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Disastrous First BCG Engagement

The bottom-line is that your consulting career is only over if you lack the will, capacity and capability to succeed while adhering to firm values. In all other cases, you will be very successful.

A young BCG associate, lets call him Bill, recently faced tough questions after his first engagement turned out to be, in his words, an utter disaster.

If you are a younger consultant in Bill’s situation, you may ask yourself similar questions:

  • What happens when your first engagement is not just bad, but is a disaster?
  • What went through partner’s head when you performed poorly? 
  • Do you have a future?
  • Should you consider leaving?

When this happens you will also want to know if this was an anomaly or if management consulting is just not for you.

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful. You can learn all of them over time, but you must be aware of them from day 1 with the firm:

Will – do you have the burning desire to be a successful management consultant?

Capacity – do you have the time and space to be successful?

Capability – do you have the skills to be successful?

Emotional Intelligence – can you read the personal dynamics at play?

Political awareness – do you understand the rationale and motivations for client decisions?

The filter to understand the reasons for failure and the gravity of the situation

Now if you are in Bill’s situation, you can use the following filter to understand the reasons for your failure and the gravity of the situation. It is important you are honest with yourself. Fudging the answers to avoid blame merely means you are hiding a problem which could reappear in the future when there may be even more at stake.

This is the way I would have analyzed Bill’s mistakes when I was a partner:

Did you breach the firm’s values?

Irrespective of the reason, if you knowingly breached the firms values almost nothing can save you. You will be managed out or asked to leave.

The leading firms, which includes BCG, do not tolerate any conflict with their values.

Did you try your very best to succeed and put in as much time and effort as you had?

If you did not try your best it is possible you may not have the drive or ambition to be successful in consulting.

It is better to learn this at the start of your consulting career and leave earlier and not suffer tremendous burnout and dissatisfaction later.

Many hugely successful people are unwilling to dedicate 15 to 18 hours a day to their job or tolerate excessive travel and time away from their families. There is nothing wrong with this. It just means management consulting may not be for you.

Did you do poorly due to circumstances totally outside your control?

Maybe the client gave you the incorrect data and lied about it. Despite your efforts to verify the information, the client simply changed the information. This would be outside your control.

If this indeed happened and there was no possible way to know otherwise, then it is quite likely the only acceptable excuse for poor performance. Even so, did you sanity check the data and compare it to the rest of the information? Did it balance?

Did you do poorly due to circumstance outside your control but which could have been managed by yourself if you were more careful?

If the client gave you the incorrect data and this created a problem because you were not persistent in verifying the information, this would be a problem which could have been avoided with greater care from your side.

This kind of negligence is also not a good sign in management consulting. Consultants are expected to dig and verify information.

Lack of diligence and persistence is another sign this career path may not be for you.

Did you not have the skills to do the work?

An example of this would be the need to conduct a financial analysis which you did not understand.

Not having the skills is not a problem. It is how you respond that matters. Did you ask a skilled consultant to review your work?

Did you ask for help?

Not having the tools or guidance to complete an analysis correctly is almost never an excuse. If there was a problem and you did not ask for help, then you are at fault.

If there was a problem, you asked the engagement manager for help and were ignored, then both you and the engagement manager are at fault. You are at fault for not understanding the gravity of the situation and demanding more help. The manager is at fault for ignoring your pleas.

Remember that premium firms expect consultants to speak out and challenge more senior colleagues if it will help the client and the firm. Therefore, allowing the engagement manager to ignore your pleas for help is not excusable.

If you asked for help, you received help and your performance was still poor, what was the reason for this?

Unfortunately this could imply a lack of will and possibly competency issues. It may also show you don’t know when you are failing. Neither is good for you.

Did you receive any signals from the associate or engagement manager that things were not up to standard?

If you received no signals then you may have an excuse. This assumes your work was properly checked and vetted.

However, if you ignored warnings then that is totally a different matter.


Generally, the checks and balances above means there are very few reasons why an engagement will fail. Irrespective of the problem, either you will ask for help and receive it or your engagement manager will need to step in to give more help. In both cases, the problem will be fixed.

Logically, the only valid excuse for poor performance is if the circumstance was totally outside your control and you were not aware of it, or you were aware of it and asked for someone more capable to check work about which you were unsure and they approved it.

Assuming this is your first consulting engagement, unless you did something which was blatantly wrong, demonstrated consistent and repeated incompetence or did not uphold the firm’s values, you will be given a second chance to prove yourself.

The key thing here is that you understand why it occurred. If the problem occurred due to your own negligence then maybe management consulting is not for you. The standards are high and there is little room for failure.

The bottom-line is that your consulting career is only over if you lack the will, capacity and capability to succeed while adhering to firm values. In all other cases, you will be very successful.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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