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Best piece of consulting career advice to give younger self

This weekend a thought crossed my mind, if I could give myself a piece of advice when I was just starting out my management consulting career, what would it be?

I thought about it for a while. I also discussed them a little with Michael. Many things matter to make it in consulting. Determination, resilience, a certain level of knowledge – which became increasingly important as I moved up the ranks – intelligence, time management, to name a few.

However, one specific and, fortunately, completely in my control element of success stood out for me: the importance of managing my image.

Building a relatively successful management consulting career required me to carefully tailor my message to gain an advantage over my colleagues. I remember when I joined and rejoined the firms; during the first few months I had conversations with a lot of coworkers, especially the second time around, as I was joining at a higher level.

Consulting is a collegial environment. People talk to newcomers a lot. Many of them do it to measure you up to see if you are a threat. I knew a large part of my reputation would be based on how I manage those conversations, in addition, of course, to my work. I had to be smart here. I had to only say things that positioned me for a successful consulting career with the firm.

Appear to follow the partnership track

People like to ask “how long do you plan to stay with the firm?” or “what are your career aspirations?” Even if you are not certain if management consulting career is right for you and you are planning to consider leaving in a year, my advice is don’t say it. Say that you want to realize your potential and this seems like the right organization to allow you to do just that.

Becoming a partner is clearly not in your control and it is very tough to achieve this, but you need to show commitment.

I believe this is important because everything you say may and likely will get back to the senior people who hired you. Those people are still considering if you are a hiring mistake or a partner material. If you are not committed to make a partner one day, or at least to stick around for a few years, you automatically put yourself in the other category, the category of “people who are not important to the future of this firm”.

You have to be careful here, of course. You don’t want to bluntly lie. What I find helpful is to remember that less than full disclosure is not the same as deception.

You may think this makes sense when I am talking to superiors but not to peers. I would argue that it makes sense regardless of whom you are talking to. Everything you say to peers may be passed to superiors. If you said it, it is out there. You cannot change it.

And remember, your peers are your competition. Their most likely agenda is to not get managed out of the firm during the next evaluation. Don’t give people ammunition to hurt you.

Assume everything you say will be shared

I also learned the importance of never saying anything negative about my superiors, even if it is true and if I am talking to people who say negative things about the same superiors! I repeatedly learned that you just don’t know whom you can trust. Also, even if you can trust certain people, they can still put you in trouble without trying to do so on purpose.

For example, they can see you are back in the office on Friday and come over and ask you something that will make it obvious to people around you that you were complaining or saying something negative about your project manager or about the project. This can be detrimental to your management consulting career. As mentioned in a previous article I wrote, if you want to have a successful management consulting career you cannot allow a build-up of negativity around your name.

I remember when I was working as a banker I trusted one colleague and shared with him, in private, that I don’t find the office environment to be positive and work stimulating. To be honest I absolutely hated my job, to my very bones, and I allowed this guy to see a glimpse of how I really felt, mostly because he was sharing a similar sentiment with me.

After that one time of sharing my true opinion about my job over coffee, and making it very clear that this is “just between us”, he numerous times came over to me while we were in the office and asked me in front of my colleagues, loudly, if things are getting better at work, if I find work more interesting these days, and if I am happier with the culture.

I am not sure if he was not smart enough to realize that he was putting me in trouble or if he did it on purpose, but the fact is he made me look bad on numerous occasions because I shared with him my honest opinion, in private, trusting that he will be discreet about it.

Needless to say, our young friendship had a short life, all thanks to his inconsiderate or quite senseless behavior.

Mindset of a leader

Up to now I focused on what not to say to ensure the right reputation is created around one’s name, which I found to be crucial for accelerating my management consulting career. Now let’s look at what we should be saying.

I still don’t do it at all times, but it is crucially important to talk and think like a leader. As much as you possibly can.

I think it is vital to act as if you are one or two levels up. For example, if you are an associate, act like an engagement manager. Whenever I forget, I ask myself a simple question, “Do you think a strong leader complains to junior employees about anything?”

The answer is, of course, “No”.  A strong manager leads, tries to inspire and represents the firm when communicating with junior employees.

If I want to become a senior leader within the firm, I need to lay down the foundation for it now. No matter how junior I am, and I am not that junior, I can develop a reputation of a greater leader.

You may disagree with me on the importance of acting like one level up, so here is my rationale. In addition to helping build the right type of reputation, this also helps to stand out during evaluations.

If you want to be promoted to engagement manager, demand from yourself this level of performance while you are still a senior consultant. Management consulting is very competitive. Many of your colleagues want the very same promotion spot that you want.

Who do you think will get it? A consultant that is everyone’s friend, one of the guys, the one who wants to be liked by everyone or someone who is driven, going above and beyond and clearly performing at the next level?

We come back here to a simple truth that really resonates with me. Am I here to make friends or to build a successful management consulting career? This is something I struggle with, as I seem to always look for new friends. But at the end of the day I have to decide what is more important to me.

What helps is to remember, in management consulting not getting promoted often means being pushed out of the firm as a hiring mistake.

Again, I am not saying that we should be unfriendly. I am saying, we should be good people, but remember that this is the game where only few will win. We need to play to win.

Be confident but humble

Another area I always try to focus on when tailoring my message is avoidance of hubris. I love the old Japanese saying, “Even monkeys fall from trees”. This basically means that anyone can make a mistake and no matter how good you think you are, you also can fail and “lose face”.

And if I am even slightly arrogant and I fail, I will feel more humiliated and people will be less forgiving.

Management consulting firms have different cultures. Some are more arrogant than others. However, in my experience, none of the firms reward arrogance. It is not a quality that people like, even if they are arrogant themselves.

Besides, to be a great management consultant, we cannot be arrogant. Arrogance will be an obstacle to our performance.  We are searching for solutions. We need to be humble in order to have motivation to dig deeper, think broader and question our assumptions.

Therefore, I always strive to be confident but humble. I try to always have a conviction, without any shadow of a doubt, that I am smart and competent, yet I make a point to appreciate things that are going right in my consulting career and remember that I also can fail.

Interact with seniors from the position of strength

Another essential point, in my opinion, when it comes to building a successful management consulting career is the importance of approaching interactions with clients, with partners, or with other senior colleagues from the position of strength.

It is crucial to never feel desperate, never allow ourselves to feel that we are less important than a partner or a client, and not be concerned too much with what superiors think of us.

In most firms partners are treated as kings. Everyone is running around them. Some people are literally running to please them, without any apparent reason. I have seen this!

I remember one of my colleagues got an email from a consulting partner asking her to meet him in his office. It was not urgent, he just wanted to discuss an upcoming project, and I saw her running there, literally running, on her stilettos, looking like saw a table cloth catch fire and she was rushing to put it out.

How do you think it looks to an outside world? It looks like you do not consider yourself important.

As Michael said in a recent podcast, we need to look like someone who is a young CEO in training.

I think it is important to remember that the only difference between a partner and yourself is that they are further along into their life’s journey. They once were in our shoes. They were junior employees just like us. And while they have status, experience, and somewhat nice offices, we have youth, energy and likely more time on this planet still ahead of us.

And, to be quite frank, what will you choose if one day, when you are 50 years old, someone offered you to jump 20 years back, to the time when you were an associate principal or engagement manager, and live those 20 years all over again?

I am convinced I would choose jumping. So if you think about it, we are actually in a better position than partners or other people more senior than us. We have every right to approach every interaction with them from the position of strength.

This is an area I still struggle with and work on. I truly believe that we should not allow ourselves to feel intimidated or too concerned with what senior colleagues and clients think of us. At the end of the day, it is what you think of yourself that will determine how far you will go in life, not what they think.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What is the best piece of consulting career advice you would give to your younger self? Please let us know in the comments.

Image from Nikos Roussos under cc.

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