Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers here that you really don’t start to excel at something until you put in the requisite blood, sweat and tears . . . or 10,000 hours of focused energy. Yes, the Beatles were brilliant, but they also toiled at their craft in hundreds of small German bars in the early 1960s. Without sacrifice, it’s imitation. . . not excellence.
I completely agree, and not just because I am in my forties. Proficiency is not excellence. With the internet-speed of everything, it is too easy to know something about something. Given a half-day with a talented analyst, I can drum up some seriously smart things to say on most any topic. Yet, you and I know that watching a youtube video does not make you a master who can charge $300/hour.
Do the work. This is a ridiculously obvious point for anyone in professional services, but is a particularly relevant criticism for young consultants. As management consultants, we pride ourselves on our ability to get smart on a topic quickly, and logically structuring the problem to a few recommendations. True, it’s a skill and a craft.
The problem is that some consultants start believing their own marketing (read: bullshit). They repackage “best practices” or simply muddle their way through the “consulting process” as if this were the 1970’s when clients first saw SWOT analyses. For good or bad, our clients are more savvy than ever. Your “smooth move” 5 years ago, is frankly, just not as smooth as it used to be.
When you are not staffed, stop pretending you’re busy. You are not. “Let me check my calendar and prioritize” is not the right answer. The CFO looks at you with this break-even analysis in mind: your salary = billing revenue x net margin
When a partner/principal gives you a task, embrace the ambiguity and start doing the work. Of course you need to understand the basics (purpose, scope, and timeline), but don’t fall in the trap of over-planning. In reality, you will figure some of that as you go.
Seek out work. This helps you develop an internal network, learn new skills, get staffed, and gives you sales practice. If you can build rapport and win work from a grumpy partner, winning work from a paying client will be that much easier.
If you feel like you are coasting. . you are. You know it, and scary. . . others do too.