deliver sustainable/profitable growth and a superior ROI by specializing in strategy and transformation through the lens of a brand
Ian, you’ve had quite a career in consulting working with both multinational and boutique consulting firms. What has led you to a career in consulting?
I have always had an interest in management consulting, which was partially driven by family members. Growing up, there were a couple of relatives who were consultants and I would hear stories about their work during the holidays. I was enticed by the problems they solved, the ability to constantly learn and to work with different people in different industries. I thought it would be an interesting career, but I actually arrived late into consulting because I thought it would be great to get operating experience after graduating from university. It was only after years in industry that I made the switch into consulting.
So, after working in industry, what triggered you to make the transition from industry into consulting?
At that time, I was an executive leading a large process reengineering project in New York and I was working alongside consultants who had suggested I go into the field. As I said, I had a strong interest in consulting previously and it was always in the back of my mind, so it became the catalyst for my move. It was not easy for me to find a position because I was already an executive and the door typically starts closing after you graduate. I had to find a position at the right level and, luckily, I was able to find an opportunity with KPMG Consulting in Toronto, which offered great projects and great people to work with. I’m attracted to the intellectual challenge, variety of projects and working with clients – you just don’t get tired of it.
What and how did you decide to make a move to a boutique firm?
I left KPMG Consulting (at the time it was called BearingPoint) to become an executive at one of my clients. I stayed there for four years, but my true passion was consulting and I missed it. A few things attracted me to Level5: the value proposition we put to the market, the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and the leaders/people of the firm. David Kincaid (Founder and Managing Partner), Matt Kelly (Managing Partner) and Hua Yu (Managing Partner) were all at Level5 at this time.
As the current President and Managing Partner of Level5, what do you think makes this firm unique?
Externally, to our clients, what we have are three things. First is our unique point of view, which is looking at organizations through the lens of a brand. Second, we are pragmatic in how we approach working with clients. We have a bias to action – it’s not about creating great decks, it’s about developing solutions that are actionable by our clients because at the end of the day, we don’t own our client’s firm. They own them and run them. Finally, we work hand-in-hand with our clients and prepare them to succeed on their own. We equip them with the right tools to be able to exploit the opportunity that we uncover together.
Internally, we have worked extremely hard to cultivate and maintain a special culture, which not only helps us recruit and retain top talent, but also to help us do really great work. We have been fortunate to attract great people who are all a pleasure to work with. It makes it easy to come to work!
How would you describe this culture?
We have a philosophy, coined by David Kincaid, of laugh and learn everyday. If it’s not happening, our consultants know to come see us because something’s not working and we’ll have to do something about it. Our organization is flat, so we – the Partners and Principals – are accessible to all of our employees at any level. We also have a culture of apprenticeship, which allows our consultants to learn faster and to gain exposure quicker. As well, we have a culture of teamwork. We recognize and appreciate individual successes, but we believe you can stand out while working as a team and working collaboratively. We are here for each other; we help each other out no matter what level. We shun politics so it does not add stress to the environment we work in. As partners of the firm, we encourage our team to be candid with us. We listen and adapt as appropriate. This special culture is built around a core set of values, but we also believe we have the agility to change with the times. Each person influences the culture, so every person has an interest in helping us shape this culture.
You say the organization is flat, which allows consultants to learn more quickly. Do you feel you are learning from others as well?
Yes, of course. One of the things I love about our firm and culture is working with young professionals because we learn from them too. They may be attracted to working with the partners because we have 20-30 years of experience, but the reverse is that they keep us sharp and introduce us to new ideas and ways of thinking.
What would be your advice to your clients in how they can cultivate a culture like Level5?
You can only shape culture, you can’t dictate it. So, you need to actively do things to shape it: having a clear strategy and point of differentiation; how you communicate with each other; how you engage your team; how you reward and recognize individuals and teams; how you have fun together; and more. You have to be attentive to it all the time; it’s not just a box you tick. At Level5, culture is something the partners are constantly aware of and ensuring that it is moving in the right direction.
Since you have joined Level5, how has the organization evolved and where do you envision it going in the next 10 years?
Our firm’s strategic plan calls for greater growth and expansion. We started off as a strategy only firm and we have moved into transformation as well, which has really fueled our growth in the last couple of years and will continue to do so. We have only scratched the surface because, under transformation, there are many more areas where we can work in, such as customer experience, which is one of the fastest growing areas for us. Opening up our service offering allows us to maintain deep relationships with the clients we already have and continue to help them in new ways. We are also looking at passing the baton to the next generation of leaders at our firm and working with them to define what that growth will look like.
As the firm’s service offerings shift to include transformation, what advice do you have for leaders when making significant organizational changes?
There are three things that come to mind:
- Be bold – if you think your organization needs to transform, then incremental change is not enough. You really need to understand how transformative you need to be, set goals around that and ground them with a clear strategy of how you will take your organization where you want to go. Also, you need make sure you are surrounded by the right people who will make the leap with you.
- Be fast – often leaders do not make moves fast enough. You need to balance how much the organization needs to change and at what pace. Too much change causes the organization to focus too inwardly – you still need to be market-facing because you’re running a business. However, if you don’t take big enough chunks, then you may lose momentum to make the changes you want.
- Be public – leaders in the organization need to be out there engaging with employees and leading the change management effort. You can never communicate enough, so keep doing it. And it isn’t just about talking about the successes, but the failures too. Leaders need to both listen and talk to their people at townhalls and other similar events. Shareholders need to be involved throughout as well.
Failed transformations are typically a blend of all three things. The thing that really holds it all together and allows you to succeed is to stay the course. If the plan is well thought out and well planned, stay the course! If you hit a roadblock, acknowledge it, learn from it, and make changes and continue forward.
With your deep experience working with retail clients, where do you see Canada’s retail industry heading? How will it change in the next 5 to 10 years?
I’m more of an optimist about Canada’s retail industry. It is undergoing drastic change, but it will always be here. The general consensus is that e-commerce will continue to grow and will be 25%-30% of sales and brick-mortar being 70%-75%. However, these two channels will not be siloed. It will be a fully integrated, functional, dynamic omnichannel – it needs to be seamless.
Retailers also need to be more disciplined in truly understanding their customers through user research and data analytics – instead of being product-focused, be customer-focused. Consumer power will only get stronger, especially with consumers having more choice. Successful retailers of the future will readjust their business model to make sure it is truly consumer-facing. To do that, organizations need to ensure their organization has the right competencies around understanding consumer data, how to turn it into strategy and how to execute.
There will be a fall out for organizations that are not making the changes or not fast enough. Canada often gets the halo effect of the US – they were highly overstored with way too much investment in real estate. However, Canada doesn’t face the same problem. In fact, we were under stored in some cases, but the press picks up what’s happening in the US even though it’s not always applicable.
To leaders across Canada, what would be your advice to them to help them succeed in this ever-changing world?
Again, be bold – you can’t be too passive. The marketplace doesn’t allow you to be slow. As well, leaders need to play to win. Don’t be afraid of these changes. At times, I feel that Canadian leaders don’t necessarily play to win – we play to do well. We need to face these challenges head on and work to be at the forefront rather than following the pack.
If you had to look back at your 20-year-old self, what advice would you have as you start out in your career?
Consulting is still a very exciting and vibrant place to work, but it’s not for everyone. You need to be prepared to work long hours (not all the time, but it does happen) against time and quality pressures; be able to sort through a lot of data to find unique and meaningful insights and tell a story; be service forward – driving yourself to add value to a client’s business. Helpful skills are to be a life-long learner, be curious, well-organised, take initiative, be a true team player and be personable. Choose consulting if you want the intellectual challenge and apply it to help your clients be better.
Ian Madell is the Managing Partner and President of Level5 Strategy, one of Canada’s leading boutique strategy firms. His role at Level5 is diverse. In addition to advising CEOs and other senior executives concerning their business strategy, he is responsible for the management and operations of Level5. Prior to joining the firm, Ian gained extensive industry experience. He began his career at Nabisco Brands (now Mondelez) and then moved to Gannett – one of America’s largest media organizations where he led a re-engineering initiative based in New York. As his knowledge grew deeper, Ian became a Managing Partner at BearingPoint (formerly KPMG Consulting), where he led the North American post-merger integration practice and was also active in broader business transformation assignments. At his last role, prior to Level5, he was the Senior Vice-President of Marketing & Design at Teknion – one of the world’s leading office furniture manufacturers.
He is currently Vice Chair, Board of Trustees at the Royal Ontario Museum – Canada’s largest cultural institution. Ian is committed to giving back to his community. Previous roles include Governor of Junior Achievement of Canada and Director of the Canadian Club – Toronto. In an effort to share his wisdom with the future generation of business leaders, he has been a lecturer and speaker at various universities across Canada. We are proud to call Ian a member of the Level5 family.