Management consulting is an interesting profession to be in. Before I was offered a job at a large consultancy, I probably would have quoted the exposure to many different projects as its major characteristic, or the extensive traveling and the long hours one usually works.
While these assumptions hold true, there are elements of that profession that go much deeper and really change the way you work and think. I’ll list a few of those here.
Working by the clock
Everybody knows that management consulting means working longer than the client does. It depends on the planning skill of the project lead whether that means 10 or 16 hours per day. That can be stressful, but even more challenging is that you’re taught to time your work relentlessly.
Instead of thinking “I need five hours of work for this task”, you’re trained to think “This task cannot take longer than two hours. I will have to be done by that time.” It’s like working with a deadline, only that you have 10 of those per day, and you’re constantly running out of time.
An analysis begins with the result
I’m not sure how it was for other people, but at university I studied and assumed the scientific approach that my program was teaching. You would collect data with utmost diligence, analyze it every possible way and come to a conclusion—ideally one that had something to do with your hypothesis.
In consulting this approach is impossible. It just takes too long, and would leave the client with a giant bill for hours that might have been invested more effectively. Instead, you work your way backwards. You envision the end product—most of the time based on a slide design the client already knows how to navigate—and conduct your analysis in a way that fills this slide and your predefined categorical boxes as fast as possible. It’s an efficient way of producing results at the expense of potentially influencing the outcome with your presumptions.
Unlike a product that you purchase and then have to live with, consulting is a service that has to prove itself worthy again and again. That has to do with the quality and timeliness of your work, but also with your image. How others view you is very important.
Imagine you sit in a meeting room at the client site, waiting for a client employee. He is running late and hasn’t notified you. You think you can sit there for a few minutes, tossing around possible solutions for the client’s current issue in your head while waiting for him to show up? Think again. It won’t take three minutes until another employee has noticed the consultant sitting around in a meeting room, obviously doing nothing. A snide comment will have you bring your laptop into the meeting room, being—and looking!—busy.
Learning comes fast in management consulting. It has to, because especially in the beginning you’re constantly doing things that you don’t feel qualified to do. But that’s the easy part, coming up with solutions.
The hard part is developing yourself. Most consultancies follow an up-or-out approach, meaning that you constantly strive for the skills you need for a promotion to the next career level. That doesn’t come easily. Some skills are part of the consulting craft, but others mean that you have to re-learn methods and change your behavior while coping with the ambiguity that permeates most engagements.
And once you’ve mastered the development that was set in front of you, you’re not granted to oh-so-satisfying feeling of accomplishment. Once your project lead or mentor sees the first signs of accomplishment, they whip you to take the next big developmental step. The plateaus of accomplishment are short in consulting.
Think and communicate in solutions
One word I had to learn to forget was “problem”. No-one likes to have problems, especially not clients that spend considerable amounts of money so that you, the consultant, finds solutions.
So there are no problems anymore. There are merely obstacles or challenges, or even better: options, possibilities, and solutions.
That sounds like euphemism, but it’s really not. It’s a way of thinking that creates and maintains momentum. Once you start talking about solutions, it’s a lot easier to find them, and gain support for them. People like to follow people with a positive attitude.
Confidentiality is taken very seriously at consultancies. It often goes beyond not talking to outsiders about client or project. It sometimes leads to seemingly paranoid behavior. We never bring printouts showing client information to places like airplanes or trains, nor do we work without a privacy screen on the laptop. Not only do I take a quick look around before I start talking about a project to see who might overhear: When in public, we never use the client’s name, and never mention our own firm. Instead we just say “the client” and “our company”. We also only use first names of people at the client site if we need to refer to individuals.
While that takes a little getting used to, the effort pays off: it makes you feel like a secret agent. And that’s the only job that is way cooler than being a management consultant, right?