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Taurus & Associates: Athol Williams

Local boy makes good as top strategic consultant in an aggressive market

Juliet Pitman

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Athol Williams of Taurus & Associates

British journalist Russell H Ewing once said: “A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting.”

All these qualities and more are expected of business leaders. Today’s CEOs face pressure perhaps unlike any who came before them, particularly in South Africa. “Prior to the early nineties, most local companies operated in isolation from international competition.

Many of them were monopolies. So to be a successful CEO in South Africa 30 years ago, you needed to be a great maintainer, a great manager – but not necessarily a great leader. All that changed when our market opened up,” says Athol Williams, founder and CEO of Taurus & Associates, one of the country’s top strategy consulting firms.

Williams consults with CEOs and executives from blue-chip corporations, offering advice and recommendations on mission-critical strategic decisions. It’s a role for which he is imminently qualified, having worked as group strategy executive for Old Mutual, case team leader for Bain & Company Inc. in Boston, New York and London and as business evaluation executive for Rio Tinto in London. He holds an MSc (Finance) from the London Business School, an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston,and a BSc (Engineering) from Wits.

And while these credentials give Williams the credibility and reputation so important to his line of work, it’s the respect he has earned from clients such as Alexander Forbes, BP, Old Mutual, Eskom and SAA that really tell the story of his success. Taurus is operating in a highly specialised market, one where most of its competitors are big international firms and yet it has been successful in spite of the fact that Williams arrived back in South Africa with only a very small network of contacts.

Perhaps this is because his approach is a blend of international experience and local insight, something the international guys can’t offer.“They often have a clear idea of what works in Western countries and apply it to the South African context but it’s not the same here.

And I’m not saying that we should throw it all out because there is a lot to learn from international practices, but I believe you need to be open-minded about what South Africa needs and apply that insight to our particular context,” says Williams.

It’s a formula that is clearly working. Taurus is a self-funded business that, in the short space of three years, has firmly established itself as an important strategic consultancy player.Williams’ team is made of 15 (soon to be 20) very bright, highly educated professionals.

“I employ people who have a rare combination of strong analytical ability and strong interpersonal skills,” he explains. Building relationships of trust with clients is critical – not only do they need to trust Taurus’s integrity, but they also need to trust its advice.

Advice is something CEOs aren’t used to being on the receiving end of and Williams welcomes the sometimes vigorous debate that arises from the recommendations he and his team make. “Many CEOs believe that asking for help on strategy means they have to ask for help to do their job but they are slowly getting used to the idea of getting input.

Internationally, CEOs are far more open to taking advice on strategy. Jack Welch uses consultants all the time, for example,” he says. Of course, CEOs don’t have to take the advice they are offered and Williams is very clear about what his role is – and what it is not. “We are purely advisors.

We can give clients advice but we’ll never make them take it, however strongly we may argue the merits of our point. Consultants often go wrong in believing they have the only answer. We formulate an answer but ultimately the client needs to believe in it in order to act on it.”

As a leader and CEO himself, Williams is ever mindful of the possibility of making similar mistakes to the ones he regularly witnesses; he tries hard to remain self-reflective. He discusses two of the most common mistakes he hopes to avoid: “People often have a gung-ho,macho approach to doing things on ‘gut-feel’, and while I see merit in being proactive, I also think there’s enormous value in understanding the market you are going into, understanding your customers and your competitors.

Many  businesses make the mistake of taking decisions without a proper understanding of these things.”“The second thing is about bringing people along with you. So many CEOs don’t manage to have a working relationship with their executive team, let alone their staff. Things are too hierarchical so the guys don’t pull together when they come together.”

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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