In 1999, a small group of economists set out to create a new kind of consultancy. We had a good understanding of the economics of professional services firms, what our (potential) clients would value, and what our (potential) colleagues would be like. Our task was to find the right blend of these three things (that’s partly what the “Frontier” in our name refers to).
To say that we pretty much ignored everything else would be an understatement; in many cases we actively decided to defy conventional wisdom.
We gave away all the equity to our colleagues. We decided we would never sell the business. We shared information with every employee. We refused to create specialist teams. We didn’t set a growth target. We discouraged colleagues from ‘selling’ to clients. And, though profit is important, we didn’t set out to maximise it at all costs.
In other words, we were guided by our four founding values: we wanted to be interesting, open, fun and profitable.
Perhaps we seemed a bit too quirky for some in those early days. But more often we were not, and much of what we did then has survived and thrived over the past 20 years.
Belief in our values
So why did we create Frontier like this? It was partly because we thought it was the best way to build a successful and sustainable business, even though nobody we knew had done things that way before and many thought we were mad.
But the main reason was that we – personally – believed in these values. Or perhaps more importantly, we despised the opposite of them: secrecy, in-groups, rewarding people for their background rather than their capabilities, corporate spin and bullshit, politics in the office, chasing growth for growth’s sake, treating long working hours as a badge of honour, doing dull work just because it’s profitable, telling your colleagues you’re building something for everyone and then selling out to the highest bidder.
That’s why we deliberately set out values and a corresponding culture and structure – to prevent those things from happening. And by preventing behaviours we felt were negative, we sought to encourage those that were positive: collaboration, creativity, entrepreneurial risk-taking, empathy with clients and colleagues.
The importance of personal experience
My founding colleagues all have different backgrounds, but there was something in each of them that drove them to these values.
I come from a working-class family and was brought up by a working mum and grandmother (quite unusual in the early 1970s) in the north of England. I went to a pretty average state school and a second-rate university (the first in my family to go to university). I arrived in London with a poor CV, a northern accent (you would be amazed how much discrimination I felt), no connections or intern experience, no clear idea of what I wanted to do – but a lot of ambition.
I was lucky in my wider education. I was exposed to people and experiences that taught me to think for myself, to strive to be the best in whatever I chose, to understand my own strengths and weaknesses – and to get up and go again when someone knocked me down.
I was also lucky to fall into a first job that rewarded me for what I did and allowed me freedom to take risks. There, I wasn’t judged for any of my other characteristics. Over time, as my confidence built, I became less embarrassed about what made me different, and more proud of it. It was liberating, and sowed the seed for some of the founding values of Frontier.
I’ve continued to be lucky at Frontier. I’m surrounded by some incredible colleagues and I work with some fantastic clients. I’ve learned a lot from both, and not just about economics. In fact, most of the valuable things I’ve learned at Frontier are not seen traditionally as part of economics, but I’ve discovered they are definitely helpful. Examples include: behavioural psychology, branding and marketing, risk assessment and dealing with uncertainty, how to foster creativity and innovation, team dynamics and leadership, coaching and mentoring - my education here has been a comprehensive one.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that whatever your formal training, there are always different skillsets and capabilities to be picked up from others. And if you’re ambitious, curious and open-minded, doing so is essential for your own development and happiness.
But there’s also another reason – perhaps even a selfish one – to value people who are different from you: their new thinking, experiences and approaches can help you reach your own goals more quickly, and keep you stimulated as you go.
So, to return to our values: being different is interesting, it’s often fun, it helps you to be open, and it can be very profitable if you’re encouraged to shine. And when you put different people together, with a common set of values, and just the right balance between risk-taking and support, the results can be amazing.