Making a change

Roger Trapp meets one of the major players in the 'outplacement' boom who is shifting her focus from redundancy to positive career management
Frances Cook likes to describe her job as helping people - organisations and individuals - to deal with change. And since most management gurus and other sages are agreed that change is about the only certainty of the coming years, it is a fair bet that she will will be busy for some time to come.

As managing director of Sanders & Sidney, Ms Cook is a big player in the burgeoning business of outplacement. Originally seen as a cynical reaction by recruitment consultancies to the recession of the early 1990s, it is increasingly regarded as a necessary adjunct to any business process that leads to change.

"Outplacement is about change. It's about reacting to change. It can take place as a result of technology, mergers or acquisitions, or as a result of restructuring," she says, adding that most "good" employers are happy to provide help in dealing with that change. Indeed, some approach the company before announcing a restructuring or similar initiative in order to gain advice on how best to go about it.

Ms Cook is convinced that change is not going to go away and points out that people are generally beginning to realise that it is not going to happen to them once.

Accordingly, the company - which has a turnover of about pounds 120m - is moving towards career management, rather than purely focusing on putting people made redundant into other, often similar, jobs. This typically involves helping people to appraise themselves and assess what they need to do in order to move into another field.

Having - like many of her 170-odd colleagues - gone through this process herself, Ms Cook feels well-equipped to help in this respect.

In her first career, she spent 19 years buying and selling in the fast- moving consumer goods and retail fields. As she says, her marketing days - though successful - saw her experiencing "considerable change". But even this choice followed a dalliance with journalism.

She ended up as a director in the grocery division of Nabisco before - as she puts it, in a reference to the book about the RJR takeover - "The barbarians came to my gate".

Prior to that she had been merchandise director at the convenience store chain 7-Eleven when it was owned by Guinness, and before that a director with Fine Fare before it was taken over by Gateway.

The Nabisco affair convinced her that there was no point in merely seeking a similar position elsewhere because the same thing was likely to happen again. Consequently, she moved into consultancy, first with a strategy firm before "networking" led her into contact with Sanders & Sidney, which had provided outplacement services at Nabisco, though she had not taken them up.

Her predecessor at the head of the company, which is part of Pena Holdings, had felt that her marketing skills would be useful in people terms, so "after the initial shock about moving into a different field", she trained as a consultant and spent the next couple of years helping people find new jobs and careers.

But then the organisation set about repositioning itself for moving into the Nineties and Ms Cook's professional skills were once more called into play. She initially became marketing services director and then - when her husband's work took him there - moved to the West Country and oversaw the opening of offices in Bristol, Swindon and Cardiff. "I found myself becoming a manager again as regional director," she says.

In 1994, she returned to London to become sales and marketing director and took over as managing director a year later. "It's a joy to run a company whose service you totally believe in and feel really good about providing," she says of the move.

Though she accepts that "it can be quite stressful helping people all the time", she points out that the company is committed to helping the people working for it to achieve a balance between work and play.

Now in her mid-forties with two young daughters, she emphasises that a variety of working arrangements are welcomed as a contribution to helping employees to meet their family commitments. Some people work part-time and others take longer holidays to deal with school vacations. "Just as we recognise that people are going to have to be flexible in the workplace, so we are a model of flexible working," she says. "We're trying to be caring employers. I think it's important."

This flexibility also extends to the way the company is run. With such activities as payroll and information technology outsourced, the employees work closely together, sharing whatever skills they retain from their previous careers as and when required.

As well as operating through 17 offices around the country, including two in London, Sanders & Sidney is seeking to operate "as a virtual company throughout Europe".

It has forged links with similar consultancies in mainland Europe via an organisation called European Career Partners. The venture, which has existed since 1989 and stretches from Finland to Spain, does not involve any formal shareholdings, but the members meet every quarter and take part in monthly teleconferences with the aim of providing pan-European services and taking part in joint consultant training initiatives.

With more and more organisations going down this route, Sanders & Sidney is well-placed to advise on the personnel implications. And, since this trend is bound to result in more people working for themselves or for small organisations, it can also help there.

Already, says Ms Cook, about a quarter of the people using the company's services consider self-employment as an option and 14 to 15 per cent actually do it. "Most who've done it find it very satisfying," she adds, with clear satisfaction herself