What does it take to succeed at a premium consulting firm?
The foundation of management consulting is problem solving and MECE, MECE, MECE.
Unfortunately, there is an illusion that analytical excellence alone is enough to become a partner. Make no mistake; you need to be excellent at analysing problems and understanding their impact on the business. Without this core skill, you will struggle as a consultant since you will not be able to understand the impact of your recommendations. Moreover, since you are not able to analyse a problem using fundamental analyses, you will rely too much on your experience to generate solutions. Experience is a competitive advantage when it helps you understand the context. It is an Achilles heel when it clouds the ability to look at hard data and draw conclusions based on the facts.
Experience is an advantage if it does not cloud your judgement.
None of the analyses is linear. It is not a matter of simply collecting the problem statement and locking yourself away until you produce a report and hand this over to your manager and the client. The most difficult part is in understanding the question you are answering. That takes both time and experience. Once this is done, the question needs to be broken down into manageable sub-questions. For each sub-question, data needs to be collected and analyses completed to answer the question.
Flexbility is critical.
Problems arise when the perfectly planned analyses cannot work. The data are not available; time is not enough or circumstances change. Should this occur, the analyses needs to change and so must the data requirements. The consultant needs to make these changes while ensuring the overall and original question is answered. Data hunting does not drive the engagement. It is an outcome of understanding the key questions and the analyses to answer the question. This drives the data hunting.
The ability to change analyses, alter or even create new analyses can only be done by someone who understands how to analyse problems at the most fundamental level. No two engagements are the same. Simply using frameworks and templates without the ability to test their relevance can lead to problems on the engagement.
Analytical brilliance is the most basic building block of a management consultant but it is not enough. The stress levels on consulting engagement are very high. Time is limited and the situation is fluid. Clients are not static. They respond or don’t respond. Either way, the consultant must find a way to work through these challenges to complete the study.
If analytical brilliance is one building block, then emotional intelligence is another. The ability to engage and work with clients who may not appreciate your presence or like working with consultants is critical. A consultant who is able to give coaching and guidance to colleagues without demeaning them is a successful consultant. Such a consultant builds a strong network of peers who want to work with them and want them to succeed.
Strong problem solvers are always in demand on engagement teams. Strong problem solvers with emotional intelligence lead engagement teams.
True consulting means using your advanced training to find proof which may not exist in the most comfortable locations. It could mean following mine workers under-ground to decide where they are most delayed during a typical work day or following a cleaning crew to count the number of trucks they send out and the time taken to reach the client. It means engaging the front-line employees. None of this is glamorous and in some the cases you will not be speaking to highly educated people. You will need to empathise, build relationships and influence them to want to work with you. That takes skill. Finding the information may be messy, but management consulting is about the insights you develop from these tasks and how you translate it into recommendations for the client.
Another building block is political awareness. When management consultants are called in, there is a high probability that the client will carry out the changes and thereby cause some level of turmoil in the organization. Pending organisational changes by themselves always cause employees to jockey and jostle for power. This happens all the way from the most senior executive to the most junior employee.
Without political awareness, you are unable to manage a client relationship effectively.
A management consultant must be aware of the impact their presence is having. They must know that every employee is trying to paint a positive image of themselves or their business. The consultant needs to be aware of this and be extra careful to verify and check everything in duplicate, if not triplicate. In some cases, executives try to discredit consultants. A consultant needs to read an employee’s personality to understand who is an ally of the company and who is an enemy of the company. Experience usually generates this skill.
To become a partner at one of the top firms you need all three skills cocooned in your constant display of firm’s values. Yes, a firm’s values are fundamental. While the leading firms such as McKinsey & Co, Bain & Co and the Boston Consulting Group all have similar values; they do also have important differences. To be a successful management consultant, not only must you know these values, you need to be the values and live them every day. They need to be a part of who you are. Consulting values are not an intangible concept. They are the invisible hand behind actions taken by management consultants every single day.
Every time you do something, it is either a chance to honour or dishonour the values.