The Three Most Important Things We Learned as Consultants

In our last blog post, we made the case for why consulting should be your first stop after B-school.  One of the core reasons is the unparalleled experience for a newly minted MBA.  You will see different industries and problems solved at the highest and most strategic levels during your tenure.  As a consultant, you will not be the decision maker, but you will be the one that influences those decisions and is often sitting there while real choices are made – pretty amazing for a junior level post-MBA job.

Distilling a multi-year experience to simply three lessons was difficult. We had to cut loose many of the hard skills such as PowerPoint presentations and Excel models (yes, you will learn them well 😊).  We also left the industry and function level development behind.  These skills are valuable, but they are not what really stands out when you look back on your experience. Here are our top three lessons learned:

1.That effective communication is the secret sauce that drives changeFirst and foremost a consultant’s job is to communicate. In fact, we would argue that without the ability to communicate effectively the first two phases of “answer finding” are nearly worthless. That might sound extreme, but the reality is that in nearly all cases, the end result is a recommendation to change something and if it isn’t communicated clearly and effectively the recommendation isn’t going anywhere. Effective communication takes different forms during the core phases of a project:

    1. Discovery – In the early days it is about rapport building and asking a lot of questions. The client is the gatekeeper to the information you will need to conduct analysis (and to eventually help them).  The only way good discovery happens is if they open the doors for you.  Genuine, open and transparent communication is the foundation of the collaboration needed to complete discovery. Dictatorial, demanding and harassing behavior leads to failure and is a clients’ single biggest pain point during engagements – so avoid it at all costs.
    2. Analysis – The “sexy” part of consulting where the room full of wizards build intricate models and presentations. The key here is to remember that your eventual client (VP or CEO) does not want to know how the proverbial watch was built.  They want to know your recommendations, the why, risks, and next steps and they want the delivery in a concise package. So, remember to appreciate where the audience is coming from and synthesize your message for easy consumption.
    3. Implementation – Not all consultancies stick around to see the implementation of their work, but assuming they do, turning a strategy into reality should be viewed as equally important and often more difficult. At this stage of the game, your job is to take the concise CEO-level message and to translate it into a realistic and individualized version for each business unit (and employee).  This isn’t easy and the stakes are huge – failure to connect the “why,” leads to a lack of buy-in and ultimately an ineffective roll-out.  In short, this is where great ideas can wither and die. During implementation you’ll often need to communicate frequently and iterate rapidly so establish a cadence and culture that will facilitate this process.


2.The importance of a mentorship and sponsors Professional development is extremely important at every consulting firm because high turnover forces firms to rely on the rapid growth and development of new hires. Most companies have formal feedback processes and consulting firms are no exception, but they distinguish themselves through their mentorship and sponsorship model.

  • Let’s start with feedback.  Consulting firms provide regular and direct feedback through both formal (e.g., performance reviews) and informal channels (e.g., team check-ins).  The result is that you should know where you stand at any given time.  Critically, feedback should be clear, specific and actionable  and given in a way that truly offers you the chance to improve rather than simply checking a box (the way it is often done in most large corporations).  Remember that most consulting firms began as small partnerships that relied on bringing in smart people and grooming them to be successful in the long run.  This type of culture is built into the DNA of the firms, and it is why many of the consulting firms are called, “finishing schools” for future business leaders.  You will learn a lot in this environment and we believe it is a healthy model that should be employed far more often across the corporate world. Last, you will get experience giving and receiving feedback both up to leadership and down to junior team members. This is a rare opportunity to get good at something that most managers don’t even do at all never mind invest seriously in.
  • Sponsorship means having senior people in the firm that support your growth and provide you with opportunities when they can (staffing, promotion, exposure). Don’t overlook the need to establish these relationships early and cultivate them throughout your time in the industry. You will need someone higher up going to bat for you if you are going to move up the ranks and get a shot at desirable opportunities. This may sound intimidating at first but inside a firm it’s utterly normal for a new hire to grab time with senior leaders when they are interested in learning or working in a particular area.


3.How to be relentless Consulting is HARD. The hours are long, the expectations are high, and things move at light speed.  While we spent the pages of this blog last time “selling” you on how awesome consulting is, it does not come without its share of challenges.  That might scare you (it scared us!) but it is not necessarily a negative.  When we reflect on our time in consulting, the experiences that stayed with us most were often those that pushed us the farthest.  We learned that, yes, we could work until 2 am and still function, that we were mentally tough enough to receive hard feedback and improve, and that we could conquer gnarly problems even if it were daunting. This may not be a sustainable way to forge a career but it’s an invaluable strength to have available for when you need it.

    • For one of us, our first case out of Rice hit this point home.  It was a six-month study at a large oil and gas company focused on lowering operational costs.  The team consisted of almost entirely new managers and consultants, there was a lunatic schedule, and since the outcome of our work would result in jobs being lost, the client was nervous and reluctant.  Nearly every weekday for the entire project was spent in a team room grinding away past midnight.  There was even an all-nighter at a remote client site involved.  Crazy stuff.
    • Was operating with little sleep the lesson learned? No.  The lesson was that if you had asked ahead of time if it were possible, the answer would almost certainly have been “no.” The reality is that short bursts of heroics are occasionally needed and that it is important to have the confidence to push the limits of your own capabilities. This does not just apply to working hard.  It applies to learning an industry quickly or convincing a senior client to do something uncomfortable.  Consulting shows you that you can almost certainly do it (whatever “it” may be).

That is a lot to cover for just three simple lessons.  Trust us, this is the short version. Join us this Fall (weekly on Saturdays) to explore the preparation process in detail and hear more behind the lessons above.

We will see you in a few weeks for our last blog in the series where we will focus on mistakes to avoid as you kick-start recruiting.

Thank you for joining us!

Matt and Ryan

By Matt Thurman (MBA ’15) & Ryan Heider (PMBA ’15)
Matt Thurman (MBA ’15) & Ryan Heider (PMBA ’15)