You’ve been dreaming of a consulting career with a high-profile international consulting firm all through your college years. You’re linked to news site covering consultants who are changing the world. You’ve read ‘Barbarians at the Gate’. Your prestigious college was always inviting industry names who started their careers in brand-name consulting firms. So you join a multinational consulting firm. You think your career is made, and you’re going to be a mover and shaker.
Well, you can be, with these tips that I think will help you succeed. I’ve been holding orientation sessions for new joiners for years so here’s a selection of the tips that folks have told me are the most helpful.
1 Understand how your firm works
Consulting firms are terribly complex beasts. The simplest ones have organization structures made up of services, industries, clients/accounts, geographies, and technologies. Understand who really owns your team i.e. who controls the budgets for appraisals, promotions, and bonuses. Don’t rely only on the organization chart – its usually theoretical.
2 Map the real lines of power
Since its a matrix structure there will be formal and informal lines of reporting and influence all around you in a complex web – it’ll never be exact or clear. You will need to identify the people who will affect your career – such as:
- The Partners running your service-line, and the Partners running teams for key industries
- Other Partners in key roles – usually somebody is in charge of HR or staffing or assignment to projects. If they know or like you then you can get onto better engagements.
- Your mentor or counselor and how well they are regarded in the organization. Can they stand up for you and push your case? Will they? If they cant, or haven’t been able to do so for two years running, find another.
3 Manage your own expectations
At your junior level (usually designated “Associate” or “Analyst” ) you will be doing the grunt work of making and endlessly revising documents for proposals and presentations. And if you’re lucky God or his stand-in (the “Partner”) will like your work enough to let you attend a client meeting, sitting somewhere near the bottom of the conference room table. That’s as good as it gets for a while. Be patient and keep delivering quality output.
4 Stay visible
Visibility is a key differentiator – Doing good work isn’t enough. You need to show off your skills in different forums – not just project -related. Internal initiatives, involvement in training, creating marketing collateral, mentoring, diversity groups, etc. – all of these carry weight. Think of your firm not as an employer but your community. And remember, out of sight means out of mind – not a good thing to happen when project staffing is being worked out. So try to remain visible.
Get onto the biggest, baddest projects you can – your career depends on this. People staffed on the ‘cool’ and complex projects have more visibility, carry more cachet, and swing more influence on their managers than their peers at the same level. They have better bragging rights (very important!), accelerated access to additional training, further involvement in strategic projects, etc.
5 Expect simpler designations
The structure is flat. Most firms don’t have more than 4-5 levels between entry and partnership (or equivalent). So you’ll spend far more time at the same level than in non-consulting firms. So get used to answering the question “Why are you still at the same level?” while your friend’s designation has started sounding far more impressive (though you may be earning more
6 ‘Manager-managed’ roles flip frequently
Your role can change across projects. You might be managing people when you lead a piece of work on one engagement. You may report to the same people when they lead other engagements. So be careful how you treat people.
7 Communication skills are critical
Being good at communication – especially written – is a key ability. New hires, especially experienced hires, tend to discount the importance of the report-writing thinking that their technical skills will carry them through.
You need to understand that reports are one of the few tangible assets that consultants can leave with clients, so a huge amount of effort goes into making them. Especially at junior levels, being able to create well-structured, well-reasoned and eye-catching documents is a basic (and mandatory) requirement.
If you cant, or wont, do this expect to face problems because this lack puts an additional load on the rest of the team – which means they may not want to have you on the team next time around.
8 Level-change promotions are a huge change
Level changes are tough – how you perform at the next level is always very much higher than that at the previous level. This is true in any industry, but the extent of change in consulting is much higher. The required change in performance is a ‘step change’ rather than a smooth upward slope. The good thing is that you wouldn’t be promoted if the firm didn’t think that you cant handle the change. But get ready to be a beginner again every time you get promoted. If you need help, make sure you ask.
9 Pivots happen frequently
Its a people business – and in a people business the fixed costs of changing strategic focus is much lower than capital-intensive businesses such as manufacturing. Every time your leadership changes, the preferences of the top leadership will heavily influence the next area of strategic focus, and the firm will quickly pivot. In with the new and out with the old – get ready to have your organization constantly changing around you, and be ready to switch service-lines and industry sectors accordingly.
Decide if your focus is on the firm or on an industry or function. If its on the staying with the firm, then be prepared to keep changing your specialization every 1-2 years along with every pivot. If your focus is on an industry or function, you may need to quickly move on to a new employer in case the firm’s focus changes away from ‘your’ area.
10 Deliver, deliver, deliver – but sales is the key to growth
Initially your role is all about delivery. And you get assessed on how good you are at that.
Then suddenly, as you get promoted, its about generating sales. Conversely, the more about sales you get the faster is your growth. So your analytical/technical skills just give you a entry point – don’t base your career on them. Base it on sales.
11 Check which industry is the favorite
Not all industries and service lines are created equal. Some are better regarded in the firm than others. Consulting firms heavily focused on technology will emphasize industries like Internet, Comms, Power, etc. If you’re not aligned to the ‘in’ sector you’re going to grow slower because your industry practice might grow slower.
12 Take the lead
There are leadership roles available at all levels. You can lead. Consulting firms are happy to let juniors lead modules of engagements or take responsibility for bits of the practice. There will be oversight by somebody more experienced, but being “too new in the firm” or “too junior” should never be part of your thinking. So volunteer to lead. But remember that you will be held accountable.
13 Your team is your savior
The team comes first, not your boss. (This is a bit controversial, and your HR will usually tell you the opposite.) When you have issues during a project (and you will, believe me), your team needs to be the first to know, because they are the ones who will pull your chestnuts out of the fire. Yes, your boss needs to be told, but only when you can go to him/her with the issue, your constraints, and a solution (that you and the team have put together). Nothing irritates an engagement manager more than having yet another problem on his/her plate. However, nothing impresses an engagement manager more than somebody who presents a working solution along with the problem.
These are the basics of understanding the unwritten rules of succeeding in a consulting firm. I hope it helps you navigate through the complex organization that you’ve joined. I’ve coached quite a few consultants, and I realize that the people most in need of advice are the new hires. So feel free to reach out to me either via Linkedin or email.
About the Author
Atul Vaid has extensive experience in strategic planning, market entry consulting and new initiatives development for corporates, nonprofits and Government clients. He has 20+ years of experience with global firms, where he handled a variety of assignments in India, the Middle East, the USA and Japan; as well as cross-border engagements run remotely out of India. He set up the marketing services hub for a US-based consulting and technology firm, started an online skills assessment portal, and ran a global innovation program for a strategy consulting firm.