“For me, life is all about learning. You can never learn enough - there is always something new to discover, to explore and to understand. Learning is all about being involved, asking the difficult but crucial questions and being open to being taught by people and experiences, as well as through failures!” says Dr Philip McLachlan, strategy analyst at TasNetworks in Hobart, Australia. Read more about his career, goals and the most rewarding aspects of his current position:
Q: What was the topic of your PhD thesis and why did you specifically select it?
A: The topic was ‘Exploring the relationship between strategy consultants and strategy tools using grounded theory: A strategy as practice perspective’ and my study leader was Dr Rachel Maritz. Working within the consulting industry, I noticed that (strategy) consultants have different ways of employing and interpreting the exact same strategy tools (frameworks, processes and templates) in practice. This has the potential of leading to vastly different outcomes for client organisations, and I wanted to better understand why this was happening. The knowledge about this phenomenon in strategy is quite limited; therefore we had to generate theory by focusing on the interplay between consultants and the strategy tools they use.
We took a somewhat unconventional perspective (in relation to economic and management science) and focused on the actions, interactions and activities that constitute the use of these tools, and borrowed theory from the social sciences to account for what we observed. By following this approach, we were able to better understand how consultants are in fact using these tools to structure their social activities, interactions and actions according to their own understanding of these tools and how the application of specific knowledge, language and structure influences how consultants eventually shape strategic outcomes for their clients.
Q: In your opinion, to what extent does a PhD ensure/boost business/career success?
A: The value of a PhD is limited to the extent to which you are able to apply the skills acquired during studying for your degree. Although a PhD enables a higher degree of expertise on your subject area, for me it is the ability to apply specific methodology, rigour and critical thinking in your daily work that can potentially set you apart from your peers. A PhD enables you to identify the right problems and equips you with the ability to find workable solutions through persistence, when others would give in and call the experts. In an economy that needs and favours innovation, a PhD can really be a golden ticket!
Q: Are you happy with the way your career has evolved?
A: Happy is a relative term. I'm happy that I'm not currently where I wanted to be when I was 18!
I'm definitely surprised at how my career has evolved and where I am today. Most of my decisions in my career were not based on a desired or planned future, but I made decisions where I felt genuine purpose and need at that point in time. I have learned so much more about myself and the world around me than I ever would have otherwise, and most of it happened by just seizing the opportunity at hand. I've also learned that allowing your career to evolve according to how you can contribute to the greater good, is much more satisfying than chasing corporate ladders and artificial incentives. Know where you can make a difference and then go make your magic.
Q: What are the most compelling/rewarding aspects of your current job?
A: I currently work as a strategist at an electric utility. For me, the most rewarding aspect by far is to be part of a team of brilliant and passionate individuals who are tasked with tackling one of Australia's biggest engineering challenges of all times: the sustainable transition from a carbon-intensive to a decarbonised electricity system that provides affordable energy for all. Although I mostly deal with the business strategy of the organisation, I get to be part of multi-disciplinary teams that work on very exciting projects and issues such as electric vehicles, renewable energy, climate change and the hydrogen economy.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: Well... my studies made me realise how little I in fact knew about my subject matter and the world we live in.
I think my studies (undergraduate and postgraduate) benefited me much more in other parts of life than only my career. The skills you develop during studies are life skills: it helps you to better understand life, the perspectives of others as well as the world around you, how to conquer complex and significant challenges, having independent thought, learning how knowledge is generated and how it can be understood, used and respected.
Q: What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt from your studies/lecturers at the University of Pretoria?
A: Chase purpose, not prescription.
Q: What is your “golden guideline” in life, in other words what keeps you on track?
A: For me, life is all about learning. You can never learn enough - there is always something new to discover, to explore and to understand. Learning is all about being involved, asking the difficult but crucial questions and being open to being taught by other people and their experiences, as well as through failures.
Q: Going forward, what are your career and personal goals?
A: In terms of my career, I would love to be able to teach others about the genuine art of strategy, as there is still a general misconception about the discipline and how to apply it in practice. However, on a personal level (and if COVID-19 reaffirmed anything), it would definitely be to stop living in the future and seize the opportunities that are here and now, right in front of me. We always strive to become accomplished people one day, hoping to make a difference somewhere in the future. In fact, making a future difference starts with the here and now, and what we do today.
Consistent action shapes our future!
Q: How is the SA economy, and business in general, likely to be reshaped post COVID?
A: The future of business as it is likely to be reshaped by COVID-19, is significantly different from what we are currently used to. In order to survive, businesses would need to be both able and willing to undergo significant change. The pandemic is causing a structural break, meaning that trends and patterns to which we have historically shaped and structured our world, are changing dramatically. This provides an immense opportunity for businesses to reimagine the way they do business, whether through adapting or developing new operational and business models.
Workforces are learning new skills, transitioning to new, agile ways of working and those that are change-ready are most likely to survive. We will probably see intensified scrutiny of businesses, in that the importance of the triple bottom line is heavily amplified. Not only must businesses manage the disruption and transition to a new normal, but they are also accountable to their shareholders, customers, employees and the communities within which they operate. Furthermore, businesses that are able to anticipate the new needs and expectations of customers and develop the ability to meet these through rapid innovation, are most likely to ride the wave of opportunity post COVID-19.