Consulting is tribal; pick a tribe

By | October 20, 2015

Consulting is tribal.  Each of the partners (chieftains) typically have a group of “go-to” principals, senior managers, and network of consultants (tribe) who work on their projects. For even the unobservant person, these tribes become clear:

  • He is one of “Dave’s telecom guys”
  • Sue only works for Jim; she is “on deck” for senior manager this year
  • Jennifer has 2-3 senior managers who run all of her projects

Consultantsmind Pick a Tribe

Partners cultivate talent.  If you were a partner, you would look for principals, senior managers and managers you can rely on. Do you really want to train, and coach a new set of team leaders?  Hell no. Waste of time. Find good people, work them hard, and reward them. Singular mind of a small business owner. Singular mind of a partner.

Consultants specialize over time. Although newbies come in as generalists – working across a diversity of industries, functions, and roles – as you rise in the ranks to more senior levels you specialize in an industry and/or function. That’s sensible:

  • You’ve spent 20+ years selling and running dozens, hundreds of similar type projects. You develop a name for yourself, doing what they do .  Doing it well.
  • You need to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours to get really good at something
  • Your network of clients and colleagues will be in the same industry

Partners want no-fuss consultants. While some partners are heavily involved in practice-building (recruiting, solutions development, committees and boards), other are there to just do the client work. They sell, they staff projects, they deliver results. They go home. These partners want a team, a tribe, of consultants who they can readily deploy on their projects and consistently get the work done. No fuss, no whining.

While some partners are heavily involved in practice-building (recruiting, solutions development, committees and boards), others are there to just do the client work. They sell, they staff projects, they deliver results.  They go home.

Enjoy the early days.  If you are new to consulting, enjoy this time. Rotate among industries, project types, and managers. Enjoy the variety, training, and breadth.  After all, there are a lot of different skills to learn as a consultant: excel, powerpoint, client interaction, proposal writing, interviews, industry research, business modeling.

Don’t stay a generalist.  As you progress, become a manager, senior manager and principal – you better start specializing. You better start lining up under a key partner or two. Start focusing your energies. Start placing your bets on your career – by industry, by function, by partner. Don’t be wishy-washy. Have a point of view.

Select a tribe.  Select the right tribe.  In the end, find work you like to do and people you like and trust. Work with people you can relate to, people you can learn from. Yes, the work matters, but as you get farther in your consulting people – the partners matter. Don’t forget that. As Jim Collins says, focus on WHO before you focus on WHAT.

In the year-end review process, only a select number of people get promoted. Like the shape implies, there are fewer and fewer seats the higher you go. By some estimates, only 1 in 10 entering consultants make it to partner, and personally, I think those odds are optimistically high. Basically, it is the same entrance rate of getting into Harvard. . .and this is from a set of people who actually went to places. . .like Harvard.  Sheesh.

Pay attention to (subtle) feedback.  Don’t want until the year-end review to find out if you are contributing to the consulting practice – recruiting, tool development, proposal writing, sales presentations, coaching, project management, client delivery.  Feedback does not have to be formal “sit-down” sessions, but a real-time awareness of how effectively you are leading your peers, and creating change.  Are you a linchpin?

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5 thoughts on “Consulting is tribal; pick a tribe

  1. Brian N.

    Very nice and informative article. It explains a lot to new consultants or those who are looking to make the change (like myself) into the consulting world. Thank you.

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Thanks for reading, yes, basically, as you progress in your career, you start focusing and narrowing down. Then, when you get to the top of your game (say partner), you start going broad again.

      Some consulting firms call this the HOURGLASS path of career development. Be good,

  2. Tomm

    What is interesting about consulting is that even though it’s a relationship business some senior folks don’t build relationships within their company: they treat people only as ‘resources’ required to achieve certain objectives. It still puzzles me how they’ve become partners and MDs without ability to connect with people inside their own organization.
    Obviously staff is a resource, but people need to be recognized as individuals who are contributing to achieve a common goal – believe me that makes a huge difference.
    That’s why WHO is essential – you don’t want to end up working for a guy who’s not interested in your own development, that’s essentialy a waste of time.

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Completely agree with all of that. In the end, the majority of people – even who are in client service – are transactional folks. Sad, but true.

      I imagine – also, in their defense – that a career partner at a Big 4 of Big 3, has seen 2-3,000 “bright young things” come into the firm / then leave. Tendency only to develop relationships with people who “last” or stick around. . .

      Brutal free market in that way. . .

  3. TheGirlConsultant

    I can totally agree that you need to find your tribe, the 100% fit to your way of communicating. It takes some time to find that though.

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