Simon Freakley, chief executive of AlixPartners
Long-term value: Simon Freakley, chief executive of AlixPartners, says former employees are now some of the firm’s best clients © Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Simon Freakley, chief executive of AlixPartners, admits the consultancy was “crazy not to have done it earlier”. The “it” in question is a formal alumni network, which the firm created about four years ago. “Our former colleagues have become the best clients. It’s good for business.” In fact, if the alumni community were an organisation, it would be one of Alix’s top clients, based on revenues.

Consultancies such as Alix, which last year hosted 17 events across the world for its alumni, are finding such networks an important way to connect with ex-colleagues — whether to bring them in as new clients, or to hear their perspective on something, or even rehire them.

Emma Sinclair, chief executive of EnterpriseAlumni, an alumni management software company, says consultancies know they must “treat alumni with the same level of care and attention as they do clients and prospects”.

“People who leave consulting go on to operational or corporate roles and are therefore potential clients . . . so there’s a huge commercial benefit,” says Sinclair. Her consultancy clients say it is three times cheaper to win business from alumni than from non-alumni. Consultant alumni are also five times more likely to press the “I want to do business” button on their alumni app than those in other sectors, she adds.

EY says about 10,000 of its alumni network are in C-suite positions, and able to choose which consultants to hire.

Andy Woodfield, partner at PwC, a professional services firm with a large consultancy business, sees alumni networks as “mutually beneficial; they benefit both the alumni through relationship development, career opportunities and insights, and the business through the creation of brand ambassadors, future buyers and top talent”. Companies should treat all staff “as alumni from the moment they join a firm”, he says.

Tom Wright, commercial director at Kubrick, goes a step further, describing the consultancy’s alumni network as part of their “employee value proposition, to attract talent”.

In the past few years, alumni programmes have “changed fundamentally”, says Elena Hickey Saroli, global alumni leader at EY, which has a big consulting arm. The pandemic intensified the network’s digital communication, including the use of Instagram and Twitter. Alumni networks used to be the main forum for former colleagues to interact, she adds — but, with competition from social media, notably LinkedIn, companies must ensure they offer ex-employees an interesting proposition. “How do we [the alumni network] stay relevant for individuals when they can connect in other ways?”

Such competition means networks have to be more sophisticated and prove their worth. “The demographic is different,” says Hickey Saroli. Previously, people spent their entire careers with organisations, she explains, and alumni groups would generally be for people meeting up in retirement. Now, “people move jobs regularly — tenure is more like five years”.

People may belong to multiple alumni networks, so companies have to make sure their offering is compelling. For EY, it is about global networks and creating connections according to location or sector. Now in its seventh year, EY runs an “alumni connection week” with events across 150 cities in 60 countries. “The overriding factor of alumni is it’s a personal relationship . . . you have to be respectful of the emotional connection,” says Hickey Saroli.

At Oliver Wyman, the alumni network runs small tailored events for members who work in the same sector, such as a dinner last year for 25 people in the risk sector. About 18 months ago, Michelle Daisley, partner in finance and risk at the firm, asked ex-colleagues what they wanted from the network. It boiled down to “interesting people doing interesting things . . . people looking to hire, connections for advice, or clients.” 

Attracting former staff to rejoin the business is an important part of the mission.

EY says about 15 per cent of its external hires are alumni. Daisley, herself a returner to Oliver Wyman, says it is “one of the safest bets we can make. You already know each other. You’re hiring people who’ve had that perspective from working outside”.

Former colleagues can also become trusted friends. An ex-Alix employee approached Freakley at an event recently to say he did not think the firm’s values were being conveyed effectively beyond the organisation. “Sometimes, we can fall into the trap of thinking internal communication gets outside,” says Freakley.

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