Organizational Development Consultant

Philip M. Smith, PhD
The Edgecumbe Consulting Group

As an undergraduate, if anyone had told me that, by the time I was 44, I would be the director of a consultancy working with household brand name clients on three continents, I would have flashed them a peace sign and asked them what they were on.

As a psychology student at McGill University in the liberated mid-1970s, I was encouraged to explore all the options. I had the right background: 18 years earlier my father had earned a PhD in psychology from McGill before spending 2 years in industry, a year in private practice and a year on the faculty of McGill. In 1960, he established the psychology department at Bishop’s University, where he spent the remainder of his career and where I got my start. I worked summers in psychology labs from the age of 15, loved the subject and already had a couple of papers in press when I graduated in 1975. I felt destined for an academic career, and it seemed as if things had come full circle.

The extreme political climate of Quebec in the 1970s fueled my passion for social psychology, so I went to earn a PhD at Bristol University in England where Henri Tajfel, DPhil, had assembled a brilliant group of young scholars to study intergroup relations. Howard Giles, PhD, DSc, supervised my dissertation and provided the opportunity for me to see the world in the name of science. I met my future wife, Sharon Lloyd, in his office. She was doing research for a PhD in developmental. We married in 1979 and have worked together ever since.

I then embarked on a short academic career — a couple of years in the United Kingdom and 5 years at the University of British Columbia. The Vancouver years were intense — wonderful friends, a great department and a terrific city combined with huge pressures, little research money, and a pathetic salary. In the year before I left, I did some consultancy work as a mediator and trainer, mainly to supplement my income. Sharon landed a clinical position at the Children’s Hospital and also taught. We loved the practical impact of our work and the immediacy of the feedback. In 1986, I took a sabbatical, and we returned to the United Kingdom to think and write.

A few weeks later, David Pendleton, PhD, a friend and Oxford alum who was a partner in a firm of business psychologists, invited me to meet the other partners and to observe some of their training courses. I could hardly believe it: Good psychologists making an impact on real people’s working lives, having fun, and making a decent living? I accepted a position as a consultant. Sharon joined a year later.

It was the height of Margaret Thatcher’s "enterprise culture" era, and we helped managers in British Airways, British Telecom, British Rail, and other state-owned enterprises to cope with the huge changes inherent in privatization and competition. Recruitment, assessment, management development, survey research, career counseling, and organizational change were the staples of our diet. The thrill of devising and implementing useful solutions to real problems, the direct feedback, the accountability, the variety, and the constant challenge were more than adequate compensation for the insane hours and the months away from home. By this time, we had developed some clients in Hong Kong, a fascinating place that has since shaped all of our lives.

Between 1989 and 1994, Sharon and I ran our own freelance consultancy, started a family, and established a professionally accredited MSc program in organizational psychology at the University of Bristol. We had 5 chaotic but rewarding years balancing the demands of these commitments, at the end of which, I tried to expand our business by merging with another. I spent 1994 commuting to London as the managing partner of an established training consultancy. The compatibility of aims and objectives I had hoped for was not there, and I ended the merger after 12 months.

While at a conference in Montreal in late 1994, I bumped into Pendleton again. He and Jennifer King, PhD, also an Oxford alum, had gone to Hong Kong in 1992 as foreign emissaries of their U.K. firm, later establishing their own business there. They planned to return to the United Kingdom in 1995, and the four of us joined forces.

We currently own and manage three companies with bases in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. The Edgecumbe Consulting Group provides strategic organizational development consultancy across our entire client spectrum. It owns two recently formed subsidiaries: Edgecumbe Health, which provides a focus for our training/development and assessment work with National Health Service clients, and Edgecumbe Training. We have plans for assessment research subsidiaries in the coming year. Our roles will evolve from manager/consultants to chairs of the boards of our subsidiaries. At least, that is the plan.

I have had immense variety and challenge in my career as a psychologist, both directly and vicariously. Although I do not feel I have yet achieved the limits of my potential, I could have done worse, and I can recommend to everyone the mixture of science and application that has characterized my career path.

(Originally published in the September/October 1997 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)