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A young BCG associate, lets call him Bill, recently faced tough questions after his first engagement turned out to be, in his words, an utter disaster.

If you are a younger consultant in Bill’s situation, you may ask yourself similar questions:

  • What happens when your first engagement is not just bad, but is a disaster?
  • What went through partner’s head when you performed poorly? 
  • Do you have a future?
  • Should you consider leaving?

When this happens you will also want to know if this was an anomaly or if management consulting is just not for you.

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful

Management consultants must have 5 attributes to be successful. You can learn all of them over time, but you must be aware of them from day 1 with the firm:

Will – do you have the burning desire to be a successful management consultant?

Capacity – do you have the time and space to be successful?

Capability – do you have the skills to be successful?

Emotional Intelligence – can you read the personal dynamics at play?

Political awareness – do you understand the rationale and motivations for client decisions?

The filter to understand the reasons for failure and the gravity of the situation

Now if you are in Bill’s situation, you can use the following filter to understand the reasons for your failure and the gravity of the situation. It is important you are honest with yourself. Fudging the answers to avoid blame merely means you are hiding a problem which could reappear in the future when there may be even more at stake.

This is the way I would have analyzed Bill’s mistakes when I was a partner:

Did you breach the firm’s values?

Irrespective of the reason, if you knowingly breached the firms values almost nothing can save you. You will be managed out or asked to leave.

The leading firms, which includes BCG, do not tolerate any conflict with their values.

Did you try your very best to succeed and put in as much time and effort as you had?

If you did not try your best it is possible you may not have the drive or ambition to be successful in consulting.

It is better to learn this at the start of your consulting career and leave earlier and not suffer tremendous burnout and dissatisfaction later.

Many hugely successful people are unwilling to dedicate 15 to 18 hours a day to their job or tolerate excessive travel and time away from their families. There is nothing wrong with this. It just means management consulting may not be for you.

Did you do poorly due to circumstances totally outside your control?

Maybe the client gave you the incorrect data and lied about it. Despite your efforts to verify the information, the client simply changed the information. This would be outside your control.

If this indeed happened and there was no possible way to know otherwise, then it is quite likely the only acceptable excuse for poor performance. Even so, did you sanity check the data and compare it to the rest of the information? Did it balance?

Did you do poorly due to circumstance outside your control but which could have been managed by yourself if you were more careful?

If the client gave you the incorrect data and this created a problem because you were not persistent in verifying the information, this would be a problem which could have been avoided with greater care from your side.

This kind of negligence is also not a good sign in management consulting. Consultants are expected to dig and verify information.

Lack of diligence and persistence is another sign this career path may not be for you.

Did you not have the skills to do the work?

An example of this would be the need to conduct a financial analysis which you did not understand.

Not having the skills is not a problem. It is how you respond that matters. Did you ask a skilled consultant to review your work?

Did you ask for help?

Not having the tools or guidance to complete an analysis correctly is almost never an excuse. If there was a problem and you did not ask for help, then you are at fault.

If there was a problem, you asked the engagement manager for help and were ignored, then both you and the engagement manager are at fault. You are at fault for not understanding the gravity of the situation and demanding more help. The manager is at fault for ignoring your pleas.

Remember that premium firms expect consultants to speak out and challenge more senior colleagues if it will help the client and the firm. Therefore, allowing the engagement manager to ignore your pleas for help is not excusable.

If you asked for help, you received help and your performance was still poor, what was the reason for this?

Unfortunately this could imply a lack of will and possibly competency issues. It may also show you don’t know when you are failing. Neither is good for you.

Did you receive any signals from the associate or engagement manager that things were not up to standard?

If you received no signals then you may have an excuse. This assumes your work was properly checked and vetted.

However, if you ignored warnings then that is totally a different matter.

Summary

Generally, the checks and balances above means there are very few reasons why an engagement will fail. Irrespective of the problem, either you will ask for help and receive it or your engagement manager will need to step in to give more help. In both cases, the problem will be fixed.

Logically, the only valid excuse for poor performance is if the circumstance was totally outside your control and you were not aware of it, or you were aware of it and asked for someone more capable to check work about which you were unsure and they approved it.

Assuming this is your first consulting engagement, unless you did something which was blatantly wrong, demonstrated consistent and repeated incompetence or did not uphold the firm’s values, you will be given a second chance to prove yourself.

The key thing here is that you understand why it occurred. If the problem occurred due to your own negligence then maybe management consulting is not for you. The standards are high and there is little room for failure.

The bottom-line is that your consulting career is only over if you lack the will, capacity and capability to succeed while adhering to firm values. In all other cases, you will be very successful.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

Power at Bain lays in the staffing office. The all-powerful staffing office is responsible for looking at project needs and comparing this to the performance evaluation and development needs of consultants and staffing them. I am sure that having a close relationship to a powerful partner helps a little, but the staffing office is overwhelmingly influential.

The project manager and his team felt my arrival was somewhat “forced” on them. They never said it openly but I could feel they were not so excited to have me on the project and were more interested in working with some of the other consultants either on the beach (not billing) or in the unit.

My airline project was slightly different. The office was running low on consultants, a partner with whom I had worked closely at the research unit was leading the client interaction and the firm needed someone with a consumer products background on the project. That was going to be me.

The project manager and his team felt my arrival was somewhat “forced” on them. They never said it openly but I could feel they were not so excited to have me on the project and were more interested in working with some of the other consultants either on the beach (not billing) or in the unit. This was a very important project for a premium client and I got the feeling that the project team felt others were in line ahead of me and should have had the project.

In all reviews of management consulting firms, everyone downplays the human element. Consultants like to focus on tangible elements for review like working hours, benefits, salaries and so on. Go to any reviews on Glassdoor or Vault and this is clear. Relationship dynamics are a major issue at management consulting firms. Although, I also saw that later when I left Bain, this was my first experience of how it would play out. I also somehow got the feeling that some consultants, although not all, were somehow unhappy with the success I had in the unit. Many consultants saw time in the unit as a form of punishment for not being good enough to be in front of the client. My hand in the Nabisco work threw them for a loop because it helped my consulting career. Especially, when our presence at Nabisco continued to grow and grow.

Despite the clear tensions within the team, I decided to put my head down and focus on the task. I knew the project partner knew me well so I was not fighting to build a reputation. I only needed to keep up my reputation. The project was very interesting. A major airline had lurched from one disaster to another. A new CEO had appointed Bain to review the company and develop a plan to turnaround the business. The initial diagnostic generated a long list of issues to be addressed.

The marketing of the airline was one of them. The team I was working on had started earlier than the other teams and was working on a plan to fix the marketing arm. We had 6 weeks to complete a strategy to fix marketing. My role was to map out the key processes at the client and then complete the business case for the marketing part of the project. It’s been a very long time so I cannot remember all the details. However, I do recall the rest of the team working on branding analyses, organizational design analyses and communications analyses. The communications team was part of the marketing unit at the client.

We were based at the clients head office which was a good 1 hour commute from my home. Given the travelling we were likely to do, I chose to take my car along and ditch the subway. A ride in a convertible on a warm spring day was definitely inspiring. Our team was assigned a bare white room with one large square table. It was pretty basic but in the same corridor as the marketing executives. There were heavily tinted windows which made every sunny day look like an overcast one. Coming in at 7am and leaving when the sun sets is very demoralizing when you mind is tricked into thinking it is winter due to the tinted windows.

I felt the project manager treated most of the team like they were unimportant and did not need to be involved in important discussions. He started key discussions without everyone in the room, made people feel as if they were not contributing to the engagement and divided information. He had picked another consultant as his designated number 2 and pretty much only discussed important items with him. We were all excluded in discussing feedback, providing direction and even conducting reviews.

The cafeteria at the client was less inspiring. It looked like a high school cafeteria plonked down in the middle of relatively fancy looking offices. It was as if the rest of the building was built to higher standards and when only the cafeteria was left, the project budget ran out. The food was bland and overcooked. The choice was not the best. Again, basic cafeteria selection.

Right off the bat I was not enjoying the project. I had a good few reasons for this:

• I felt the project manager treated most of the team like they were unimportant and did not need to be involved in important discussions. He started key discussions without everyone in the room, made people feel as if they were not contributing to the engagement and divided information. He had picked another consultant as his designated number 2 and pretty much only discussed important items with him. We were all excluded in discussing feedback, providing direction and even conducting reviews.

• Later I learned that project managers play the greatest role in determining the energy levels on a project. A good manager raises the energy levels of the team, makes everyone feel important and involved, and keeps the team united. They are still tough on performance, but they play the ball and not the man. This team manager kept the team divided and kept energy levels painfully low.

• This manager had decided earlier that he would try to win the implementation work by painting an apocalyptic picture of the client’s future. If the data took us there, that’s fine, but what if it did not? In this case, the data clearly was showing that marketing was not bad and not really failing, yet it was amusing how he would find any gaps as the reason for a major collapse in the marketing department. Every problem was the end of the world and needed to be addressed immediately or the “fate of the airline would be dire.” He brought this somber mood to everything which was, in my opinion, overdone and blatantly theatrical. In time I would learn that this was his personality. Though, that certainly did not help matters and did not help the client.

• I suppose it’s only fair to say that I did not like him and I am sure he did not like me very much. This may have obviously affected our relationship.

• After working with the partners, I realized the enormous effort Bain makes to develop and train people. There is a Bain way and the only possible way to learn this is via close coaching and direct feedback. Senior leaders of the firm are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to explain the Bain way. I am not sure if it was just me, but I found this manager weak at training people.

Every problem was the end of the world and needed to be addressed immediately or the “fate of the airline would be dire.” He brought this somber mood to everything which was, in my opinion, overdone and blatantly theatrical. In time I would learn that this was his personality. Though, that certainly did not help matters and did not help the client.

At the same time as the project, my social life was gathering pace and I had developed a routine of leaving at around 8pm, meeting friends at 10pm and returning home around 1am or 2am. I would then sleep for 4 hours and be in the office between 7am and 7:30am. I would not recommend this to anyone. While I managed this fairly well for the first week, it really started to take a toll by the second week. I was so tired by the next Wednesday that I just went home at 8pm and crashed in front of my big screen TV. I usually fell asleep with a half-eaten pizza and beer. This is easy to do when I was younger. Much later in life, when I tried this as a partner I ballooned and put on lots of weight. My fitted suits were no longer fitting as well.

Developing my project plan, timelines and hypotheses away from the safe planning confines of the unit was a bit perplexing. I did not know what I was even meant to do. In the research unit, the partners always helped us understand the questions we were trying to answer. Out with the client, pinpointing the questions was much tougher. The questions I was meant to answer were vague at best and I was getting no guidance from the project manager. I remember being very, very worried that I would come in, not have anything to do and stress about how to look busy. Every time I asked for help my manager gave me some vague description and told me to prepare a draft to check. A draft of what!?

At Bain, you need to first perfectly understand the Bain way of doing things, prove you have mastered it and then you can be creative. Bain wants you to be creative yet by only using their heavily analytical MECE driven process. At my level, there was little room to be creative. I was still learning the techniques.

Eventually after much delays and frustration, I managed to get stuck into the process analyses. I thought I was doing a fine job and the manager seemed pleased until I was alone in the project room one day and the project partner arrived. A very sociable person, we got to speaking about the project. Although I thought I was doing well, his simple but obvious questions sent me scrambling back to the drawing board. Although I cannot remember his exact questions, it went something like this:

• How many processes are there?

• How did you pick these processes?

• What hypotheses are you testing?

• What do you hope to get out of mapping the processes?

• How does this link back to the overall project?

• Where is the storyboard?

• Have you tested this with the client?

There were more issues. He also pointed out that some of the more creative things I thought I was doing did not make a lot of sense. Bain has a set way of doing things for a reason and I was expected to toe the line. This is one thing many people fail to understand. At Bain, you need to first perfectly understand the Bain way of doing things, prove you have mastered it and then you can be creative. Bain wants you to be creative yet by only using their heavily analytical MECE driven process. At my level, there was little room to be creative. I was still learning the techniques.

If you come in thinking you will teach Bain something new, you are sadly mistaken. There is a Bain way and you need to earn your right to be creative only after mastering the Bain way. Those who struggle to master these techniques are quickly managed out. The firm does not tolerate renegades. Therefore when someone thinks they are creative, they need to be able to display this creativity while always deploying the Bain approach to engaging clients and solving problems.

Since I was getting mixed signals from the partner and project manager, I went to the project manager and asked for his opinion on my thoughts to reconcile the two approaches. His view was that he would manage the partner and I should simply follow his instructions. So I continued. Over many, many painfully slow and boring workshops, I mapped the key processes, looked for gaps and bottlenecks, worked to reduce inefficiencies and improved the processes. I thought I did a pretty swell job. The client was impressed and so was the project manager.

The partner was not impressed. He felt nothing I did had addressed the key client issues around improving the performance of the marketing department as measured by the ability to target the right events and manage the portfolio of multiple campaigns. The project manager and partner had wildly divergent views about what needed to be done. The partner was also not impressed that I had ignored his previous advice.

The knowledge manager was interested but not influential. The impossible business case they wanted me to build was to prove the investment in knowledge management could improve ideas in marketing and eventually improve the return on marketing spend.

The business case was an equal disaster. The difference from the process mapping being that I knew this would be a disaster from the get go and my prediction came true. The project manager was trying to find any business case to show the value of his work. He was also trying to find allies within the marketing division at the client. Unfortunately we were not doing too well. The analyses were poorly planned and the project manager’s style was not winning any converts; with one exception.

The head of knowledge management within marketing loved the fact that these expensive, Ivy League educated consultants where willing to listen to her and gave us her undivided attention. The project manager confused interest with influence. The knowledge manager was interested but not influential. The impossible business case they wanted me to build was to prove the investment in knowledge management could improve ideas in marketing and eventually improve the return on marketing spend.

Bain has a sacred rule that anyone can challenge a decision if it is not in the best interests of a client. The firm will listen and, irrespective of the person’s seniority, age or experience; if they are correct, the firm will change its direction. This is called the right to dissent. Some call it the obligation to dissent when clients’ interests are compromised. Therefore I voiced my concerns and said this was a really weak business case which would be very hard to calculate and defend. For my views, I was taken off the project by the project manager and sent back to the office.

A credit to Bain and a credit to their value system was the way they handled the performance reviews. Despite the fact I had only been there for a year, it was my first project and I was an unknown quantity, the review committee looked at the facts and decided that I had done all the right things and it was my project manager who had erred, just not on the side of caution.

I pretty much thought my career was over. I contemplated the thought of having to go back into the job market and start all over again. Fourteen months at Bain would not look so bad on my résumé. I hoped. A quick and unofficial poll in the office indicated that no one personally knew a single person who had been removed from a project. Everyone had heard of some consultant who had been removed. However, the idea of being dispatched from one’s first project was like an urban legend. Like all urban legends, this one was interesting and played to their fears. Yet, there was no proof to it. I was not happy to be the one bursting their bubble.

The performance reviews at Bain are tough. The firm spends more time writing pages and pages about improvement areas than writing pages of strong points. You need a tough stomach to swallow this and keep it down. A credit to Bain and a credit to their value system was the way they handled the performance reviews. Despite the fact I had only been there for a year, it was my first project and I was an unknown quantity, the review committee looked at the facts and decided that I had done all the right things and it was my project manager who had erred, just not on the side of caution.

My career did not suffer but he left 2 months later. The firm never said why, but it was clear they did not feel he had the correct value system. It was humbling that a new hire could stand up to a well-educated and long-time manager, challenge him and win if the client’s interests were placed first. Bain is proud of its value system and it should be. It lives by them. Not many companies in the world can make the same claim. My performance feedback was not great. It was honest. I could deal with that and decided to stay at Bain.

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