I recently had a few discussions with Michael about a high-performing associate at the firm who was overshadowing me. Michael invited me to contribute this article based on my experiences and the actions I took to differentiate myself and change my profile. While it took a few months for the results to show, I was eventually able to build a very strong profile for myself and receive numerous positive endorsements from partners and directors.

I was recently staffed on a project that would last for a few months and, therefore, my performance on this engagement was very important for my standing in the firm.

A guy on that project, lets call him Mike, was at the associate level and had a legendary reputation. Many felt that Mike was one level below the level he should have been at. In fact it was not clear why he was an associate since he already had many years of experience after MBA. I am not entirely sure about the rules for hiring experienced hires since they tend to differ from office to office and even between countries.

Mike was very pleasant, with everyone who was more senior than him, smart, clearly too mature and even too old to be an associate. He probably was in his mid to late 30s.

This high-flyer had established a great reputation with the study engagement manager and partner, while I never worked with any members of the team before this engagement. Mike was a go-to guy for the engagement leadership.

How do you deal with this if you are at a similar level as Mike but, on this project, for all intended purposes, just “helping” while Mike is running the show?

When you are on a team with someone who has an amazing reputation and who outshines you, you need to commit to getting an edge. It will not happen overnight.

Below are few points that I found effective in dealing with this situation.

1. Don’t rock the boat

The high-performing consultant has an established reputation. You don’t. Try to establish your reputation. If your life and your journey in management consulting can be seen as a movie, my advice is to stay in your own movie.

Don’t pay attention to how good the star consultant is and how your input is ignored. Just pay attention to what you can control to display your excellence and to contribute to the team’s success in a way that is visible to the engagement leadership and to the client.

2. Learn from the high-performing consultant

You need to learn from this outstanding consultant. Watch what he does. This is a great opportunity to learn what makes this person appear as a star performer and emulate it.

Also remember that since you are in management consulting it is most likely that you will not work with this person for a long time. Soon you will be staffed on another engagement and will have an opportunity to utilize things you learned from this high-performing consultant.

3. Come up with a plan to outshine this consultant over time

Try to find where you have a competitive advantage that will allow you to do things that he or she cannot.

For example, maybe you know industry experts that can provide valuable information for your project. Maybe you know people within the firm that can share prior deliverables that will be very helpful for your engagement. Try to see where you are strong and leverage those areas.

Remember “there is only one number 1”. Everyone at your level is your competition.

4. Be on the look out for opportunities to own important pieces of work

Do important pieces of analyses to make yourself visible. When you work on important analyses you will end up sending it to senior people and sometimes to the client, since you will hold the master document.

You will also be working on something that everyone will be reviewing and providing input for, so the quality of your work will be visible and your level of effort will be well known.

5. Limit doing things that are not visible

For example, when someone completed an analyses on the engagement I would spend hours making their work better, for the benefit of the team. The thing is the engagement manager or partner does not know I am doing it and, as a result, I get no credit for it.

So I have to limit the amount of effort I dedicate to invisible work. I have to find a balance between helping the team and focusing on the real priorities, which tend to be visible.

6. Act as if this engagement is the most important thing for you

You need to show an unbelievable level of commitment, and go above and beyond what is expected, in every visible way possible, to leave no reasonable doubt about your level of performance.

7. Speak up but be conscious of your impact

Speak during meetings but be careful. Since you do not have an established reputation with the engagement partner, or your reputation is not as strong as that of a high performing consultant, try to emulate the communication style of someone on your team who is clearly very successful.

8. Always be ready to present at client meetings

However, again be careful. You can get into a lot of trouble if you present poorly or if you come across as aggressive. Be very polite, be ready to change your work if the client raises any objections, however many times they ask you to change it, and follow the lead of the engagement manager and partner. Try to emulate the way they communicate with the client.

9. Be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave, within reason

However, make sure you do not burn out. Ensure you are getting sufficient sleep and taking advantages of opportunities to rest when you can.

10. Your engagement manager and partner must see themselves in you

If you work very hard, enough of senior people will see themselves in you and will want to help you.

The difference between being exceptional and average is not that big in terms of the effort required. What you need is to mobilize your focus on the engagement in critical times and consistently over deliver. In the downtime, you can take breaks almost as much as the average consultants.

For example, I once had to write a proposal in 5 hours for a client I never met on a type of study with which I was not familiar. I pushed extremely hard. There was almost no eating and no breaks during those 5 hours. Just like a 5-hour exam. Once I delivered the proposal, I could relax and get some rest.

Another example was when I had to deliver a business case over night. I pushed extremely hard and delivered the business case on time. After that I could take things easy for a few hours to recover.

11. Take rest when you can, to avoid burnout

Engagement leaders or client should not be commenting on you looking tired or your hands shaking. You need to look like you can handle the pressure and know how to balance your work and life priorities.

12. Look for opportunities to shine and exploit them

Use every opportunity to show that you care about the team and that you are a leader.

As an example, you can share a great idea that will help improve the relationship with the client. Let’s say you are based in the client’s office for the duration of the engagement and client is planning a baby shower for an employee on the client’s team. Everyone on the client’s team is bringing gifts. Your team has no plan for it and the engagement leaders don’t even know that your team was invited for the baby shower.

You can send an email to engagement partner and CC your team suggesting to buy something on behalf of your engagement team and expense it. Then, once you get a go ahead from your engagement partner or director you can decide what you will buy, send an email to a client confirming that your team will attend, and CC your team.

Let’s analyze this situation. It was a piece of cake, no work at all, to send those emails, buy the gift and expense it. Yet you are visible to client and to project leaders and you are seen as someone who displays leadership potential and looks out for the team.

13. Build a relationship with the top performing consultant

This is an opportunity for you to build a relationship with this consultant. Who knows, this relationship could turn into an amazing friendship for life. You need to surround yourself with exceptional people to up your game and working on an engagement with someone is a great opportunity to build a relationship, given the common long hours and intense level of teamwork.

Look at the bright side in this situation, you can learn to be an even better management consultant. You will also learn to leverage every ounce of advantage you have.

Also this consultant may soon leave the firm, given the high turnover in consulting. You just have to outlast him or her, which is not hard in consulting.

Since your career is a marathon, not a sprint, there is no reason to panic. You just need to make sure that every day your level of performance brings you closer and closer to the star performer status.

It is like Will Smith once said, “You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. You don’t start there. You say, I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”

Image from Jesus Solana under CC license

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Comments

5 responses to Competing with a high-performing consultant

  1. This is excellent advice Nauruz. We especially liked the detailed examples from your own experience.
    Michael

  2. Hi Nauruz,
    We will think about this. Thank you.
    Michael

  3. My 2 cents to the article as I have recently experienced a similar situation.

    You could consider following questions:

    1) Luck or consistency. Why he/she outperforms you? Is he generally better or just was lucky to get a more significant project? Did he get a project that is more aligned with his experience and skills?

    2) Nature of performance. What is he better in? Is it modelling or presenting complex things in a simple way? Maybe he is just a native speaker and easily builds relationships with supervisor? Stop here and make sure you are not biased.

    3) Opportunities to shine. If you are an MBA, probably, you are an ambitious person. Don’t try to outshine anyone in modelling, building slides etc. The advantage that you can develop and benefit from in any organization regardless of your role is in the insights that you can generate. This is the big thing that Firmsconsulting helped me learn. To give an example:

    Story: {At a marketing meeting your supervisor talks about the aggregated weekly e-marketing results. You are a new employee and have completely failed to achieve the expected milestone (#sents, clicks, downloads etc.). The whole meeting is based on the discussion of your failure. Don’t explain why you failed. Analyze the failure and present insights in a consulting way, e.g.: “There are 3 hits and misses that I learnt from my first message. I prepared one slide that would summarize them. By the way, this is the way I’m going to approach all e-marketing messages”. Talk through the slide and raise a point that no one has ever considered. You can have two easy to see misses and hits, but the 3rd one should spark the interest of CEO. Now, everyone discusses your insights. No one considers your message a failure anymore, everyone is happy you actually did those mistakes because it lead to such insights.}

    Do you always have to invent new ways to deliver insights? No. The previous one was based on an article from McKinsey (“Why marketers should keep sending you emails”) and on a suggestion of Michael about providing recommendations in a case (3 reasonable and one original). If you took solely the 3rd insight, it might not have been that strong, but because of the strong delivery, it appeared very good. You don’t have to be exceptional to be exceptional, you just have to read necessary material and be willing to do more.

    4) Look broader and ask “3 whys”. Michael has a “So what” podcast that he applies in a different context, but once you internalize a great advice, you would be able to apply it in multiple different ways, for example:

    Story: {Your objective is to identify best-selling products using sales data. Answer the question, but also go beyond it. Let’s say you did, and you found that profile of your average client has changed – now you sell more products to smaller companies than you 2 years ago.

    Ask why(1)? Don’t immediately go to the manager if you think the insight is good. If it is, he would ask why this is so? Check yourself and you gonna find that the industry is consolidating, drugs are going off patent, large companies are under litigation and heavily involved in spin-offs. Are you a consulting firm that delivers cost-cutting projects? If not, this would explain why your average client has changed. Done? No, ask if our sales efforts are aligned with this insight.

    If not, ask why(2)? Well, now you find that the firm has been building in house CRM database for 2 decades and 80% of it consists of contacts from large firms that represented 70% of all sales 5 years ago. Don’t we have external CRM? Yes we do, then why (3) are we so heavily using internal database? It’s because someone from the management takes a big pride in it, has been building it over years, knows hundreds of people in that database and always recommends sales people to use it.
    That’s it? No, ask why (4) sales people haven’t noticed that internal database is not so efficient? It could appear that it’s because of retention – on average a sales rep stays with a company for less than 8 months and doesn’t pass his insights to other sales reps or doesn’t have time to compare two databases. Anything else? Yes, there were many other things to add}.

    It may take you weeks before you figure all this out, but a simple “our average profile of client has changed” potentially turned into a session that can really impress your supervisor. Did you have any particular skills? No, just ask correct questions.

  4. Please pass my thanks to the writer.
    I was thinking, maybe the “Quarterly” could be renamed to smth like “Articles”? It seems that this section has changed from what it used to be when you named it quarterly.

  5. Loved it ! Thanks for sharing the lesson learned.

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