Professional service firms were one of the first industries to support the formation of Alumni Networks ─ largely because they recognized that today’s departing employee could be tomorrow’s future client. Over time, these alumni networks, which are largely intangible assets, have evolved into mutually beneficial resources that offer ongoing support to former employees through professional development and networking events; and in return organizations benefit by having direct access to potential clients and industry information. In the following interview, Mark Whitmore, Managing Partner at Deloitte in Toronto, reflects on how Deloitte’s strong alumni network began and how it’s evolved over the years into a powerful asset.
Knightsbridge: Why did Deloitte establish an alumni program?
Mark Whitmore: The original intent was more social than anything else, but over the years it evolved into both social and commercial. With a large organization like Deloitte, we have literally thousands of former colleagues throughout the Canadian and international business communities, and they’re important contacts for us to stay in touch with.
I would love to think that we’re unique in this, but it’s pretty prevalent throughout the industry. I know that the other big four audit firms have alumni programs; and a number of consulting shops such as McKinsey have them as well. I’m not as familiar with the law firms, but pretty much every professional service business is dependent on relationships and as a result I would imagine a large number of them would have some form of alumni program.
KB: How does the existence of Deloitte’s alumni network impact how the organization handles departing employees?
MW: Certainly our goal and aspiration is when people leave, they leave on good terms. We want them to enjoy their Deloitte experience, be proud of it, and support us in the marketplace. It doesn’t necessarily always work that way, but certainly our hope is that whenever somebody leaves Deloitte they feel an affinity and want to stay connected to the firm. We help them by keeping them connected and potentially help them find future roles. And we benefit because it keeps us connected to the business community. So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
KB: Ultimately, is this about having people speaking about Deloitte in a positive way?
MW: That’s certainly the goal for our program. We want to help them too, whether it’s finding their next job or giving them information that they don’t have access to through their current employer. We want to help them and hopefully, in turn, they’ll want to help us.
KB: Who has the responsibility of overseeing the alumni network?
MW: Deloitte’s alumni program is a national program that is deployed in each region. In my role as the managing partner for Toronto, I am responsible for the alumni program here.
KB: How has the program taken on more of a commercial purpose, as opposed to a strictly social purpose?
MW: Our program has evolved to where I would say it’s equally, if not more, focused on commercial content. There is still a social aspect to it, but now when we hold an event we’ll make sure that there’s some kind of content, maybe a guest speaker talking about a particular topic, maybe an update on accounting regulations or tax rulings, maybe some strategic topic that would be of interest to them followed by an update on what’s going on at the firm.
We also publish a newsletter that is part content and part social. I would say over the years it’s evolved from a “let’s get together and have a drink or two,” to 80 per cent content and then “oh, by the way, let’s get caught up with our friends and colleagues as well.”
KB: It’s interesting that you would offer professional development to former employees. What’s the thinking behind offering this service?
MW: When you think about it, relationships are the fundamental building block of our business. Your best customer is often the one you know, not necessarily the one you have to get to know. These people know Deloitte, they know our quality, they know our services. But it’s also got to be a benefit to them. Just saying, “come out for a drink” isn’t necessarily always a benefit to them so we need to provide content as well. Often when individuals leave Deloitte, they don’t have access to the kind of resources that we have in terms of updating professional knowledge and standards. We have that information readily available so it’s very easy to serve it up to our alumni. That’s good for our business as well.
You have to remember, a very high percentage of people that leave Deloitte are leaving for industry positions. They’re not going to our competitors. They’re going to Canadian corporations, or private, or public sector organizations and those organizations don’t necessarily have the infrastructure that we have to stay current on these topics. That’s our business, making sure that our people are up to speed on the latest standards and developments, the latest industry news. It might be a little different if you’re moving to one of the larger institutions, they may have that critical mass, but a lot of our people move to mid-market organizations because that’s the Canadian economy. Our alumni appreciate being kept up to date because that’s half the battle for them.
KB: Does the alumni network aid knowledge transfer?
MW: Without a doubt. There are lots of reasons why we want to stay in touch with our alumni, and one of them is that it allows us the opportunity to call an organization to learn what’s going on in that organization or industry so that we can understand what issues it faces. That helps us keep up to speed. Knowledge transfer goes both ways. We can share with them what’s going on in the professions and the industry, but in turn what we hope to learn from them is what’s going on in Canadian business. What are small businesses saying, what are medium-sized businesses saying, what’s going on in the large institutions?
KB: Can you measure the ROI on the alumni network?
MW: That’s a great question. We haven’t as of yet put in a hard and fast measure on it. Intuitively, we know that this is important. There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t tap into an alumnus. It happens all the time in terms of trying to get information about what’s going on in a certain industry or a certain client. In some ways those contacts are invaluable. I can’t say we’ve invested a dollar and got ten dollars out of it, but our feeling is what we’re putting into it, we are more than getting out of it so we will continue to invest in it. In fact, we want to keep enhancing our program going forward.
KB: Is there any drawback to having such a strong alumni network?
MW: No, there’s not. I’ve never come into a situation where it works against you. In fact, one of the things we even look at is where are there alumni from other firms, the clients that we want to target. So we not only ask who are the Deloitte alumni at Company X, we also want to know who are the KPMG alum or the McKinsey alum at these organizations because it may give an indication of where they might be leaning, especially if they decide to make a switch in their professional services provider.
I’ve never come across a situation where it’s a drawback. It can be a problem if a departure is not handled well. Then there’s a possibility that they will remember “they didn’t treat me well on my way out the door, I’m going to go out of my way to make sure they don’t get this work.” That’s when it can work against you, but it speaks to making sure you do a good job when it comes time to part ways.
Certainly in the end when alumni leave any firm, whether it’s ours or another firm, my experience has been they represent their new company appropriately. They’re not just going to blindly give the work to Deloitte because they’re a Deloitte person regardless of quality. You have to win the work.