Partnership, the book
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Q&A with the author, Terence.
What made you decide to write the book?
Books about management consulting either fall into one of two categories: HBO-styled themes about the conspiracies, fraud and scandal or Disney-inspired books where all MBA’s can, with a little hard work, join McKinsey and live happily ever after in a nice apartment in Manhattan, eat out every day and eventually leave to become CEO. That is not the reality. Many of the greatest consultants are flawed, make mistakes, struggle and eventually graduate into creative business minds. The path is messy and I found no one was willing to explain that side of reality. You can make it to the top by being imperfect. Imperfection can actually make you more creative. Failure can be a good motivator. You learn a lot from controlled failure.
How would someone use this book?
I specifically did not think about that. I did not want to pander to an audience. I wanted to tell my authentic story about how a kid with a physics degree, followed by an INSEAD MBA, joined one of the most élite consulting firms in the world, made many mistakes, but found a way to grow into the role of business advisor. So this is a not a paint-by-numbers approach to being promoted from analyst to partner. It is simply my experience. I use a lot of personal anecdotes and am blunt about why I make the decisions I do. If someone reads this book and finds a way to bring out their own unique background and style into their interviews and career, then I am happy.
Do you have any advice for readers?
Yes, ignore advice from career experts who critique resumes and tell you how you will never make it into consulting. A few ingredients are necessary like good grades, maturity, communication skills and ambition. Beyond that, there is no template. I read lots of websites professing to know the template to getting into a consulting firm. One website listed a bunch of attributes like minimum GPA, GMAT scores and work experience factors. If that website was around and I had read it, I would have failed the test and never applied. Where would I be today? So apply, but be realistic of your chances if you are rejected.
What do you mean when you say imperfection?
Well, consultants are meant to seem confident, but many are deep down very paranoid, afraid of failure and especially afraid of failing publicly. Those are all imperfections and it is perfectly acceptable to have them. In my first cross-country flight with Bain, in my second week after joining, I arrived in Dallas, but left my plane ticket on the flight when I disembarked. So I essentially lost my ticket back. Rather than phoning in and explaining my error I simply bought a new ticket from my pocket and flew back. More than anything, I was still enamoured with this idea of consultants being perfect, and I did not want to appear imperfect. Only later did I learn that these things happen and you just need to roll along with it by admitting mistakes. I have many more stories like it.
How do you think management consulting has changed over your 16 year career?
There is an incredible arms race by students to get jobs. It baffles me the lengths students go through to get into management consulting. Consulting is like Tibet to them. You may be lost about your future as a Harvard literature undergraduate, but if you go to BCG you will find yourself. We are not looking to hire people trying to find themselves. We want genuinely capable people who can hold a conversation, know what they want and do some basic arithmetic. I don’t use the arms race analogy lightly. Students are being told they need these amazing new skills and tools to get an offer, and just keep arming themselves. Honestly, the criteria since 1994 has not changed much. In fact, standards may have actually been lowered a little. There is a whole cottage industry handing over thousands of dollars to Google Ads in the hopes of getting people to buy into the latest techniques. Building the wrong intellectual army for a fictional war.
Do you think students know enough about what consultants do?
I think there are plenty of analyst, associates and case leaders today who still do not fully grasp what they are meant to do. That is why the up or out policy exists. So it must be worse for students. Everyone is a technocrat. They think if you do x,y and z then you will be promoted. I blame MBA programs for this. There is an obsession with analytics. I would like to de-commoditize analysis. I would like students to sit back and think of an elegant way to solve a problem. Don’t be messy in your thoughts and ideas, and don’t wield an arsenal of analytical tools. Develop an approach which is elegant in its simplicity.
If a student contacted you tomorrow, what would you hope to see?
It would be nice if they treated me like I am a person. I like beer, fries, chicken wings and football just like any other guy. It would be nice if someone not just invited me for a discussion but made it enjoyable. One female MBA student actually did do this. She was from McCombs so maybe football came to her naturally. The point is students are too tightly wound up when they contact a partner, if they ever have the courage to do so. Just be yourself and have a conversation. Don’t try to be too smart or have this witty banter. Have a conversation and invite us to something. We like that because it is so rare. Don’t worry about being smart and liked. These are outcomes out of having a nice conversation. It is okay to talk about football as well, since not all of the discussion needs to be about the recruitment process.
Which do you enjoy more: consulting or writing?
Consulting. My writing is another way to express that interest.
Are you planning on writing another book?
I am thinking about it. It depends on whether readers find my experiences useful and authentic. I think it is easy to write from an authentic inner voice, but when you do that, you can sometimes digress into topics readers find less interesting. So if the style works, I will keep writing.
How long did it take you to write the book?
About 24 months – because I could not find the time to sit down and write as I am helping to set up a new office. I wrote the first few columns and did not really expect much interest. Once readers responded, I continued writing. The idea for the book was more a motivation to finish the story. It is much easier to write a complete book over a few sittings versus writing a column each week.
Which is your favorite chapter?
The first few chapters are good since they shatter so many myths about management consulting. I think the chapters around failures and promotions at the end are different. We tend to read about successful people who succeeded. What about successful management consultants who experienced some failures along the way? They are real and make up about 99% of all management consultants.