Alison Gill, Founder and Board Director, Bvalco Ltd

It’s not every day you get to speak to threetime Olympic rower Ali Gill about her career in . . . consulting. Admittedly, it was difficult to keep the line of questioning from slipping into Olympic-themed territory (something that “derails most conversations”, a slightly bemused Gill tells us); however, it soon became clear that these two chapters of Gill’s life are not completely separable, because to understand what’s driven her in business one needs to understand the impact that being an elite athlete has had on the rest of her life to date.

Making it to the top in rowing, Gill explains, took years of the most intense training and mental conditioning, shaping her as an athlete but also as a person: “If you’ve never been an elite athlete,” she says, “it’s hard to understand how tired you are all of the time, how emotionally drained and stretched you are, constantly pushing yourself through the barriers of physical and mental pain. But through the process you develop both resilience and a thirst for learning and the experience is something that most elite athletes will take with them to any job.”

The early steps of Gill’s career sound like a traditional management consulting backstory—studying psychology and neuroscience at Oxford before joining BP’s graduate recruitment programme. But after two years of juggling work and an intense training regime, she decided to put her career on hold and focus on fulfilling her dream of making it to the 1988 Olympic Games. She not only achieved that goal but made the UK rowing team at three consecutive Olympics. After the ’96 Games, Gill decided it was time to pack up her oars and resume a career that made greater use of her studies—which now included an MA in sports psychology that she had somehow found time to complete amid her intense training schedule. “I was very interested in performance and behaviour, and how that can contribute to being effective in teams,” she recalls. “Since I’d seen the impact of this through both a theoretical lens and first-hand in training, I was excited to see how this would all play out in business.”

It was on that basis that Gill decided to join a small consulting firm that she found to have an entrepreneurial spirit and visionary leaders who gave her space to experiment with these concepts.

The fast pace of the firm suited Gill, and it’s here that she cut her teeth as a consultant. But the transition into “civvy street” was not without its challenges. Coming off a very intense experience, Gill felt at home with the pace of work expected of her and was prepared to do whatever was needed to be successful—just as she had as an elite rower. But she soon discovered this wasn’t a mindset shared by everyone: “The degree of energy that I was prepared to put into my career when I finished rowing seemed different compared to a lot of people,” Gill says. “Going from an environment where everybody is constantly pushing to be the best, to one where, by and large, people don’t work like that, I found unsettling.”

While her work ethic may have made Gill feel out of place at times, it also made her a standout as she applied her Olympian mindset to whatever she turned her hand to: “As an elite athlete, you learn that you’re only as good as your last race, and that to succeed you have to constantly learn, and to maximise every opportunity you have by trying to improve what you do. That isn’t something that you do every now and then when you are training—it’s something you do on a daily basis; every hour, every minute.”

Succeeding in a male environment

Complementary to her strong will and mindset, Gill found her athletic background and physical presence (she’s six feet tall) could also be used to her advantage in male-dominated environments: “I worked with senior people in financial services, nearly all of them men. I learned that having the ability to look them in the eye was helpful particularly when encountering poor leaders who abused their authority.”

A quick learner, Gill also soon discovered that talking about sport was often the best icebreaker and an inroad to building strong relationships with clients. Granted, not everyone can draw upon an elite sporting background, but Gill advises that anyone can find ways to connect with colleagues and clients beyond the basics of business. Such connections not only make professional relationships more pleasant but also open the door to more fruitful collaboration, as people are more willing to be challenged by those with whom they share a common bond of empathy and trust. “To be effective,” she says, “it helps if you find commonality before you start to really challenge the client’s way of thinking. Finding opportunities to build genuine relationships is a really important skill that will ultimately help you to serve your clients better.”

You’ve got to learn to adapt and bring the best out in the people that you are working with.

Finding a way to relate to colleagues and clients is important for everyone, but for women—who may often find themselves perceived as outsiders in traditional business environments—it is all the more critical. “If you walk into an all-male boardroom to deliver a pitch for instance, you’ve got to make yourself accessible to them. As a consultant that’s your job; you’re there for them, to help them work through difficult and often very confidential matters to succeed, so it’s important to be able to recognise and put to bed any fears they may have about working with you. If not, you aren’t going to be successful. You’ve got to learn to adapt and bring the best out in the people that you are working with.”

On the value of vulnerabilities

Sport also taught Gill the power of testing one’s own limits and learning to be comfortable with the discomfort and vulnerability this brings. “In sport, we often talk of getting right to the edge of your physical capability and then digging some more. It is at this point, when you think you can’t go on but find you can, that you really develop and grow, mentally and physically.” Reaching that point means allowing yourself to be vulnerable, which in turn means trusting yourself—and trusting your team. “There is a danger in being at the edge, and you need to trust those around you to help you through that point.”

Gill sees the same dynamic at work in consulting. “There will be a point at which, as a consultant, you feel vulnerable because you need to really challenge your client to facilitate the change they need. In these leadership moments, you have the capacity to grow and perhaps more importantly to really deliver the change you have been employed to support. The point of vulnerability can come in many forms. You may feel lost, feel like you don’t know the answer, feel the weight of clients resisting the change you’re trying to deliver.” This is the time for personal grit, but it’s also the time to lean on one’s team. “This is the point at which you have to accept help and think hard to find a way forward. This is where growth happens.”

In the end, Gill finds that the pain is a small price to pay for the results—and the growth—that can come from being willing to push through one’s limitations. “Really good consultants grow and learn through every assignment, I think this is one of the joys of consulting. The greater the consulting challenge the greater the potential for growth and the greater the potential to deliver real change.”

Taking stock of what you want

In 2000, Gill’s grit and determination were put to the test—along with any vulnerabilities— when she decided to start her own business focused on organisational change. Challenges were plentiful, as any new small business owner can attest, but Gill was unsurprisingly up to the challenge. Over 10 years she built a thriving firm employing 50 people.

But by the time her business reached that milestone, Gill found herself playing a role she did not enjoy. Focused entirely on managing the internal aspects of the business, her days were spent balancing books, thinking about sickness benefits, and figuring out how to manage through a period when half her staff were on maternity leave—far from the role she envisioned. It was at this point Gill took a step back to identify what she really wanted—and that was to go back to being a client-facing consultant. To do that, Gill had to create space in her life by downsizing the business: “I like to keep doing new and interesting things, and doing really great work for clients, and a business that size didn’t allow me to do that.”

Momentum, Gill advises, is great if you know where you are headed, but left unchecked it risks taking over, causing you to veer off track from where you truly want to be. “I would say spend time finding out about what you really like doing,” she advises, “because there’s a massive difference between doing what you can do and what you will be motivated to do. Be purpose-led. Think about the value you want to add. My joy at the moment comes from helping others to deliver change. I am a facilitator and consultant at heart.”

In her own case, Gill wishes that she’d sought an external perspective, or some kind of sounding board, sooner: “One thing I would’ve done differently in terms of growing my business earlier,” she says, “is to have set up an advisory panel for the business much earlier. I think having that kind of external, objective leadership, helping me to think about what I want the business to look like, how to fine-tune it and what I want my role to be, would’ve been helpful during the early days.”

Gill says that starting her own business also taught her the dangers of spreading oneself too thin: “If you want to be good at something, don’t take on too many things. Focus your energies on the things that you want to be good at. At times, things clash, and you’ve got to work out where the priorities lie.”

Lessons from Gill’s rowing days have proved invaluable to her success, but it is in the consulting world that she truly learned to recognise her priorities, pace herself accordingly, and take in the scenery along the way: “Life itself isn’t a race; it’s about living, and it’s about the journey. Knowing why you’re doing something and understanding your purpose is ultimately more important than the speed at which you arrive.”

Be purpose-led. Think about the value you want to add. My joy at the moment comes from helping others to deliver change.