How to Become a Partner in Your 20s
How I did it and what you can learn
As many of you know Firmsconsulting only works with the most eminent McKinsey, BCG et al. former senior partners. We remain the only platform in the world where you are trained directly by partners.
Kevin P. Coyne became the first person to attend HBS before graduating from college, he was the youngest associate at McKinsey and he was the youngest ever principal at McKinsey at the time. Bill Matassoni, who became a McKinsey director in just 2 years, co-led the firm’s highly successful differentiation strategy and went on to serve as a senior partner at BCG. I became a principal, the youngest at the time, and director in my late 20’s. As far as I know, I am one of a handful of people at any firm to achieve this feat.
In my first 3 years at the firm I was only promoted once. In the subsequent 3 years, and a few months, I was promoted 4 times. What happened?
This series will explore in detail the steps taken to accelerate my career. This series will also explain how the first 3 years laid the foundation for future promotions even though at the time it looked like no progress was being made. Understanding how I used my training from the first 3 years is therefore crucial.
How did I move so far ahead of my peers in such a short space of time? To a very large degree luck, timing and some very patient mentors played a role. I do not want to discount those elements. However, I did, over time, develop some unusual career strategies that are worth sharing. Even so, it took me a long time to agree to do this program because I am by nature a private person. Most FC followers would know this. Yet, several clients mentioned how useful my personal stories have been to them.
For example, when I mentor associates, EMs, principals and partners I always refer to my own experiences. And clients find those detailed case studies of specific events in my career very useful. They find them useful due to the enormous details I can go into, since these are things I actually did.
Therefore, I decided to capture everything in one place so a broader audience than my one-on-one clients can benefit.
I do not profess to know all the answers. Therefore, I hope you will use this program, not to copy me, but to learn my worldview. That is the key thing. I saw the world differently and that is why I was able to adapt to many situations.
My story of how a little kid from the emerging markets went on to advise CEOs around the world is hopefully going to help someone. In all honesty, I will be pleased if this program changed just one person’s perspective of their self worth. The truth is that we all matter but it is really hard to find good mentors. I did not have them when I started as a business analyst and this series will try to full part of that gap should it exist for you.
In this extensive new program, ~500 episodes, I cover material never before released anywhere. You are going to learn many insightful new tactics and career plans. I will outline my career at a granular level, including all key engagements, obstacles, career management tactics/strategies etc. that led to my election to director in my 20s. I did many counter-intuitive things and this program catalogues them all.
Here is the harsh reality that I experienced when I started my career. And I am sure it will resonate with many of you.
When I was a young business analyst I did what everyone else told me I had to do to get promoted. I read the Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Sloan Management Review, Fortune Magazine etc., looking for advice on how to manage teams, develop insights, avoid conflicts, improve my body language, learn strategy etc. I also relied heavily on copying the firm’s most eminent HBS and Wharton-educated partners. Both tactics seemed logical at the time.
Do you know what happened? It was a disaster. I was almost fired in my first engagement and made terrible mistakes in subsequent engagements. When I copied the styles of the Harvard and Wharton educated partners, and executed it correctly, it never worked. In fact someone once complained about my style during my performance feedback. When I did what they did, I was not treated the same.
And there are reasons for this.
First, An Ivy expert from a generally well-off background sitting in some cushy environment writing a piece in HBR could not understand the context for my development needs. They could not actually understand the problems I faced. Their advice sounded smart but was woefully inadequate. All the advice offered did not work for me. It would only work if I shared their background since that is the world they understood. Almost all leadership literature is written for very senior people. I could find any advice written for very young future leaders with average backgrounds.
Second, you just cannot use the strategy that is tailored for someone else. The Harvard educated partner could do certain things because he was Harvard educated. Any advice he offered, even with the best of intentions, could not work perfectly and, sometimes, never at all. I had to adjust my strategy based on my image and profile which was radically different from his own.
This frustrated me for a long time.
I had to learn the hard way how to do things. Things I will discuss here in great detail so you can determine what to do irrespective of your background.
Our programs are known for their prescriptive detail. This will be no different. I will outline why I did something, how I did it and how you can repeat the process, at each level. Hence the numerous episodes.
This series must to some extent dive into the detailed mechanics of the analyses in each engagement completed. That is necessary for you to understand the difficulties faced and the responses I took. Like how I handled my very first business case. It was not pretty. Yet, for more detailed consulting analyses training we have the corporate strategy, market entry & tech merger studies.
This series, however, heavily focuses on career management, team management, communication, managing upwards and getting promoted. In other words it explains why it is not enough just to be smart to reach the partnership. A significant amount of soft skills are needed like knowing how to select offices, engagements and partners etc. Issues like managing discrimination, difficult clients, passive aggressive colleagues, ensuring visibility among partners, dealing with difficult managers, handling a poor performance rating etc., are all discussed.
I will use real examples from my own career.
You can also learn why I resigned twice from the firm in one week and why my resignations were refused. This is an example of me not knowing how to manage frustration. The series discusses why I never sought out the most prestigious offices or clients, but rather the lesser-known clients and partners. Though this was a deliberate strategy from the time I was an associate, you will learn why I was given no choice but to develop this strategy.
I explain how, as an associate, I paired up with a young, and unpopular, principal to take the #5 company in its sector all the way to #1 and how it impacted my career. You will learn that not everyone was happy and I also compounded things by being a little too arrogant at times. You will see that while I became a troubleshooter for the firm as a partner, going around the world to help the firm manage the most difficult situations with clients, when I was younger I lacked many of these diplomacy skills.
I explain how I had my first COO client, who only wanted to work with me, and my CEO client at the age of 26 whom would drive to the firm’s office just to see me, and would wait for me to become available. Why did they choose to work with me? Really? I was not that special. Yet, I did a few things different from others.
As you know, I am very assertive on values and ethics. Where did that originate and how did I make that a platform for my career at the firm?
The series explores the approach I used to build such strong relationships with clients, as a senior associate, that they retained me, and by extension the firm, for major engagements. The series will go on to discuss why/how I chose to retrain my own team to work to my standards on engagements. This despite the firm already having the highest standards on engagements. There is a very practical reason for this which has little to do with actual consulting skills.
The program will explain the importance of finding the right mentors and how just 7 engagements, with the youngest partner ever at the firm, trained me in strategy, despite my having worked on many other engagements with other partners. What made these 7 engagements different? Did I select my mentor or did he select me? What makes the right mentor?
You have to think about this one carefully and I will explain it in great detail. I am basically saying I learned all my core analytic and reasoning skills over 7 engagements or roughly 2 years. As you can see, whom one works with is far more important than the office, client, sector etc. You do not need to do 50 assignments to learn the core skills. I will explain why.
Worried about contributing to social programs in the firm, assisting with internal projects, undergoing firm training, picking a sector specialization? This series will explain how I made counter-intuitive choices on them all: I only attended one formal training session and left before it ended.
Why did I voluntarily join the operations practice for an entire year? A move which did not hurt my strategy career since I eventually became a corporate strategy partner, and faster than others. In fact, why was the implementation study I managed one of the most critical engagements of my career.
As a business analyst I was seconded for 2 weeks to serve as chief-of-staff to a new state-owned-enterpises CEO. I can assure you that experience taught me more about life and business than anything else. I will share those lessons here.
How did I, as a principal, lead teams that were almost always mostly older than me? How did I build a career on dramatic insights for clients? What is an insight? Is it enough to have insights? How did I differentiate myself from so many other great colleagues? What was I known for such that CEOs explicitly asked for me and sought my counsel?
Now, I am not saying I was always right. Some of my insights were not great, but I want to explain why insightful partners sometimes have bad insights and why this is a good thing.
What did I do as a 26 year old when I arrived 45 minutes late for a meeting with arguably the most powerful man in the City of London? And this was entirely my fault. How did I end up building a relationship with him?
How did I manage one of the most risky stages of my career when, as a senior associate, my team made a major mistake for the firm’s most important client in the sector and the partner forbade me from meeting the client before he, the partner, discussed the mistake with the client?
The risky move above worked but what happened when other risky moves failed. What about the time the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world did not want me to work for his firm. Did it hurt my career? Yes. Did it end my career? No, because I became director 6 months later. How does one manage these rollercoaster experiences? I do not have all the answers but I will explain what I did and how it worked for me.
How did I build a career and develop a reputation for consistently developing insights that no one else could see and, this is critical, getting them accepted and implemented at clients?
How did I transfer from an emerging markets office to the UK, USA etc. without losing momentum in my career? How did I, an emerging markets partner, end up becoming the lead partner for a multi-billion dollar market cap US client? What specialization did I need to take in the emerging markets to help me develop skills that are sought in the USA/Canada?
I can tell you right now I had no unique knowledge or answers. I thought differently and communicated in a different way. That was the difference. Do you know my very first trip to the US was to speak to the five most powerful US CEOs in their sector? It was a hit. My next chance to speak to 4 of the most powerful US CEOs in their sector was a disaster. Why did this happen and what did I learn?
How did I network throughout my career? I was a terrible networker. I would spend evenings during partner meetings in my hotel room watching movies. Why did it not matter to my career?
Did I sell as a partner? If so, was it a direct sales technique? How did I lead the efforts to secure the privilege of serving one of the firm’s most important clients?
I discuss why, as a new principal, I was sent in to turnaround one of the most important offices in Latin America and why, as an EM, I was selected from consultants worldwide to help a prominent Asian office lead their efforts to help the national government prepare a strategy in preparation for a pending free trade agreement. I, thereafter, ended up planning a major role restructuring that office. How did this happen and, more importantly, why did it happen?
You will find it has nothing to do with self promotion and/or asking for opportunities.
When do you stand up for the firm’s values? The series will offer numerous examples where I made counter-intuitive and unpopular decisions, even at the associate level: electing not to serve a client, dismissing a European team of consultants for poor professionalism, removing consultants from a study despite tight deadlines, disagreeing with a client etc. When did I take a stand and what did it do to me?
It was not always good for my career and I was not always right.
How did I end up leading the firm’s diversity efforts, and actually succeeding at it with just one act? By the way, this was not a planned strategy. I was just lucky but the point of this particular episode is to know how to identify and benefit from luck.
How did I manage extreme resistance within the offices when I pushed for higher standards and a different quality of work? Why did I stop the region from matching salary increases by other elite rival firms?
How important is getting along with your colleagues? Do you know I had virtually no friends below the EM level? Why did this not heavily impact my career? What did I do to compensate for it? How is it that all my friends were partners?
In a firm of ultra-achievers how did I differentiate myself?
In other words, what are those key skills passed down from partner to partner that have never been captured in any books?
What you will find is that I have made a lot of mistakes throughout my career. Despite these numerous mistakes I went all the way to become a director. This is because the mistakes were less important than the career strategy deployed.
I want to build on the key reason for doing this series, as I mentioned above. Many talented and promising future management consultants think they can never succeed because they do not have the polish, intellect and panache of well-rounded partners. These individuals never bother applying or, in the best case scenario, quit McKinsey/BCG because they believe they could never go all the way given the mistakes they have already made.
This is a tragedy for the industry because potentially great future partners leave. This series will show you that it is okay to make lots of mistakes, how to learn, how to adjust and how to succeed. Perfection is not essential in everything. It is essential at just the right things.
Mistakes earlier in your career are not an indication of how you will likely perform as a partner, or even if you will become a partner. The past is not always a predictor for the future and you need not have a platinum resume with elite schools on it to succeed and be promoted far ahead of the average consultant.
I will teach you the things I had to learn the hard way. In effect, the things I wish partners had told me earlier. Later in my career it became easier as partners directly mentored me, but those first 3 years were painful.
The series will run chronologically covering the 7 titles/levels I held before I left the firm. The episodes in each title will be preceded by a discussion on the key themes/lessons that will recur throughout.
I will also discuss critical roles I had such as redesigning the corporate strategy training program, my appointment to the operating committee, my subsequent appointment to the management committee and my role in the the firm’s efforts to help major global clients on critical strategy issues. The series will cover engagements from around the world including the emerging markets, USA, UK and Canada.
For consistency I will use McKinsey terminology throughout; McKinsey terms are simply better known and increase one’s understanding.
- Business Analyst: Internal Research
- Business Analyst: Engagements
- Associate (first COO client)
- Engagement Manager (first CEO client, rebuilding a practice)
- Associate Principal (first US client)
- Principal (appointment to MANCO)
- Director (appointment to EXCO)
I understand the difficulties of succeeding. I was born in the emerging markets. Joining the elite firms in the emerging markets is very difficult. To continue my development I had to move beyond emerging markets clients to serving clients in the US, UK etc. That is very difficult to do. Transferring to a Western office without derailing one’s career is tough. While there I had to find a way to flourish without becoming just another foreigner who did not make it. I had to find a way to earn the trust of Western executives. Thereafter, I had to find a way to actually lead the relationships with CEOs. Managing all of this was very difficult and I had no guide. I made many mistakes. This is something I accomplished and I want to teach you how I did it.
Consultants from India, China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Romania etc. rarely reach this level of success in the West. And if they do, it is usually because they studied in the West and thereafter “earned their stripes” working their way up through engagements in the USA. It is very hard to succeed in the West unless you are educated in the West, and even a Western education is no guarantee of success. Thousands of MBAs learn this every year. This also applies to a-typical US profiles. Students/consultants who do not fit the stereotypical profile of an elite consultant are going to face the same problems as foreigners trying to succeed in the West. In fact, it may be worse for them.
I did not follow the typical path at all but I managed to progress in the West a lot faster than many of my Western peers because of many things I did differently. That is what I want to discuss in great detail: how an unusual background can be an advantage with clients. Those who have the typical consultant profile in the West will also benefit enormously from this program because they will learn that there is actually a better way to do things than they may have imagined. A way that leads to a faster promotion and better relationships with clients.
My tough path explains why I feel it is my personal duty to find and nurture the next generation of partners whom will go on to solve mankind’s most pressing issues. People like Sanda, Irina, Sveta etc. People deserve a chance and not everyone can easily obtain it.
Access to this Program
This program is exclusively available to Firmsconsulting Insiders.
1. Introduction to the training program
2. Why am I doing this program?
3. 4 Recurring themes throughout my career
4. Things to keep in mind
5. Understanding the role of your background and family influence
6. The myth of extra-curricular activities
7. Solving big and meaningful problems
8. Pursue great roles vs. remake bad roles
9. Good opportunities are never handed out
10. Soft skills matter. Period
11. Having extremely high standards
12. Take calculated risks to strategically break rules
13. Nothing is so bad you cannot fix it
14. Learn, learn and learn: be a shark and keep moving
15. Do not have an ego
16. Accountability vs. responsibility
17. Test the assumptions
18. What is an insight?
19. Finding a mentor
20. Build a team; aggressively and from day one / no credit and no record
21. What should you be learning?
22. Staying in formation / following a strategy
23. How to arrange your life to implement your strategy?
24. Confidence and courage
25. Fully committing to the present study while building for the future
26. Learning vs. Deploying: they are different / office selection strategy
27. Productivity by prioritization
28. Managing upwards
29. Debate champion tactics: not a rebuttal
30. Changing the rules: gaining clients in the UK, Canada and USA
31. Do not be distracted with social/internal work
32. Keep political/social/religious/ethnicity views to yourself
33. Be known for something. Have a serious spike. Demonstrate Competency
34. Be different. Be an iconoclast but back it up
35. Being Minority
36. Always position/do things w.r.t. what is good for the firm
37. Why mentioning these negative experiences?
38. Racism theme
39. Math, Physics and Chemical Thermodynamics influence
More to come…
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