It will surprise many that I led the firm to win a multi-million dollar signature energy strategy study for a potential crown jewel client when I was just a consultant. It certainly surprised me when it happened.
And when I say led, I mean thinking through the approach, writing the letter of purpose, leading the teams and presenting to the client. I was not just part of the team. I was leading the entire effort from start to finish. Most consultants simply do the background research or write the letter of purpose/proposal.
That kind of good fortune is a result of luck, persistence and being in the right place at the right time. In this piece, I want to talk about how I did this and possibly how you can replicate this in your career.
I had been transferred to this office for just 3 months. I was not well known; one of the youngest consultants in the firm and this office was very operationally focused. Operations were not my area of expertise so consultants, partners and clients with operations work dominated the discussions.
I also think I had previously made some disparaging remarks about operations work when I had been on a previous study, and a manager who worked with me on that study, was actually a manager in this new office. I suspect he told the other consultants of my views.
I know it bothered him because he brought it up at lunch in front of the other consultants. All hope of becoming popular in that new office dissipated after this scene.
I would say the office partner also saw me as a bit of a wildcard. I suspect, he had heard of some of my great work in energy but felt I was an unknown quantity. In my previous office, I would be called on to provide input on various client issues.
In this office, I was not even invited to any planning meetings. Now, it is very unusual for an consultants to be invited to client planning sessions at all, but since I had proven myself before, that privilege was sometimes extended to me on clients where I had worked previously.
In fact, I was previously involved in all discussions when we were dealing with the COO for a major client. In this new office, where we dealt with the operating divisions of the same client, I was not invited.
In fact, the one meeting I did ask to attend – basically forced myself in it -I was pretty much ignored and rather than work with a team which did not want me I drifted around the office. So there I was, with a background in energy and the energy team did not want me.
Clearly I had a lot of time on my hands.
So, along comes this unusual request from the government agency running the energy sector.
The problem was actually quite simple. During peak travel periods like Easter, Christmas and Spring break, the gasoline stations in cities far away from the refineries would run out of gasoline.
This was having a dramatic ripple effect on growth. Consumer vacation and consumer spending were down. Travel in the core business districts were also down as cars were lining up for blocks to collect gasoline. Aviation travel was down due to flight cancellations driven my delays in fuel, or a spike in fuel prices that made tickers more expensive.
Investor sentiment was down since the belief was that the countries infrastructure could not manage the growth.
Fuel supply issues were allegedly impacting the country’s image and growth. However, the problem had more to do with an energy strategy.
Public sector clients almost always have to tender for consulting studies. Procurement rules forbid them from simply appointing McKinsey for a study, unless there is an executive order to do so. Such orders tend to be rare, since the government can eventually be accused of favoritism or not obtaining the best deal for the public.
A government would rather avoid that since tender irregularities tend to be major news items and they are never flattering.
This study was the same. We were not the preferred consulting firm and it would go to a tender. I believe Bain was the preferred firm for the study.
So it was going to be a long shot. The reason we were not the preferred firm was rather easy to understand. There were two main reasons.
First, the government agency running this ministry used an advisory council consisting of the CEO’s of the major energy companies. Bain had done work for most of these companies and their CEOs wanted Bain to get the work.
Their main reason was that Bain already had access to the data and the CEOs saw no reason to give their data to yet another consulting firm. At least, that is what I can assume.
Second, the partner running the office had used a rather unusual strategy to try and bolster our presence in the energy sector. He had hired a number of ex-CEO’s of the energy companies. This created a lot of problems.
These retired executives were rather abrasive and disparaging of the government and its policies and I felt the partner did not contain them. He allowed them to voice their opinions, not realizing they represented the firm at times.
These former CEOs also have a very adversarial relationship with the new CEOs. Some of the former CEOs had been forced out and this bitterness was definitely showing through. Then, as I do now, do not believe advisory councils should have a client-facing role.
While advisory councils in consulting firms bring some value in helping us understand issues and sectors, they are not vetted to the firm’s standards and should be given the responsibility of building our relationships among clients. That is the role of a partner.
How did I arrive on this effort to go after this client and the energy strategy study?
The simple answer is that in such a small office with so many close bonds, I was the odd person out, not favored by the office partner and therefore not favored by anyone. With energy being such a large portion of the work done in the office, the office partner’s views on a consultant carried a lot of weight.
Although I had a energy strategy background, I was really an unknown quantity to this office. That is one challenge from moving offices as a consultant. You really have never had the time to build the necessary networks.
So I was resigned to helping on internal stuff. And not the glamorous stuff for high-profile clients. I was given all the stuff no one wanted.
This was no different. No one likes public sector clients and no one wanted to do it. So I was placed on the team. It was just myself and an associate principal who, from what I can gather was also not well liked and seemed to have fairly weak skills as a thinker and leader.
In all honesty, he seemed as out of place as I was. At this time I was seriously considering returning to my last office, but I did not want to leave just yet. I felt 3 months was too little time on which to make a decision. Moreover, no sane partner would sign a transfer notice after just 3 months.
There was a great benefit to working on an unpopular sector. None of the stars in the office wanted to go near it. Therefore, I was afforded far more control, responsibility and even client exposure than I should have received.
If this had been Exxon, the office partner would have been involved and the office’s top consultants would have controlled everything on the energy strategy work. I would have been quickly stymied and squeezed out.
This is a lesson I learned throughout my career. If you want to make a name for yourself, do the work no one else wants to do.
Three of the former CEO’s from the advisory council were also assigned to the proposal. Meeting them was a jarring experience. They had unbridled contempt for the government agency and in my opinion used too much derogatory language to describe the client. They believed the government had no energy strategy in place and was simply destroying the sector.
I do believe some clients are extremely difficult to manage. However, I believe we should treat them with respect. I also learned in this study that the private sector typically assumes the public sector is incompetent, lazy and wasteful.
To me, this explained why we were not doing more for the public sector in the energy space.
The associate principal was not a strong person. He was nice but not decisive and liked to please everyone. He gave in too much to the ex-CEOs. In that first meeting the CEOs sketched a list of things they thought should be done to fix the problem, and wanted to build our approach around this.
Most of it made sense, but it was anecdotal, and having no background in the liquid fuels sector, I could not know if they were right. However, I could clearly see they had already developed solutions to the problem with zero analyses.
The associate principal would simply nod his head and agree.
Now, since the associate principal was fairly busy in another study out of the city, I was the point person on this and I was the person leading all the work.
I believe it surprised most of the participants in that first meeting when I said, “this is all excellent information and I need to think about how I will incorporate this into the study structure.” I strongly believed the study should focus on the analyses and not simply offering the client solutions from the collective memories of 3 geriatric sector experts.
After the meeting, the associate principal talked to me about incorporating as much of the advisors’ feedback as possible, but I pushed back stating that we should do it, but only as a guide to our analyses and not merely offering their advice as gospel.
I personally do not believe he agreed with me or even accepted my thinking, but since no one else wanted to do the work, he really had no choice but to hope I would follow the plan.
In fact, the very next day he called me to say he spoke to the office partner who agreed with him and they wanted to see a proposal roughly along the lines of what was discussed in the meeting with the advisors.
At the time, we knew we were not the preferred firm, we knew there was a preferred firm, but we did not know it was Bain specifically. Some of us suspected it was Bain. The associate principal thought it was Booz.
I treated the proposal development like a study. I knew there would be a panel from the client to whom we would need to present and they would need to make the decision. So my first task was not to start on a proposal, but to see if I could get access to the panel.
And that is what I did. I told the associate principal we should meet the panel, which he was not sure was a good idea, but agreed anyway because he also did not think it was “terribly poor form.”
Those were his words. He was British.
So, I arranged a meeting with each of the eight panel members. The meetings ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours in one case.
The panel consisted of a sub-set of the sub-committee on energy, which advised the secretary of energy. So they were quite senior and influential.
Preparing our interview questions was crucial. In strategy studies, I noticed how important it was to understand the underlying reason why the study was being undertaken. In some ways the associate principal and I worked very well together here.
First, I wanted to get to the underlying reasons from a sector efficiency levels, and he, rightly, wanted to know what good could look like from an operating level. Both were important so some of the initial tension we had dissipated through these interviews when we both saw the value of working together from both sides.
One thing did not make much sense to me. If some of the cities were running low on liquid fuel, why not simply bring more in. That seemed rather obvious as a solution. Why did they need a full study to see this through?
The associate principal, who was very strong in operations, believed that the refineries could not handle the additional volume and this study was really about determining whether the refineries could handle the capacity. That seemed reasonable to me. The private companies owned the refineries.
Now, you may think this is a naïve way to open the questions in the interview but that is exactly what I did. We had a hypothesis that there was an operational reason why this could not be done but still wanted to test it.
Of course, you need to ask this question without sounding like a 5-year old.
The interviews went very well. They opened our minds to strategy issues we had not considered. In fact, we found out the request for a proposal had little to do with the proposal wording.
The refineries were at the mouth of a major river and controlled by the private sector. All 3 of the pipelines funneling liquid fuel to the largest industrial and urban areas, from the refineries, were owned by the state. The depots in the industrial areas collecting the liquid fuels were partially stated owned and partially private sector owned.
The transportation network that distributed the fuel from the depots consisted of gasoline stations and specialist supply points at airports and so one. These are all privately owned but the price of fuel was state mandated.
There was no volatility in this sector and this pleased the private sector. That is because they made more money when prices drop at the gas station. That sounds counter-intuitive but is easy to explain.
When the price of gas drops, their supply costs go down but the price they charge customers, which is set by the state control board, stays the same for about 2 to 3 weeks while the state decides what to do. During this time they reap the bounty.
So the problem was that the government wanted to keep funneling fuel through the pipelines because they received a substantial cut of the volume distributed as a co-owner of the depot. Therefore the government wanted to build a new pipeline since more volume meant more profits.
The oil companies were unwilling to expand new capacity at the refineries because they felt they were paying too high a price to the pipeline to move the fuel, and they were upset that the state control board could be dismantled, thereby introducing volatility to gas prices and passing losses straight to the gas stations.
Now, the proposal request simply stated that the study should eliminate the fuel supply shortfalls.
However, the true purpose of the study was to understand the economic impact of the different ways to structure the sector. In particular, the study was actually being commissioned to determine whether or not the pipeline extensions should be done by the state or the private sector.
This was a broader energy strategy study and not a simple fuel supply chain problem.
Of the entire cost to restructure the sector, that would be the largest and no one would do anything until that decision was made.
That was deliberately not in the proposal request since the committee felt it would attract lobbying firms from both sides and they wanted the study to indirectly answer this question.
This was an excellent insight. Now we knew how we could go about positioning the study, and some of the potential landmines to navigate.
I wanted to talk about public sector studies since they are widely misunderstood and misinterpreted when it comes to firms pursuing them. Consulting firms only hurt themselves in the process.
The first insight is that a public sector strategy study is rarely if ever looking for what is listed in the request for a proposal. Governments work by committees so the initial reason, which comes from the Ministers offices, tends to get watered down as it works its way down the ranks.
To prevent accusations of bias and malice, anything controversial is stripped out of the proposal request. In fact, the proposal request is merely a list of technical specifications and technical objectives. Why the proposal exists is deliberately excluded.
That is generally why lobbyists exist: to understand and manipulate the real drivers behind a proposal or policy. If we could stop suing the government for writing what they felt, lobbyists would not be needed.
But there is a reason for this. “Fuel supply strategy” or “energy strategy study” is a sound bite that the government can sell to the public. We can understand it. Who would rail against securing energy supplies?
The government cannot build a narrative and case for change for “restructuring the energy sector.” That is too complex and we, the public, would never understand, let alone, support it.
The second insight is that it is absolutely critical to understand the rules of extracting more information from the committee. We were really lucky in this situation. The rules, which I did not read at the time, stated that any bidding firm could meet the committee if they so wished.
However, if questions were submitted to the committee in writing, the answers would have been shared with everyone. That is a pretty strange rule, but rules like that exist all the time on public sector bids. If we had lacked confidence and merely wrote in our questions, we would have probably ended up sharing our crucial findings with everyone.
Every single public sector committee evaluating a study will have their own quirky rules. You need to understand them and use them for your benefit.
The third insight is that public sector proposals and the underlying strategy are very complex to understand. You need to constantly ask yourself “what if” all the time:
What if the study said the private pipeline would be beneficial?
What if the study said the public pipeline would be beneficial?
What if the study said neither was the problem?
You need to consider which stakeholder will benefit and lose in each option. You need to be very careful to not show a bias to any one stakeholder or they will vote against you.
Why does this matter so much?
The reality is that while Bain appeared to have the upper hand, our interviews demonstrated that they were seen as biased. When we initially received the proposal we assumed this was a simple study to improve refinery capacity.
In that case, Bain was well entrenched with the private sectors refineries and we assumed the government would pick them to expedite the study since they already had the data and understood the refinery operations.
However, when we found out that this was a study about determining how to structure the entire supply chain, and determine the scope of government involvement, we realized that we had both public and private sector stakeholders, and different government agencies across the value chain.
In this situation our lack of involvement with any of the parties gave us a crucial advantage. We did not have the perception of bias and that was a massive advantage.
The fourth insight is about how we prepared the letter of purpose / proposal and that is a very different as well.
Proposal writing at most firms is a cut-and-paste job. Every firm will have a basic outline for a power point proposal with some generic slides and these are rearranged for the proposal.
Sometimes a letter accompanies the proposal, but this letter is incredibly generic. It is probably less insightful than the power point and again, a basic cut-and-paste job about how a firm is uniquely qualified for the job and has done the work before, with world-class experts, blah, blah, and blah.
Blah. Please wait a moment while I throw up.
Given this was my first proposal, I was slightly naïve and this probably helped me. Rather than putting together a power point proposal or those ugly and bulky word proposals with many unnecessary sections, I thought we should write a sincere and detailed letter to the committee.
To be transparent, this was not my sole insight. I had seen a partner do this in the London office and the crispness, professionalism and sincerity of the style was a true point of differentiation.
How do you compete with someone who takes the time to write a thoughtful and clearly one-of-a-kind later tailored to your issues?
It is hard to do so without at least giving him a meeting to state his case. Usually, that was all that needed to build the relationship further.
I felt that since they took the time to meet us and share their insights, we needed to take the time to spell out the issues we identified, how we interpreted them and what would be the implications for each possibly finding.
Writing such a letter is very difficult and time consuming. We actually needed to do some preliminary research of what we thought the findings would be. Crucially, we realized the findings where less important than how the committee would need to use the findings to generate the changes needed to increase efficiency in the sector.
That meant building some mini-models of the sector and running some basic scenarios.
Of course, this is hard to do for every single proposal, but it forces one to pick the effort very carefully. This is not a volume strategy for proposals, but a value strategy of fewer initiatives pursued but those with enormous value to the firm.
A consulting partner that does cannot respond to every opportunity.
We spent 3 weeks writing that 18-page letter. In it, we sketched out why the study was being done, and laid out all the possible permutations of the findings as well as how the sector would react, and how the government would be perceived for its recommendation.
In each case, we laid out clear things that needed to be done for that finding to be implemented. The big point we made is that we understood overall issues better than anyone else, and we also were unbiased since we had not done work for any of the other industry stakeholders.
In fact, our supposed disadvantage was our primary advantage.
When I first told the officer partner we would be sending a letter as our proposal, I can honestly say he was not happy. He felt we should follow, to the word, the guidelines laid out in the proposal request. However, he changed his mind when he read the letter and saw how we had creatively met the guidelines.
He still insisted we support the letter with a copy of all the administrative documents requested. The associate principal and I obliged.
By now the associate principal and I had a great working relationship. I was working on the letter and he was helping me get all the information I needed. We spent hours and days crafting the letter until every single word and sentence had a reason to be in that letter and said something useful.
The gamble in my head was that our sincerity and unique approach to the proposal would alone lead to us being invited to the final presentation.
We were invited to the final round of presentations. I do not know all the firms would submitted proposals, but I believe all the big names were invited to the final round: Accenture, Booz, McKinsey and Bain were up against us.
Presentations are like regal affairs. Our team, which went down to present, consisted of 7 people. That is a lot of people. The office manager came along, the associate principal, myself and several other partners. We had 45 minutes to present and 15 for questions.
I was given 10 minutes to present our approach to analyze the issues while the office partner and associate principal led the rest of the presentation. A member of our advisory team also came along, which I thought was a bad idea.
We kept it small, just 8 slides since we wanted all the focus to be on the letter. It was clear we made a good call on the focus of the letter, because the committee asked all their questions about the “what-if” scenarios about each of the likely outcomes, and how the government and private sector could work together.
We did not say anything new in the presentation, so in that way it was anti-climatic. I was fairly confident when, at lunch after the presentation, the CEO from the advisory team went out of his way to thank me the clever way I had structured the letter.
We were invited 3 days later to negotiate the contract with the government agency. Yes, government agencies like negotiating contracts but it was still a $3.4MM study.
I get asked a lot how I ended up focusing on state-owned-enterprises and this is the main reason. It really fell into my lap. I had done studies in the public sector before, but this was the first time I had exposure to the underlying strategy themes at play.
That really excited me.
Beyond that, there are some crucial lessons here.
First, we have a tendency to want to work with the best partners on the most exciting clients and most significant strategy studies to build our careers. I was the same. As an associate I went where the most action was. The same happened when I was a consultant.
This experience taught me a crucial lesson about my career. If you want to succeed and, gain experiences and responsibilities beyond your level, it is much more effective to go into clients and sectors which are deeply unpopular.
The partners in these sectors will be grateful to have you, you have more room to maneuver and choose things, you gain more responsibility and none of the stars of the firm will be around to take up lucrative roles.
That is pretty much how I made every career choice since then. That is why I ended up in some obscure emerging markets offices serving some, at the time, seemingly less than important clients. Yet, it was a great feeling to work with the local teams and partners to do work the rest of the firm thought could not be done.
It is fulfilling to see a client rise in importance within a firm.
Second, do not ignore the importance of luck. Every successful person I meet loves to regale me with tales of their brilliant insights that led to their success. Honestly, luck played a big role here and my personality just happened to be suited to the circumstances it created.
I did not have a great relationship with the office partner, I was kept out of sectors I knew and I was probably put onto something where it was hoped I would fail, and if I failed it was not important enough to matter.
My view was that since we had a snowballs chance in hell of actually doing the work, I was going to try something different. The worst that could happen would not be any more damaging than what was likely to happen anyway.
Therefore, when you get into these less than ideal situations, you should experiment. If the expectation of you is so low anyway, you should not be aiming to meet expectations. That is just failure.
Now, if you try to experiment for a high-profile client, where the expectation is high, and it fails, the fall out could be disastrous. I did that once when I was a partner and the impact was not at all pretty. I can assure you that it was one very cold winter.
The other lesson is to be careful not to judge people too early. We tend to like a person who are nice to us or agree with us and automatically dislike someone who is different. I honestly did that with the associate principal. I thought he was not smart enough to see the strategy issues.
Only much later, when we had dinner did he mention that he takes that strong operations viewpoint because he believed the firm was extremely weak at operations and implementation. In his view, unless he did that we would end up ignoring the operational challenges because everyone wanted to be a strategist!
That should have insulted me, but I saw that principle in action during the client presentation. The committee was so impressed with his insights into the operational issues that we were allowed to speak on the strategy issues. In other words, he brought the credibility we desperately needed.
It is likely that if he was not in that presentation, we would have been seen as just another strategy firm thinking that strategy was everything and the operational issues were less important.
At the time, I assumed my brilliant letter won the day, but as I got older I realized his brilliant operating details in the letter allowed the client to understand our strategy was practical.
The final lesson from this was that one should really care far less about where they are, and more about how the job is done. I spent a lot of time wringing my hands about how all my efforts to build a name in energy were now coming to nothing. I probably spent too much time asking the partners to move me onto energy studies.
However, this study made me realize that emerging markets work for state-owned-enterprises could be very interesting and I honestly have had no regrets moving in that direction.