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As you have elected to be a part of the FIRMSconsulting community, today I am going to share with you another piece from a new book/program we are working on. It is focused on how to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage by uncovering flaws in your thinking and thinking of your competitors. This is from writing that I have done this afternoon. I hope you enjoy it.

Thinking distorts and alters reality 

One of the ways to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage is by identifying flaws in thinking of your competitors, and in your thinking. Identifying flaws in thinking of competitors should always be an element of competitor analysis.

It is not possible to see the world in which we live without distortion. First of all, the reality is richer than our ability to comprehend it. Second of all, our limiting elements, such as biases and blind spots, do not allow us to see reality as it is. We always see it as distorted. In addition, thinking about reality further alters reality.

This lack of correspondence between our thinking and reality sounds demotivating and frustrating. But there is no reason for despair. In many ways, it is good news. It is good news because our inherently imperfect understanding of reality opens unlimited opportunities for improving our understanding, and our reality. And what is further exciting is that improvement is infinite because perfection can’t be attained.

Humans need progress. Without progress, we perish. If we lived in a perfect world, with a perfect understanding of that world, with a perfect career, personal life, and guaranteed achievement of all our goals, there would be nothing left to strive for. And as the bible says (Proverbs 29), although it is often attributed to JFK, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.

This openness to improvement is a quality I observed in our most successful clients and business partners. And being close-minded to seeking improvement is a quality I observed in very successful strategists, people who used to “rule the world,” but since that time fell into mediocrity, not just mediocrity of performance but also significant deterioration of thinking abilities compared to abilities they had earlier in their career.

The most common characteristic I see in people who “should have been a president by now”—a president of a large organization, a president of a country, a president of their own meaningful business—but are not is this “I am the smartest person in the room” attitude. Given their upbringing, their education, their earlier career, their talents, or all of the above combined, they should have been doing something meaningful with their lives by now, but they are not. Instead, they usually failed in multiple businesses and went into forced retirement.

When you are with a person like that, they barely let you say anything unless they want some specific information from you at that time. They have an aura of “I am the only smart person here, you should catch my every word and kiss the ground I walk on.” It is quite funny and sad to see once you notice the pattern. Those are very gifted people who either didn’t have a good mentor to yank them out of their hubris or who refused to get help when it was offered and by now are too far gone. I met multiple people like this. They always have this one characteristic, which I believe is the number one reason for their failures later in their careers and lives. They are usually bitter, angry, and at times abusive people. Although they know how to put on a charm for a short while. And they could have contributed much more to the world than they did if it wasn’t for this one quality they allowed to expand and overtake them. This openness to improvement is fundamental to being an effective strategist and problem solver.

Moreover, this is good news because it means your competitors view reality in a distorted ways. And they may not be paying as much attention to it as you are. So you are in a position to uncover where the thinking of your competitors is flawed.

Taking advantage of flaws in your competitors’ thinking (and your thinking)

In more practical terms, this lack of correspondence between our understanding of reality and actual reality means there are infinite opportunities to uncover the flaws in your competitors’ thinking and take advantage of them. Identifying flaws in your competitors thinking should be part of competitor analyses. Let’s say you are a senior manager at a large organization, and you want to get to the executive level. There are significant flaws in “how things are done now” because of this lack of correspondence between understanding reality and actual reality. Not just your lack of understanding, but a lack of understanding by each participant within the organization. By uncovering these flaws and leveraging them, you can make it a “no-brainer” for you to be promoted to the executive level. We have done it many times with our clients and documented the entire process in minute detail on StrategyTraining.com for some of those cases.

An example of taking advantage of flaws in competitor’s thinking

As an example, take a look at the “How to Sell $10 Million Consulting Studies” program. We took a client, Andrew, whose career had stalled at the senior manager level, uncovered flaws in “how things are done now” within his organization and helped this client use the insights from the uncovered flaws to get promoted to partner within 3 years. We helped Andrew accomplish 2 major goals within 3 years. One, implementing the plan to build a new innovation business division/practice when he had no employees, no revenue, and no strategy, which eventually led to a $30MM revenue/annum business within 3 years. Two, as a result of the above, Andrew was appointed an equity partner within the 3 years by following a highly unconventional path: by re-building the firm’s failed innovation practice.

Andrew was never tasked with building a new division. No one saw him as a leader in the firm. The leaders of the firm did not even know his name. We had to work with Andrew to create the opportunity and lead the implementation. This made his journey that much tougher. Initially, starting with no support, no plan, and no team, we began uncovering flaws, leveraging them, and designing and implementing his plan. After some small successes of acquiring a total budget of just $150K, and signing authority of $5,000, we were able to leverage that initial success and build upon it to achieve total revenue of >$30MM within 3 years. And in that program, we documented every meeting, dinner, coffee chat, obstacle, plan, tactic, pilot, proposal, marital problem, client pushback, strategy, success, failure, etc.

Before Andrew, no equity partner had ever been elected from an internal role in this firm. In any corporation in the world, you are promoted by getting things done that generate profits. Fancy reports, slides, insights, etc., are important in consulting but less so in industry. In industry, those who make things happen are rewarded. Conversely, a leader with great insights who cannot implement and build a business will not last long. In the case of Andrew we were able to uncover flaws that became a foundation of the idea, and with no support, figure out the implementation steps to convert the idea into a stable, sustainable, and significantly profitable business within a major organization.

This particular program is very focused on the implementation of ideas, versus strategy development only. Understanding implementation is important. Strategy and operations studies are different, though both use the same core problem-solving tools: objective functions, decision trees, hypotheses, etc. Both strategy and operations studies generate a report at their conclusion. This report will list several benefits expected to result from pursuing the recommendation. Implementation is about ensuring the benefits from the report are achieved. In other words, if the report indicated $200M additional cash at the end of fiscal year 1, we should have $200M additional cash in the bank account by the end of fiscal year 1. An implementation may or may not require a large transfer of skills to the client. Once-off benefits can be achieved by consultants, but ensuring ongoing benefits, or benefits with a long payback period, need client employees trained to constantly achieve the benefits. Implementation is built on numerous change management techniques. Implementation is 70% change management and 30% analysis. The analyses are rarely fancy in implementation since delivering the promise made in the strategy/operations study, e.g. money in the bank is the true measure of success.

As we discussed in the chapter on the generation of insights, seeing other people’s career strategies and specifically what they did to accelerate their rise is an effective way to increase your chances of uncovering flaws in your thinking, in group thinking within your organization, and coming up with insight for an effective strategy for your career.

So how do you uncover flaws?  

So how do you uncover flaws in your thinking and your competitors’ thinking? First of all, when you look at the situation, you need to internalize that your understanding of reality is bound to be distorted. A recent example from my life where I failed to assume my view was distorted is that last year I acquired another business that has a very large email list and serves a completely different audience. It has nothing to do with business, strategy, problem-solving, or executive presence. It is a completely different audience, and my assumption was that in addition to serving this new different audience, I could also cross-promote my other companies’ products and services to this new audience.

My view of reality was proven distorted because when I started testing cross-promoting to this new large audience, it became clear that this completely different audience has no interest in business strategy, problem-solving, leadership, or executive presence skills. I do not regret acquiring this business. It is profitable and meaningful on its own. But this distorted view of reality is a great example of how important it is to remain acutely aware, at all times, that our view of reality is distorted. At the time of acquiring this business, I was convinced that my assumption would be right, even though my business partner, Michael, the genius that he is, pointed out that a completely different audience will not be interested, even to a small degree, to resources outside of their stated interests.

To find flaws, you can use a decision tree combined with hypotheses process we cover in The Consulting Offer. When forming a hypothesis it needs to be different from the accepted wisdom. In becoming skilled at identifying flaws, you will also come across flaws that are not yet generally accepted but currently have the momentum to become generally accepted, for a period of time. This becomes particularly helpful in investing. It allows you to take advantage of not only uncovering flaws but also of uncovering flawed hypotheses while understanding the weaknesses involved so, in case of investing, you can sell in time.

Related articles: 

19 Ways for Developing Strategy Insights

Guide to Working With Business Consultants

What Is a Business Consultant?

A business consultant is a professional who provides expert advice to organizations to help improve their performance. They analyze a company’s operations, identify areas for improvement, and develop strategies to achieve specific goals.

Why Hire a Business Consultant?

A business consultant can bring value to a company in several ways:

  1. Provides outside expertise and objective perspective.
  2. Helps identify and solve problems.
  3. Offers new ideas and approaches.
  4. Supports in planning and decision-making.
  5. Improves efficiency and increases profitability.
  6. Facilitates growth and competitiveness.
  7. Brings specialized skills and knowledge to the table.

What Does a Business Consultant Do?

A business consultant typically:

  1. Assesses the needs and challenges of a company.
  2. Develops and implements solutions to improve business operations.
  3. Offers expert advice on strategy, planning and decision-making.
  4. Analyzes data and market trends to identify areas for improvement.
  5. Works with company stakeholders to set and achieve goals.
  6. Facilitates communication and collaboration within the company.
  7. Monitors progress and provides ongoing support.

Stages of a Business Consultant’s Process

The typical stages in a business consultant’s process are:

  1. Assessment: Analyze the current state of the business and identify areas for improvement.
  2. Strategy development: Develop a plan for addressing identified issues and achieving goals.
  3. Implementation: Work with the company to put the plan into action.
  4. Monitoring: Regularly monitor progress and make adjustments as needed.
  5. Evaluation: Assess the success of the project and make recommendations for future improvements.
  6. Conclusion: Wrap up the project and provide recommendations for ongoing success.

Assessment Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The assessment stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Understanding the client’s business: Gather information about the company’s operations, goals, challenges, and competitors.
  2. Identifying key areas for improvement: Analyze data and assess the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
  3. Evaluating current processes and systems: Examine the company’s current methods, procedures, and systems to determine efficiency and effectiveness.
  4. Engaging with stakeholders: Meet with key personnel and gather feedback to gain a comprehensive understanding of the company.
  5. Defining the scope of the project: Clarify the goals, objectives, and deliverables for the project.
  6. Establishing a timeline: Develop a schedule for the project, including milestones and deadlines.

The assessment stage is crucial in setting the foundation for the consulting process and determining the scope and direction of the project.

Strategy Development Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The strategy development stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Synthesizing information: Combine information gathered during the assessment stage to develop a comprehensive understanding of the company’s challenges and opportunities.
  2. Generating ideas: Brainstorm potential solutions to address the identified issues.
  3. Selecting the best options: Evaluate potential solutions and choose the ones that align with the company’s goals and objectives.
  4. Developing action plans: Create detailed plans for implementing selected solutions, including resources, timelines, and roles and responsibilities.
  5. Presenting the strategy: Communicate the proposed strategy to key stakeholders, including company executives and other relevant personnel.
  6. Obtaining buy-in: Engage with stakeholders to gain support for the proposed strategy and ensure that everyone understands their role in its implementation.

The strategy development stage is critical in determining the direction for the consulting project and laying the foundation for successful implementation. The consultant works with the company to develop a customized plan that addresses the company’s specific needs and challenges.

Implementation Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The implementation stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Resource allocation: Ensure that necessary resources, including personnel, funds, and technology, are available to implement the strategy.
  2. Communication and training: Provide clear communication and training to stakeholders to ensure that everyone understands their role in the implementation process.
  3. Rolling out the plan: Implement the proposed solutions, including any necessary changes to processes, systems, and organizational structure.
  4. Monitoring progress: Regularly monitor the implementation process to ensure that it stays on track and that any issues are addressed in a timely manner.
  5. Adjusting the plan: Make any necessary adjustments to the implementation plan to ensure that it remains effective and aligned with the company’s goals.
  6. Evaluating results: Assess the impact of the implementation and make any necessary adjustments to ensure that the desired results are achieved.

The implementation stage is crucial in bringing the consulting project to life and realizing the benefits that were identified during the assessment and strategy development stages. The business consultant works closely with the company to ensure that the implementation is successful and that the desired results are achieved.

Monitoring Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The monitoring stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Tracking progress: Regularly monitor progress against the implementation plan and key performance indicators.
  2. Identifying challenges: Detect and address any issues that arise during the implementation process.
  3. Communicating with stakeholders: Keep stakeholders informed about progress and any challenges that arise during the implementation process.
  4. Adjusting the plan: Make any necessary adjustments to the implementation plan to ensure that it remains effective and aligned with the company’s goals.
  5. Celebrating successes: Recognize and celebrate successes along the way to maintain momentum and motivation.
  6. Preparing for next steps: Plan for any future developments or changes that may be necessary to ensure the long-term success of the project.

The monitoring stage is crucial in ensuring the success of the implementation and maintaining the momentum of the consulting project. The consultant works with the company to ensure that progress is tracked, challenges are addressed, and that any necessary adjustments are made to ensure the project stays on track.

Evaluation Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The evaluation stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Measuring results: Evaluate the impact of the implementation against the original goals and objectives.
  2. Gathering feedback: Obtain feedback from stakeholders, including company personnel and customers, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the results.
  3. Analyzing data: Analyze data related to the implementation, including financial, operational, and customer metrics.
  4. Identifying successes and challenges: Identify any successes and challenges that arose during the implementation process.
  5. Sharing findings: Present the results of the evaluation to key stakeholders, including company executives and other relevant personnel.
  6. Developing recommendations: Provide recommendations for future improvements or changes that may be necessary to ensure the long-term success of the project.

The evaluation stage is critical in determining the impact of the consulting project and identifying areas for improvement. The business consultant works with the company to evaluate the results of the implementation and develop recommendations for future developments or changes that may be necessary to ensure the long-term success of the project.

The Conclusion Stage of a Business Consulting Process

The conclusion stage in a business consulting process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Reviewing deliverables: Review all deliverables, including reports, presentations, and other materials, to ensure that they accurately reflect the results of the project.
  2. Documenting lessons learned: Document any lessons learned during the consulting process to inform future projects.
  3. Transferring knowledge: Ensure that relevant knowledge and skills are transferred to the company so that they can maintain and build on the results of the project.
  4. Closing out the project: Formally close out the project, including any necessary administrative tasks, such as finalizing invoices and contracts.
  5. Celebrating success: Recognize and celebrate the success of the project with key stakeholders, including company personnel and customers.
  6. Maintaining relationships: Maintain relationships with the company, including through regular follow-up and future projects.

The conclusion stage is crucial in wrapping up the consulting project and ensuring that the company can continue to build on its success. The business consultant works with the company to document lessons learned, transfer knowledge, and celebrate the success of the project.

This is an excerpt from one of our books. If you enjoy our resources, you can join as a member on StrategyTraining.com.

WHAT IS NEXT? Get free access to sample episodes from our various consulting case interview and advanced programs. Continue developing your case interviews skills or strategy skills.

Consulting Skills as a Competitive Advantage

Developing strong consulting skills such as the ability to communicate in a way that holds the attention of the room, the ability to solve complex problems in a structured and effective way, and the ability to build a peer-level relationship with the most senior executives of major companies. Developing strong consulting skills can be the competitive advantage that will allow you rise above the average and gain the momentum, respect, and opportunities you want.

Not everyone working for major consulting firms have strong consulting skills. Similarly, you can develop strong consulting skills without ever working for a major consulting firm.

In this post we are going to explore how to achieve career advancement from manager and above, and how to use consulting skills to help you achieve career growth.

What is Career Advancement?

Career advancement refers to the upward trajectory of someone’s career. Top professionals know the importance of professional and personal development. For anyone in the corporate world having a secure job to go to each week is important, but it is not enough. Humans crave progress.

If we do not grow, we degrade. We do not stay still. Our skills deteriorate. 

So the opportunity for career advancement is one of the most essential elements for people to feel a sense of well-being and job satisfaction. Opportunities for career growth are a powerful employee motivator. That’s why it makes good business sense for companies to ensure their employees are clear on their career growth plans and career growth opportunities.

Differences Between Advancing as a Junior Employee vs. Manager and Above. How Developing Consulting Skills Can Help

When someone is a junior employee, career advancement is usually more straightforward. Do a great job for your superiors, make them look good, and develop a strong technical skill-set, and you will have growth in your career. 

As you continue advancing in your career and moving to more senior levels, however, you will notice that your technical skills are becoming less and less critical to get the next promotion. What becomes essential are your soft skills. 

  • Can you convince and motivate people to do the work they do not want to do? 
  • Can you effectively lead people? 
  • Are you able to get people together that do not want to work together?
  • What is your level of influence within your organization?

Developing strong consulting skills means developing strong soft skills. You can’t be a successful consultant without the ability to communicate well, without the ability to have a lot of executive presence during your meetings with clients, and without the ability to build a long-term relationship with your clients.

Qualities of an Exceptional Leader

There are many qualities that exceptional leaders need to possess. If you look back at the best boss you ever had, what qualities immediately come to mind? Generally, the qualities of exceptional leaders include the following:

Integrity – Great leaders have integrity. If they promised you something, they keep their word. If you told them something in confidence, they keep it confidential. They do not go and cut corners to get some quick revenue or earn a favor. An exceptional leader would also not do unethical and illegal things for clients to keep big clients happy. They understand they set an example, and they take their role very seriously. 

Gratitude – You feel that your input is meaningful and sincerely appreciated. When you go above and beyond, it is noticed and acknowledged and ultimately rewarded.

Growth mindset – exceptional leaders have a growth mindset. They believe that you can improve if you put enough work into it. They give you opportunities to grow instead of locking you into a dead-end job. They create growth opportunities for their team because they believe that humans can grow and develop powerful skills. 

Influence – Great leaders are able to connect with others. They can be a connecting tissue that brings together stakeholders who are not interested in speaking to each other. They have a high level of influence within the organization and with clients.

Empathy – Great leaders have empathy. They understand that their team members are only human and can make mistakes. As long as they see the mistake was made not out of malicious intent, they help their team members recover from mistakes. They empower instead of push down. They support instead of humiliating. 

Self-Awareness – Great leaders also have a high level of self-awareness. You do not find them losing it and screaming at a client or their team members. They are calm, collected, professional, and focused a lot of the time. They are, of course, only human and, at times, may become anxious or angry, but because of their high level of self-awareness, they remain very professional at all times. 

Excellent communication – As we have mentioned earlier, excellent communication is one of the key consulting skills that can help you transform your career. Exceptional leaders are great communicators. They are able to hold the attention of the room. They are able to connect with their audience, be it one person or 100 people. They speak from their heart and are able to move people to action. 

Great at delegation – Great leaders understand that they can’t do everything on their own. They are great at delegation. They grow and develop strong teams under them. They do not hesitate to train people under them because they understand that it is best for the organization, the best for clients, and it is the only way that they can ever be promoted. They start succession planning early.

Tips for Career Advancement

Career advancement within the same organization may be the result of gaining work experience and potentially completing additional advanced training. There are some things to keep in mind as you are planning out your career advancement plan.

Start from maintaining very good health. Health is the most important asset you have. Without it, you do not have anything. So always pay attention to your health. As driven professionals, we often do not take sufficient care of our health early in our career, only to pay for it a way too big of a price later on. It is essential to pay attention to protecting your health from the start or as soon as you can. 

Build your skillset. Many business professionals stop developing their skills beyond what they learn on the job. Years go by, and they start to wonder what happened. Why has their career stalled? We live in a very competitive world, especially if you look at countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. While in some developing countries, you can get away with being average and still have a great career because there is such a massive lack of skills, in developed countries, you compete with the best people from all over the world. If you do not invest in your skills beyond what average performers do, then you will likely have average results. 

Work on your confidence. If you do not come across as someone who believes in their abilities, other people will also not believe you have what it takes to be a leader. So it is crucial to work on your confidence. When it comes to confidence, what you need to remember is what matters is your belief in your ability to figure things out. It is as simple as that. As long as you believe that you will find the way to make things work, that you will figure things out, that is what is required to have a sufficient level of confidence. So, as you can see, it is quite simple and manageable. 

Work on your communication skills. Another essential and powerful way to build confidence is by working on your communication and executive presence skills. We have a powerful program for our clients on developing executive presence and communication skills and a number of resources, including a video below. 

The Benefits of a Career Advancement

Organizations shouldn’t minimize the importance of supporting their employees’ career advancement. When companies do not pay attention to career growth opportunities for their employees, they undermine morale and productivity and end up with a high turnover. This is how companies or specific divisions within companies end up having to deal with a problem of a revolving door, where most employees leave as soon as they can, taking all the knowledge and experience with them, sometimes taking it to competitors. 

Here are some benefits of career advancement and career progression:

  • It results in lower turnover
  • It results in higher job satisfaction
  • It reduces stress and missed work days due to illness
  • It boosts productivity
  • It increases engagement within the team
  • It creates a positive work environment versus a toxic work environment 
  • It gives employees a sense of well-being and a sense of purpose

Improving Career Growth

Gaining experience and receiving additional training help you advance up the corporate ladder within the same industry. The career advancement process is divided into two phases, career growth planning, and career management. Career growth planning requires you to map out your career. You, of course, can’t map out your career with 100% certainty, but it allows you to understand where you are going and what is required to achieve your goals.

When we work with our clients, we help them develop what we call The MasterPlan. We have a coaching program called The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program, as well as an online light version of the program on StrategyTraining.com, available to Insiders and Legacy members. And we also have The MasterPlan book. All those resources help our clients access a proven process to help them develop their career growth plan. You can download a template from The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program here

Even if you do not use any of the resources above (the book, the coaching program, or the StrategyTraining.com advanced strategy and problem-solving training programs), you can still use the downloadable template to help you guide your thinking as you develop your career growth plan. This template was used by many clients who were able to transform their life. During our coaching programs, you also get to witness other clients complete this template and get coaching on various sections, which will give you ideas you may not have considered. 

Now, as you are thinking about your career growth plan, consider what type of career growth is most important to you. The reason I ask you to think about this is because it is one of the saddest things to see when clients spend decades in a certain career, they put tremendous work into it, only to realize that they were pursuing the wrong career. So an essential element of thinking through your career growth plan is understanding what your life’s work is. 

Gaining more clarity on what is your life’s work is one of the critical areas I help clients with. Because without it does it even make sense to work on your career growth plan? What is the point of investing above-average efforts into a plan that will not lead you to live a fulfilling life?

You might as well then enjoy your hobbies and have an average career, and be happy. I know so many people who lost their health, their spouses, and their children because they invested everything they had into a career that wasn’t even aligned with their life’s work or their competitive and comparative advantage, which is another area we speak a lot about as part of the MasterPlan program.

Keys to Successful Career Advancement

Now, what are some of the keys to successful career advancement? 

Make a positive impression – Here, you need to learn how to make a positive impression when dealing with your peers and superiors. You need to be likable.

Are you the kind of guy or lady they would enjoy having a beer with on Friday night?

 

Think of a person you know who makes you feel good about yourself because they never say anything negative. We live in a culture where many things that people find funny are at the expense of someone. Think of someone who is not “two-faced,” not belittling.

How do you feel when you are with those people?

You actually look forward to seeing them.

You may even marry a person like this.

If you are lucky, you know one person that makes you feel amazing. And the rest are on a sliding scale. Think about how you respond to someone who makes you feel good. You are drawn to them, you smile, you are happy, and you feel you can do anything around that person. 

You want to be that person, you want to be a person to whom everyone is drawn to. 

Seek opportunities where others are not looking – You also need to learn to seek opportunities where others are not looking. For example, there may be a rare skill that you have, such as knowing a specific language, which may make you uniquely positioned to work on a particular project. Other people may not be trying to get on that project because they don’t have any advantages related to that project. 

Become a great communicator – Learn to communicate effectively. Again we are coming back to the importance of enhancing your executive presence and communication skills, as key consulting skills that can help you set yourself apart. Specifically, learn to communicate like a partner from a major consulting firm or a senior executive from a large company. 

Here is a video on communication that may be very helpful for you. This video is focused on how to learn to speak as a management consultant. If you have ever spoken to management consultants, you know that consultants speak in a certain way. They tend to speak in a very logical and structured way. They tend to pause at the right places. Consultants speak in a very logical, structured, and professional manner. And this ability to hold a logical and structured conversation is an ability that is a great asset when it comes to career advancement.

You want to make sure you can communicate. If you can’t communicate well but have excellent technical skills, you will likely struggle to get promoted. Consultants are very good at using stories. They are also very good at telling what they read in a newspaper.

It’s, of course, not about being able to recite what someone read in a newspaper. It is about if you can tell the key message in the article, the assumptions underpinning that article, and your thoughts on those assumptions, and your views on what will happen.

Consultants speak in that way. They don’t just recite what they read. They give you their opinions because they are trained to give you their opinions. 

Develop a strong business acumen – You also need to determine a strong business acumen, which we refer to as business judgment. Strong business acumen is, of course, one of the key consulting skills that are required for you to be an outstanding leader and to get promoted. Without strong business acumen, you will not be able to make good decisions. We cover how to build business judgment in detail in our programs. Business judgment becomes more critical as you are moving up to higher and higher levels within your organization. 

 

Become a skillful critical thinker versus a critic – Critical thinking ability is vital for career advancement and one of the most important consulting skills. And one of the essential requirements to be a great critical thinker is business judgment. Everyone already has business judgment. You will do much better when it comes to problem-solving if you learn to apply your judgment instead of ignoring your life experiences when solving problems. You have the ability to interpret things that is unique in the world. 

Now there is a big difference between a critical thinker and a critic. They are not the same.

The critical thinker is doing two things. They are learning as much as they can from what is in front of them, and they are trying to analyze it. There is a difference between analyzing something and finding flaws in it. You can analyze something completely wrong and find useful information within it.

Think of case studies of why things succeeded. If something we analyzed, and it failed, you can learn even more from it. If you follow Partnership. Memoir, an extensive program we have where one of our coaches discusses how he became a partner in his 20s. During the first three years of his career, he had a lot of failures, he got promoted once. During the next three years, he got promoted four times. Not because he was good at analyzing the successes but because he was open to analyzing the failures. 

When you go into any discussion, if your default mode is to find the flaws with whatever the person is saying, then you are not a critical thinker, you are a critic. A critical thinker is not just there to find flaws. A critical thinker is there to understand, to be open to learning, to explore things.

We have a show called The Bill Matassoni Show. Bill was a prominent senior partner at McKinsey and BCG. He was the partner that, along with his colleagues, but he was the architect of this, who led McKinsey’s strategy in the 80s to reposition itself and leap ahead of BCG and Bain. 

Now, how do you know Bill is a critical thinker? Because he doesn’t dismiss people.

We’ve done multiple video shoots with Bill for our StrategyTraining.com library of training, and we watched him talk to contractors on site and really have friendly discussions with them. He wanted to learn what they had to say. Think about it, many senior people look at videographers on set and think, “Well, you are not Steven Spielberg, I have nothing to learn from you,” and ignore them. The critical thinker is trying to understand. The critic is trying to find flaws. 

The Western education system grooms critics because our basis of belief is that if we first find something to be erroneous or flawed, we got to discard it. So our first step is to be critical. Once it passes the critical checklist, we then say, “Okay, let’s learn from it.” 

Here’s the thing. The act of being critical blinds you to learning things from essentially a flawed case study. 

No one likes a critic. Critics are called jerks. If someone goes into a conversation and they are critical and find flaws in their argument, people are going to hate that person. Worse, if they are someone who finds flaws in another’s argument and who cannot control their facial expressions, we’ve all been in discussions with people where not only are they critical because they think they are being smart, but they have a smirk and condescending look on their face.

Make Sure “You’ve Got the Goods” to Be a Successful Leader Before You “Advertise the Goods”

An anonymous poem…

A lion met a tiger
As they drank beside a pool
Said the tiger, “tell me why…
You’re roaring like a fool.”

“That’s not foolish;” said the lion,
with a twinkle in his eyes,
“They call me king of all the beasts
because I advertise!”

A rabbit heard them talking,
and ran home like a streak.
He thought he’d try the lion’s plan,
but his roar was just a squeak.

A fox, who happened on the scene,
had a fine lunch in the woods.

The Moral? When you advertise,
just be sure you’ve got the goods.

We all start our careers with great ambition. We often have the right degrees and the right skills. We believe we will be leaders who command attention and respect. Yet, we all recall that first meeting/workshop/interaction when our ideas were sidelined, or no one wanted to listen to us. We are effectively ignored. We become invisible. Our confidence falls, and we find it harder to muster the courage to speak up.

Sometimes colleagues or clients challenge us by asking progressively harder and harder questions, and we don’t know how to manage the barrage of questions. We don’t know how to communicate and lead when we lack subject matter knowledge. We often respond by trying to become an expert in one area, hoping never to be at a loss for words. This means we are never at a loss for words on one narrow subject, but we never build the skills to speak across all topics. We become specialists and lose out on general management and executive roles.

Eventually, we realize our careers are trapped. We may be stuck in this one role forever.

We respond by working harder and hoping to be smarter to gain respect. Yet, often nothing changes. We meander through our careers, often blaming managers, colleagues, and the company culture for our lack of progress. We sometimes belittle the capabilities of colleagues who may not be as smart but are promoted because they know how to communicate to lead. We often become bitter, and resentment builds.

It does not have to be this for you. You can change this.

You may want to build your professional and personal brand. You want to be better at holding the attention of the room. You want to raise the ceiling of what is possible for you. You want to feel comfortable in your own skin when speaking. You want to be respected, and you want to be influential.

But you need to make sure “you’ve got the goods” to be successful in “advertising the goods.”

You may have ideas that will get meaningful results. I know you do because we teach our clients not only the insights but how to develop insights. But if your “roar” is just a “squeak,” you will not command the attention and respect you deserve, and this will dramatically impact your legacy, your quality of life, the opportunities your family has, your level of influence, and your impact.

You Can’t Be an Influential Leader Without Being Authentic

I want you to be everything that is you, deep at the center of your being.

– Confucius

Authenticity is based on the principle of integrity. It’s about being aligned with what truly matters to us, whether the whole world is watching or if no one is watching.

Because authenticity is becoming more and more popularized, we are becoming more and more numbed to what it actually means and how important it is. It is just something that everyone says, very few people think about, and even fewer people do.

To me, being authentic means knowing what I care about at the core of my being and demanding of myself to act aligned with that authentic core.

We are, of course, talking about life’s work, something we covered in detail during our Why Not Have a Big Life challenge at the beginning of the year, and go to in-depth as part of The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching Program.

Why do driven people struggle to be authentic?

It’s not because they do not buy into how important it is. It’s not because they don’t want to be authentic. It’s usually because they don’t have clarity on how to align their actions with what matters most to them. And it’s also because they often don’t know what matters most to them.

What I found helpful is to always keep in my mind’s eye the ultimate highest potential version of me (and that version expands over time, by the way) and focus on filling the gap each day.

Understanding I am not perfect but filling that gap as much as I can. Every single day. And that means doing things that I am uncomfortable with until I become comfortable. Like doing interviews, and podcasts, appearing as a guest at events, and reaching out to people I want to meet and work with.

Conclusion

If you would like to develop strong consulting skills and other skills that can help you get promoted and gain massive momentum in your career, email [email protected] describing your objectives and goals, and we will be happy to help you design a training roadmap so you can make the next 12 months count.

Consulting Skills as a Competitive Advantage

Developing strong consulting skills such as the ability to communicate in a way that holds the attention of the room, the ability to solve complex problems in a structured and effective way, and the ability to build a peer-level relationship with the most senior executives of major companies. Developing strong consulting skills can be the competitive advantage that will allow you rise above the average and gain the momentum, respect, and opportunities you want.

Not everyone working for major consulting firms have strong consulting skills. Similarly, you can develop strong consulting skills without ever working for a major consulting firm.

In this post we are going to explore how to achieve career advancement from manager and above, and how to use consulting skills to help you achieve career growth.

What is Career Advancement?

Career advancement refers to the upward trajectory of someone’s career. Top professionals know the importance of professional and personal development. For anyone in the corporate world having a secure job to go to each week is important, but it is not enough. Humans crave progress.

If we do not grow, we degrade. We do not stay still. Our skills deteriorate. 

So the opportunity for career advancement is one of the most essential elements for people to feel a sense of well-being and job satisfaction. Opportunities for career growth are a powerful employee motivator. That’s why it makes good business sense for companies to ensure their employees are clear on their career growth plans and career growth opportunities.

Differences Between Advancing as a Junior Employee vs. Manager and Above. How Developing Consulting Skills Can Help

When someone is a junior employee, career advancement is usually more straightforward. Do a great job for your superiors, make them look good, and develop a strong technical skill-set, and you will have growth in your career. 

As you continue advancing in your career and moving to more senior levels, however, you will notice that your technical skills are becoming less and less critical to get the next promotion. What becomes essential are your soft skills. 

  • Can you convince and motivate people to do the work they do not want to do? 
  • Can you effectively lead people? 
  • Are you able to get people together that do not want to work together?
  • What is your level of influence within your organization?

Developing strong consulting skills means developing strong soft skills. You can’t be a successful consultant without the ability to communicate well, without the ability to have a lot of executive presence during your meetings with clients, and without the ability to build a long-term relationship with your clients.

Qualities of an Exceptional Leader

There are many qualities that exceptional leaders need to possess. If you look back at the best boss you ever had, what qualities immediately come to mind? Generally, the qualities of exceptional leaders include the following:

Integrity – Great leaders have integrity. If they promised you something, they keep their word. If you told them something in confidence, they keep it confidential. They do not go and cut corners to get some quick revenue or earn a favor. An exceptional leader would also not do unethical and illegal things for clients to keep big clients happy. They understand they set an example, and they take their role very seriously. 

Gratitude – You feel that your input is meaningful and sincerely appreciated. When you go above and beyond, it is noticed and acknowledged and ultimately rewarded.

Growth mindset – exceptional leaders have a growth mindset. They believe that you can improve if you put enough work into it. They give you opportunities to grow instead of locking you into a dead-end job. They create growth opportunities for their team because they believe that humans can grow and develop powerful skills. 

Influence – Great leaders are able to connect with others. They can be a connecting tissue that brings together stakeholders who are not interested in speaking to each other. They have a high level of influence within the organization and with clients.

Empathy – Great leaders have empathy. They understand that their team members are only human and can make mistakes. As long as they see the mistake was made not out of malicious intent, they help their team members recover from mistakes. They empower instead of push down. They support instead of humiliating. 

Self-Awareness – Great leaders also have a high level of self-awareness. You do not find them losing it and screaming at a client or their team members. They are calm, collected, professional, and focused a lot of the time. They are, of course, only human and, at times, may become anxious or angry, but because of their high level of self-awareness, they remain very professional at all times. 

Excellent communication – As we have mentioned earlier, excellent communication is one of the key consulting skills that can help you transform your career. Exceptional leaders are great communicators. They are able to hold the attention of the room. They are able to connect with their audience, be it one person or 100 people. They speak from their heart and are able to move people to action. 

Great at delegation – Great leaders understand that they can’t do everything on their own. They are great at delegation. They grow and develop strong teams under them. They do not hesitate to train people under them because they understand that it is best for the organization, the best for clients, and it is the only way that they can ever be promoted. They start succession planning early.

Tips for Career Advancement

Career advancement within the same organization may be the result of gaining work experience and potentially completing additional advanced training. There are some things to keep in mind as you are planning out your career advancement plan.

Start from maintaining very good health. Health is the most important asset you have. Without it, you do not have anything. So always pay attention to your health. As driven professionals, we often do not take sufficient care of our health early in our career, only to pay for it a way too big of a price later on. It is essential to pay attention to protecting your health from the start or as soon as you can. 

Build your skillset. Many business professionals stop developing their skills beyond what they learn on the job. Years go by, and they start to wonder what happened. Why has their career stalled? We live in a very competitive world, especially if you look at countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. While in some developing countries, you can get away with being average and still have a great career because there is such a massive lack of skills, in developed countries, you compete with the best people from all over the world. If you do not invest in your skills beyond what average performers do, then you will likely have average results. 

Work on your confidence. If you do not come across as someone who believes in their abilities, other people will also not believe you have what it takes to be a leader. So it is crucial to work on your confidence. When it comes to confidence, what you need to remember is what matters is your belief in your ability to figure things out. It is as simple as that. As long as you believe that you will find the way to make things work, that you will figure things out, that is what is required to have a sufficient level of confidence. So, as you can see, it is quite simple and manageable. 

Work on your communication skills. Another essential and powerful way to build confidence is by working on your communication and executive presence skills. We have a powerful program for our clients on developing executive presence and communication skills and a number of resources, including a video below. 

The Benefits of a Career Advancement

Organizations shouldn’t minimize the importance of supporting their employees’ career advancement. When companies do not pay attention to career growth opportunities for their employees, they undermine morale and productivity and end up with a high turnover. This is how companies or specific divisions within companies end up having to deal with a problem of a revolving door, where most employees leave as soon as they can, taking all the knowledge and experience with them, sometimes taking it to competitors. 

Here are some benefits of career advancement and career progression:

  • It results in lower turnover
  • It results in higher job satisfaction
  • It reduces stress and missed work days due to illness
  • It boosts productivity
  • It increases engagement within the team
  • It creates a positive work environment versus a toxic work environment 
  • It gives employees a sense of well-being and a sense of purpose

Improving Career Growth

Gaining experience and receiving additional training help you advance up the corporate ladder within the same industry. The career advancement process is divided into two phases, career growth planning, and career management. Career growth planning requires you to map out your career. You, of course, can’t map out your career with 100% certainty, but it allows you to understand where you are going and what is required to achieve your goals.

When we work with our clients, we help them develop what we call The MasterPlan. We have a coaching program called The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program, as well as an online light version of the program on StrategyTraining.com, available to Insiders and Legacy members. And we also have The MasterPlan book. All those resources help our clients access a proven process to help them develop their career growth plan. You can download a template from The MasterPlan Acceleration Coaching program here

Even if you do not use any of the resources above (the book, the coaching program, or the StrategyTraining.com advanced strategy and problem-solving training programs), you can still use the downloadable template to help you guide your thinking as you develop your career growth plan. This template was used by many clients who were able to transform their life. During our coaching programs, you also get to witness other clients complete this template and get coaching on various sections, which will give you ideas you may not have considered. 

Now, as you are thinking about your career growth plan, consider what type of career growth is most important to you. The reason I ask you to think about this is because it is one of the saddest things to see when clients spend decades in a certain career, they put tremendous work into it, only to realize that they were pursuing the wrong career. So an essential element of thinking through your career growth plan is understanding what your life’s work is. 

Gaining more clarity on what is your life’s work is one of the critical areas I help clients with. Because without it does it even make sense to work on your career growth plan? What is the point of investing above-average efforts into a plan that will not lead you to live a fulfilling life?

You might as well then enjoy your hobbies and have an average career, and be happy. I know so many people who lost their health, their spouses, and their children because they invested everything they had into a career that wasn’t even aligned with their life’s work or their competitive and comparative advantage, which is another area we speak a lot about as part of the MasterPlan program.

Keys to Successful Career Advancement

Now, what are some of the keys to successful career advancement? 

Make a positive impression – Here, you need to learn how to make a positive impression when dealing with your peers and superiors. You need to be likable.

Are you the kind of guy or lady they would enjoy having a beer with on Friday night?

 

Think of a person you know who makes you feel good about yourself because they never say anything negative. We live in a culture where many things that people find funny are at the expense of someone. Think of someone who is not “two-faced,” not belittling.

How do you feel when you are with those people?

You actually look forward to seeing them.

You may even marry a person like this.

If you are lucky, you know one person that makes you feel amazing. And the rest are on a sliding scale. Think about how you respond to someone who makes you feel good. You are drawn to them, you smile, you are happy, and you feel you can do anything around that person. 

You want to be that person, you want to be a person to whom everyone is drawn to. 

Seek opportunities where others are not looking – You also need to learn to seek opportunities where others are not looking. For example, there may be a rare skill that you have, such as knowing a specific language, which may make you uniquely positioned to work on a particular project. Other people may not be trying to get on that project because they don’t have any advantages related to that project. 

Become a great communicator – Learn to communicate effectively. Again we are coming back to the importance of enhancing your executive presence and communication skills, as key consulting skills that can help you set yourself apart. Specifically, learn to communicate like a partner from a major consulting firm or a senior executive from a large company. 

Here is a video on communication that may be very helpful for you. This video is focused on how to learn to speak as a management consultant. If you have ever spoken to management consultants, you know that consultants speak in a certain way. They tend to speak in a very logical and structured way. They tend to pause at the right places. Consultants speak in a very logical, structured, and professional manner. And this ability to hold a logical and structured conversation is an ability that is a great asset when it comes to career advancement.

You want to make sure you can communicate. If you can’t communicate well but have excellent technical skills, you will likely struggle to get promoted. Consultants are very good at using stories. They are also very good at telling what they read in a newspaper.

It’s, of course, not about being able to recite what someone read in a newspaper. It is about if you can tell the key message in the article, the assumptions underpinning that article, and your thoughts on those assumptions, and your views on what will happen.

Consultants speak in that way. They don’t just recite what they read. They give you their opinions because they are trained to give you their opinions. 

Develop a strong business acumen – You also need to determine a strong business acumen, which we refer to as business judgment. Strong business acumen is, of course, one of the key consulting skills that are required for you to be an outstanding leader and to get promoted. Without strong business acumen, you will not be able to make good decisions. We cover how to build business judgment in detail in our programs. Business judgment becomes more critical as you are moving up to higher and higher levels within your organization. 

 

Become a skillful critical thinker versus a critic – Critical thinking ability is vital for career advancement and one of the most important consulting skills. And one of the essential requirements to be a great critical thinker is business judgment. Everyone already has business judgment. You will do much better when it comes to problem-solving if you learn to apply your judgment instead of ignoring your life experiences when solving problems. You have the ability to interpret things that is unique in the world. 

Now there is a big difference between a critical thinker and a critic. They are not the same.

The critical thinker is doing two things. They are learning as much as they can from what is in front of them, and they are trying to analyze it. There is a difference between analyzing something and finding flaws in it. You can analyze something completely wrong and find useful information within it.

Think of case studies of why things succeeded. If something we analyzed, and it failed, you can learn even more from it. If you follow Partnership. Memoir, an extensive program we have where one of our coaches discusses how he became a partner in his 20s. During the first three years of his career, he had a lot of failures, he got promoted once. During the next three years, he got promoted four times. Not because he was good at analyzing the successes but because he was open to analyzing the failures. 

When you go into any discussion, if your default mode is to find the flaws with whatever the person is saying, then you are not a critical thinker, you are a critic. A critical thinker is not just there to find flaws. A critical thinker is there to understand, to be open to learning, to explore things.

We have a show called The Bill Matassoni Show. Bill was a prominent senior partner at McKinsey and BCG. He was the partner that, along with his colleagues, but he was the architect of this, who led McKinsey’s strategy in the 80s to reposition itself and leap ahead of BCG and Bain. 

Now, how do you know Bill is a critical thinker? Because he doesn’t dismiss people.

We’ve done multiple video shoots with Bill for our StrategyTraining.com library of training, and we watched him talk to contractors on site and really have friendly discussions with them. He wanted to learn what they had to say. Think about it, many senior people look at videographers on set and think, “Well, you are not Steven Spielberg, I have nothing to learn from you,” and ignore them. The critical thinker is trying to understand. The critic is trying to find flaws. 

The Western education system grooms critics because our basis of belief is that if we first find something to be erroneous or flawed, we got to discard it. So our first step is to be critical. Once it passes the critical checklist, we then say, “Okay, let’s learn from it.” 

Here’s the thing. The act of being critical blinds you to learning things from essentially a flawed case study. 

No one likes a critic. Critics are called jerks. If someone goes into a conversation and they are critical and find flaws in their argument, people are going to hate that person. Worse, if they are someone who finds flaws in another’s argument and who cannot control their facial expressions, we’ve all been in discussions with people where not only are they critical because they think they are being smart, but they have a smirk and condescending look on their face.

Conclusion

If you would like to develop strong consulting skills and other skills that can help you get promoted and gain massive momentum in your career, email [email protected] describing your objectives and goals, and we will be happy to help you design a training roadmap so you can make the next 12 months count.

There are some very common misconceptions and myths about analytical problem solving. Most candidates simply skim over this phrase on consulting profiles without thinking about the meaning. This post will tell you what management consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG mean by analytical problem solving.

You would be surprised at how many people believe that analytical thinking is something that comes instinctively, letting you do data analysis and pinpoint relevant information to get the key takeaways from complex problems. The truth is, these analytical skills are, more often than not, hard skills that you acquire through years of problem solving and critical thinking. They’re problem-solving skills that help you go from coming up with easy solutions to coming up with creative solutions that go the extra mile.

This is important advice so it is worth reading carefully – we’ll also go over some analytical and problem solving skills examples to help you understand better.

 

What is analytical problem solving

To be an analytical thinker does not mean you must have a degree in science, engineering, finance, economics or any other quantitative subject. While some subjects, like those listed, imply you could be analytical in your thinking, not having quantitative background does not mean you cannot think analytically. Thousands of candidates with quantitative backgrounds fail to get offers from McKinsey, Bain and BCG every year. Therefore, having a quantitative background can be an advantage, but it does not guarantee analytical problem solving ability.

Being analytical refers to the way you think and not to the problem you solve. This is a very important statement. Lawyers, social scientists, linguists and historians can all be extremely analytical in their thinking. Yet, they are not solving quantitative problems. So the problem is not what determines if you are analytical, it is the way you solve the problem.

Good analyses are grounded in hypotheses. Can you develop hypotheses? It always surprises us how many people do not know what is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is not the problem. It is not a fact. It is not an opinion. It is a statement which captures the observed phenomenon as well as the likely cause of the phenomenon. Both must be present for it to be a hypothesis. A surprising number of candidates do not understand this.

Are you able to reason using only the facts provided? Analytical thinkers are not unemotional. No one is unemotional. However, analytical thinkers are able to separate their emotion from the situation and use the data provided to arrive at a conclusion. Analytical problem solving means reasoning using facts and logic. Past experience or opinions which cannot be substantiated are ignored.

Can you assemble data and facts to develop an argument or line of reasoning? Analytical thinkers can take pieces of information, compare them and decide what the information is saying. They can assemble the information to produce new insight into the problem rather than simply restating the information.

Analytical thinkers do not blurt out answers. Assuming your answer is even correct, the fact that you knew the answer means you did not need to analyse the facts. Therefore, your analytical problem solving skill could not be tested.

Logic has nothing to do with numbers. There is a misconception that if your reasoning lacks numbers then it must be incorrect. That is ridiculous. In many consulting case interviews, you will need to reason based on logical arguments and with very little numbers. Your line of reasoning is more important than your final answer.

Analytical thinkers can show you how they arrived at the answer. This should be obvious, right? After all, it is the foundation of the case interview method. If you followed a path of reasoning to arrive at an answer, you should be able to explain that path to someone. That is why the method is used. The interviewer is more interested in how you arrived at the answer than the answer you developed. How you arrived at the answer shows the strength of your analytical problem solving skill.

Logical thinkers apply MECE, even if they do not know it. I have some impressive friends in the legal profession. Watching them reason and debate is worth doing so. When you ask them how they arrived at an answer or why they eliminated an option, you realize they are applying the rules of MECE perfectly. Yet, they never heard of MECE. Reason and logic is not exclusive to management consulting but is it essential to management consulting.

You do not need to know anything about an income statement, balance sheet or cash-flow statement to develop analytical skills. I should not need to say this but I will say it anyway. The thought process is more important than the topic. You can learn accounting and financial concepts when you need them. It is not very difficult to do so.

 

Analytical and problem solving skills examples

Below we share with you some examples of analytical and problem solving skills and how analytical skills are being tested during consulting case interviews.

McKinsey case interview examples 

 

BCG case interview examples

 

General case interview examples

 

Structured case interview analytical and problem solving skills development is needed

If you would like to get help with developing your analytical and problem solving skills, and fast track your case interview preparation, we welcome you to enroll into Premium membership.

There is nowhere else in the world where you can see real candidates trained by former partners from major consulting firms to help them develop analytical and problem solving skills. You will see the candidate’s progression through each step of the case interview preparation process, and how their analytical and problem solving skills are being developed. And you will see candidates receiving real offers from major firms such as Deloitte, McKinsey, or BCG.

 

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Differences Between Implementation, Strategy, and Operations Consulting

One concept is consistently misunderstood in management consulting and that is the differences between strategy, operation, and implementation. Here are the common misinterpretations:

  • McKinsey only does strategy work.
  • Deloitte and other accounting firms are great at implementation.
  • Implementation consulting is the same as operational strategy consulting. 

We are going to explain the key difference and which firms are good at each type of consulting.

Strategy

Strategy consultants help senior executives determine the overall direction in which they will take the business. It is about taking a top-down view of the business and looking at the allocation of scarce resources. Strategy consulting is difficult. It requires deep analytical skills and the application of strong and disciplined problem-solving skills. Principles like decision trees, MECE, and hypotheses-led research are used. 

What Do Strategy Consultants Do?

Examples of strategy work include:

  • What should be our long-term vision?
  • Should we retain the same portfolio of businesses?
  • Should we enter this market?
  • Do we have a competitive advantage?
  • What is the best way for us to extract value from our SUV division?

At the end of a strategy consulting engagement, the client is given detailed market research outlining the exact market shares, pricing, volumes, business models, and other conditions under which the recommended strategy will work. The end of a strategy consulting engagement must be a report. That’s because a strategy is a plan that helps you gain insight as to what the next step should be. And before you implement anything, you need a plan.

Strategy consulting engagements tend to involve long hours; they are high intensity and involve senior client engagement. Throughout the engagement, strategy consultants must work with the most senior executives of a firm. Proper strategy consulting can only be done for the most senior executives. They are after all the management involved in decision making

The top firms in strategy work are McKinsey, BCG and Bain. Other firms like Roland Berger are good at strategy in selected markets and sectors. However, their standards are generally not as high compared to other firms

Operations

Operations consulting services are very similar to strategy but are not implementation work. In operations consulting projects, the operations consultants usually work for senior executives to determine how to extract value (e.g. how to extract more value from a facility, plant, mine, supply chain, or division). The role of an operations consultant is to offer specific solutions to certain challenges. They are also involved in continuous improvement techniques, indirect procurement operations, and developing new operating models

Operations consultants apply the same approach to solve problems as strategy consultants. MECE, decision trees, and hypotheses lead the research. 

Operations Consulting Services

Examples of operations consulting services include:

  • How do we increase the throughput of this plant?
  • How do we reduce costs in this facility?
  • How do we minimize the costs of raw materials?
  • How do we increase productivity in this factory?
  • How do we reduce bottlenecks in this plant?

Here is a crucial similarity between business operations and strategy engagements. At the end of an operations consulting project, the client also will receive a detailed report outlining metrics, benchmarks, and a laundry list of changes to improve business operations. At this stage, the client and operation consultants have not yet implemented the recommendations.

Operations and strategy engagements use the same highly disciplined problem-solving processes, but they apply them to different parts of the business processes. This is a very important point. The role of operations consultants is just as tough, just as intense, and just as appealing as that of strategy consultants, provided it is done correctly.

The top firms in the operations consulting market are still McKinsey, Bain, and BCG. To this list, you can also add AT Kearney. In some areas of operations consulting, firms like Deloitte, PWC, E&Y, KPMG, and Mercer also do well. The accounting firms tend to be good at financial processes, functional business processes, supply chain management, and business process management. The latter firms are not consistently good across all sectors and markets.

Implementation

Implementation consulting is totally different from operations and strategy consulting. The consulting skill sets are different, the hours are different, the type of work is different, and so is the profile of consultants and fee structures. In an implementation engagement, the consulting team must take the recommendations from the strategy and operations engagement and help the client realize the targets. Let’s assume Bain advised an airline to set up a new low-cost airline division. The strategy calculated that doing this would lead to the airline saving $100 million over 3 years.

The implementation consultants need to determine the pieces of activity required to take all the existing employees within the airline, create a new division, brand it, set up the operating structures, and move the employees to the new division. They need to also get involved in asset management, performance improvement, and customer relationship management where they develop strategies to enhance customer experience and ultimately improve customer satisfaction. Although the implementation consultants will not do everything, like branding where a brand specialist firm would do the work, they will manage everything.

Here are some of the things involved in doing this:

  • Setting up the new division
  • Transferring employees and making adjustments to their employment contracts
  • Creating a new profit center
  • Setting up a new accounting system and adjusting SAP
  • Setting up back-office processes
  • Assisting in deciding if the low-cost fleet will be leased or bought
  • Creating a new organizational structure in micro-detail
  • Set the start date for the new division and begin migrating process and employees
  • Set up a trial run for the new division
  • Determine the go-live date
  • Manage the labor unions
  • Perform advanced analytics

You get the picture? Implementation consulting is not just for the smartest MBAs. It’s for smart people who can roll up their sleeves and work alongside a client to solve countless tedious problems and march towards a common goal. 

A person with below average abilities who can make things happen is a far more effective implementation consultant than someone brilliant with the best solution that is never used. 

Implementation consultants also only use the strategy or operations practices as a guide. No matter how good a firm is, it can never predict all the problems with implementing a strategy. The implementation team will need to find a way to make the strategy work. 

Implementation consulting projects also have less stressful work hours. Since the team is working hand-in-hand with the client, they generally need to work to the clients’ schedule which slows down implementation projects. There is also a need to blend in more closely, use processes that can be used by everyone and focus more on transferring knowledge.

In our experience in the consulting industry, despite the countless adverts, not many firms do implementation well. Capgemini used to be good at implementation through their United Research team. Accenture is great at technology implementation. E&Y is quite good and so is IBM. The rest have poor records. Of course, there are also regional and sector specialists.

So the next time someone says McKinsey only does strategy, know they are wrong. McKinsey does plenty of operations work which is just as rigorous as any strategy engagement, as well as implementation work.

Image from Jon Herbert under cc.

Before reading this, remember that it is a successful Firmsconsulting strategy to sometimes “park” MBA clients in internal strategy units at banks before we feel they are ready to apply to MBB (McKinsey, Bain and BCG) and other consulting firms. This works because the client is in an internal strategy unit that has some cache with consulting firms, but crucially, this is a temporary stop before they go on to join McKinsey, BCG, etc.

The article below is about readers who simply want to stay in internal strategy units to learn management consulting skills. There is a major difference between both strategies. We recommend the former and not the latter if you want to become a capable management consultant.

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Management consultants are all over the place. The big-3 alone have an estimated 50,000 alumni working across the world. Moreover, the rise in the use of management consultants throughout the 1990s accompanied by their rising fees led to some clients actively trying to replicate consulting skills in-house by creating internal strategy units. This professionalized the development of internal strategy consulting teams and created a second-act for many exiting consultants who did not want to immediately jump into operating roles.

The banks have been particularly guilty of propagating this trend. They also never seem to learn from the difficulties associated with such past attempts. Every three years or so another banking executive, usually in the same bank, thinks he can set up an internal strategy unit which will work. Despite years of failure, he thinks it can be done correctly this time. It’s a predictable pattern, like death and taxes.

Every bank we have met is doing this, trying to do this or exploring the idea. If I tried to name them all it would take too much time.

The thinking behind internal strategy unit is almost always the same:

(1) Hire ex-McKinsey/Bain/BCG/etc managers to run and control assignments.

(2) Hire associates and analysts to do the work.

(3) Save money by not hiring management consultants.

The idea that a few smart people can find ideas for improvement and opportunities for growth is a supposed no-brainer.

Each week we get several queries asking about the value of joining these internal strategy teams at banks.

The reader surmises that since the team is led by ex-BCG or ex-McKinsey partners and managers, then it would be the same as joining a management consulting firm. The reader is sometimes, though not always, trying desperately to justify their wish to take the opportunity.

And why would they not? Given how hard it is to get into McKinsey surely the idea of working for an internal strategy consulting unit staffed with consulting alumni must be the second best option.

7 reasons why working for internal strategy unit may not be right for you

There are some major and critical differences between working for an internal strategy unit at a bank versus joining an élite management consulting firm. If you really want to join an internal strategy consulting unit, then that is fine. There is value and merits to doing that. In fact, in many countries it can help you eventually land a consulting position, but does not teach you the same skills as what you would learn at an elite management consulting firm.

That sounds counter-intuitive but it is true.

Just do not justify it on the basis that it is the same as joining a top management consulting firm. It is not. Here are the critical reasons why:

1) First, in a management consulting firm you will be carefully taught a rigorous problem solving approach which you can apply to any situation. This flexibility is one of the values of management consultants. They can work in any situation, at anytime, anywhere in the world and at a moment’s notice.

In a bank, you will be working on very similar issues. Therefore, it is unlikely you will learn the ability to apply the problem solving approach across issues and industries. In a perverse case, you will acquire industry knowledge and rely on this knowledge versus applying basic and rigorous problem solving to understand the fundamental issues. If you see how much effort goes into testing the case interview capabilities at the top firms, you will realize just how important basic problem solving really is.

2) Second, when you work in a bank, you will be encouraged to bond with your peers, colleagues in other divisions and basically make friends. Given that close bonding and the fact that recommendations need to be publicly debated for them to have any impact, how likely is it that you will produce analyses calling for a colleague’s department to be right-sized? What about an analyses pointing out that the leader of the largest and most important business division is actually underperforming? Do you have the backbone to do this? Are you willing to put your career on the line given the fact that power lies in the operating divisions?

Unfortunately, when you work in internal strategy units at banks, the existing power structure forces you to put out politically correct recommendations. You have no choice. If you put out the correct material which challenges an important person, it is sidelined. You can choose to continue being sidelined or play the game and progress. Offering lukewarm recommendations to get ahead is not management consulting.

3) Third, speaking about power structures, in any bank anywhere in the world, the power and influence lies with the operating units and the operating leaders. It is a badge of honor, a sign of recognition to be awarded the chance to run an operating unit.

In fact, you can Google this, read about the careers of Jamie Dimon and Mike Carpenter. Dimon was a brilliant HBS graduate who led Sam Weill’s strategy and planning. Dimon did everything in his power, according to his biography, to get into the operating units and lead a profit centre. In his words, “planning was half of the game”. Carpenter was a star BCG partner who was recruited by Jack Welch. He ran Kidder Peabody and eventually went to Citigroup. There he was “exiled” into strategy planning when his performance dipped.

Sir Deryck Maughan the former head of Salomon Brothers experienced the same issues. When his performance dropped he was asked to move into strategy planning.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is that internal strategy units at banks are seen as killing fields for under-performing executives. It’s hard to admit this but it is true. The exception to this rule is Goldman Sachs. Of course, they do not staff the internal strategy unit with ex-consultants and the unit works on organizational issues. Assuming you are not going to Goldman Sachs’ internal strategy unit, why would you want to work in a part of the business with such a bad reputation and absolutely no influence?

4) Fourth, consultants from even the top consulting firms are given a really tough time when they work at banks. What makes you think you will fare any better? It will be much worse by a factor of 10 to 50! Your advice will be ignored, analyses openly ridiculed and questioned. It can become debilitating. This would not happen to you if you were a BCG case-team assigned to JP Morgan. You would get respect even if the employees resented you.

The internal consulting units inevitably respond to these internal organizational issues in two ways:

Despite their moniker of being an internal strategy unit they end up picking up fairly mundane work. They focus on conducting surveys, and, especially, undertaking business-process-reengineering work. There is nothing wrong with business-process-reengineering work, but even here, they struggle to get any traction for the reasons listed above.

They also become quant jockeys. They put out fancy analyses which makes them feel all warm inside but which is never ever used. A management consultant’s job is to give the correct recommendations AND make an impact at a client. Consultants are sometimes unfairly mocked for producing reports which sit on a client’s desk, I would argue that dishonor belongs to internal strategy teams at banks who want to act like management consultants and do not realize they face a very different set of expectations. No one really wants their reports. They are seen as implementation managers.

5) Fifth, whether you like it or not, you must realize that in a bank, to rise you must run a business. Please make sure you understand this distinction. Consulting firms are designed to promote and reward thinkers. That is how you make partner and eventually senior partner. In the internal strategy unit at a bank, your reward for doing great work is to have your entry into the operating units fast-tracked.

Understand that for a minute. No matter how well you do in the internal strategy unit, you will still need to very much prove yourself in the operating side. Even if you came to Bank of America from BCG as a manager, while you will have that incredible brand on your résumé and respect it confers, you will still need to eventually move into the operating units.

6) Sixth, banks do not reward smart ideas. A bank’s currency is its share price, net profits and risk profile. If a bank produces this then it is a success. Those who help the bank produce these things are rewarded and recognized. Smart internal strategy unit’s guys and ladies are not rewarded unless they meaningfully and directly contribute to the bottom-line.

Management consulting firms on the other hand build value via ideas, publications and influence. Can you see the mismatch? Your internal strategy unit will march to a different beat.

About 70% of McKinsey, Bain and BCG employees are managed out of the firm. That means they are asked to leave since the firm did not think they would make partner. In laymen terms, they are not good enough. So when you meet an alumnus of these firms you have to ask yourself the following:

  • Were they managed out?
  • They may be a McKinsey alumnus, but how long were they actually there?

Do not be afraid to ask these questions. Just do not ask them directly. It is your career on the line. Can you learn anything from someone who was managed out? What can anyone teach you who spent just 12 or 18 months at a management consulting firm? If they left as a partner that is a different story. The bottom line is to be wary of working with internal strategy units stocked with alumni of the top firms. Quality is an issue.

7) This point comes at the end but it is probably the most important. People who served at the junior levels of consulting firms think true management consulting is all about analyses. They are wrong. Unless they made case manager or associate principal they have likely never learned how to take the pieces of information from analyses and construct recommendations.

This is a critical point. Knowing how to break down an issue with analyses is only part of the way in an engagement. The other part is to bring it all together to create the recommendations. Only partner level consultants can do this. Junior employees are always analyses junkies.

My point is that you can only be exposed to the full collection of required skills at a management consulting firm. Moreover, you need to learn the consulting value system. It is vague but without it learning how to size a market means little. Learning the culture and value system of management consulting takes time to understand.

So if you get an offer to join the internal strategy unit at a bank or another company, even if it is led by “ex-McKinsey managers”, think very carefully about what you are getting into. I can assure you it will not teach you to be a management consultant or expose you to even 10% of the true experience. If anything, you may learn the wrong skills and never gain the correct training, or worse end up thinking this watered-down version of consulting is management consulting.

If you do not get into McKinsey, Bain or BCG then do not subject yourself to an internal strategy unit unless it is just a stepping stone to move into consulting. In that case, you need to be very careful about doing things which make you attractive to consulting firms. Merely being in the internal strategy unit is usually insufficient.

6 things to do if you want to join an internal strategy unit as a step to join MBB

If you want to join an internal strategy unit at a bank, you should do the following:

  1. First, ensure you have the capability to see through your plan to the end. If you have weak grades, a weak leadership profile and a poor profile in general, then the odds are that even if you worked in a good internal strategy unit, you will not be successful when you eventually apply to BCG. Simultaneously fix these gaps.
  2. Second, choose roles where the impact you are having is very specific, quantifiable and your role in influencing others is very clear. That is very important to your personal experience interview discussion.
  3. Third, show rapid progression in everything you do. Mediocrity will not play well when your application is reviewed.
  4. Fourth, try to avoid the habit of picking up and using consulting jargon. This is irritating to McKinsey interviewers who all speak in very crisp, clear and jargon free language. Understand the basic principles of what you are doing and explain things in English.
  5. Sixth, create a network of ex-consultants from outside your group at work so you have an independent source against which to verify and corroborate the expectations of management consulting firms.
  6. Seventh, before you start any initiative ask yourself how it will look written up in your resume and only proceed if it is acceptable to you. If it looks weak, you still have time to alter the initiative, your role in the initiative or possibly avoid the work altogether. Show initiative on things that matter and see it through to the end. Before you assume responsibility for a 3-months project to save $15,000 in printing costs ask yourself how this story is going to play out in a case interview. Is it really that impressive?

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A McKinsey or BCG partner, or consulting partner of any other firm, must question and challenge a client in a professional manner. The basis of the relationship must be one where the client allows the partner to be candid about what he/she thinks. The best partners build relationships where this is expected of them. The worst partners pander to the client.

There is no point claiming to be the advisor to a client when you are afraid to tell him/her the painful truth.

External parties reading the phrase “the client always comes first” routinely misinterpret this to mean the client must be given whatever they want and must be always happy. That could not be further from the truth. Putting the client first routinely means putting the client needs first, even if that upsets the client.

Sometimes, the client’s needs and the client’s wants do not sync, so while their needs are met they end up being bitter or angry from the process. That happens far more often than you would think.

The best clients are mature and professional. They are seasoned and understand a consulting recommendation is just that – a recommendation that does not need to be followed. Therefore, they do not overreact if the recommendation does not support their expected answer.

In an earlier piece I discussed taking a huge risk in a proposal that paid off when I was a management consultant. This piece, in some ways, discusses a risk I took as a consulting partner that did not pay off. In fact, the fall out was pretty big.

That is the inherent nature of taking risks and being creative. When it works, the payoff is significant, but when it fails the crevasse is equally deep. And it is pretty dark down there.

This piece explores a topic you will rarely find anywhere since consulting partners rarely discuss the dynamics at play between equity partners. How do BCG partners support each other? How do McKinsey partners react to crises that can hurt a relationship, and ultimately a firm’s revenue? Who pays the price for this impact? Do heads roll?

The context to the failure of a Consulting Partner

The client in question was an energy company ranked in the top 5 of companies in their sub-sector by market capitalization. They were a rapidly expanding behemoth.

Given the number of acquisitions they were driving and the scale of their capital projects they were an ideal choice for a strategy firm. There was just one problem. The CEO did not like management consultants and had forbidden the divisions from using any consulting firms for studies.

The head office in the US was relatively much smaller than peers, and the CEO wanted as much of a decentralized structure as possible. The operating divisions carried as much of the costs as possible and corporate overhead was a mere fraction of the total expenses.

The executive team was unique in that they were truly involved in strategy. Most companies say they are like that, but they have bloated head offices getting involved in all manner of operating issues. There were only 3 assistants in the entire head office. One for the CEO and 2 shared between the other executive officers.

This company believed in efficiency.

The CEO therefore appointed very analytic teams to run each division. He wanted the divisions to have the skills to run themselves versus running back to the head office for direction.

If someone with 20 years of operating experience ran a division, he was paired up with an MBA from the corporate office who had about 5 to 10 years experience in the M&A team. In this way, each division had an operator and a dealmaker at the top. Though the dealmaker was not doing any deals, he was just a numbers person who knew how this operation fit within the broader strategy.

This meant the banks tended to be locked out to a large extent. They would meet the MBA from the operating division and present to him, assuming he could open a door to head office, but head office never took meetings through this route. The same thing happened to consulting firms.

It was almost a diversionary tactic. All services firms congregated around the operating divisions, but the operating divisions did not have the power to hire anyone. Well, probably they could do it anyway but they were too scared to do it.

Ironically, since everything was so decentralized, the only services firms making inroads were Deloitte, Accenture and E&Y. The reason had to do with the decentralized structure and wave of acquisitions.

During the wave of acquisitions a lot of firms with different accounting, payroll and management IT systems had been gobbled up. To ensure efficiencies were extracted post acquisition, a significant amount of SAP, risk review and IT strategy work was being done.

The head office allowed this to happen at the divisional level and did not seem to need oversight over this provided the IT-related consulting studies led to actual savings. So, in many ways these firms were able to operate independently of corporate oversight because the value they created could be measured.

They were doing a good job.

Despite this, at a sector conference we had presented an idea of how a number of different players in the energy sector could work together to unlock a major energy basin in South America. It was a clever idea and we had built a crude model to show how about 6 different stakeholders could bring different skills at different times to undertake a fairly complicated capital project.

We met the team from the Brazilian division at the conference and they expressed interest in learning more about the work we had done. Since the work was still fairly crude, and needed substantially more data to be completed, we though meeting them could would help us plug up some of our assumptions.

So I, along with another partner and an engagement manager, went along to talk them through our idea, where we were in our thinking and what more was needed to prove our hypothesis. The meeting went well, about 6 people attended from the client’s side and they clearly thought the idea was compelling.

We left and heard nothing from them until a week later when they asked us if we could meet an executive from the Canadian operations who looked after business development for this commodity. We went ahead and that meeting went even better. The executive liked the idea and concurred with the need to explore this further.

In our 3rd meeting the local team asked if we would consider completing the study on their behalf. This was quite significant for the firm since none of our offices anywhere in the world, even the large mining offices like Moscow, Perth and Calgary had found a way in to do business strategy work for this client.

So this was an exciting time for us to get involved with a client on one of their most important growth initiatives.

The study began in early October and concluded around early December. It was a good clean study with a very engaged and competent client. Putting this M&A/Operations combination in to jointly head each division was a very effective move and our case team was able to test ideas quickly.

I was surprised at how quickly the client made decisions and obtained data. They also have a very lean structure that meant we could easily work our way up and down the operating teams to confirm hypothesis and test ideas.

In many ways, they were the perfect client.

The final presentation was also very well received and the division convened a planning session of the operating heads to see how they could take this forward. What surprised us just a little about that meeting was that no one from head office was present.

If this project went ahead, it would be a $20B capital investment and that could only be decided at the head office. So, when we were preparing to run this planning session I remember thinking that the outcome of the session was odd.

What were they trying to achieve?

Were they trying to get the operating heads of the division aligned? Why was that necessary? They had no say in the matter.

What would happen if all the operating division heads agreed? Probably nothing.

Anyway, we went ahead and managed the session, which went very well. But as predicted, nothing concrete could come out of this.

A week after the planning session, we went back to wrap up the study and basically hand-over all the material. At this session, the client asked if we could prepare a 1-page summary of the findings and recommendations and send it to him. He would like to share it at a more senior planning session.

That is a normal request and we were more than happy to oblige. In fact, the client even provided us the names of the executives to whom we should send the letter. Again, a normal request.

I emailed that letter at 10am on a Wednesday. By 5pm on that very same Wednesday, a rumor started circulating around the office that the CEO had summoned a very senior partner in the New York office to complain that we had done the work and bypassed his planning team.

What had happened?

Any time we enter a new client we have little understanding of the background mechanics and politics at the client. We have to learn as we go along and while we hit some problems, rarely do they derail us.

To understand what was happening here, you need to understand the unique culture of this company. The culture had driven certain behaviors that led to the misunderstanding.

Given the fact that head office was so small, only the top lieutenants to the CEO had access to him: his M&A team and the heads of his energy division. Therefore, to get any face time with the CEO, regional and divisional employees would have to go through this team of lieutenants.

Moreover, the deal making culture of the company meant that many felt that if they just did enough to bring together a landmark energy deal, they could vault into this inner circle. In fact, the M&A leader in the Latin American office was probably thinking just this. He alluded to it in some of his comments.

We later found out that when he had the Canadian business development executive officer meet us, while the executive was pleased with the work and found it interesting, he had asked the local division to shut it down. Such work was not under the purview of the local division. He asked the work be sent to head office.

I can only speculate why the local division did not transfer the study. They probably wanted credit for it and felt a more completed version would allow the CEO to see the brilliant value they could bring to the organization.

Should they have immediately complied with the business development executive? It is hard to say. The company is structured by operating divisions so the business development executive can only make suggestions but cannot control an operating division. Also, was his request an order or a suggestion?

As you can see, it is hard to know if the Brazilian unit merely implemented the suggestion at their own pace, or blatantly ignored orders.

In fact, if the business development executive did not agree with the work being done by the operating division, he probably should not have attended the meeting in the first place. That said, we were not involved in any of these internal maneuverings.

In essence, the Brazilian office was allegedly running a rogue study. At least now we knew why the Moscow, Perth and Calgary offices were not doing any work at this client.

There was another issue at stake here. As mentioned earlier, the company was organized by divisions and not regions. Therefore, the executive whom was responsible for this office commissioning the study was not based in the office and had not commissioned this study.

He was based in Calgary and several offices reported to him: all those offices involved in the production of an energy product.

You can imagine his surprise when he finds out about this major strategy piece advocating a big change in the direction of his group and he knows nothing about it?

To the CEO, it looks like that executive does not have a handle on his own people.

Had we been played by the client?

I sincerely believe the divisional executives who commissioned this study felt they were not doing anything wrong, nor do I think they were using us. I believed they wanted the study to come from us since it was seen as an unbiased and credible source.

There is also the corporate culture to blame for this.

Surely these divisional executives must have felt that this behavior would be rewarded in the right situation. They must have seen something similar done in the past and saw what happened if it was done right. So while the CEO was up in arms, I suspect he bore some of the blame for allowing his employees to think this was acceptable.

Was the CEO really up in arms?

That is hard to say. The meeting with the senior partner from the New York office touched on the study but it seemed the CEO ended up discussing other things during the bulk of that meeting.

In hindsight there seems to have been tension between the CEO and executive running this division and this study merely allowed that tension to surface. In fact, it was possible the CEO was using this study as an opportunity to create the impression of lack of control in the executives division.

Although, based on what was happening, there was a lack of control.

Dead man walking

You will find that impression matters far more than reality.

All of this was happening during the festive period so no one was in the office. The senior partner met the CEO but there did not seem to be any major issues from that meeting. Yet, he had not had the opportunity to widely discuss this with the other partners. So the original rumors dominated the discussion.

The main problem with these events is that the uncertainty creates more trauma than anything else.

My first day back at the office involved a big dinner for the partners in that office. You will notice partners have a lot of dinners. So all the partners were back but they had not gotten together since the initial rumors. So all they were able to discuss WAS the supposed fall out from this event, but with no new information of what had happened since.

I was a principal at this stage but fairly senior because I led a practice group and also some key client relations. Generally principals would not have that responsibility. It would be fair to say some other principals and directors felt my extra responsibility was not deserved. Maybe they were right. Maybe they were wrong. You will learn in life that no group is ever in 100% agreement.

So I was concerned this event would be used as an opportunity to curtail my responsibility and trajectory through the firm.

When I arrived at the dinner, there was a definite change in the behavior of some partners. Many avoided me, because they assumed I had done something pretty bad and being seen around me would not help their careers.

In fact, the group of partners I generally associated with was fairly distant. At this dinner were 3 senior partners who were my sponsors in the firm. One was clearly upset about what happened and while he did not say anything to me directly, once he had a little to drink, he made sufficient crude comments, as a joke, to let me know what he thought of things.

While he was the only person who publicly made those comments, I let them stand because I believe this senior partner meant well and it was his way of communicating that I needed to be more careful. We had and continue to have a great relationship.

My main sponsor, another senior partner, basically said hello and left, as did my other sponsor.

Overall, it was not a great start to the year.

I was taken off the client relationship. I did not agree with this decision because my role across the firm was a trouble-shooter and I had a reputation for going and fixing problems, even those that emanated from my own study teams.

I did not fight the decision. I let it happen and simply moved on to other clients. There were enough of them.

The question remains: was being taken off the client relationship a punishment?

The answer is both yes and no.

The senior partner, who wanted me off the study, probably did not have a great relationship with me and saw this as an opportunity to manage the account differently. Different is not necessarily bad so I did not worry too much about this.

One senior partner, on the executive committee of the firm, was trying to protect me.

At the first partner planning session, the events at the client over Christmas obviously came up for discussion. Partners are always collegial. There is no screaming, finger pointing or kicking. The mere fact the event is being discussed is bad enough for you, even if it was done in a polite way.

Everyone is smiling and talking about how this is just a chance to learn. Velvet death.

So everyone goes around the room offering their insights on what had happened and how it could be prevented in the future. I, of course, said nothing because my views would be seen as a defensive gesture. So, I let everyone continue speaking.

The senior partner, on the executive committee, let it continue. I suspect he thought it would just die out. It did not. The discussion was moving towards a motion to change the way clients were being managed.

This is when the senior partner made a crucial observation. I am paraphrasing here.

“We had done nothing wrong as a firm. The misunderstanding and angst created at the client was due to the way the client had managed the situation. We just happened to have been the trigger. Moreover, we had not lost anything with this client. We managed to meet the CEO, open a dialogue and had agreed to continue speaking on these issues further. If anything, we ended up better off.”

It was not a long statement delivered with brilliant wit or charm. The guy was not a great speaker. Yet, he was senior, did not play politics and was right.

So any discussion of my lynching ended in that meeting. Thankfully, since tar and feathers do not go well with my skin color.

Was the senior partner being sincere? I believe so because shortly thereafter I was offered to become a director of the firm: a senior partner.

Lessons

One of the biggest lessons is the answer to this question: what is strategy?

When I left management consulting several rival firms approached me to join and help build their capabilities. The discussions were always sincere and interesting. They would show their work which was very analytic, data-intensive, seemingly hypotheses driven and, I would assume, creative.

The thing that nagged me a lot was the clients they were serving for these studies. In every case the client was a manager or mid-level executive who wanted a decision made. There are many definitions of strategy work, but a key one is that it must be done for the most senior executive of the client who can act on the recommendation.

If you are doing work for a mid-level executive, it does not matter how good the work is, it is not strategy work. It is a plan or interesting analyses because he or she cannot act on it.

Linked to this, I hear the word “strategic” thrown in a lot into these discussions. “Strategic” and “Strategy” are worlds apart. When the city of London was trying to improve its status in the world, the mayor of London pushed through a strategic plan to install a sewer system.

I think we can all agree that installing a sewer system may be “strategic” imperative but installing the system is an engineering problem. Therefore, to do “strategic” work does not always imply the use of strategy skills.

By the same note, installing a new ERP system may be of paramount strategic importance to increase efficiencies. However, doing the business case is not strategy, nor is the implementation work.

My lesson from this is to be very careful of complex strategy projects when the supposed decision maker is curiously not involved. In fact, this was the only time I made this mistake. A rookie mistake.

Some general rules of thumb to follow here:

1) It is not strategy work unless you are reporting to the most senior executive who can act on the study.

2) Strategic is not the same as strategy.

3) Important work is not confined to strategy. So do not be obsessed about being a strategy consultant. The majority of McKinsey consultants have never done corporate strategy work reporting to the CEO. They just create the impression they did because it sounds cooler.

My role with the client did not end. The senior partner encouraged me to not give up the relationships I had built, but slowly get back to being involved with the client. He had a discussion with me and mentioned that I had always being a creative consultant who tried risky things. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not.

While this time things where not my fault, I should view it as an example of when a risky strategy failed.

I invited the divisional leaders to attend a 3-day conference in Rio de Janeiro as our guests, which they did. In those 3-days I said nothing about the event. It did come up once as a joke but they really felt it was nothing to worry about.

It was actually a very successful conference because we were the firm hosting a client who had a reputation for never hiring consultants. We did not have to say anything to potential clients. The message was quite clear through our association with the client.

There is another very valuable lesson in all of this.

Things are never what they seem.

When I first received word that the CEO had summoned a senior partner to “complain” I think we let our imaginations run a little wild. Everything we were hearing was hearsay and rumor. In fact, if you are doing well, the rumor mill goes into overdrive to paint a salacious picture.

There are numerous moving parts behind the scene, egos within the client, egos within the firm, all pushing and pulling to use the event to end up looking slightly better than they did before. Therefore, when anything happens, it is best to calmly evaluate the mechanics of the situation before reacting.

We had also naturally assumed that since the CEO and Divisional Executive Vice-President was supposedly upset, the divisional leaders who had hired us were in a lot of trouble. For about 3 weeks we limited our communication with them lest our association hurt them even more. But that is not what happened.

No one in the division was reprimanded, no one was fired and certainly no one was told they had stepped out of line. In fact, these guys just continued plowing along. Therefore in crises it is crucial not to isolate oneself from the supposed issues, but to find out what is really happening on the ground.

The other lesson is to as much as possible work for the decision maker. Now, at McKinsey and BCG this is an age-old tradition. Consultants work for the CEO. However, it is not always like that. A lot of work is done for divisional leaders and operations executives. So, consultants cannot always work for the CEO.

However, for the issue we are studying, we should have been more careful about understanding the decision-making structure within the organization, and reported to the executive who had purview for that decision. That was a major mistake we made in this study. A stupid mistake as well.

If there was one thing we did wrong in the study, it was this.

This incident taught me the importance of image management. One needs to carefully cultivate and manage one’s image. I allowed the rumors and incorrect facts to become the basis of discussions within the firm. That certainly damaged my career. My directorship was pushed back by about 6 months.

I should have been more active in using this incident as a teaching moment within the firm rather than simply trying to survive and get past it. I certainly had several senior partners who would have backed such a move.

In fact it took another client to remind me of this. She had close relationships with partners within this firm and told me that my decision to not openly discuss what had happened had hurt me. I did not end up looking good. By choosing not to discuss what had happened, I had let other people build its own narrative.

Moreover, she was upset that I had withdrawn from the client and team “managing” things from the fallout. She felt the other partners, while not necessarily vindictive, were going to protect the firm and not me. She rightly pointed out that withdrawing made it look to the client like we were wrong, and it created that impression within the firm.

So rather than trying to get past troubling situations, I have since focused on using them as a moment to teach others. It serves the dual purpose of mentoring and ensuring rumors do not displace the facts.

The other lesson was not to treat the client CEO as more than a human being. For making this mistake, I should kick myself. Even as a young associate, I had always been excellent at understanding and building relationships with senior executives. For some reason, I failed to apply that rational lens to this situation.

Was the CEO so illogical in his thinking that he was going to berate the firm? Almost certainly not! If I think back to when I first heard he had summoned the senior partner from New York, the message was actually from my assistant who had been tipped off by the senior partner’s assistant and neither of them had heard the actual conversation. The senior partner’s assistant simply saw his reaction and assumed it was a tough call.

That took on it’s own life.

The words “upset” were never used in the conversation. Much later I found out that the actual discussion was more along the lines of the CEO had heard about a study we had done and was “very concerned about that type of work being done at the operating division.” He was not concerned about us at all.

This feedback came straight from the senior partner in the call.

I can understand why the actual conversation happened as it did between the senior partner and CEO. When the CEO first heard of the study, he would have had to have a serious lack of confidence if this was to have upset him.

On the other hand, if the cost upset him, then that was also troubling. A $3MM study for a multi-billion behemoth was a mere decimal point on its ledger.

All roads therefore point to the relationship between the CEO and the executive running that division. And we were not at all involved in that dynamic.

Finally, I would say having a solid internal compass matters. These kinds of incidents can make or break a career. It stalled mine a little. However, in grand scheme of things it does not have any impact at all.

I took solace in the fact that every single senior partner I knew had a similar story to recount. They seemed to have done fine. Heck, Dominic Barton had to move from Canada to South Korea to kick-start his career.

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Chief Strategy Officer: Promotion or Demotion?

This piece is based on my own experiences when I left as a partner and that of many colleagues who left as principal or partner, and took roles as the chief strategy officer or head of corporate strategy and planning.

Note that when I say chief strategy officer, I am referring to the senior most level where you are working with the CEO and his executive committee. I am not referring to leading a smaller strategy unit within a division of a bank or a company. I am only looking at the senior most strategy officer who has the ear of the CEO. Though, the insights apply just as much to all levels of strategy leaders.

In terms of full transparency, I have been offered such roles. I have declined them, politely, for the reasons I will mention here.

Let’s look at an example of a colleague who joined a large industrial conglomerate. I have changed some details to hide his identity since he is still in this role.

Luis was a McKinsey strategy principal specializing in manufacturing and advanced materials. He had the typical career path from FMCG/CPG to a top school in Europe and then 7 years at McKinsey. He was a solid partner who was capable, friendly and well liked.

He was head hunted to take over as a chief strategy officer at a rapidly growing diversified European conglomerate. The company was growing so fast that the board wanted the CEO to ensure the appropriate rigor was being applied to strategy, growth, investment and efficiency measures.

When I spoke to Luis before he made this decision, I voiced by strong concerns about the enormous limitations of the chief strategy officer role. To avoid repetition I will discuss my concerns at the end of this piece. Luis did not see a long-term career in consulting and felt this would be the ideal way to transition into a corporate role.

Just to be clear about this, 90% of BCG and McKinsey partners are considering operating roles. At a certain point partners no longer want to advise, but want to control the situation.

Every single consultant, except the most senior partners or lucky junior consultants (analysts, associates etc.) will have to enter corporate through some form of role in the internal strategy department.

Luis took the role and I did not hear from him for about 9 months. I sent him a short follow-up message and he responded asking to speak, seeking some advice on his career.

This is what happened to Luis

At first, all was fairly wonderful. Luis inherited a team of 5 and was allowed to build this up to a team of about 10 people helping him think through issues important to the company. Luis had spent time in his first 2 to 3 weeks touring the divisions to understand the major issues facing the company.

After his travels, he returned, fairly excited at that, and wrote up his views on the problems/opportunities the company was facing. The genesis of his argument was the company was investing a ton of cash in businesses that generated a good but not great return.

Moreover, the conglomerate underestimated the amount of investment needed to take substantial share in each of these markets. Luis believed the company was investing in too many initiatives, none they could fully see through to completing, and many were low margin endeavors.

Luis raised this point with the CEO who asked him to address them point by point with the CFO. Though the CFO listened carefully, nothing really happened.

Luis was encouraged to help build a screening process to assess future acquisitions. Luis reasoned that if his team built an effective screening process for M&A they could prove their worth and be given access to broader leadership discussions. At this point, it is important to remember that the company was still moving well ahead with their program of acquiring and integrating a bucket load of companies.

Luis worked with his team to build a new M&A process. I have not personally seen his approach, but given that he was a partner and M&A processes are not complex to develop, it is fair to reason he probably delivered a lot of value.

Again, Luis was asked to brief the CFO on the process and, thereafter, present to the management committee by facilitating a daylong session to get the leaders of the business units to rethink their approach to M&A.

The process went well and Luis felt he had allowed the divisional leaders to explore a new more effective way to think through the process of identifying and integrating new acquisitions. Despite expecting time to educate the board on his approach, Luis was, thereafter, tasked with coming up with a post-merger integration approach all the divisions could use.

The post-merger work was positioned as an outcome of the successful management committee meeting. The CFO and CEO mentioned that given how much interest he had stirred among the generally impatient operating leaders, Luis should use this opportunity to help them with the integration and, therefore, build better relationships.

Luis went ahead and began a fairly large internal project to have his team map out the full sequence of steps divisions would need to follow to complete the integration of acquisitions.

The work was complex since different divisions had very different integration considerations. As a diversified conglomerate, each of these considerations had to be mapped out and a solution developed.

For example, sectors like insurance faced different needs versus sectors like textile sales. Within sectors, different countries had different legislation. The operating systems for technology differed across regions, countries and divisions. Labour standards were uneven and the operations adhered to global guidelines to varying degrees: some did while others routinely ignored them.

Is Luis frustrated? Yes, he is. He joined as the chief strategy officer with the intention to help a rapidly growing conglomerate chart its future. He expected to be working with the CEO and board to think through where the company should operate and what should be their next move.

Unfortunately, he was working on the operational side of business development: target screening processes and post-merger integration.

In fact, BCG had been appointed to help the board determine if they should bid to enter the power sector. To Luis, this felt like the ultimate insult. After all, that was meant to be his role.

To understand what happened and what chief strategy officers do, we will unpack this with a set of questions.

Did Luis make the right move joining as chief strategy officer?

Luis absolutely made the right move joining as chief strategy officer. Given his background and lack of operating experience, this was the ideal role. This role was perfect for two reasons.

First, it helped him directly leverage his prior experience as a strategy partner. Second, it allowed him to learn about an operating company before taking on an operating role.

In a previous piece and podcast I discussed why internal strategists are not given as much respect as those working on the operating side of the business. I will not repeat those points here. What is crucial to note is that moving from consulting to internal strategy, en route to an operating role is a good path to follow.

However, moving from an operating role to internal strategy is, 9 times out of 10, the end of a career. For a very senior person at the operating, executive or management committee level, moving to strategy is always a move to sideline a person’s career.

I cannot think of a single executive, that I personally know or in the media, that moved from a major operating role into the strategy advisory role and it improved his or her career.

Moving from running a profit center with thousands of people to running a little cost center think-tank with 20 people, if you are lucky, and a personal assistant leaves you with little room to influence a company.

There are surely people who have made the move work. I would say they are the absolute minority and they had unique skills to understand the limitations/punishment of their move and find a way out of it.

If Luis made the right move from partner to chief strategy officer, why did it fail? The reason is simple: no two chief strategy officer roles are the same. Beyond the title, you need to consider many items when making this decision.

Where there mismatched expectations?

When a CEO wants to bring a chief strategy officer, does he want him/her to conduct high-level corporate strategy or merely inject the skills of a consulting firm into an organization?

In many ways, this was a failing on Luis’s part. While he had a discussion about the changes taking place at the company, and the company’s priorities and issues, he assumed the company’s priorities would mirror that of the chief strategy officer.

That is a common mistake we make when accepting these roles, or any role for that matter. We assume our understanding of a role is the same as that of the hiring party. In this case, that would be the CEO.

Luis went in thinking that if his title was chief strategy officer that it was reasonable to assume his priorities would mirror that of the company.

It would have been much more effective for him to have a candid discussion about some of the priorities the CEO wanted him to tackle once he arrived.

What is good strategy advice?

You may not have picked this up, but Luis was being forced to report to the CFO and Luis did not have a seat on the board. This is a problem since the board makes strategy decisions. It is a myth that the CEO makes the decision.

The CEO can recommend a strategy but the board must endorse it. By having Luis report to the CFO, it indicates that the CEO assumed the strategy work was finished when the analyses was done. The CEO assumed that once the analysis was handed over to the CFO, everything would click into place and the recommendations would be accepted.

This demonstrates two problems.

First, given the reporting line to the CFO, it was fairly clear Luis would be doing a lot of business development work. That explains why he was being asked to report into the CFO. Business development is interesting but it is not strategy. Being able to determine the viability of acquiring a paint company and extracting value from the asset is not even close to understanding how to reorganize a bloated conglomerate.

Business development can be highly numbers oriented with M&A target screening or very operational around securing sites and integrating assets.

This shows a common misunderstanding about strategy on the part of the CEO.

Second, Luis was not on the board. When the complex strategy decisions where being discussed, he had no way of influencing the decision. Good strategists have the analyses on hand but also the skill to explain their points and test the pulse of the board.

They, thereafter, alter their approach to explain the best course for a company. It is a common myth to think strategy is all about analyses. That is the starting point but the ability to communicate is far more important.

If you are not on the board of a corporation, irrespective of the title chief strategy officer, you are not influencing the corporate strategy.

Is a brilliant insight enough to influence a company?

A brilliant strategy is usually counter intuitive. If it is not counter intuitive we typically respond by claiming, “anyone could come up with this.” If a strategy is counter intuitive, then it requires significant “selling” or convincing of the management team.

This raises two very important considerations when taking chief strategy officer roles.

First, a chief strategy officer, assuming they are lucky enough to do corporate strategy, must be able to influence the operating units and management committee. That is pretty tough to do because the operating units do not report to the chief strategy officer and, therefore, would likely ignore him or her.

The operating units also do not report to the CFO and usually do not pay that much attention to him or her either.

Influence is driven by respect, power, credibility and impartiality.

The point about impartiality also explains why external firms like BCG will always do the corporate strategy work even with a chief strategy officer present.

It is extremely naïve to think that just because someone is credible, they will be listened to. The world just does not work that way.

Imagine you are the divisional executive vice president of a $2B unit being told that the only way for the company to succeed in the future is that if you lower your growth targets so that another unit could use the cash to grow?

No executive vice president is going to do that unless it came straight from the CEO, and even then, some executives do not listen. Most chief strategy officers fall into the painful trap of trying to be too logical. They assume that there is some brilliant piece of analyses that can convince the executive vice president.

There is none. The chief strategy officer can never ever know more about the division than the executive. The chief strategy officer may be able to see an additional insight, but that is not going to change the executive’s mind because the resistance to change is not driven by the validity of the answer.

This is about understanding power structure within a conglomerate and understanding how economic decisions affect an executive’s overall positioning with a company.

A great chief strategy officer will, therefore, recommend a strategy, which creates economic value while considering the personalities of the key executives. This is a very practical point because in strategy studies it is widely overlooked.

When I was an associate I once worked on the reorganization of a massive oil company. The analyses recommended that the CEO centralize decision making to reduce waste and inefficiency. On paper, this was a sound analysis. However, in the first meeting the CEO called, none of the 3 operating division presidents arrived.

The operating division presidents were powerful, controlled the assets and had the support of their employees. The CEO had no power to compel them to attend and could not fire them because the turmoil would have led to an even larger drop in productivity.

In this situation, an economically sound strategy did not consider the personalities at play. The CEO eventually resigned because he could not control the operating units.

It took 9 years for a new CEO to come in and implement the strategy by offering the operating heads a change in their power base, but not a reduction of their power.

It is far too easy to get entranced by spreadsheets about enterprise value and economic profit, but you need to be able to understand how the strategy changes impact the organizational power structure.

Anyone losing power is going to fight the changes. Therefore, they must be offered something of reciprocal value or they will hold onto the status quo.

The crucial point is that unless the chief strategy officer sits on the board, or can influence the CEO, he will not be able to recommend such tactics.

Who is responsible for corporate strategy?

It is the role of the CEO and board to set strategy. Period.

Even in a company where the chief strategy officer is celebrated and comes the closest to setting strategy, he is not doing it.

Think about this in practical terms. Do you really imagine this chief strategy officer comes in from Monday to Friday and sits with his team to plot and plan the future of the company? Do you think that 4 months later he asks for time to present his final thoughts to the CEO?

Hell no!

The best a chief strategy officer can do is to serve as a sounding board for the strategy discussions taking place, facilitate the discussions or analyze discrete areas for the CEO or board.

To put this in perspective, remember that the CEO cannot institute merger discussions without the board’s approval. If the CEO cannot do so, why would the board allow the chief strategy officer to control strategy?

Therefore, the chief strategy officer is really a wise ear for the CEO. That is why you typically see two types of strategy officers.

The first type is usually grizzled veteran of the company with 20 or 30 years experience. They typically do not want the stress of an operating role but know enough about the company and have sufficient credibility to help the CEO think through issues.

The second type is a usually younger ex-partners of BCG and McKinsey. This type is usually brought in when the company wants to run a series of operating interventions, which require a high degree of energy. A new metric needs to be rolled out, process efficiencies need to be created or a new operating model must be created.

Sadly, this requires a lot of work: typically not what chief strategy officers had in mind when they accepted the position.

Lessons

The first lesson is not to be enamored with the title of chief strategy officer, head of strategy or even strategy analyst. Many companies use the titles as bait to lure in talented consultants and even their own employees. Be critical about evaluating the actual on the job responsibilities you will have.

Second, unless you can personally see some unique way to leverage a strategy role into a better operating role, never ever give up an operating role if you intend to stay in corporate for a long time. There are some unique exceptions to this.

Earlier in my career, when I was a consultant, the newly appointed CEO of a power producer asked the firm to second a consultant to serve as his chief of staff for about 6 months. I was given that role. Chief of staff is a fancy word for executive assistant to the CEO. In many ways I was his personal number cruncher.

That was a good role. Not many consultants get to sit in on board meetings at the age of 24!

If you work in operations and have the opportunity to serve as the chief of staff to the CFO or COO, it is not a bad idea, provided you are at a relatively early stage of your career.

Third, remember that strategy consultants tend to come in on a back foot in a corporate setting since we have little operating experience and tend to play up our analytic strength. It is important to focus on building your communication, influence and listening skills. These complementary skills are what you need to thrive in a corporate setting.

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