This month WCC talked with Rick Beal, a graduate of the Class of ’74, member of the Board of Visitors for UW L&S, and currently the West Business Division Leader for Rewards, Talent & Communications at Towers Watson.
WCC: What did you study as an undergraduate at UW-Madison and what about your college experience do you still apply to your career today?
I took some mathematics, psychology – because of my interest in human behavior, and many history courses. The curriculum I took helped me develop a strong critical thinking foundation. Many of the lessons in my psychology coursework directly apply to the cases that require modification of behavior through incentives and rewards.
WCC: When you left Madison, what was your next step?
I went to the New England School of Law in Boston, and for many years performed trial work and legal services. Then I moved out to San Francisco to work for county governments, mostly concentrating around public defending. The ability to be in the courtroom every day and present to juries really honed my presentation and client relationship skills.
WCC: What prompted you to leave the legal world and get your MBA in Finance?
I started to get restless and wanted to change things up. I was interested in finance, tax, and accounting issues in the legal realm. At this point in my career it was a great time to step back and head a different direction. I was strong in my writing and presentation skills, but I wanted to develop my mathematics and hard business skill set.
At the end of my MBA program at Berkeley, I interviewed with Towers Perrin, an HR consulting firm. At the time they were looking for people to do compensation work with a heavy emphasis on tax and regulatory issues.
WCC: What did you do while at Towers Perrin?
Eventually I became a Principal there. I was exposed to constant stream of different clients, problems, cultures, and issues. I worked in a variety of fields, which included broad compensation projects, executive compensation projects, and technology support.
In the late 70s early 80s, personal computers were just coming out, so I took classes to give myself an understanding of how programming worked. When I first got to the office there was only one PC there. I was the only one who knew how to use it so I had it all to myself. I immediately added value to their operations by showing them how to produce surveys at a fraction of the cost.
WCC: How was the transition from Towers Perrin to Towers Watson?
After 10 years I went to a competitor of Towers Perrin called Watson Wyatt. I worked in similar functions, but I had more geographic responsibility. Every few years my role would change so that worked well for me.
After another ten years of consulting with increasing responsibility I took over managing the office and a a group of large accounts in San Francisco. After another 5 years Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt merged to become Towers Watson. I transitioned back into the role of consulting and managing a large geography, but with a broader focus on talent, compensation, and communications.
WCC: What is the difference between consulting and managing at a firm like yours?
You are expected to be a producing manager. You still do client work, and you still sell projects and deliver them. The only thing that really changes is what you emphasize in your day to day.
WCC: Could you tell us more about the Rewards, Talent and Communication practice?
First I’ll tell you what we don’t do. We’re not an executive search or recruiting firm. On the compensation side, we design pay programs for companies. Part of this involves benchmarking base compensation packages, designing short and long term incentive plans (psychology training at UW-Madison is helpful), and another part is having a good sense of what has worked well historically, how labor history plays a role and how what motivates people varies with the current environment (history at UW-Madison is helpful here).
Once you have the motivation logic developed, the next step is to align the appropriate vehicle for delivery, whether it be cash, stock, or equities. Each have different nuances and incentivize different behaviors, with varying costs as well.
Talent Management is about leadership development for executives, and professional development and performance management for the broad employee base. Lastly, Communications is focused on communicating and reinforcing change in the organization, and giving people the tools to support the change.
WCC: What type of person succeeds in your practice?
Each step in the process calls on different skill sets. Compensation is largely driven by highly analytical people who are comfortable with numbers. In contrast, communications has an emphasis on creating a message and story that aligns the programmatic objectives with the desired outcomes. The people who are most successful are capable of analyzing problems and creating a story or message around the numbers.
WCC: What does a career progression in consulting look like from the standpoint of skill sets?
First you start in an analytical role. Somebody will bring work streams to you and you will deliver the product on time and on budget. Once you get good at that, you start to get busy and concentrate on higher value work, while directing someone else to do some of the old things you used to do. The demands get such that you cannot do as much of the analytical work anymore because you have to manage pieces of projects.
After that, you start talking to clients, writing proposals, and delivering sales pitches. Eventually, you are managing large projects and doing things on your own, until one day, maybe you will be the CEO.
Consulting is a simple business, but the challenge is that it’s a hard business to manage because it’s all people. In addition to consulting, you also have to manage and operate a business.
WCC: What do you see as the key specialties of Towers Watson?
There’s always small boutiques created with specialized expertise on specialized projects, but small shops don’t have the global scale that we do. There’s increasing consolidation in the industry in order to be more competitive. Right now, there are no more than two or three key players in any major market niche.
For us, there are three firms in the large global HR consulting arena. Our core parts are similar—we deliver significant programmatic changes to large corporations. If you want to design and implement new compensation or benefits systems it’s really a small world.
Towers Watson is particularly successful because we invest a lot in research and technology. However, in accordance with the theme of our conversation, it’s mainly about the people you work with. We have smart and creative people who are playing in the big leagues, not on the farm team. We hit home runs when we step up to the plate and we love doing it.
WCC: What advice would you give to a Badger trying to start a career in consulting?
Be curious. Keep asking questions about why something is done in a particular way. Develop a range of capabilities, get depth in something, but stretch yourself with curiosity.
Thank you Rick, it was a pleasure talking with you!