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McKinsey Associate on avoiding hubris

Don is an associate at McKinsey who has been in our program for 8 months, since the day he joined McKinsey. He holds a bachelors degree and an MBA from a ranked-program. Prior to completing his MBA he worked for the US Federal Government as an analyst. He had been an early contributor to Firmsconsulting before commencing his MBA studies.

Why did you seek additional help for your consulting career?

I knew someone who had graduated near the top of their class or at the top of their class and I looked up to him. He had received an offer from Bain and I fully expected this guy to make partner. Nine months after he joined I received a LinkedIn update email and noticed he had just changed jobs and was working at a bank. I reach out to congratulate him and express my surprise for the rapid change.

He intimated there was more and we soon met for coffee where he explained he had been managed out of the firm after his 3rd study.

I was pretty shocked.

This was a top guy from a very good school and someone I had hoped would serve as my mentor. There were interesting advice he provided but all I remember is that he never saw it coming. He had assumed he was doing a great job until his performance review and he gets a mountain of criticism and feedback that he did not have the necessary analytic skills, ability to prioritize and effectively build client relationships.

It was then that I realized I was being too optimistic about my probabilities of making partner – or surviving! – and needed some heavy-duty help.

What was your strategy for using the program?

I had listened to all of the Firmsconsulting podcasts which are an astounding repository of consulting information. From the podcasts, I knew that the best clients stick to their coaches and maintain constant communication. That was my strategy. I executed this strategy relentlessly. I was just brutal on this point.

I even exchange my Blackberry for an iPhone so I could load Skype and keep an open line to Firmsconsulting. No matter what happened, I would Skype my coach in the morning with a short update, my proposed steps and then provide feedback at night. This is how I managed my first project.

If anything came up, I jumped onto Skype and asked for guidance.

The communication part was easy with technology but it took me some time to get the content right. In my first few messages I would write these long messages and get a 2 word response. It took me a few days to introduce brevity to my communication. I also realized my coach was looking for my thoughts on what needed to happen and then would assess all of this and provide some suggestions.

I realized that shorter and more accurate messages would allow me to send more messages. This would increase the guidance I received. So I kept to that strategy and it worked. I was not asking my coach to plan out my week or month. I knew there would be too many surprises and things would be changing all the time. I wanted a real-time guide to watch over my shoulder.

How did the program help you, if at all?

If I look at the current group of associates joining and assume I was the same when I joined 8 months ago, then I think all new associates have a naivete about the firm’s expectations. I could see myself trying to do everything just to please my manager but never knowing where I was going or why it was happening.

My first study was a market entry strategy for a large commercial bank and I was analyzing one of the main client segments. Another associate was working on a different and large segment. We were doing the same work but for different segments. He was a nice guy but he made so many mistakes and his wheels were spinning from day one! He was very reactive.

He had no plan and could not tell me, or anyone else, where he was going with the analyses over the 4 week length of the study. Every time a deadline cropped up he would scramble to get things together and deliver the work. And deadlines and client requests were changing daily. So this guy was running around just to keep his head above the water.

He did not have a handle on his work, had not prioritized things and therefore could not push back and manage the requests for his time. The worst is that he fell into the trap of confusing activity with productivity. The guy was always working but his work was never that good because he had no message he wanted to deliver. He relied on others to set his agenda.

I think that I would have made the same mistakes unless my coach, Michael, stepped in and reined me in.

Which he did – that’s Michael’s specialty – jumping into chaos!

None of that happened to me since my coach kept me disciplined on sticking to a plan and executing it very well. I could use this plan to explain to people why I could or could not help them, and explain to my manager how her requests would impact my overall work. She liked this, but still pushed to get as much done as possible.

At least I prevented a tsunami of requests.

Do you recall any memorable moments?

My first update to the engagement director was darn scary. I was meeting him alone and my career was always going to be on the line because I just had no clue what he wanted. I was taught an excellent way to manage the partners. That meeting went very well and the director complimented me on my thinking and planning. The steps are as follows:

• Prepare for meetings, but keep everything to one page and clearly explained. Partners do not have time to sift through data.

• Start the meeting by providing a high level summary of the agenda and objectives so the partner understands what to expect.

• Explain MY thinking, MY recommendations and the reasons for MY recommendations.

• Be as SPECIFIC as possibly about what advice I needed from the partner.

This was the opposite of what I was going to do. I thought it would be rude to control the meeting so much, even ruder to have a tight agenda and unanimously crossing the line to ask the partner for direct feedback.

I foolishly thought the partner was so senior I should just present the basic issues and let him guide me. My coach taught me that partners are too far removed from the detail and need the guidance. This advice worked well for every meeting I had with a senior person and helped my analyses by providing neat bundles of input.

Bundles of input that I could easily use throughout the engagement.

Would you like anything changed in the program?

I cannot think of anything to change. This is not a program which can have an agenda or an overview. I cannot predict the advice I will need tomorrow so I cannot see any structure which will work. I think the open and continuous style off communication is a definite keeper. This may be a need unique to me, but I took great comfort in knowing I could check things at any time and get a former-partner to guide me.

This example above is one case where the advice reaped dividends. Other examples about communicating with clients and sharing information with the team may look small but it all adds up: doing all the little things right and a few big things rolls up to this snowball of a good project. I received the highest ranking at my first review. So don’t lose track of the little wonders in the program while pursuing changes which may look great but don’t impact clients daily. The little pieces of advice have a daily impact. Several days become a week, several weeks become a month and here I am after 9 months and still going strong.

We have published the most useful client feedback. Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information. Clients in our consultants coaching program are forbidden from sharing sensitive client data with us.

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