Claire Arnold & Sozen Leimon, Maxxim Consulting: 'Match-Made' Co-Founders

Claire Arnold and Sozen Leimon co-founded Maxxim Consulting in 2001. Growing the business from a start-up, Maxxim now have 25 permanent members of staff and major clients including The Royal Mail, De La Rue, The Princes’ Trust and Oxford University, to name a few.  

Last year Maxxim also became the first SME to be awarded a Government contract under the new GEM procurement process*.

Claire (pictured right) specialises in organisational strategy, change management and leadership development with significant experience in supporting leadership teams pre and post merger. Having been involved in a number of significant transformation projects in both public and private sectors, Claire has worked intensely with CEOs and their boards to develop and communicate business vision and strategy.

Sozen (pictured left) has significant experience working at board level on strategic change, organisation design, workforce improvement programmes and culture change.   She has led a number of large restructuring and complex change programmes across Europe and North America helping to achieve significant cost savings and up-skilling of management capability. She has worked across the financial services, industrial and defence sectors. She was formerly a partner in Accenture’s Human Capital Practice. 

We spoke to Claire and Sozen about how being set up on a 'date' by a mutual colleague has led to more than a decade of working together; how an out-of-work actor helped to grow their business; and the leadership lessons they learned the hard way.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Maxxim and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

CA: It was quite a combination of motives that led to us developing Maxxim. I had previously been working at the Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG), and whilst it wasn’t my own business I was responsible for growing it, which was an experience I really enjoyed. Following WIG, I decided to move on to AT Kearney to get some experience in a big business environment. After a few years a number of factors came together. I’d been feeling for a while that I knew I could run my own business, and run it better than the big consultancy corporations.

Then I received a phonecall from British Airways to tell me that I had been promoted to a Gold air miles card. For me, this was the deciding factor.

I had four children under the age of 10 at the time, and when I received the call, I decided it was time to call it a day.

SL: I had been at Accenture for more than a decade, and despite being promoted to partner I felt that the balance of the role was increasingly focused on internal matters and self promotion rather than helping clients to think through their strategic change challenges, which for me is more energising. So, when the opportunity to leave came I was drawn to Claire, as her style was so refreshingly different to working in a large consultancy.

TNW: How did you come to be partners?

CA:

We were actually set up on a “date” by a common ex-colleague and following this we decided to do one project together. Then the rest is history.

We quickly found that when we worked together we had really complementary skills and experiences, and when we combined these it led to a skill-set which was fairly unique in the consultancy marketplace. Funnily enough, the person who set us up is now our third partner, but it took him over 10 years to realise that this is the perfect place for him!

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

CA: We’ve combined intuition and data in a way that is really effective for businesses and helps our clients to prioritise where they most need to change. We help our clients make the decisions they need to make and we actually help them to follow through on these decisions.

SL: Our modest size gives us some advantages over our larger rivals – it is easier for us to build closer client relationships, specialise rather than try to be all things to all men and talk straight.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

CA: Building a good team is really important to us and our clients. We look for people who are really good at what they do and how they do it. Lots of people say they’re good, but then aren’t actually able to deliver. For us, what that means is that they need to be knowledgeable, decisive and good at building personal and working relationships, which is actually quite a complicated set of skills.

SL: It is also essential that our staff are confident. Confidence is everything in our field, especially when dealing with change.

If you lose your confidence you simply go through the process of change, but never actually have the courage to make the hard decisions required.

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

CA: Our first clients were EDF and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as Royal Bank of Scotland and King’s College London – we work across both the public and private sectors. 

SL: These clients came to us through previous relationships that we had with them as individuals. It didn’t matter that Maxxim didn’t have a track record, as people knew our individual track records, and this helped us win contracts.

TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

CA:

Together, we would say companies need to have more creative procurement - don’t keep buying the same services over and over. And we would say it loudly!

SL: It’s all about taking a risk! In procurement we would like to see companies judging the pitch based upon the actual answers provided rather than who they’ve worked with before.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

CA&SL: Our biggest challenges have been keeping our focus, learning when to say no and getting the right people. The challenges we’ve faced have all been dependent upon the stage our business was in at that moment. In our first year, our challenges were getting business, ensuring it was completed to an exceptional standard and getting more work as a result of this. The next challenge was to get business from people we didn’t know.

We actually worked with an out of work actor who specialised in business development! He was fantastic at making contacts and opening the door for us to speak to the right people.

Following this, our challenges were all about hiring people and building up a great team. We’re now in a great position and confident we can face any challenges the future may bring.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

CA: There hasn’t really been one specific moment which stands out to me. Again, just as each year brought its own unique challenges, each year also had its own highlights and its own unique flavour. This year has been all about building the Maxxim brand, and having people know a little bit more about us and what we do.

SL: Last year our focus was all about getting a great team together. We grew the company by taking on some incredible new team members. Our focus this year is all about making sure that our clients see the benefits and our team enjoy what they do and are motivated to do a great job.

TNW: How would you describe your leadership style today?

CA: It’s all about helping people think ahead and understand the choices they will have to make and project what they need to own and how they will make things come real to the people who work for them. Seeing ahead in a practical way and feeling how others will feel is vital if you are going to get organisations to change. And then being certain about what you stand for and where the clear yes’s and no’s are is critical.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?

CA&SL: It hasn’t really. Consistency is incredibly important in leadership, so we feel we’ve kept consistent in our leadership style over the last ten years.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?  

CA: Be ambitious! Trust in your convictions and don’t be afraid of telling people things as you see them.

SL: Don’t be modest about your achievements.

We’re always telling people to have the confidence to shout about their achievements from the rooftops and tell the world just how good they are. I think it’s a real shame that women don’t do that as much as men do.

TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you at the beginning?

SL: For me, it was not to be too subtle, because people don’t always hear it.

CA: For me, it was to learn that when you have given people information, they sometimes need some time to accept it.

I had a tendency to think people should just “get it” straight away and I tended to get irritated if they took more than 30 seconds to understand or accept what I was saying. 

I think in leadership it’s essential to have the art of patience!

*In October 2010, Sir Philip Green carried out a report for the Cabinet Office on waste in government, and found that £166billion was spent on public sector procurement on IT, travel and consultancy. As a result of this report, the Cabinet Office announced its aspirations that a quarter of Government contracts should go to small and medium businesses, in order to feed £41.5billion into SMEs. The new GEM procurement process includes a series of measures to make it easier for small and medium sized enterprises to do business with the Government. The new measures are designed to cut away unnecessary bureaucracy and waste by streamlining the procurement process; improving the transparency of public procurement opportunities; and requiring major suppliers to guarantee subcontractors working on Government contracts are paid within 30 days.

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