I have been a management consultant for what I consider a long time (5+ years) and when I first joined management consulting, I had no idea what to expect. Over the years and after more than a few failures, I think I have learned a few things about being a management consulting that definitely apply to other jobs and careers. Here is what I have learned:
The airport test
When I was interviewing new graduates for consultant positions, we often use what’s called the ‘airport test’. After we interviewed candidates, we would ask each other whether or not we could spend time with this person if we were stuck in an airport with them and how long we could spend with that person (with the idea that the longer we can spend, the better the candidate). The test is about whether the person has the social skills and is interesting enough to be able to hold a conversation with you because as management consultants, we often work very long hours in very close proximity to each other and if it’s not someone that we can get along with, our projects are going to be that much longer and more frustrating.
The executive summary
I don’t think I’ve ever created any sort of presentation, deliverable or report without including some sort of executive summary and I think that’s a good way of approaching any type of deliverable or presentation that you create. People are so busy these days or their attention spans are so short that they do not bother reading pages and pages of text or materials — they just want a summary of the most salient points and then they want to know what they need to take away or take action on. Here is a brief outline of what an executive summary could be: purpose of the deliverable, approach taken, summary of findings, recommendations, next steps.
Leveraging previous work
The power of the big firm is that we are doing work all over the world. You would be surprised by the different projects, the knowledge and the expertise that the firm has collectively. I suppose that’s an elaborate way of saying that any new work that you do is not completely new — someone, somewhere in the firm, has done something similar and all you need to do is find it so that you can build off of it. Don’t recreate the wheel and leverage any previous work that has been done. You may have to do a bit more writing and creating than you think you need to but I have never started from zero on any work that I have done.
Frameworks are a great way of structuring your thinking and approach
Before joining management consulting, I did not know what a framework was or how it could be used. Frameworks are a big part of management consulting — even so far as to being a requirement on some of the bids that we put forward. Need a strategy developed for an organization? Use a strategy framework. Need to conduct an assessment on an organization’s disaster recovery plan? Use a disaster recovery and business continuity framework. Why are frameworks so useful? They help by identifying all of the elements and components of whatever you are trying to develop and it makes sure that you don’t miss anything crucial. The next time you need to develop something, check to see if you have a framework that can help you.
Everybody has something that they can share
When you are on a project team, it is easy to dismiss the thoughts of inexperienced team members but I always try to remember that everyone is an expert in something and everyone has an insight into the project that will completely transform and improve the way the project is run. This is a great way for me to remember to ask more questions and try to get to a better idea together with my project team, rather than thinking that I know the right direction or have the right answer. It’s something that I’m learning through Ray Dalio’s Principles or Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets — rather than trying to figure out if I have the right answer, I want to figure out if the information I have in making the answer is right first and then coming to an informed decision.
Find ways to bring your passion into your work
Similar to the airport test, everybody has something that they are passionate outside of work. For me, it just so happens that I enjoy writing and creating podcasts and a lot of that happens to be transferrable skills into consulting. I of course write a lot but the skills that I have learned creating a podcast (audio editing, questions, judging the length of silence for interviews, plot, thinking on your feet) have all been skills that I have used on the job. I know a consultant who is quite passionate about creating videos in their spare time and many of those skills have been used to create video deliverables (something that we rarely do but is always amazing when we do do it). Find a way to use some of the skills from your hobbies and passions outside of work into your job — you’re going to like your job more and you will have another skill that you can ‘sell’.
When I get stuck, I dive into more detail
Sometimes, I get stuck. I get to a point in a deliverable and I’m not really sure where to go or where to take it from there in terms of the overall ‘story’ and direction of the deliverable. During those times, I like to dive deeper into the details — it sounds weird, but when I dig deeper into the details, I inevitably get an insight that helps me understand the direction of the deliverable. Sometimes, I’ll try to organize the findings in a certain way. Or I’ll try to graph data in different ways to see if it will give me a different insight.
How you present something can be more important than what you present
I often tell the story of a manager I know who, with an analyst, was presenting some findings to a client. The client looked at the PowerPoint slide and did not like it. He told the manager and the analyst and they went back to the drawing board to see what they could do with the slide. The manager told the analyst not to change anything on the slide, content-wise, but to just change the look and feel of the slide. Once the analyst changed the slide and made it look better (again, without changing anything content-wise), they presented it to the client again who immediately loved the changes that they had made to the slide. If something looks good and has some substance, those are the key ingredients to success.
Having a database of tools can be extremely helpful
Whenever we have to do anything (an activity, deliverable, presentation, report, etc.), management consultants always think about what the best tool to use is. For example, we may need to do a presentation to a steering committee but perhaps the best way to present the content is through an animated video such as GoAnimate. Or we might want some interactivity and movement on the slides and therefore, we would use Prezi. We have actually got different databases and lists of the tools that we have used, categorized by how we can use them, costs and sample work that we used the tool for — this greatly helps when doing something new, what the best tool to use is. Consider creating a database of the tools that you use along with sample work that you have done to accelerate your future work.
What are some of the things that you do that help you succeed in your job? Do you have any questions about management consulting that I can answer? Let me know! @wangyip on Twitter.