Thank you for taking the time to discuss my career. I thought your stories were a little funny but really insightful, especially the Paris Hilton analyses. I never looked at it like that before.
You were right, Joe Davis is a great guy to work with, and he likes constant contact.
If you recall, I mentioned I would be going onto my first BCG business case engagement and wanted to know if you had any specific guidance on what I need to know to support my manager. I do not have a quantitative background and read history at Oxford. Any tips or guidance will be greatly appreciated.
I would prefer printing the advice, so if you could kindly respond as an article that would be great.
It was a pleasure meeting you as well. It was a pity we did not have more time to speak. I am going to elaborate based my own experiences from three perspectives: when I was a consultant, manager and then principal.
While you need to support your manager, you also need to know what your peers and engagement partner are thinking. I was also a corporate strategy specialist and developed more than my fair share of business cases, as well as oversaw many teams as a manager and principal.
In thinking through your positioning, don’t ever lose sight of these three groups of consultants you will need to engage.
All of our Succeeding as a Management Consultant books cover business case development in extensive detail. I notice you are not a subscriber to them so I will capture just the salient points here.
Here are some general tips, followed by my experience of working with each level.
1 – Be accountable and assume nothing. When you join, you will be surprised how intense things can be and how quickly you need to deliver very high quality slides. You will get guidance from peers and your manager, and partner. Yet, do not rely on this. You need to own the problem and it is your responsibility to raise obstacles before the engagement manager or partner identifies them.
So, make sure you completely understand all the analyses to be done, make sure you can complete it on time, and make sure you are not making assumptions that something will be done on time if you are not the person doing it – if you are not doing it simply assume no one is doing it.
As a principal, I was not at all pleased when consultants raised delays which were driven by things they could have easily checked. The most annoying such incident was a young associate who did not check if the printers would be open at 7am to color copy our presentation. In another case, a young manager did not check the vacation times of a very important financial analyst at an insurance client. Two days before a vital board meeting, we were unable to verify crucial assumptions in our analyses.
2 – Do not over promise, no matter how easy something may look. In one striking example, I was leading an extremely complex analyses for a client. We were trying to simplify a complicated actuarial calculation given the data constraints we had.
It was a crown jewel client and on a sensitive issue which was generating lots of negative media attention. Our analyses would directly inform the capital allocation decisions of the CFO, and form the bulk of the press release to be issued by the CEO.
My manager on the project was very hard-working and capable. However, the type of analyses we were using on the project was a little too much for him – he was a smart engineer with an MBA, but this was some scary math! So, he relied on me to guide the business case team, and relied heavily on the business case consultants to make sure they would inform him of problems.
The consultant leading the business case team was very arrogant, and once told me that the analytical work was beneath his skills – he wanted more difficult work and I explained he would get them if he could prove himself on this engagement.
That same consultant failed to build the analytical model, and completely failed to understand the business case we were trying to develop. Moreover, he only told us about the problem, 16 hours before he was about to leave on a 2 week vacation. I let the consultant go on vacation, but managed him out 2 months later. You never ever, ever let your team down.
My team worked over 6 intense days to complete the model and that was the only time I stepped in as a principal to lead the model building directly. I had no choice. It was not fun, and was a problem created due to hubris on the side of the consultant.
It should never have happened, and even if there were problems, we should not be finding out about it 16 hours before he was leaving for an island with no internet access. He lost my respect.
3 – Build the overall work plan early in the engagement. You need to do this and it requires you to understand the overall problem, outline how you will design the solution, list your data requirements and understand all the questions which need to be answered. Where there is an overlap of activity with your peers, you will need to agree on roles and responsibilities.
This will be a steep learning curve for you since this is your first business case engagement. To overcome the problem of building a plan which cannot be adjusted, make sure you set weekly milestones to make sure you can track progress and see if you are falling behind.
At the end of the first two weeks, in your head, you should be able to see how all the analyses will come together and the data you will use. If you cannot logically explain this to the partner, you can just assume you do not have a handle on things.
So, those first 2 weeks are very important. I would go as far as to say they are the most important weeks on the project.
4 – Make sure you are not assuming perfect information from the clients. Clients usually do not have the data you want, almost certainly not in the format you need it, and rarely accessible in the time you need it. Check that the data available will work for the analyses you will want to run. If it does not meet your needs, you likely have to change your hypotheses or take time consuming steps to change things.
5 – Have a flexible process so you can incorporate likely changes in findings. While you need to design the overall work plan soon, you also need to have a process which is flexible enough to incorporate likely changes in findings from the rest of the team.
For example, what if the partner decides a new area must be analyzed? You need to make sure your analyses can cater for such changes, or at least be able to explain why such an analysis could not be incorporated.
It did not please me when my managers would agree to do something they had not thought through. They are closer to the work and are best placed to understand what level of analyses is and is not possible. Blindly following a suggestion from the partner is dangerous. You must be accountable and vet each step and action. It is expected of you.
I, for example, would routinely throw out hypotheses of what I thought was happening. It was, however, very important for the team to screen these and see what and what would not work, and keep me informed on the way forward.
6 – Give direction and request inputs. You must give direction to the rest of the team but also require in-puts from everyone else to complete your work. You must design your approach to cater for this: providing direction while also collecting information.
7 – You cannot work in isolation. You need to present meaningful updates of sufficient depth and at regular intervals. These updates are critical input for the rest of the team and must be carefully planned.
Remember, you must conduct the financial assessment of options to solve the problem. That is the role of the business case team. The result of your analysis provides enormous insight to the engagement team. It directs the teams to possible areas of improvement or point out areas likely to generate little opportunity for improvement.
So, you cannot hole yourself away for the duration of the study and present your findings at the end. That would be a disaster. The team needs to see your thinking at various stages and the same numbers in various stages of granularity. They need this information to guide them.
8 – Find allies in the client’s finance department. You must find allies in the client’s finance department who can share data, work with you to test hypotheses/answer questions and validate your approach. This can only be done if you can clearly explain your approach and rationale, and instil confidence amongst the finance department employees.
You need to build these relationships at several levels of the finance department. Do not be shy doing this at the mid-level, where you will work with the finance team on a day-to-day basis and at the CFO level where you need to build rapport and trust to ensure she/he accepts the recommendations and owns the findings once you leave.
Building these relationships is difficult to do if you are unable to explain your objectives and approach articulately. In other words, communication matters enormously.
Some advice for working with peers:
1 – Do not work in isolation. You need to share your work since it impacts everyone else’s work. I insisted my teams meet regularly and use large charts in the engagement room to ensure visual understanding of what was required. This was far from common across the firm, but I insisted on it.
2 – Share your work and help your colleagues. I sometimes get emails from clients we placed asking if they should share their work. You should liberally share your slides, thinking and analyses. Also never ever leave early unless you have first checked with colleagues to see if they need additional help.
3 – Don’t be arrogant. I see this often where new hires try to show off their skills by being arrogant. You are only measured on demonstrated competency, not your ego. Eventually, you will be placed in a position where you need to prove yourself by relying on others, and arrogance does not build friendships.
Some advice for working with managers:
1 – Managers are under intense pressure. I recall really pushing my engagement managers to deliver the very best in each engagement. We just had to beat our previous best. Knowing that, help them help you by being specific about the advice/guidance you need. Managers are busy, so go to them when you need help. Do not expect them to “do the rounds” daily with each and every team member. That is an inefficient use of time.
2 – The manager is not the expert of your work. You should always know more about your analyses and it is your job to bring insights/challenges to the attention of your manager.
3 – Make your manager look good. Make your manager look good by at least trying to understand what the principal/partner/director is looking for from him/her, and provide this information. Only you can know this, and only if you take time to get to know the partner.
Some advice for working with partners:
1 – Partners are usually very friendly and willing to help. I spent a lot of time simply coaching and teaching consultants how to engage clients, think through issues or even complete analyses. That said, I expected them to be ready, communicate clearly and build on my work. Someone merely recycling my ideas is not showing where they added any value to the process.
If I found a consultant was not working with my guidance, or ignoring it without reason, that consultant would not get much of my time in the future.
I recall one consultant for whom I gave 30 minutes of detailed feedback on just 2 slides. She did not take notes, despite my suggestions to do so, and came back the next day with about 80% of the suggestions missing. That did not please me and such repeated behaviour led to her being managed out within 3 months of this incident.
2 – Every partner is unique, wants feedback in different ways and has lots of advice. Take the time to understand the partner on the project and help them succeed. When I was asked to pick up a partner from the airport, I would take 5 note cards containing all the information the partner would need to know so he could sound as if he had never been away. Partners loved this. When I was promoted to principal, I had trained my teams to manage me in this same way.
3 – Don’t be perfect, no partner expects that, but don’t make the same mistake twice. That is not forgivable. I once had a consultant make a major mistake on a slide I asked her to prepare. She included the benefits without discounting them. I was not happy, but the consultant learned her mistake quickly. I took her under my guidance and mentored her heavily. She eventually rose to associate principal before leaving for a corporate role.
The flip side of this – find a partner to mentor you. No matter how smart you are, it is not enough. The consultants who rise to the top the fastest are always mentored by very capable partners. My progression was no different.
Scot, I hope this guidance helps you. If you are still struggling, feel free to call me at any time for further guidance.
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Image from Jon Herbert under cc.