In this post we review Firmsconsulting in 2015. We focus on what was accomplished, what changed and what will be the way forward. In 2015 we worked hard to set the stage for a significant 2016.
From our earliest days, Firmsconsulting has committed itself to the idea that investing in the most effective strategy training built on a values-based approach to leadership would ensure the loyalty of an influential and discerning audience, which in turn would drive our ambitions. Our philosophy stems from a pertinent quote by Marvin Bower. Firmsconsulting is, after all, founded in his honor.
“Business conducted properly can be as high a calling as anything.”
That quote sits underneath everything we do. It is our foundation and is immutable. In this time of enormous business scandals, tainted reputations and unethical behaviour in business we use this quote as our lighthouse. No matter what is happening, no matter how rough things may be and no matter the size of the opportunity, we are always guided by this quote. It keeps us out of trouble by providing a safe path. We also encourage clients to live by this belief system.
At its essence business should be more than a career path. It must be more than a path to a paycheck. It should be a philosophy. It is a calling. Possibly a higher calling. No one needs to be an exceptional executive or management consultant. It is perfectly fine to have a good enough life earning a good, even very high, salary and living an eminently comfortable life.
Yet, some want to be the best in business, some aspire to change the world for the better. In this way, we manage Firmsconsulting like a luxury brand. What we offer is not a necessity. You can get by in business without us.
“Firmsconsulting is there for the chosen few who aspire to something other than what society had intended for them.”
We deliberately restrict our availability in every possible way. We restrict availability because we care about the quality of what we do. It is not about pursuing lucre. Just 8% of applicants are invited for our case interview coaching program. Only 4% of applicants are invited to join our executive coaching program. Some of our books cannot be bought. We plan to release just a few copies each month. One has a 24 month wait-list.
Companies routinely contact us to undertake studies. We only accept the privilege of serving a client if we think the work is significant and challenge is worth addressing, as defined by the needs of our clients: you. Life is too short to do the same thing over and over again. If an elite education and having the rare skills of a strategy partner are indeed a privilege, then should we not use those skills to solve the world’s most pressing problems?
Quality is a not a scale business. It must be curated and that means turning down business. No one benefits from pursuing growth for the the sake of growth. We must leave the wrong money on the table. We never aspire to be the biggest, only the best at serving our clients.
Sitting on that core philosophy is our unique belief that all our material be prepared by ex partners and ex directors who make values their central distinction. That makes our insights, observations and teachings very different. We will stick to that and work with it.
Our placement rates hover around 73%, which is very high. That is not our goal. That is the by-product of doing things that matter. And doing things that matter in the right way.
What happened in 2015
This was a tough year for us. Yet, it was an enjoyable year. We focused on improving many different things and change/improvement takes a lot of effort. Many of the things we did in 2015 will only be seen in 2016. So in some ways, you will just need to wait for the big changes that are to come.
Nothing worth achieving in life is ever easy. Things always go wrong and the spillover impacts other initiatives which are proceeding as planned. Yet, the outcome was rather satisfying.
If one does what matters the most, one will always create something meaningful.
We brought in new partners and changed teams. We took a tougher stand on ethics and values, both in the way we ran the firm and also in the way we mentored and groomed clients. Values have always been the center-piece of FC and we drove that message more clearly this year. You would see that in the strategy study training programs we launched. It was always about doing what was right even when it hurt us. And hurt us it did.
And we have more planned for 2016. So the next year is going to be a splendidly tough and exciting one as well.
FC turned 5 years old in 2015. We are a firm that was built from a blog. We barely celebrated it. Not because we had nothing to toast but it seems odd to celebrate at all. It is hard to see how celebrating helps clients. So, we kept it to a minimum. We decided to focus only on things which help our clients.
The aim of a firm should not be to work hard to earn a bounty to celebrate at year end. The aim of a firm should be to do things that matter such that profits are a by-product of one’s purpose.
Yet, it is not like we have not been noticed for our efforts, despite our best attempts to fly under the radar. We received an expression of interest from one of the giant international consulting firms to buy Firmsconsulting. We never got to the point of discussing the price since we politely declined the offer for further talks. They are a great firm but our business model and value system is unique, and Firmsconsulting is not for sale.
While the firm considered our intellectual property and approach more valuable, it is our business model and culture that truly matters. And I do not think many can even understand our business model.
Firmsconsulting will never be for sale.
Plans made in 2014
I always considered 2014 to be a lost year. Yet, that the time, in December 2014, I thought we had a good year. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a bad year.
That is what motivated us to make 2015 a different year. While we did a lot in 2014 and clients seemed to be very pleased with most things, to me it was a wasteful year where we missed goals, did many wrong things, mismanaged teams, failed to build the right systems and basically squandered resources on a host of unnecessary endeavors which were too complicated. To be blunt, we performed relatively well but never built a platform for the future.
In many ways I felt my soul had been sucked out. Working on the wrong things with the wrong people will do that to you. I wanted us to go back to solving complex business problems and sharing it with clients. We wanted to go back to doing things that excited us in the morning. You must want to wake up and do things. If you need to do something then it is a problem.
We wanted to do big things. We wanted to be deeply involved in solving the world’s toughest problems and sharing it with our clients.
So we started 2015 with a simple exercise. What would happen if a PE firm came in and had a look at us? What would they do? Knowing we would never compromise our strong values system, what could we do differently to be more effective and more efficient? That informed our decisions for the year. This is an exercise we will do every year.
We made drastic changes as a result of that exercise.
Yet, lets start with a few plans we made in early 2014 to see how we did.
Executive program training – we planned to release 4 studies:
LAB Market Entry Strategy Study: A very successful training program where we released 600 pages of curated notes along with the 300 videos and 300 power-points. We released the program in April 2015. Done
Corporate Strategy & Transformation Study: Another very large and successful study. This time we live-podcasted the study, via >150 podcasts, to supplement the >680 videos and >680 power-points. This training program is very successful and we began releasing the program in September 2015. Done
Technology Merger Implementation Study: We decided to delay this training program. Done – see below
4th Study: We actually decided to simultaneously end the year by developing 5 study training programs which is a big change from how we did things in 2014: (1) Big Data Healthcare, (2) Euro Courier & Freight Turnaround, (3) Insurance Digital & BTO Strategy, (4) Corporate Strategy & Transformation Implementation and (5) Resources Operations Study. All these studies are scheduled to be released in the next 24 to 48 months. Done
On the 5 study programs, the effort to plan, manage and coordinate all of them roughly simultaneously taught us important lessons in how we manage our training. We will learn more as we wrap up the programs and prepare to release them.
TCO-type shows – we planned TCO 3: TCO III was successfully concluded and will soon be released. We also created 2 new shows like TCO that will also soon be released. The TCO spin-off on private equity was postponed. It seemed to be straying outside of our core on strategy. Partially Done
Website changes: These are internal things you cannot see like the payments system, internal tracking etc, and they were all done successfully. So that was good. Done
So, overall, a very good year.
Case Interview Coaching
We had our 842nd coaching client in 2015 and placed our 547th client at McKinsey, BCG or Bain. Our placement rate rose a little from last year: from 72% to just over 73%. If you are doing the math, remember to remove ~100 active clients. A 73% rate is very high – the highest in the industry. It is even higher if you consider clients that were placed at other major consulting firms.
Over 56% of all clients, across all the programs we run including the executive programs, are Chinese in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. In 2011 we had no Chinese clients – which shows the enormous rise of China. The next largest group are Indians, typically pursuing an EMBA or MBA, followed by wide mix of nationalities.
Yet, we should remember that 27% of clients failed to join their first choice firm. They ended off well in industry and other consulting firms, but not where they wanted to. So the celebrations will be muted, if we have any at all. That said, it is completely on us for not being more thorough in the screening and not being tougher on ensuring clients followed our advice.
When Firmsconsulting began our coaching program in 2010/2011 over 90% of our clients belonged to elite schools like Harvard, MIT or Stanford. In fact, we started primarily serving Singaporeans who were mainly educated in elite US schools. Fast-forward to today and Ivy league graduates make up no more than 10% of our clients placed at the elite firms. We have actively sought to bring in clients from non-traditional backgrounds, by lowering the Ivy League intake, and have been equally successful in bringing in female clients.
In fact, females now make up >50% of all coaching clients and Chinese female PhDs are the dominant group. And for those who have followed FC, you will know we began addressing the unique needs of female clients in late 2011. We had to redesign the way we manage the training to ensure female clients succeeded in the program.
Next year, we expect the placement rate to drop a little due to some material changes we will make in the way we select clients, with focus on admitting more applicants from challenging backgrounds. We are expecting a 65% placement rate. Again, we know if we invest in our clients, the placement rate will take care of itself overt time.
One area where we focused was being tougher on clients. We pushed back far more than we previously did.
That meant getting clients to do what was right for them, versus what they felt was right for them. For example, we have been more forceful in getting clients to postpone interviews when they are not ready. That has made a huge difference.
Some of those were hard conversations but it almost never works when a client decides to make a change against our judgement. Be it changing their resume, sticking to an interview date, application etc. My philosophy was always to get the clients to their chosen firms even if we had to upset them a little. There are trade-offs required and our job is to make them for the client.
In other words, we will do what is in the client’s best interest even if it may make them unhappy at times.
We moved to school blind assessments in late 2014 and only in 2015 could we see the full impact. There was none: our placement rates did not drop. The school of an applicant has no bearing on his/her skills. That is an important insight.
We placed 5 principals and partners into McKinsey and BCG. We placed the oldest associate into McKinsey, in his upper 40s, and we placed, what we believe to be, one of the youngest associates into McKinsey, at 20 years of age. We placed a North African female into the heart of Bain in Europe and we placed the only African-American female into Bain’s flagship office. We will publish more about both of these remarkable ladies in future updates.
This year we upped our Emerging Fellows Program. The program has been very successful but it has not grown as fast as we would have liked. Approximately 10% of all clients are fellows who receive a full scholarship into our program. Where we have traditionally failed is in getting Fellows to honor the terms of their scholarships. The majority get into McKinsey and BCG and thereafter barely go back to their home countries for their mandatory 2 months projects to support critical social and development programs.
This year we started working more closely with fellows like Sveta to encourage them to invest in their home countries. This program is very effective and some of our most successful alumni are graduates. Going forward scholarship obligations will expand to include giving back to the FC community, including mentorship of FC clients.
Investing in Alumni
We notably invested in our alumni through our significant other program. We have rolled out free counseling and career advice to the partners of alumni. This is an important endeavor. In late 2015 we began a pilot to roll out the same support to children of alumni.
Why do we offer this program?
We select our clients so carefully that it makes sense to invest in their families. These are future leaders. Why would we want our alumni to fail? Their success is our success. They are family.
This program offers impartial and unbiased advice. I recall advising the wife of an Executive coaching program client, who is a senior executive in a Polish bank, that she needs to dramatically overhaul her career and goals if she wants to be successful in business. These discussions are personal, at times tough and they matter. Our goal is to ensure clients are not in a 2-speed relationship. This often happens when the client relocates and their spouse ends up struggling because he/she is forced to follow his/her husband/wife and restart his/her career, which rarely works well.
TCO III kicked off and finished shooting in October this year. Again it was a successful program with over 200 applications received. We will begin releasing TCO III in early 2016. We are currently taking applications for TCO IV and we have already begun the interview process. TCO IV will have a different format and work as a hybrid of TCO I and TCO II. It will be exciting and we are seeking tougher candidates. In this very public show we have never yet failed to place a candidate. Although, it would be nice if a male was the top performing participant, for a change. (Top performing candidates in TCO I, TCO II and TCO III were all ladies.)
TCO IV will follow a very different format from TCO I, II and III. It is much more exciting and useful in the way we will structure the program, especially in combination with previous seasons of TCO.
While the executive program may only take up 25% of this update it remains our largest initiative and our most popular. We have increasingly more executive program clients and run more executive program initiatives. Yet, we do not see them as being separate from case interview clients and case interview initiatives. Many of executive program clients are former consultants we placed into McKinsey, BCG or Bain whom have now moved into corporate roles.
Our philosophy is to build long-term relationships. We have clients who invite their spouses to apply. We have clients who ask their children to apply. We have clients who move through our programs from podcasts to TCO to case interview coaching to the executive program online to the personal executive program coaching.
We have a client who motivated to have his daughter join our program over the next 10 years. That was the most unusual selection process we have yet run. She is just 5 years and 8 months old. We see ourselves first and foremost as a family business. That is why we invest so heavily in alumni. We care about their families as they are part of the Firmsconsulting family.
Being responsible for a child’s development is not something one should take lightly. It is not something we take lightly. And seeing those parents place their trust in us is a far more important indicator of our success than profits.
We released the Market Entry Strategy study with over 600 pages of written partner observations, 300 videos and 300 power-points. This was very interesting study which ultimately opened many doors for the firm. We live-blogged the entire study which was the first time this was ever done in management consulting.
We thereafter took on and successfully completed the mammoth Corporate Strategy & Transformation Study. This was a far tougher role for us and we needed to learn how to run these study training programs much better. We needed to institutionalize the systems. We also began live-podcasting the study which is also a first for management consulting. This podcast is our most popular podcast channel and regularly in the top 5 career podcasts for various countries.
There is something important to note about timings here.
It took us one year to release the Merger Strategy Study and another full year to release the market entry study. It took us just 5 months to conduct and begin releasing the Corporate Strategy & Transformation Study! That is a big achievement. We can always do things faster but considering the transformation study is bigger than the other two studies combined, just beginning to get it out a mere 6 months after the market entry study is a big achievement.
We also did some things we had not planned for the year.
We launched a TCO spin-off show where we helped a real candidate obtain a full time offer at one of the elite strategy firms by helping him through his 90 days of internship at the firm. And, once program is released, you can watch all the videos online and listen to us speaking to him at evenings and while he is traveling guiding him through issues. This was a successful show where we created an advanced program to ensure the client had the right training to secure an offer and lay the foundation for a strong career. This will be released shortly.
We launched Fridays with Firmsconsulting with Kris Safarova which was an experiment for us. An experiment which worked very well. We expected it to be popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. But its popularity in places like Cambodia and India was surprising. We will do a lot with this show in 2016. Expect an exciting and big change to this show in 2016. The next episode of FCTV, already recorded, is scheduled to release in the middle of January. After that we will not release new episodes for quite a few weeks to revamp the show.
We launched 2 new iTunes podcast channels: Strategy and FCTV. The strategy channel was a surprise success. It is more popular than the case interview podcast channel and regularly features in the top 5 podcasts of the careers section for several countries.
We have become much better at using data. We keep exhaustive records on every single client and run them through a complex model to predict outcomes. This is a model we began building in 2011 and kept on refining. This is one significant reason our placement rate went up this year even though we took on far fewer traditional clients. The model matters. It allows us to pick up trends, patterns and issues we would not have previously seen.
We now use data to track articles, podcasts, videos etc., and that is how we prioritize content. If something is not popular, and we think it is not essential to know, we simply discontinue it or slow it down.
A lot will be done and a lot will change in 2016. Rather than listing everything here, we will update you on changes as they happen. We had a lengthy leadership meeting in Santa Clara, California in September 2015. We made some critical decisions that in many ways take us back to our core but in a new way.
This article deeply resonated with me. You have to narrowly define your purpose as a firm. A successful firm must arrow the scope but relentlessly solve those client needs, in that limited scope, in better and better ways.
It will be an exciting year. Expect a new firm in every possible way. Unfortunately, the largest change, and smaller resultant changes, to FC is something we can only discuss next year. So, keep in touch.
Travel safely and all the best for the holiday season.