I have a good friend who I recently had coffee with who used to be with one of the big four firms in the audit service line. She went to work in industry for a while and now is coming back to the same firm, but now in consulting. As I thought about her journey, I thought back to my experience in management consulting and what I wish I had known when I was just starting out. Here are some of the thing I wish I knew when I first started out:
The importance of setting expectations
Expectations are everything. It means the difference between you having an awful management consulting career and having the best career with rave reviews. If people know what to expect (managers, clients, your team mates) then they can actively plan around it or provide you with the feedback that that may not be sufficient. If you then deliver to those expectations, you are going to be successful.
A co-worker that I worked with asked me about something that I thought was quite trivial. I am normally a man of action but what my coworker said made me realize how important communication was — my coworker said that it’s much better to overcommunicate and make sure that everyone is on the same page. This makes a lot of sense and the reverse (of undercommunicating) is a lot worse. Here I’m mostly talking about communication among the team but communication with the client also applies here. No client wants to be surprised (at least not in a bad way) and communication goes a long way to making sure that the client understands whats going on (if something bad is happening) and what their options may be.
Work — life balance
Work-life balance, work-life harmony or whatever you want to call it is one of the gripes that many people have with management consulting. In my experience, if you want to be a successful management consultant, just like anything else, you have to put in the time and energy whether it’s at work or outside of work (studying certifications, learning about the client, etc.) Sure, there are management consultants that are super successful working within a 40–50 hour week but those are far and few between. Those that are the most successful at balancing their work and non-work activities make it a priority to focus on not doing work when they do not need to.
Coach and mentor
I had a lot of problems when I transitioned to a more senior role in trying to coach and mentor others that were just starting out. I could not figure out why they were not getting it and I tried to think about how I learned and realized that that was not the best way to learn things (throwing people into the fire and pointing out all the little mistakes). Coaching and mentoring is crucial to your success though because if you can train and delegate work to people, you are allowed to do more value-add activities.
Short term travel projects
I’ve been on short and long term projects, both in my home office / city and elsewhere. This may be a matter of personal preference but I tended to enjoy short term travel projects the most. They are not so long that you get bored of it and you get all the nice perks of traveling (hotels, eating out, working out) without it becoming really onerous after a while (that is, you don’t get past the ‘honeymoon’ phase of traveling to a new city).
Of course, as your priorities in life change, you may prefer non-travel projects as I do now.
Out of all the skills that I’m grateful for having, I think writing tends to be the one that I use the most in management consulting, whether it’s writing up minutes for a meeting, writing up a business case or report, or writing up bids for proposals. The ability to write and effectively put words on paper is such an invaluable skill to have — you can’t move deliverables forward without something on the page and so if you can’t write, it will be incredibly difficult to get direction and feedback to move something forward.
Having a good eye for design helps
Management consulting has a stereotype of being all about developing powerpoint slides. It’s a stereotype for a reason — I have developed numerous powerpoint slides — some being executive presentations, others being reports, yet others being materials to facilitate meetings or workshops. People probably won’t read your presentations but if you design it nice enough, they may be able to get your message without you having to do anything.
When I got into management consulting, there’s a concept that I learned called ‘optics’ — which is how something is perceived through someone else’s eyes. For example, say that you are late to a meeting. You call ahead and let the client know that you were stuck in traffic. When you walk into the meeting, you are holding a McDonalds breakfast bag and a coffee. In this case, maybe you were stuck in traffic (after getting breakfast). But the optics of the situation is that the client might see you making up the excuse that you were stuck in traffic when you were actually getting breakfast at McDonalds.
How do you learn to take advantage of this concept? It seems to be through experience but it also helps to take a long term view of things. Ask yourself a lot of questions “what happens if I do X?” “If I was the client and I saw X, what would I think?” “How can I prevent the client from seeing X and thinking Y?”
Who knows how far you are going to get in management consulting if you are reading this. But what I will say is that as you move up in the company, the skill of selling becomes increasingly important. If you can sell work, if you can develop relationships, if you can get customers to pay for your services then you are going to be incredibly successful as you move up into management and then to the partnership level.
In my experience, some people are natural sellers but these are skills that you want to develop early (so that you can make a lot of mistakes and learn from them).
I’ve met lots of managers and senior managers. Some were kind. Others were not so kind. I would never equate the working relationship to the kind of person they are (if they are bad managers, they must be bad people for example) so I will just say this: be kind to others — whether they are people that work for you or people that you work for. The world of consulting is small and if you are moving up in the company, many of the peers or people that work for you may eventually become your competitors or even clients and they have long term memories, especially if you did not treat them well.