Q&A: Introducing our new Executive Adviser, Dr Heinz Pley
Our new Executive Adviser, Dr Heinz Pley, is not your typical professional services executive. A former professional chess player from Germany with a biochemistry PhD from Stanford University, he went on to become a prominent figure in the mining world.
Now, he has partnered with another eclectic bunch by joining our A-team as we continue our own atypical journey. Using his decades of experience at the highest levels of global business, he will offer invaluable guidance to our clients and help us realise our potential as a company. Working closely with the Client Partnerships team means he will also get hands-on to maximise the effectiveness of engagements and bring more new ones from his network to the table.
In this Q&A, he discusses his career and background, what he is most looking forward to in this new role, what clients should expect during their engagements, and what makes the ‘knights’ of Hyphen different.
First off, how would you describe Hyphen in a couple of sentences? What is it that you think makes this company unique?
HP: It’s a very dynamic professional services firm that translates clients’ aspirations into resource requirements and helps to find exactly the right resources to get the job done. That’s how I would describe it in a nutshell.
I do think that it has a couple of different use cases – one is supplementing consulting efforts and another is implementing the strategy work or design work that has been done often by management consultants. There’s a lot of investment in building relationships, understanding needs, and then providing more curated resources.
I find that the Hyphen model is a good way to supplement the client’s internal organisation and workings, providing them with additional capacity and unique capabilities that they may not have in-house, which increases the chances for implementation success.
In terms of what else makes Hyphen unique, the culture is very different. How we work is very 21st century with no offices, quarterly co-working weeks, etc, there is a lot of freedom and openness, so people can be themselves. Some people are really kind of nerds, quite frankly – I mean that as a compliment, they are cool nerds! – and some are very artsy; some people are very extroverted and some are more withdrawn, etc. There’s a lot of diversity here, not just in terms of nationalities and skill sets, but also in terms of personalities, which I find really interesting.
You mentioned the diversity of the team as an asset for Hyphen but you yourself have acquired a diverse range of skills and experiences over the course of your life and career – how have those experiences shaped you? Has that diversity helped you with the transition to working for Hyphen?
HP: It’s been a learning experience joining the team and I always enjoy going along that curve.
I was a biochemist and did my PhD at Stanford and then shifted to management consulting because I basically got disillusioned with an academic career. I learned about management consulting halfway through my PhD and it seemed to be exactly the right thing for me. I was so grateful to have the opportunity, but it was very difficult for me too because I had so little grounding in the whole. I had no single class in accounting or economics, I did not come from a family where my parents even went to college, or ran even a small business, etc. That was just really a difficult learning curve but I got the hang of it, survived and thrived.
After 16 years as a management consultant, I joined Morgan Stanley as an investment banker because of the opportunity to do something different but, it was not such a difficult learning curve. This bigger shift came a few years later when I went to the buy-side because now I was no longer a professional services person that went around selling ideas, but I had to decide where to invest the money of my principal, so that was again a great learning experience.
After having been a consultant now for over 25 years and having done a couple of other things, it’s exciting for me to get involved with doing new things with different people.
Can you elaborate on what your role as Executive Adviser will involve? How much client interaction will you have?
HP: There are three elements to my role here. One is to help to diversify the client portfolio by introducing Hyphen to my global network of executive relationships, which is focused primarily on the mining industry, but I also have plenty of relationships in the principal investment community all over the world so it’s a good test for the versatility of Hyphen’s offering.
The second topic is also client-facing and is really to add to Hyphen’s senior capacity in engaging with clients. Sometimes it is helpful to have people with more grey hair and experience in the room; somebody who has a similar kind of standing or profile.
Being able to help to understand, conceptualise and structure complex situations is something I pride myself on doing well. I’ve always been a strategist. I was a professional chess player before I became a scientist and then I became a consultant and investment banker so I am pretty good at making sense of things quickly, and hope to bring new angles to Hyphen clients’ problems.
The third dimension is truly advising Hyphen’s founders as to how they can build on what they’ve achieved to date and build a great professional services firm, by leveraging my nearly 30 years of experience in running parts of big firms and building up new teams and practices.
I was part of the development of McKinsey’s South African and sub-Saharan African office from the early stages and I built the global mining practice from 40 people to 200 over my time so I am a business builder and hopefully, that can help the co-founders here as they continue to build their own business.
Which of those three facets is most appealing to you?
HP: I’m looking forward to getting more involved with client discussions and contributing to business development strategy. It is great to be learning and contributing and I’m really excited to be getting involved with that first handful of client calls.
Some of those are with clients that I have brought about from my network, but getting involved with other opportunities that I did not contribute to delivering is very exciting too. I have never been this broad in the range of industries I am covering, which is another part of the learning curve I am enjoying.
Some of my clients that are now interested in working with Hyphen, which is great considering it has been a relatively quick turnaround. I was a bit lucky also to bump into the right people at the right time and they had relevant needs.
You have previously worked with most of the Hyphen leadership team before – how has that helped you in terms of settling in and understanding the company’s mission and culture?
HP: I’ve known all three Hyphen founders [Michael Savolainen, Avinash Nandakumar and Erhan Ermis] and Pietro [Vecchiato], who is a Vice-President, for many years. Both Michael and Pietro are really close friends, so I’ve known about the idea of Hyphen since before it even got started. I’ve been following the development of Hyphen all along.
Six months ago, Michael asked me whether I would consider joining Hyhen. At the time, I was still a full-time partner at Oliver Wyman and told him I’d love to do something with them at some point in the future.
That actually transpired sooner than I expected because another couple of exciting part-time opportunities came up, and I just didn’t want to stay in a full-time partner role. I’m turning 60 this year and I felt it is not the time to retire – I’m working harder than I have in the last few years! – but the time was right to shift my modus operandi.
I’m super excited about the business that the founders have built in the five years since they started up with this idea. It’s a diverse team full of different skills and it’s very dynamic and fun. It feels like a bunch of friends working together on something important, rather than just being work colleagues.
The final question is a more light-hearted one. You mentioned your past as a former professional chess player – if you were to describe Hyphen as a chess piece, which one would it be?
HP: I would say Hyphen is most like a knight.
A knight is different in how it moves and it can jump over barriers and take on different colours, and it is nimble. Hyphen has a unique value proposition that fits very well with a world where we have more rapidly changing needs – we can provide resources very quickly, adapt to changing circumstances and requirements, and develop more diverse offerings around technology that allow people to do things more quickly – so I think the knight is the best comparison.