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Do you want to discover how to navigate the up or out policy in management consulting? When I started my journey in consulting, my answer to this question would have been, “Yes, a million times yes!”.

Michael asked me to write about my experiences at consulting firms, how I navigated the up or out policy and managed to get promoted so quickly, well ahead of the normal schedule in both consulting and banking.

Up or out policy in management consulting

As I was embarking on my management consulting journey, I was quite concerned hearing so many stories of my acquaintances getting managed out after less than 2 years in consulting. I was determined to go up, not out. After all, I did my second undegraduate degree just so I could get into consulting. I studied like crazy to get all As, while working multiple jobs, and there were rivers of blood and sweat leading to that very desired consulting offer.

So there was no chance in hell I was going to be one of those people to be labeled a “hiring mistake”. Not on my watch!

up or out_p1

If you are not very familiar with consulting jargon you may be wondering, “what is exactly up or out policy?”. It is an HR policy consulting firms have which refers to predetermined time frames within which consultants either get promoted or managed out. You cannot stay at the same level for too long.

The implementation of the up or out policy is simple. If you are perceived as good enough to one day make partner, you will progress to the next level. If you are not perceived as good enough, they will ask you to leave.

I actually found the consulting environment to be similar to that of my MBA program. Although, in consulting people pretend to be a little less competitive, since everyone is required to act in a collegial way toward their coworkers.

You have to be friendly and helpful towards peer consultants on your engagement team. However, at the end of each engagement and at the end of each year you will be ranked against them to see who is more valuable to the consulting firm.

People compete with their colleagues in many other jobs outside of management consulting, of course. However, in most other jobs there is no up or out policy, so people are less competitive.

For example, in manufacturing there is generally no up or out policy in place. In fact, people rarely get managed out. You typically work with 5-6 people on a daily basis and none of them will be at your level. So there is less competition.

Comparatively, in management consulting you are often staffed on an engagement with another 2-3 people at your level. During the engagement you will need to be a good team player, helping each of them to succeed. At the end of the engagement and at the end of the year, you and your peers will be ranked to see who is more valuable to the firm.

You may even be counseled to leave. It happens very often.

Navigating up or out policy: 6 insights

My determination to figure out how to manage the up or out policy paid off. Although, to be frank, I almost killed myself in the process of figuring out what it took to stand out in the consulting environment.

I was promoted repeatedly, each time well ahead of schedule. The same happened when I did my stint in banking, so the ideas I am about to share with you are applicable beyond management consulting.

Implementing these ideas does not guarantee a promotion, of course. But it certainly will take you a step closer to it.

As promised, below are 6 insights which helped me the most in navigating the up or out policy:

1. Craft your personal brand by actively managing what you say and do
I leaned that you have to really filter what you say. Don’t say things that can hurt your profile if repeated by others. For example, don’t say that you realized consulting is not for you or that a particular partner is incompetent, even if those things are true beyond any reasonable doubt. Instead, say things that will raise your profile and worth to the firm.

You have to present to the world a very smart, organized, healthy, credible, committed and collegial person. A strong personal brand really matters in management consulting. If you are a disorganized, unprepared, uncommitted and sloppy mess people will not want to be associated with you.

Management consulting career is a unique beast. While in other jobs people are forced to work with you, in consulting you have to prove your worth every day to stay wanted for projects, and to keep your job at the next performance evaluation when up or out decisions will be made.

The trick I used to train myself to say things that helped me progress in my management consulting career was to pretend everything I say will be published on the cover of the New York Times, and everyone will read it. My friend recommended it to me when I was just a business analyst and it worked very well when I made an effort to apply it. It puts you in the right mindset as you engage with your colleagues.

Also, as much as you can, ensure your actions don’t leave room for any negative interpretation. Always observe yourself from the third person perspective. Consider what negative assumptions people may make about your behavior and adjust accordingly.

For example, lets say you are attending a weekend getaway, one of the perks of management consulting career. You are expected to play games and bond with your colleagues. Instead, you have to vigilantly work on unexpected deliverable a client requested that morning, out of the blue. Your first impulse may be to go and work in the dining hall so you can at least be close to all the fun and games. Don’t do it.

You obviously cannot announce to all leaders at the getaway event why you are not participating in team activities. Therefore, to avoid people making assumptions that you are not a team player, get permission to prioritize client work from the most senior person at the event or from your project leader, and go work in your room far away from anyone else.

By working while everyone else is bonding you are doing something against the group norm. If you have to do this, make sure as few people as possible have an opportunity to notice it.

This is important because, unfortunately, some people will make negative assumptions about why you are not participating in team activities. I am actually describing to you a real life example from my own career.

I was almost rejected to be a part of an important engagement because a principal leading the project was convinced I was not a team player. I asked why he thought I was not a team player, given we never worked together. His reply was, “Well, yes we never worked together but I observed you during our getaway weekend few months ago and you were the only person checking emails while everyone else were involved in team activities”.

This is an example of how you have to really protect your reputation at all times because by the time you can correct someone’s incorrect perception of you, if you are lucky enough to get a chance to correct it at all, they may already take away some opportunities from you.

It is important to remember that everything we say to the client and to the team members, and every action we take, enhances or damages our personal brand and can be used to evaluate us during formal or informal performance evaluations and in other situations. I know that managing your personal brand is a lot of work, but it is what it takes to get promoted.

2. Consulting is harsh for friendships
It is important to give some thought to how you will manage relationship with your colleagues. In consulting, more so than in most other careers, you are directly compared to your peers. The same peers you work with on a daily basis. So becoming friends with your colleagues may make your work life quite challenging and distracting since, during performance evaluations, you and your friends will be competing for the same promotion spot.

If you ever have been an MBA student, you will be better prepared for what you are getting yourself into with management consulting. MBA schools expect people to work in teams and build relationship with classmates and yet, while there is no up or out policy, you are ranked on a curve for each course.

For you to succeed and be above average, many of your classmates will have to “fail” by ranking below average. Given the importance of grades for recruitment and options after your first job post-MBA, it is not surprising it is hard to be too helpful to your classmates since aiding their success will mean taking away from yours.

In management consulting we have to deal with a similar situation. Helping our peers to succeed will often mean taking away from our own success. Not only in a direct sense in terms of an opportunity cost of time and effort, but also in an indirect sense. If your colleagues will be rated higher, you, quite possibly, will be rated lower. And those that are rated lower are often casualties of the up or out policy.

After much consideration and many disappointing experiences, I decided to stay away from friendships at work. Of course, there is no right or wrong way to manage this. You will have to make this decision for yourself.

In my opinion, the management consulting environment is not very different from boxing. You engage in a contest of mental strength, speed, endurance and creativity. The goal is to get one of the coveted promotion spots, which will mean knocking down the opponents (getting you promoted which means getting some of your peers managed out of the firm). If you befriend your opponents, it will make it harder for you to compete with them since you will have conflicting incentives. The friend in you will want them to succeed while the ambitious up and coming professional in you will want you to knock them down (get the promotion spot).

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Also, if your colleague does something that takes credit away from you or deliberately makes you look bad, you need to stop trusting this person and never give this person a second chance. Good people tend to expect the best from people around them, and that is a wonderful quality to have. However, if someone signals to you that they are a jerk, believe them the first time. They are once and for all in a “don’t trust” category. You, of course, have to continue to play a role of a great team member but watch your back and don’t let this person hurt you again.

I usually have given people too many chances. That is my weakness. Someone will do something bad towards me, and then will become very nice towards me and I would give him or her a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th chance, only to be used and disappointed again. Learn from my mistakes, not from yours.

There are a lot more people on this earth than we will ever meet. Over 7 Billion of them! Why invest in relationships with people who already showed us that they likely not worth the effort? There are so many other people out there who are considerably more worthy of our time and friendship.

I must stress that I am a great team member. I have been consistently cited for this. I always help team members, even late at night. I merely aware of what can go wrong and strive to avoid be taken advantage of.

3. Strategically select key deliverables
It is important to exercise control over which pieces of work you will take responsibility for, when you can. This gives you a greater chance to develop a reputation for doing high quality work and obtain a higher performance rating on engagements.

In the beginning of each consulting engagement I look through the project plan and decide in advance which deliverables or work streams I want to volunteer for. I pick work items which are important and which I know I can do well. I wait for the opportunity to volunteer and, more often than not, I am able to get the piece of work I want to take responsibility for.

One of the key criteria I use when I pick the deliverables or work streams I want to be responsible for is whether I am able to find exceptional examples of similar work that I could learn from. Within consulting firms we have access to prior deliverables. We cannot use the content, of course. However, we often can use design, use prior work to brainstorm for ideas and model the structure of past deliverables. This saves a considerable amount of time and helps you stay on the right path.

In other words, I use past work as a template to determine the benchmark for “excellent”. If I did not have this benchmark, I would be flying blind and not sure how well I was doing.

Another important criteria I always use is selecting deliverables or work streams which are most crucial for success of the engagement. Firstly, this ensures that my effort is worthwhile since the work really matters to the team. Secondly, this makes certain that senior leaders will be spending a lot of time reviewing my work and, therefore, will be familiar with the tremendous effort, creativity and attention to detail I tend to display in my work.

4. Ensure you are perceived as a great team player
It is important to always be on the look out for opportunities to help your engagement team to excel. However, try to ensure that what you do in this regard is noticeable to your superiors. This is not about making others look bad or showing off. It is about transparency and fairness.

Also, try to get on engagements with good leaders who are known for giving credit where it is due. This will allow you to focus 100% on your work and not on ensuring that your work will be recognized.

We also need to remember that anything we do has an opportunity cost. As you probably know, the opportunity cost is the best alternative thing we could use our time and other resources for, instead of what we are doing. Therefore, we just cannot afford to do things for which we will not get credit.

5. Perform at the next level
I think it is important to try to play a role of one level up as well as your own role. For example, if you are an engagement manager, try to play a role of a senior engagement manager but also of an associate principal.

Obviously, it is important to do so in a respectful manner. Don’t step on toes of your colleagues who are one level up. However, you need to display qualities that show that you are ready for a promotion, so when your performance is discussed and an up or out decision is made, you are concluded to be the “up” material.

6. Use information to your advantage
Some information is not required to be shared and should be kept for one’s own advantage. We all dealt different cards in life. Those cards are assets that we need to leverage to achieve what we want. Some people have good looks, others parents’ with good connections and family money, or extraordinary intelligence. Information you become aware of is part of your cards in life, so keep it close to your chest.

There are only few promotion spots available for each level and all your peers want your spot. It’s a competition for talent and not a game where everyone gets a medal for participation.

Why the up or out policy is good news

Don’t be disappointed that the environment is so competitive in management consulting. There are more pluses than minuses in this situation.

You get to work with ambitious, strong and like-minded individuals. Some say, you are an average of 5 people you spend the most time with. You spend a lot of time with your colleagues so it is great you get to work with people who will challenge you so you will develop further and faster.

Moreover, because of the up or out policy, if you play your cards right you will be promoted within, on average, 2 years after joining the firm. If you are very good, it can happen in 6 months. Whereas in many other careers it is easy to get stuck in certain level for several years, in consulting the options are up or out. So if you are good, the up or out policy is actually good news.

Final remarks

In conclusion, even though management consulting firms have an up or out policy, I think overall we should be friendly to peer consultants, be good team members and bring to the team as much value as we can. After all, we have to always try to be our best self – the most amazing person we can be. Most my advice about being careful applies if you have a weak team. If you have a great team, you can simply focus on the work and that is the best part.

However, we should remember that we need to do visible and important pieces of work, don’t say things that can take us down if repeated, always think how can we make an engagement more successful, and ensure our actions and efforts are well known to the directors.

Most importantly, we should not allow our job to define our identity.

You know you are one of a kind and have a lot to offer to the world, and if as a result of some very unfortunate chain of events you will be pushed out of the firm, don’t let it take you down.

You were born to matter, to make a huge difference and make this world a better place. I know this because you are part of the Firmsconsulting community – a community of people who are hungry and bold, and strive for more. And if the firm could not recognize it, it is their loss and your gain. It means you were knocking on the wrong door, in which case it is best to leave the firm before you invested years of your life. It will allow you to find the right path while you still have plenty of time on this earth. Find something that brings you joy and where you can make a real difference.

As Steve Jobs once said, “We don’t get a chance to do that many things and every one should be excellent. Life is brief and then you die… And we have all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it”.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What is your advice on navigating up or out policy in management consulting firms? Please share in the comments.

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Why The Consulting Billable Hours Model Does Not Work For Consulting Firms

Today I want to talk about the billable hours model and why it is unsuitable for management consulting. I have had a lot of discussions about the billable work model with aspiring management consultants, clients currently working for consulting firms, and other people in our network. I find that most consultants misunderstand the problem with this model.

One misunderstanding I would like to address is that the billable hour model is not bad. It is a fine model. The problem is that it is inappropriate for management consulting.

This is worth discussing because most consultants are quick to conclude that this model is poor without providing a convincing reason. We insult accounting firms for using the hourly rates model purely because we assume that if accounting firms are using it, it can’t be good, or if lawyers are using it, it can’t be good.

On the contrary, the billable hours model works well for these two professions.

Management Consulting Work  – How The Billable Hours Model Works

In the billable hour model, you have a consultant at, for example, Deloitte, who is going to be measured on the number of hours that he has billed to a client and the total work hours he has billed in a year as a percentage of the total hours he could have billed.

The consulting firm will track billable hours as a percentage of the total working hours the consultant could have billed out. For example, a consultant can have 77% billable hours, 88% billable hours, or even over 100% billable hours.

The percentage of billable work hours out of total working hours is called utilization. It is a key metric used in performance evaluation and productivity tracking by the consulting arms of professional services firms like Deloitte and PwC.

Why The Billable Hours Model Works For An Accounting or Legal Firms

Let’s look at the most important difference between a consulting firm and an accounting or legal firm. This difference is what makes the billable hours model work for accounting and legal organizations. An accounting or legal firm is significantly more regulated than a consulting firm. There are various professional bodies involved in tracking all the activities of these organizations. There are also a lot of guidelines in terms of being able to benchmark the performance of employees of such a firm.

As an example, you know when the legal firm wins because the judge decides if the firm wins. You also know when an accounting firm does an excellent job because the standards bodies in different countries will not penalize the firm for the work done.

In other words, great work is significantly less subjective because the work of the legal and accounting firm is publicly available, and a body with known criteria for success evaluates the work. You may very well disagree with the rules of the accounting bodies, but you know what they are.

The consulting work is a different ball game. There is no transparent way of assessing the performance of most consultancies, which is why it is such a lucrative industry that so many people want to jump into, and that is why there are so many bad consultants, meaning consultants that do not add value or add significantly less value than what they receive in terms of compensation.

I call it relative transparency since I am sure some lawyers and accountants will tell you their performance is not transparent. If you are in an organization where there is relative performance transparency, it is a lot easier to know how each employee is performing. Therefore, it is a lot easier to assign the right people to projects.

In management consulting, the transparency concerning performance is significantly lower. Consequently, it is harder to know how individuals are performing. McKinsey, BCG, and Bain will tell you it’s easy to assess their consultants and project teams, but it is not easy because there is no global standard.

Right now, a top international consulting firm’s Singapore partner will think twice about using that same top international consulting firm’s Madrid and Zimbabwe consultant. That is because even within the same major consulting firms, performance is not clear and there is no global and public scorecard against which they can compare performance.

Therefore, the billable hours model works for accounting and legal organizations because they are in a standardized profession and, most importantly, they are regulated and relatively more transparent. In those professions, it is clear what is good and bad.

In those professions, it is okay if people pursue billable hours, as if they seek billable hours at the expense of quality, it will eventually show up in most cases, ultimately leading to being reprimanded by audit committees or by the designated bodies that control the quality of audits or legal work.

This is the check built into the legal and audit professions. When things go wrong at McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Deloitte, PwC, etc. that information is usually never becomes available publicly. There is no check in the system to help clients. It is not the fault of those consulting firms. It is due to lack of governing bodies and standards in place.

Thus, in an audit and a legal profession, the billable hours system can work, and it does work. People can pursue billable hours.

Firstly, they know what good looks like.

Secondly, the billable hour model indicates the time spent to achieve the goal of a project. So, the billable hour model will work if there are metrics in place to assess if the desired result was achieved or not. 

So, suppose an accounting or legal organization starts pursuing revenue at the expense of high-quality work. In that case, the firms will know quickly if the quality is dropping because they will see it through the transparent way those two professions are run.

However, when the accounting organizations went into consulting, they adopted the billable hours model. It worked in accounting, so they thought it would work in consulting

Billable Hours And An Emphasis On Profitability

Many believe that the billable hours model is wrong for consulting because of its emphasis on profitability. They believe that because the consulting arms of companies like Deloitte and PwC use a billable hours model and companies like McKinsey and BCG don’t, Deloitte and PwC somehow emphasize profitability.

This is an incorrect assumption.

It is incorrect when people say that utilizing the billable hours model forces consulting firms to put profits first. McKinsey and BCG are not profit averse as they charge a lot of money for the work they do.

I can assure you when McKinsey, BCG an dBain partners are sitting there deciding if they want to serve a client, they are not going to offer their services unless doing so is expected to deliver a lot of profits now or at some point in the future as part of their master plan.

McKinsey, BCG and Bainareis not charities and many of those partners are not particularly charitable.

6 Reasons Why The Billable Hours Model is Bad for Consulting Firms

If the billable hours model is not bad for management consulting because of the emphasis on profitability, then why is it bad? Here are five reasons why the billable hours model is bad for consulting.

There Is Very Little Performance Transparency

You don’t know when a consulting project is doing well. If the consultants working on a project are pursuing billable hours at the expense of a client, you will only know the work is bad if a client complains. And even if a client complains, there is no transparent system to compare performance or track productivity

Management consulting firms will say they are good at comparing performance, but they aren’t actually good at doing this. That is why most professions have oversight boards, standards, and benchmarks.

It Does Not Encourage Teamwork

This is another reason why the billable hours model is bad for management consulting. The model does not encourage teamwork. It fosters a pattern of behavior where every junior consultant is looking out for themselves.

If you are pursuing billable hours, then you are not pursuing teamwork. You will only be doing things that will give you the highest billable hours at the end of the day.

The Model Leads To Higher Turnover And Lower Job Satisfaction

Another reason the billable hours model is a bad idea for management consulting is that it puts junior consultants in an unfair situation.

Assume there is 20 million US dollars worth of work in an office for this particular year. If you put everyone on projects equally, it will lead to 80% across the office in billable hours for that year. In other words, all consultants will have 80% utilization.

However, in reality, people are usually on projects at 100% utilization. Their entire working day is usually dedicated to a particular project. This means some people will likely have higher utilization than 80%, and others will probably not meet their utilization target.

Moreover, suppose someone is staffed on an engagement team for clients during the strategy phase. The partner will usually want the same person to be involved in any subsequent work with this client to take advantage of knowledge gained during the first engagement phase.

Also, if an office is involved predominantly in a particular type of work, e.g. pricing studies for clients within the banking industry, consultants with directly relevant experience will have plenty of options to increase their utilization while consultants without relevant experience will, all other things being equal, not be as in demand.

Therefore, some people will have high utilization, often over 100%, and some will not be sufficiently utilized because there is not enough work to go around.

As a result, the billable hours model puts junior consultants in an unfair situation. They are not responsible for securing work. Consequently, if the partners secure too little work, the associates and younger consultants should not be punished if they cannot get staffed onto projects.

Also, if the junior consultant puts in more effort than the senior consultant, there would be no way to measure this and adequately reward them. Their pay would still be significantly lower than that of the senior consultant. With the inequality in pay and juggling between several projects, it becomes challenging to achieve a work-life balance, which resulted in a negative perception people have about consulting lifestyle. This eventually leads to lower job satisfaction and a high turnover. 

When McKinsey, BCG and Bain hire lateral partners from Deloitte and Accenture into the firm, there are times some partners have to fight pretty hard to ensure the lateral hire does not measure younger consultants on utilization.

The Billable Hours Model Does Not Encourage Professional Development

Since when do we allow the associates and analysts to determine what projects they need to be on?

Firstly, junior consultants rarely have a clear understanding of which projects are most suitable for their professional development.

Secondly, if the billable hours model is in place, analysts and associates, or senior consultants, whatever you want to call them, are going to do things to increase their hourly rate versus being put onto projects that are important for their professional development.

This is obviously detrimental to the firm’s performance and is one of the reasons why tier-2 firms struggle to catch BCG and McKinsey. Even when they get great people into the firm, they fail to develop them.

Potential Damage To Client Relationships

When you put the responsibility of meeting utilization targets onto an analyst or associate, you are placing the responsibility of “sales” onto people who are not mature enough, experienced enough, and, I would say, sensitive enough to manage the process.

What do I mean by that? A young associate or senior consultant, straight out of business school, who is terrified of losing his job, doesn’t understand the nuances of explaining decisions to clients. He will do whatever is possible to get his billable hours up, even if it will hurt the firm in the medium to long term.

For example, a junior consultant may try to influence the duration of the engagement to pick up more billable hours, and their interactions with the client may be damaging to the firm.

It Affects Work-Life Balance And Leads To People Burning Out From Consulting Lifestyle

This model will negatively affect the consulting lifestyle. Consultants will want to increase their time spent in the office just to increase their billable hours and therefore, hopefully, increase their pay at the next performance evaluation. They will put in most of their time to pursue many activities, even if it doesn’t have any impact on project objectives. 

This will subsequently affect the work-life balance of a consultant. 

For example, take a consultant who is well aware that his pay depends on the number of hours he puts in (number of billable hours or unitilzation). Such a consultant would not mind working overtime, even if it affects other aspects of his life. His focus will be on increasing his working hours so he can get good pay at the end of the project, or at least not get managed out. He might even spend the weekend at the office. The issue becomes worse when consultant was on the beach for a large portion of time and struggled to find a project to join.

While you might be tempted to say the consultant is diligent, don’t forget that many of the activities do not have any impact on the client’s project. And also, not having a work-life balance leads to the type of consulting lifestyle that leads to burnout. 



Final Remarks

When you think of billable hours, remember this: two conditions must be met to work.

First, billable hours will work in professions that are standardized, transparent, very open to benchmarks, and reviewed by global bodies. In other words, it works in professions where good performance and bad performance are universally known.

It’s like watching a game of football and you don’t know if someone is winning. That is what consulting is like. When you go in, no one knows if the consultant has done a good job.

On the other hand, you go into battle in the audit or legal profession. The audit committee rules or the judge rules, so you know if they are doing a good or bad job. In that case, billable hours can work because if billable hours lead to poor performance, firms and employees within those firms get punished. They lose cases and clients.

Second, billable hours can only work where younger consultants are not forced to take work which raises utilization at the expense of their professional development.

Professional services firms with consulting arms that use the billable hours model are not inherently more profit-focused than McKinsey or BCG. The problem with the billable hours model is whom the model forces to make the profit trade-offs.

Billable hours pressure a junior consultant to make those trade-offs. This is someone who is not ready to handle those demands and not equipped to judge between engagements. This leads to decisions that are likely detrimental to firm performance in the medium and long term.

It’s like telling your two-year-old kid, “Here is a knife. Go and source your own food”. They may “prepare” the family dog just to put food on the table, unable to make the necessary judgment calls.

The role of any partner is to protect and guide employees so that they can focus on their professional development. When they understand the firm’s culture and how to make decisions, they can decide how they will allocate their time to get their billable hours up.

When you hand over the accountability for billable hours to a junior person, you are basically saying, “You are on your own,” and that is not right. In fact, we know it leads to problems.

The billable hours model is not bad. It is clear why accounting and legal firms use it. For an accounting or legal firm there are reasons for using the hourly rate model, and it makes sense in the legal and accounting professions.

In management consulting, it does not make sense for many reasons, especially because there is a lack of performance transparency. Things are different when you don’t have that sort of buffer pushing back and transparently assessing performance.

If you are in a firm that is forcing you to focus on billable hours, like Deloitte and PwC, you can’t really get away from it. If there is not enough work to go around, you are going to suffer. You will get punished because some partner somewhere did not sell enough work or because you are not that good at networking and showcasing your abilibites so partners would want to put you on their projects.

You should not be fighting these battles. You are too young to be making those calls, and you ultimately will be making bad calls just to get your billable hours up, even if you are learning nothing of value.

So when you are thinking about these decisions, don’t just belittle the billable hours concept. It can work and has been known to work, but it works better in some professions and definitely not in management consulting because of the behavior it forces people to exhibit.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What is your advice to readers who work for firms which force them to focus on billable hours? SPREAD THE WORD! Like this? Please share it.

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My Michael Moment took place outside of the training and after I joined MBB. We were discussing my career path and I mentioned I was a workaholic with no friends and could therefore eat, sleep and drink management consulting. You pointed out an interesting phenomenon which I am now experiencing in the Boston office. You said that people who have no friends outside of the office, will seek friends inside the office and that creates dysfunctional relationships.

I did not understand what you meant at the time but can now see it playing out.

I became very close to a business analyst at the office and we ended up socializing when we could. It became very difficult to manage the relationship when I needed to manage her weaker behaviour. I think she felt I would be lenient with her due to the nature of our relationship. That experience, which was hard to manage, made me think about your advice and the need to not confuse work relationships. As you said, I should be friendly in the office and seek friends, but understand that professional values must come before friendship.

That is good advice but very hard to implement Michael! I will see how I manage and keep you posted.

We have published the most useful client feedback. Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information. Clients in our consultants coaching program are forbidden from sharing sensitive client data with us.

Don is an associate at McKinsey who has been in our program for 8 months, since the day he joined McKinsey. He holds a bachelors degree and an MBA from a ranked-program. Prior to completing his MBA he worked for the US Federal Government as an analyst. He had been an early contributor to Firmsconsulting before commencing his MBA studies.

Why did you seek additional help for your consulting career?

I knew someone who had graduated near the top of their class or at the top of their class and I looked up to him. He had received an offer from Bain and I fully expected this guy to make partner. Nine months after he joined I received a LinkedIn update email and noticed he had just changed jobs and was working at a bank. I reach out to congratulate him and express my surprise for the rapid change.

He intimated there was more and we soon met for coffee where he explained he had been managed out of the firm after his 3rd study.

I was pretty shocked.

This was a top guy from a very good school and someone I had hoped would serve as my mentor. There were interesting advice he provided but all I remember is that he never saw it coming. He had assumed he was doing a great job until his performance review and he gets a mountain of criticism and feedback that he did not have the necessary analytic skills, ability to prioritize and effectively build client relationships.

It was then that I realized I was being too optimistic about my probabilities of making partner – or surviving! – and needed some heavy-duty help.

What was your strategy for using the program?

I had listened to all of the Firmsconsulting podcasts which are an astounding repository of consulting information. From the podcasts, I knew that the best clients stick to their coaches and maintain constant communication. That was my strategy. I executed this strategy relentlessly. I was just brutal on this point.

I even exchange my Blackberry for an iPhone so I could load Skype and keep an open line to Firmsconsulting. No matter what happened, I would Skype my coach in the morning with a short update, my proposed steps and then provide feedback at night. This is how I managed my first project.

If anything came up, I jumped onto Skype and asked for guidance.

The communication part was easy with technology but it took me some time to get the content right. In my first few messages I would write these long messages and get a 2 word response. It took me a few days to introduce brevity to my communication. I also realized my coach was looking for my thoughts on what needed to happen and then would assess all of this and provide some suggestions.

I realized that shorter and more accurate messages would allow me to send more messages. This would increase the guidance I received. So I kept to that strategy and it worked. I was not asking my coach to plan out my week or month. I knew there would be too many surprises and things would be changing all the time. I wanted a real-time guide to watch over my shoulder.

How did the program help you, if at all?

If I look at the current group of associates joining and assume I was the same when I joined 8 months ago, then I think all new associates have a naivete about the firm’s expectations. I could see myself trying to do everything just to please my manager but never knowing where I was going or why it was happening.

My first study was a market entry strategy for a large commercial bank and I was analyzing one of the main client segments. Another associate was working on a different and large segment. We were doing the same work but for different segments. He was a nice guy but he made so many mistakes and his wheels were spinning from day one! He was very reactive.

He had no plan and could not tell me, or anyone else, where he was going with the analyses over the 4 week length of the study. Every time a deadline cropped up he would scramble to get things together and deliver the work. And deadlines and client requests were changing daily. So this guy was running around just to keep his head above the water.

He did not have a handle on his work, had not prioritized things and therefore could not push back and manage the requests for his time. The worst is that he fell into the trap of confusing activity with productivity. The guy was always working but his work was never that good because he had no message he wanted to deliver. He relied on others to set his agenda.

I think that I would have made the same mistakes unless my coach, Michael, stepped in and reined me in.

Which he did – that’s Michael’s specialty – jumping into chaos!

None of that happened to me since my coach kept me disciplined on sticking to a plan and executing it very well. I could use this plan to explain to people why I could or could not help them, and explain to my manager how her requests would impact my overall work. She liked this, but still pushed to get as much done as possible.

At least I prevented a tsunami of requests.

Do you recall any memorable moments?

My first update to the engagement director was darn scary. I was meeting him alone and my career was always going to be on the line because I just had no clue what he wanted. I was taught an excellent way to manage the partners. That meeting went very well and the director complimented me on my thinking and planning. The steps are as follows:

• Prepare for meetings, but keep everything to one page and clearly explained. Partners do not have time to sift through data.

• Start the meeting by providing a high level summary of the agenda and objectives so the partner understands what to expect.

• Explain MY thinking, MY recommendations and the reasons for MY recommendations.

• Be as SPECIFIC as possibly about what advice I needed from the partner.

This was the opposite of what I was going to do. I thought it would be rude to control the meeting so much, even ruder to have a tight agenda and unanimously crossing the line to ask the partner for direct feedback.

I foolishly thought the partner was so senior I should just present the basic issues and let him guide me. My coach taught me that partners are too far removed from the detail and need the guidance. This advice worked well for every meeting I had with a senior person and helped my analyses by providing neat bundles of input.

Bundles of input that I could easily use throughout the engagement.

Would you like anything changed in the program?

I cannot think of anything to change. This is not a program which can have an agenda or an overview. I cannot predict the advice I will need tomorrow so I cannot see any structure which will work. I think the open and continuous style off communication is a definite keeper. This may be a need unique to me, but I took great comfort in knowing I could check things at any time and get a former-partner to guide me.

This example above is one case where the advice reaped dividends. Other examples about communicating with clients and sharing information with the team may look small but it all adds up: doing all the little things right and a few big things rolls up to this snowball of a good project. I received the highest ranking at my first review. So don’t lose track of the little wonders in the program while pursuing changes which may look great but don’t impact clients daily. The little pieces of advice have a daily impact. Several days become a week, several weeks become a month and here I am after 9 months and still going strong.

We have published the most useful client feedback. Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information. Clients in our consultants coaching program are forbidden from sharing sensitive client data with us.

Elijah is a BCG associate based in Europe. He is a graduate of a European university where he finished first in his class. He is one of the youngest clients we have and was accepted into Deloitte S&O, McKinsey, Bain and Roland Berger during his graduate recruitment. He was a client of the case coaching program before joining the consultants program. He has been at BCG for over 13 months.

Why did you seek additional help for your consulting career?

I was not predicting any problems in my consulting career. I expected it to be tough with a steep learning curve and some knocks, but manageable at the end. I joined the program to manage the upside of my career.

I enjoyed the Firmsconsulting case coaching program and believe the advice was unique. Exactly what I was told would happen, happened. I was told in my mid-point feedback that I would do very well at BCG, struggle to get into McKinsey and Bain, but get there, and land Roland Berger and Deloitte S&O if I could demonstrate better competency on my teamwork skills. That is what happened.

I thought that if Firmsconsulting guided me so well through the program, and knew some of the partners in my office, I could use them to maximize my career. I did not want to struggle nor did I want to take the average amount of time to achieve my goals. I wanted to break the sound barrier! I felt this could be achieved via this unique program.

I had good chemistry with my coach and we had a nice friendship. I trusted him and relied on him to the point of vacation planning! Building that type of trust takes time and I did not want to squander it. It was my competitive advantage and I still take the time to nurture our relationship.

Michael works crazy hours. He is always online and you can almost always get him on Skype. Therefore I swapped our relationship. I started offering to help him, which is the advice he gave me to build strong mentoring relationship at BCG. The most important thing is to invest in the relationship. Which I do – every day in every way!

For example, my strategy has been to help Firmsconsulting by assisting on many of the initiatives the firms has on the go. I wanted to give back to the community. I was involved way back in January 2012 when the first session planning was done and Michael mapped out the exciting changes they were planning. I was super keen to be asked for my contributions in January 2013 and even more excited by the huge amount of progress made. I cannot wait for the changes to come out!

What was your strategy for using the program?

I had a good strategy! We would plan out my week during the weekend and touch-base any time during the week if I needed to speak. The main part for me was splitting the advice into two parts. I always wanted to know what I should do to be a good consultant AND how I could shoot the lights out. I would push Michael for ideas on how to complete the work better and better.

Although I was pushy at times, I think my coach kept me in check if I lost focus of things. I would usually try to create these perfect and complicated slides and I was told to stick to the big picture. I was forced to go back and understand why the slide was being prepared and how it would support the overall message. This taught me an important lesson that the quality of the message is more important than the amount of information on the slide. That was a struggle for me because better usually meant more and more, and for Michael it meant less and less, but the little information on the slide must be perfectly aligned to the purpose of the slide.

How did the program help you, if at all?

I talk about less and less content being more and more quality and I can provide some good examples of that.

On my first financial modelling engagement I was like the energizer bunny – all excited about building my slides to show my analyses and findings. I put together a 54 slide deck and was talking through my work with Michael. He stopped me after slide 3 and wanted to know why I was generating a 54 slide deck for the client. I did not have a good answer and said something along the lines of needing to show them my calculations and all the work I did so they could understand the final recommendation.

I am still stunned by the stupidity of that answer.

Michael made me split the presentation into two parts. The first part was just 7 slides consisting of my recommendations, the reasons for my recommendation and the implications for the business. The rest was the detail. It was very interesting to see how much better my updates with clients and the team improved when I forced attention on the findings – those 7 slides. This idea of less is more helped with my communication, ability to generate an impact with clients and reduced my workload – do not underestimate the benefit of less work.

It is humongous in consulting.

Younger consultants did the opposite. They tried to cram in as many slides as possible and with as much details on the slides as possible. I can now see how poorly that reflects on them and how confusing it is to clients.

Do you recall any memorable moments?

When I found a good mentor within BCG, I wanted to know how to thank him for his support. I wanted to take him for lunch etc. Michael told me my mentor was likely talking about me to other partners. Therefore, my performance was partly affecting the credibility of the partner. The best thing I could do to thank him was to live up to his expectations and do an exceptional job on the engagement.

This would vindicate my mentor’s decision to place me on the study. I probably would not have come to that conclusion myself but it made sense to me. The time my mentor allocated to me started increasing as my performance improved.

To quote Michael:

“Partners can like any consultant. Good or bad. Yet, they will only invest time and mentor someone who can rise to the top. You need to realize, you don’t pick mentors, they pick you and you need to give them enough merit-based decisions to select you and keep the relationship going.”

Would you like anything changed in the program?

It would be nice if there was some way for me to anonymously meet and talk to other clients in the program. There is no “support group” for management consultants and it would be very nice to listen to others stories and experiences in building one’s career. I would especially want to listen to the experiences of Firmsconsulting’s other consulting clients. The rest of the program is very good.

We have published the most useful client feedback. Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information. Clients in our consultants coaching program are forbidden from sharing sensitive client data with us.