Executive Interview
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   Executive Interviews   
An Interview with
Saar Ben-Attar
Director
Ascent Growth Parthers Pte. Limited

Ascent Growth Partners - your growth partner.

 

Together with our clients, we meet the challenges of a rapidly changing business environment, enabling extraordinary growth and accelerating the transition to making organisations more anticipatory, adaptive and future-fit.

 

We believe that our ability to grow and transform truly matters. We see organisations venture beyond their core business and navigate uncertainty. We see our clients find new and innovative paths to growth, transforming their organisation and, at times, re-writing the rules and long-held paradigms in their industry. We partner with these organisations to become more anticipatory, adaptive and future-fit.

 

Over a 10-year period, these organisations outperform their industry peers by nearly 2:1 (measured by Total Shareholder Returns).

Publish Date: 
7 December 2021

Tell us about your background, and what are you most passionate about?

I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs, where curiosity was rife and new ideas celebrated. From an early age, I was listening to the intrepid stories of family members building businesses in emerging markets. I found these stories fascinating and wanted to travel to these destinations and experience them for myself. This led me to study both Finance and Marketing at university, with a passion for something that is shared by both disciplines – a solid appreciation of strategy and how we can shape and grow towards our aspirations. I still remember my conversation with the Dean of our faculty, during my 3rd year of study, when submitting the topic for my Honours thesis about how organisations grow beyond their core markets. Inspired by the work of Peter Drucker, Prof. Adizes and later renowned impact investor Katherine Collins, I was inspired by what nature could teach us about growth and what triggers us, as humans, to challenge paradigms and take on a journey of growth and transition. Over the years, I was fortunate to work with some incredible individuals, clients and colleagues alike, to help leaders reach their growth aspirations, in rapidly changing environments. My work took me to North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. I have worked with leadership teams in both large, listed entities as well as challenger firms, across Resources & Energy, Telecoms and Financial Services. It provided me with an opportunity to help frame their strategic challenges, examine their leadership mindsets (often unrecognized but powerful in their impact) and develop the practical skills needed to transform their organisations into more adaptive and future-ready businesses. Most of all, it got my team and I frame an innovation-driven approach to growth, which is practical and more accessible than many realise.

Describe a time you had to make a tough decision (e.g. budget cuts, organizational restructuring, market withdrawal, etc.). What did you do and what was the result?

I made the decision to launch Ascent Growth Partners in 2016. I was approach by clients at the time, wanting to expand into new markets, in the Middle East, Africa and other emerging economies, and the challenges were really interesting. It was the kind of strategy and innovation work that was fresh and where we could make our mark.

 

Our first client, a large Financial Services group, had bold ambitions for the education sector and how they could connect with students along their journey as young adults and (hopefully) become life-long customers of the bank. We found much in common with this client, their vision resonated and we could see the impact that they could make, in young people’s lives. We began working with them, a subsidiary of the bank at first, and over the next two years we helped them build a remarkable growth business, in the education space.

 

There were a number of tough challenges though to make, such as whether their growth should be fueled by them placed at the center of a growing education ecosystem or recognizing the central role which partners would play in their success. It came to a head when both the bank and its subsidiary wanted to bid for a Funds Disbursement opportunity of $1bn per annum. It was a sizeable opportunity and much was at stake. The best solution we arrived at was for the bank to allow a consortium of partners to bid for the work, with them in the background – these partners brought such an array of innovation capabilities, a distribution footprint and young talent which was in touch with the student community. It wasn’t the popular choice to some and threatened the revenues of one of the bank’s business lines, in a material way. It was, however, our best bet, to build a sustainable business that could leave its mark, for years to come. Doing what is right for the whole, rather than for individual stakeholders, required intellectual honesty, an appreciation for what each party brought to the table and the ability to craft a shared vision for something better, which everyone could buy into, even if they may have to sacrifice something, in the short term. After a marathon a discussions, all under a tight commercial deadline with the relevant authorities, this growth path was endorsed. The bid team won this multi-year contract and never looked back. It was a heartfelt moment. We were able to navigate a complex yet sensitive situation, craft the most value-adding solution and help people see the impact of their decisions, not just now but well into the future. We recognised that the toughest decisions are not found in spreadsheets or presentation slides, but must be brought to life, for pipeople to see, step into and experience, to resonate with - in both head and heart.

How would others define your communication style? Do you prefer to be close to your employees or maintain a healthy distance, and why?

This is such a good question. I am always conscious that how we come across in the world, how we engage with others, can have a lasting effect on people. It can open-up a space of trust between us, of emergence and opportunity, where we can speak our truth, share our ideas in safety and listen with intent. This is where some of the most creative moments are found.

 

This has been, I think, one of the greatest learnings of the past two years. Being present, open to communicating with others is possible for every one of us, truly within reach, but it does require deliberate practice, I can attest to that. In practicing open and frank communication, our team, or Tribe, as we like to refer to ourselves, has grown closer, and while we respect the professionalism and individuality each of us brings into our work at Ascent Growth Partners, we see the fuller person, and so we were able to help and support each other, through some challenging times. Being open and engaging, giving of our time when it is needed, is what guides my communication style. Some days I am able to keep to it better than others, it has made a world of difference throughout.

How has the industry been changing in recent years? What do you think are the biggest challenges your industry will face in the next 5 years?

This brings up an important question we must answer first – what industry are we truly in? It is easy to label organisations, you could argue, for example, that we are in the consulting industry. However, I find these labels rather limiting. At our essence, we are growth partners. We come together to help our clients undergo a journey of transition, which is deeply meaningful to them. We often see many opportunity spaces where our clients operate, and in the new spaces that are emerging between established industries - think Finance and Telecoms, Energy and Digital services or Data science and Education. We bring our people and clients together, to innovate in these spaces, as we navigate a future that is truly emerging and, as partners, how we help power growth and transformation and create lasting impact.

 

There are many challenges in the consulting business model which stand in the way of this and which we had to adapt our model for, to succeed. For example, the Time & Expense fee model, in essence paying for the consultant’s time, has been very convenient for consulting houses, but does not drive value creation, with clients. Instead of finding the smartest, most accelerated route, one is incentivised (baring our professional nature) to spend as much time as possible. Similarly, consulting houses have traditionally paid little attention to upskilling client teams. Some learning does take place, by association, but facilitating workshops or providing access to online resources, is not a replacement for deep and intentional learning – the one our clients seek. What the consulting model often results in is client dependence. While we weren’t the first to challenge this, we are one of the few who put client learning as a measurable outcome of our work. Developing new skills and capabilities is defined upfront, accelerated from the outset, and measured throughout our engagement with clients. Seeing client teams gain competence and confidence, over-shooting what even we thought was possible, is a wonderful reward for our efforts. Why should clients expect anything less from their growth partner?

 

Back in 2013, the Harvard Business Review published a great article on Consulting at the cusp of disruption. I remember having a copy of it nearby, as we launched Ascent Growth Partners, and it has guided us ever since. For most, it has taken a global pandemic to re-think their business model. For us, I am proud to say, it is in our DNA.

What personality traits make a good leader?

I think it a combination of two traits – the ability to empathize and show compassion for others; and curiosity. The connection I am able to forge with empathy, sometimes with people who are very different to me, who’s life circumstances, culture and upbringing may be world’s apart to mine, provides an opening for the conversations which matter most. This is where curiosity is so important. I love asking questions, not just in being curious, but for opening up new possibilities, when engaging with others. One of our clients put it really well. In the midst of a conversation we were having, he paused for a moment and said ‘You and your team really play in the generative space. It makes us feel safe to have the kind of conversations we shy away from and connect to new possibilities.’ As an aside, he became such a proponent of this approach to leadership, that his team has seen such remarkable changes and were able to transform to their business, becoming a leader in digital services, in emerging markets. It all started with being present, showing empathy and a dose of curiosity and I am glad I was there, at that pivotal moment.

What does the future hold for your company?

It’s an exciting period. Despite the nervousness which daily news can inflict on us these days (and I do try and keep news-time to an efficient minimum), I am reminded that this period of reset and renewal would be remembered in history as one of the biggest waves of innovation we have seen in human history. The productivity gains we are already witnessing, and would see more of, go well beyond technological advances to the human side of adapting to digitization and other seismic changes we are witnessing around the world. Speaking with venture capitalists (as we are, among other things, a limited partner in an Innovation VC fund), with Private Equity players and with executives, beyond the daily uncertainty is the opportunity to shape our future into the outcomes we envision and would like to see realised. Stuart Candy of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design in the US wrote such a good thought piece on this recently, noting that our future is not merely an extension of our present, but an opportunity to trigger action and change today. By bringing diversity of thought and depth of capability into our work, we help clients accelerate towards their future - by design.

 

This is not only an opportunity for global firms looking into high-growth markets in South East Asia or Africa, but an opportunity for innovation-driven firms, challengers and growth champions in these emerging markets, to realise their aspirations beyond borders. That is where we see the future, already here - in the present.

Contact

Saar Ben-Attar

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