Excessive management consulting travel is one of the common reasons people leave consulting. Yet, if consulting travel is carefully managed, it can be enjoyable experience.
I recall being on the road about 50% of the time in my final years as a consulting partner. However, travel is extensive at all levels in consulting, from business analyst, through to principal partner.
This was my typical routine and this is how I managed it:
Consulting Travel Part 1: Flying Out and Setting Up
I would typically fly out on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning. This applied to trips to Asia, Africa, Europe or Australia. My objective was always to arrive on a Sunday late morning at the latest.
There were two reasons for this. I hated arriving on Monday morning. I would be tired and severely jet-lagged which made me unproductive. I also find it disrespectful arriving at a client in this condition. The other reason is potential unknown delays. There could be delays at customs, in the airport, on the freeway or even while checking in.
The biggest problem I find, however, is in finding power adaptors for my laptops. Depending on where in the world you are traveling, it can be very time-consuming to find the right power adaptor. Arriving at mid-morning on a Sunday gives the hotel concierge time to find the adaptor.
I normally checked in around 12am to 2pm. Anything later is not recommended. Since I work in blocks, if I “break” a block it upsets my rhythm. For me one block is 7am to 12am. Another block is 1pm to 5pm. Another block is 6pm to 8pm and the final block in 9pm to 12am.
I try to check in so that I unpack over just one block. If the unpacking spreads over two blocks, I feel I have wasted the second block of time. I obviously leave the major pieces of work to the morning. These blocks apply to days when I am not meeting clients. Obviously it is a luxury to arrange my time in these blocks. The weekends are the best time to do this.
To this day, I run my day in these blocks with different work allocated to each block.
Setting up my stay is critical. I try to stay as much as possible in one location for a week. That’s not always possible, but with some planning and luck, I can always find enough client requests or help requests from the local teams to keep me busy. When I am staying for a week, I make sure the routine for the week is set up on Sunday.
The first thing I do when I arrive is unpack my electronic gear and clothing. I search for the in-room adapter and wireless network. If there are none, I immediately call the concierge.
Next I send in my clothing for pressing or dry-cleaning. Some hotels do not have this service on a Sunday. However, if you send this to them early, they can contract another cleaner to do this. In some rare occasions where neither is possible, I recommend hanging your shirt on the door of your shower room and having a shower. The steam from the shower will press the shirts. I also unpack my ties, since they need time to regain their shape.
I do not recommend buying shirts which do not require ironing. These shirts also do not retain a naturally pressed look, so while they never look wrinkled, they also never look crisp.
I then arrange my wake-up calls, contact the butler to ensure he or she knows what I need each morning and evening, and arrange in-room breakfast. Given my hectic diary, I prefer eating breakfast in my room, when possible. This gives me the time to catch-up with work while I am eating.
Breakfast is usually a pot of Earl Grey tea, with scones and jam, scrambled eggs with cheese, a grilled tomato and 2 pork sausages. I normally request that breakfast be delivered at 7am sharp.
Since my days can never be planned between Monday and Friday, I am aware that I may need to come back to my hotel to change or even meet clients. One thing I really dislike is to arrive in my room after a really long day to find it in the middle of a cleaning. That just spoils my day. Even if it’s only 10 minutes, I would like to decompress in my room.
Therefore, I agree with the butler to send in the cleaners within 15 minutes of me leaving my hotel room in the morning. This way, I know my room will be ready no matter when I arrive.
Finally, I always carry two laptops. One stays in my hotel room plugged in all day and the other I carry with me. They are duplicate systems. I will not go into the confidential details of how the firm backed-up the systems, but they worked. I find switching my laptop on and off and then reopening all the necessary files wastes about 30 minutes each time. Therefore, I can save about an hour everyday with this process.
Setting up usually takes about 1 to 2 hours. Usually I am done by 2pm to 3pm. I then have a shower and order a very light room service.
Between 6pm and 8pm I like working and planning for the next day and week. Usually I need to prepare a presentation for a client discussion or read an engagement team’s draft work for feedback. I find it difficult to prepare brand new slides when I am traveling. Therefore, I usually spend the Saturday when I am at home or in the hotel the entire day, to prepare my slides. I then spend Sunday and the rest of the week polishing them.
I am in bed by 9pm. Plan the day ahead for about an hour. I try to fall asleep at 10pm and be up by 6am. Melatonin tablets help with the jet lag. Getting my sleep is critical since the week is usually hard charging.
Consulting Travel Part 2: A Typical Day
A typical day will look like this:
7:30am – 8:30am
There is usually breakfast with a key client and the local partners. Sometimes this is with a new client but usually it is with an existing client. Depending on the client, we can end up discussing the engagement or more big-picture issues facing the company.
I generally find it difficult to eat when I am out on business meetings. So I normally order an Earl Grey tea and a croissant with salmon. I then pick at my food the entire time. I keep breakfast meetings to 1 hour since I want them to be productive but not too short.
If it is a breakfast meeting, clients expect to eat. If the kitchen takes too long, a 30 minute meeting can easily be over before the food arrives. I also always choose places I have visited before or another partner has visited, so we can predict the time for food to be served. I never underestimate the complexities of finding places in foreign countries.
This is usually travel time back to the consulting offices or another client meeting. All major meetings are no more than 1 hour-long. That is my rule.
One of the things you learn from traveling so much is that the hotel concierge is your best friend. When I first started consulting travel, I used to take US Dollars. I felt this would be currency accepted by any cab driver in the world. Not true. I then started carrying credit card only. Again not wise. Now I rely on the concierge to provide direction on what works best.
9:00am – 11:00am
I can usually fit in two productive meetings during this time. Although clients come first, I always make time to meet one of the engagement teams during this time. Although, meeting the principal and engagement manager will probably be more productive from a purely direction setting perspective, I feel that it greatly raises morale when the team meets the consulting partner and he/she is genuinely interested in their work.
With our management consultants traveling so much, I also really want to see where they are working and whether this is conducive to maintain their comfort and performance levels.
11:00am – 12:30am
This for me can be an unproductive time. I am almost guaranteed to have a new meeting in my diary set up around lunch time. This normally happens when someone finds out I am visiting and wants to see me or wants me to visit a client. However, if no meeting is set up for this time, I like going to the local office to set up and prepare.
I am not a stickler for location. I will take any desk as long as I have an internet connection and a telephone. Of course, you invariably run into people you know and this leads to the “unproductive” time.
If I am attending a meeting where my participation is not required, I simply stare at my laptop and continue preparing for my meetings.
I hate generic meetings when attendees regurgitate meaningless information. Therefore, I have a rule to be meticulously prepared for meetings. If I am meeting a new client, I usually read the equity analyst reports and speak to the partner sector leader or another specialist. I make a mental note of what I would like to achieve and what I need to extract from the meeting.
Meeting and working with clients is always special. I never want them to feel that I am just meeting them because it is my role. I want them to know that I understand their business and the firm is committed to helping them.
12:30pm – 2pm
Lunch meetings can be some of the best times of the day. I have found that dinner meetings have been hijacked by media planners and corporate affairs people. I have rarely been to a business dinner that is relaxing. People are usually dressed-up and there is lots of expectation. I find lunch to be the opposite.
Since it is in the middle of the day, no one wants to use the time to promote anything. They leave it alone. It is, therefore, much easier to sit down and have a relaxing discussion with a client.
I am also a pen and paper hog. I carry a Moleskin book wherever I go. I have my collection of Moleskin books going back many, many years. Everything is recorded and stored. In any lunch or dinner, I like whipping out my moleskin and sketching out a concept. I find pictures work better than words. I do this with every level of client or colleague in the firm. It also helps me keep a record of things.
2pm – 4pm
I am not one of those people who sets aside time for checking emails and returning phone calls. I check my Blackberry all the time, and return calls all the time. I am notorious for that. Therefore, you will never find a slot in my diary for checking calls or returning emails. That happens in real-time.
Between 2pm and 4pm I like to spend the day having internal discussions about how the office and firm will respond to local opportunities, internal issues and respond to the client discussions from the morning.
For me, this is crucial. I need to spend sufficient quality time with the people in the office.
4pm – 6pm
If I am traveling to Asia, I return to my hotel by 4pm to start speaking to people on the west coast of the USA and Canada. Despite my excessive travel, I have never become accustomed to working from any location. I admire those management consultants who can whip out a mobile phone and crank out stuff on their laptop from anywhere.
I find I work best in a calmer setting. So I make sure I take these two hours to get back to my hotel and follow-up with outstanding items.
Anything that comes up is either delegated to the relevant consultants or handled by myself if I must do so. I have a very, very capable team and I find I am doing less and less over time. That is good. It forces me to look forward and build the firm. This session can go as long as until 8pm, especially if the consultants mind my 6am calls and not pick up the phone – then I have to call back.
During this time, everyone knows I am in my hotel and my assistant always call me on my mobile phone.
6pm – 7pm
During the next hour I prepare for the next day. By this point, my diary would have become a little clearer for the next day and I can start preparing for my crucial meetings.
The method is the same: read and ask questions, and write down my objectives in my Moleskin book. I always prepare for these meetings before dinner. I find leaving things for the last minute is a bad idea since it may take too long, impacting my sleep, or I may never do it at all.
Between 7pm and 8pm I normally have a shower and prepare for dinner.
8pm – 10pm
On weekdays, dinner is almost always a meeting with clients or a meeting with the local partners. I have always found it more difficult to discuss business over dinner. That is probably a personal thing.
That said, I use the time to probe and ask questions about the client. I take advantage of this time to really understand the issues on the table.
I am a big believer in responding quickly to items. Based on my meetings from the day, I send out notes to the relevant people.
I also like responding to clients with thoughtful emails. I type out the draft in the night and send this to my assistant for checking. I then sleep on it and send it off the next morning while I am having breakfast in my room.
I am also notorious for 2 line emails. I only send very polite emails to junior employees since they tend to worry the most about “blunt” looking emails.
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Image from Jon Herbert under cc.