Competition in the workplace is the reality at any high performing organization, be it Amazon, McKinsey, BCG, Bain or Google. So if you want to work at a leading organization its impossible to avoid having to compete with your colleagues.
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, let’s 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 engagement leadership.
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 a few points that I found effective in dealing with this situation.
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.
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.
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.
Do important pieces of analysis 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.
For example, when someone completed an analysis 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 real priorities, which tend to be visible.
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.
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.
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.
However, make sure you do not burn out. Ensure you are getting sufficient sleep and taking advantage of opportunities to rest when you can.
If you work very hard, enough 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 overnight. I pushed extremely hard and delivered the business case on time. After that, I could take things easy for a few hours to recover.
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.
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 the 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 the 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 the client and to project leaders and you are seen as someone who displays leadership potential and looks out for the team.
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. As we mentioned above, competition in the workplace is something unavoidable when it comes to high performing, leading organizations like McKinsey, BCG and other leading companies. 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.”
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Image from Jesus Solana under CC license.