It was a chilly, autumn day in October 2022. Inspirant Group’s first-ever company retreat was out in full force in beautiful Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, comprising the usual fanfare that takes place at such outings: incredible scenery, vibrant company swag and joyous camaraderie — with some notable exceptions.
When it came time for founders Amir Azarbad, Meighan Newhouse and Chris VanAvermaete to make their grand entrance, the idyllic, waterfront town became the yellow-bricked realm of Munchkinland. And the three leaders transformed into the tight-knit crew of Dorothy’s Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow, respectively.
“It was close to Halloween, and I was looking for costumes,” recalled Newhouse, Inspirant Group’s CEO. “I told the guys we had to do something cool for the opening reception; I should have known they would be great sports about it.”
As the public-facing side of the leadership, as CEO, she is the heart and soul of Inspirant; Azarbad, the president and chief growth officer, embodies the courage it took to give up a secure job to start the company; and VanAvermaete fills out the team with his technical and management consulting aptitude as head of technology and operations.
The genesis of the idea was rooted in the consulting firm’s ethos of leadership harmony. Founders are essential to the vision of their companies, and for Inspirant Group, the partnership that the three founders formed is especially profound.
“We absolutely would not be the company we are without the three of us working together,” Newhouse said. “There’s no ego — we care about the good of the people, and each other.”
What Does Inspirant Group Do?
Inspirant is a consulting firm, but with a reimagined people-first model for approach and execution. It takes an experienced and empathetic consulting team to help clients and deliver premium results. Coupled with expertise in bridging IT processes and business strategies, the company’s “Unconsultants” are well-equipped to drive meaningful change for clients.
“I knew building an award-winning culture was difficult, and I knew Meg would be the perfect candidate to help,” Azarbad added. “Similarly with Chris, I pulled someone who I respected to handle tough, challenging projects ahead and drive client-facing delivery.”
On the other side of the equation, it was an equally frictionless decision for the other two to make, one that would come to reflect the harmonious nature of the partnership up to the present day. For VanAvermaete, the balanced nature of this power triad made for an appealing proposition.
“Meg has the ability to deal with people in an empathetic way, as well as manage feelings and perceptions,” he recounted. “Amir has built relationships and trust over a long period of time. I fill the spot of delivery and core consulting skills. You put all three together and it makes for a well-rounded consulting leadership team.”
There’s No Place Like Inspirant
The story of the trinity goes back to Azarbad taking a leap of faith in 2017, when he transitioned out of working in the healthcare industry to float the idea of Inspirant. In choosing his cohort, he believed strongly in surrounding himself with people who could fill his weaknesses. What he found was the easiest decision he’s made: Newhouse, with her experience, empathy and public-facing aplomb, and VanAvermaete, an inspirational consulting coach and technical leader, both of whom Azarbad had a rapport with for 20+ years.
It’s by virtue of the leadership team’s strong orbit that the foundational culture for Inspirant came about. At its core, Inspirant strives to set an industry standard for being a consulting company that is antithetical to the industry model at large. For this “unconsulting” mission to work, the solution had to ripple from the top down.
“Most of these firms are founded by consultants, based on traditional principles,” said Azarbad of his founding mission. “We set out to disrupt consulting because we hated the traditional model — the internal politics, the cliques and performance reviews, the forcing people to be in the office on a Friday.”
Newhouse hadn’t met VanAvermaete until the day she signed her employment contract. But the promising sign of an unwrinkled working relationship was Azarbad’s trust in both as the right people for the job. As the trio embarks on its seventh year — juggling both a brand refresh for the company and a scaling team — Azarbad’s investment of a three-pronged leadership system has paid off in full.
“I liken us to a three-legged stool,” said Newhouse with amusement. “It has to be for that balance, support and challenge. When the hard conversations and tough decisions are easy, it makes me think we’re doing the right thing.”
From the Top, But With Feeling
Newhouse realized early on that the key to employee retention often relied on higher-level decisions. Among Inspirant’s employees, or Unconsultants, the company’s empathetic dedication to its people is well-documented. In order to tackle client work through a people-focused lens, the systemic shift from traditional consulting had to first come from the top.
“The underlying baseline commonality between us is that we care about people first,” she described the founders’ relationship. “We don’t make choices that put people — our team, our clients, the people in our communities — in jeopardy. It’s not hard to do right by people, and they trust us.”
Sometimes, it requires a firm hand from leadership, such as turning away client work that doesn’t align with the mission. “There was a project where the client put us in a difficult position and subsequently would have put our people in a position that is unacceptable,” Azarbad remembered. “Meg and I hopped on a call and said no to the sizable contract. Staying on would not be good for our people.”
“It’s not hard to do right by people, and they trust us.”
The Great “Un-Consulting” Mission
Inspirant Group’s founders realized early on that the first stones on the path divergent from traditional consulting would be laid by their hands.
“It ultimately boils down to being steadfast and knowing exactly what we don’t like as consultants,” Azarbad explained. “Whatever happens, we’re never going to have those things creep into our world.”
By things, he’s referring to classic tropes that define the industry’s pitfalls — the 60-point performance reviews, the pointless long hours, the commoditization of people as resources to be used for billing without true value being delivered to clients. Azarbad describes the hierarchy at Inspirant as a flat one, with specialized roles that needn’t go through multi-layered bureaucracy to enact creative change. On the flip side, this means profit-sharing on a more intimate level, along with a degree of transparency that facilitates professional courtesy and empathetic collaboration.
In turn, clients get the best from Inspirant’s Unconsultants, people who have been vetted internally to have the right mindset for solving problems through an empathetic lens. And for employees, they engage with the knowledge that they’re well-protected against a hostile work environment.
“Our interviews are softer in nature, more touchy-feely,” said VanAvermaete. “That’s because we’ve already vetted their experience and abilities, so the actual interview is to make sure the people we’re bringing in are aligning with our culture — it’s difficult to change people’s work style.”
It Takes Three to Make a Thing Go Right
During the Covid-19 pandemic, amid an already chaotic time, the Inspirant Group leadership decided to make an outsized change: making Newhouse the new CEO, with Azarbad taking on the role of chief growth officer. Change is always difficult for a young startup, but with the right foundations, it’s resistant to cultural dilution.
In September 2020, the trio gathered with their full-time employees at a park, still abiding by social distancing rules, to unveil their long-term vision.
This transition of power made sense: With new opportunities, clients and an exciting new brand relaunch, the time was right to have Newhouse tackle more public-facing responsibilities. Not that the rest of the team needed convincing. A healthy record of transparency and trust of the people go a long way toward buy-in of a unified plan for the next three-to-five years.
On account of its well-established people culture, the three leaders also weren’t concerned about clashing egos that often came with company restructuring. As with any other high-level decision that impacted company operations, the focus would be on whether this benefited people as well as the business.
“We do put a lot of time and effort into maintaining our culture,” said VanAvermaete. “But it’s mostly to keep up the inertia. We no longer have to build the culture because it’s already there.”
Much like the trio’s bet on their initial partnership, this change in leadership structure paid off. Newhouse’s strong leadership style enables her to interface successfully with clients and Inspirant’s brand outreach, and Azarbad now devotes his attention to diversifying the company’s client base.
Whether it’s in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the Inspirant office at Naperville or the metaphorical land of the Munchkins, employees can always rely on a common sight: a successful triumvirate of inspiring leaders, and a mutual care for the company and its people.
At publication of this article, Inspirant Group announced an acquisition by 10Pearls, a global, human-centric, purpose-driven digital technology firm. This partnership will allow Unconsultants to expand and deliver end-to-end digital transformation services and bring people-first consulting solutions to scale.