Consultants are a strange breed. We span all industries, but ultimately we are in the business of helping executives make difficult decisions and implement change. It is a combination of strategy (head), culture (heart), and operations (hand). We think about thinking. It’s putting together a puzzle. Oddly, the most important ingredient is leadership, which consultants cannot provide. Only clients can provide the WHY that motivates people from simple corporate values into action. We often focus on what is important, but often not urgent.
Consultants love data. First, clients struggle with it. They are like data hoarders who just watch it pile up and yet are afraid to confront it. Sometimes, you can just put the data into excel and quickly make sense of it. As a beginning consultant, you better be good with excel and powerpoint. You need to be competent with content, know how to format excel, and use charts, graphs and tables to tell stories. Create gap analyses. Read the Economist and see how they used graphs. Use surveys to create data if you need to. Read the prospectus before investing.
We obsess about data because is is apolitical, and provides credibility for our recommendations. In MBA, we all learned that averages are often the wrong answer, so we often use excel models to run “what if” scenarios and understand how (in)accurate a set of assumptions will be. We are revision crazy and have a serious fear of failure.
Consultants have great tools and methodologies – maturity models, evaluation frameworks, best practices, interviews, DMAIC, SIPOC, Poka-Yoke, Six Sigma, the list goes on and on. Test your strategy. Leaders make bad strategy all the time. Use surveys to quantify customer insights. Frameworks help you think through problems. However, the crux of consulting is asking good questions: who, what, why, when, where. If we are smart, we use calendly to set up the meetings. Some of the basic tenants of supply chain like LEAN apply to all industries (even beer). At a bare minimum, you should know accounting, finance, supply chain, and core IT concepts. Don’t be caught on a project without knowing depreciation, ROE, Lean, or AR.
Consultants are in the influence business. We borrow authority from our clients, to help them make change happen. The lifecycle of a project should include implementation. We make presentations, but don’t have the power; clients do. We do bring structured thinking, expertise, and enthusiasm. No false or default choices. We geek out on problems. The projects can be short, and yet, we need build rapport quickly. . .with IT for the data, with executive assistants to schedule meetings, and with stakeholders. The case interview is a simple example and test for those skills. Only by investing in people, do we build relationships. We think logically – not always like Ray Dalio – but we do focus on principles. Most of the corporate training our clients do rarely makes an impact. When we are in front of groups, we are effective presenters. We think, write, communicate, then repeat the process. We never eat alone, we invest in people.
We help CEOs and the Csuite. A lot of times, our job is to nudge people to make decisions they know are right; it’s almost a form of corporate marriage counseling. Even companies get distracted with FOMO. Takes deliberate practice. We help companies and governments at every stage of their life cycle; we help them keep their founder’s mentality. Even the CIA or the NY jail system needs help from consultants. Lots of private equity work. Too often, we forget Drucker’s wise words “what do I have to do today to prepare for an uncertain tomorrow.”
(Good) consultants think like executives. First and foremost, we are logical thinkers. We think about thinking. Read what they read, find relevant surveys. Read Peter Drucker. Understand management trends, digital marketing, and the drivers of M&A. Listen to interviews with business titans. Use Finviz to screen stocks. Think globally. Listen to relevant podcasts, interviews with Peter Thiel, TED talks or Stanford entrepreneur videos. Now a days, there are ivy-league level courses online for free. You can take accounting classes from Wharton; no degree, but you will learn a lot. Quora is a great tool if you want a safe place to find out about 1st-hand management experiences. It’s up to you to stay focused and know what the ONE thing you need to be successful. Don’t get FOMO.
Consultants (over)use PowerPoint to communicate. We use it daily. It starts with a strong understanding of the audience and purpose. First, does the structure support the narrative? Have your visualized what you want to say with diagrams? Second, do the slides themselves make sense by themselves? Third, have your edited and put the finishing touches on the pages? Is the “deliverable” something you are proud of? You have to proofread and make it (as close as possible) to perfect. In the meeting room, the white board serves a similar function to powerpoint. See how McKinsey does it – links to 30 presentations.
As with writing, brevity is the best. Make sure your slides have a clear point; it should not be ambiguous what you are saying. An example from McKinsey. Some of this has to do with logical structure of what you are saying, while other times it is how the facts are laid out on the page.
Consultants are intellectually curious. McKinsey’s chairman once said that the best candidates were “insecure overachievers“. The best consultants are obviously smart, but also aware, fund and eager. They are fast learners, who are good at breaking problems down into mental lego pieces. Read or listen to business books. Lots of podcasts. You can apply consulting thinking to elections,college football, gift cards, Olympics, education, the “gig economy“, the Brazilian economy or the value of a a life. What’s a good billionaire vs. a bad billionaire? Ask Bill, Melinda, Warren. Some of us listen to podcasts like Planet Money or Freakonomics. Others read magazines, or books. We make mistakes, but we say we are sorry and move on. Try new things like Waze, and Uber.
The fun part of consulting is tackling difficult problems. That is probably why we use case interviews to test structured thinking. Sometimes it is as easy as looking on Google, or an investor relations website, but usually it’s not. It’s rooted in hypotheses and the counter-intuitive method of guessing your way to a solution. Keep a good sample size. There is always a trade-off, an opportunity cost that the client is not seeing; it’s our job to shed light on this. We have lots of crazy business ideas, but are often too risk-averse to take action on them. Oddly, in consulting it is as much about thinking as it is being perfectly right in forecasting. We have to continually make ourselves more valuable and prove ourselves in the market; run harder and run faster. Need some consultants to take on perfect problems like US education and the US tax code.
Consultants make clients successful. Sometimes the project scope is clear and sometimes it is not. We often have to find smart ways to say no to clients, for their own good. It’s not always the way you planned it in the proposal; you have to adapt. Focus on the short and long-term. We help them to get more return on equity (ROE) for their shareholders. We create decks that they can present and shine. We help them avoid strategy traps. Helping CEOs of small, medium, but most often, huge companies. Post-merger integration. Train with the best.
Consultants need to make themselves successful. Are we working to get ourselves retired? Have rental properties? Are we following good advice from financial teachers like Dave Ramsey? What are you doing with your time? Don’t blindly say “yes” if it’s the wrong thing to say in English or Japanese. Want to transition to a new career? Take career advice from Tarzan and swing from opportunity to opportunity. Know when to stay on a project and when to roll off. Informational interviews are the key.
Clients also get caught up in bad corporate habits and inertia and lose effectiveness. Sometimes, they even hire us to be the bad guys. We never embarrass our clients; we allow them to “save face“. We will find a win-win solution for them. Even when we are building rapport, being likable, we also need to be ourselves, and be authentic.
Consultants get lazy. We have bad habits. Oh yes. We use jargon constantly. Sometimes, we rely too much of previous SOWs, and recycle materials. Be careful, clients will fire you if you get too lax, then it will be resume time. We eagerly seek feedback to improve. As some say, you are only as good as your last project. Watch out for sloppy emails and getting promoted to your highest level of incompetence. It’s all a cautionary tale because Vince Lombardi said it best, “There is no substitute for work.”
Consulting is a lifestyle. There are so many great things about the consulting lifestyle. It sounds glamorous – good pay, smart and amiable people, solving tough problems,good meals, and travel – but it’s not all rainbows and ponies. Lots of late nights. Lots of hotels. Lots of UBER. No really, weekend work. But great consultants convert that stress into positive energy. Live to fight another day. Find good people to work – people who pass the airport test; spending 8+ hours stranded in an airport with. Find people you like working with and traveling smart. Most of all – watch your time; it’s the most valuable thing you have. Drucker reminds us that you can never get more time.
Consulting pays well. This is a gritty profession that pays well, but oddly, publicly traded consulting firms don’t do that great. Accenture does well, but they are a bit of the exception – but 40%+ of their business is outsourcing, which honestly, is not the management consulting this blog talks about. Don’t forget to save those consulting paychecks and invest for your future. Pay yourself first, get retired. We hate taxes, but love cruises and vacation.
Consulting is a leverage model. Younger, newer, cheaper consultants do work which can be billed out at higher rates. There are finders (partners who find work), minders (who farm the projects), and grinders (who grind out the analyses). The projects with the highest leverage tend to be IT projects. Think about consulting teams within the context of 2016 Human Capital Trends.
Consultants create content, intellectual capital. They survey CEOs, research emerging markets, and track technology industries trends and leading software companies. Yes, even help cities reduce their stray dog problem.
Consulting is an apprenticeship. It’s a tough business with a high level of attrition. Learn as much as your can from managers. Remember, in many ways consulting is very tribal – pick a tribe. Don’t want until the year-end review to see how you are doing. Who wants to travel 80% of the time? We get paid well, and our clients want a good return on their money. As a leader, don’t assign any work that you – yourself – would not do; be willing to eat your own dog food.
Consulting teams excel. Ultimately, consulting is about people. Partners and principals have the responsibility of building the team environment and culture. It’s a can-do culture; consultants don’t whine, we come up with solutions. It’s not all fun and games; there are times when it is a flat democracy and everyone’s voice should be heard, and other times, it can be a dictatorship to get things done. It’s not about your gender, race, country of origin or anything you were born with – it is about your skills, passion, connection, and grit. Make it a meritocracy, but don’t waste peoples’ time.
(Good) consultants innovate and have fun. Personally, some of the business problems that I find the most interesting are how smaller companies can scale quickly without losing their founder’s mentality. Even if you are not a technology consultants, you have to stay up on technology trends from 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, data does not always give you the answer. Sometimes, it is a S-curve where the past does not predict the future. Find ways to be disruptive and innovate. I always tell clients it is easy to attack complexity with complexity; it’s difficult to attack complexity with simplicity.
Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better. – John Updike, author
Consulting is great fun. It is a chance to travel, work with smart people and eat great food. Enjoy, learn, repeat. Learn everyday, whether building a house or listening to the Rolling Stones, or thinking about the Pandora business model. Look what Bain thinks about making Thanksgiving more efficient.
Thanks for reading. In my first month, I had 1 view. . . don’t be afraid to put your thoughts out there. If you like your work, someone else will too. Tap into that passion and get the chemicals flowing in your brain to do your best work. Be present. You will meet more people who are like you, want to learn from you, or have something to teach you. Remember, consulting is all about asking good questions. Also, emotions are contagious – so infect others with a positive, can-do, joie de vivre attitude. Blog a little.