How to start off your Management Consulting Career

I recently worked on a project with a few new hires they asked me what I thought were things they could do to start their time at the firm in the right direction. It’s a great question, and I spent some time thinking and writing down some thoughts because of the importance of this topic. (For the sake of this article, this is meant primarily for those starting at big consulting firms)

I’m inclined to believe that you wouldn’t enter the consulting industry if you didn’t know anything about it or if it didn’t interest you. But you need to understand first and foremost at the core of the value proposition and structure of a consulting firm. Consulting firms (generally speaking) do not own any assets — their assets are their people. So while tech companies pour R&D dollars into potential new products, Consulting firms pour dollars into investing in their people. So here is what you can do to start investing in yourself:

  • Understand the Firm: The very first thing you can do is to make sense of the firm, the people and how things generally operate. Learning this institutional knowledge is simple on paper but due to the size and complexity can sometimes be very difficult. This isn’t meant to be a plug to brainwash you, but to help you gain an asset that will pay dividends down the road. The more you can understand and articulate how the firm works, the better you can understand how to use it to your advantage.
  • Learn how to Learn: To stay relevant and trusted in a fast-moving industry you need to continuously build new skills so you can stay ahead of the curve. “Learning how to learn” is critical for being able to understand new concepts, skills, industries and capabilities in a short amount of time. Start by taking time to find the resources that will help you learn and build skills quickly. It can be anything from finding information sources (ex: websites, Twitter, etc) or to more advanced and formal learning such as online or in-person courses. Over the course of your consulting career, you’ll be constantly asked to learn new skills. The quicker you can get good at this and develop methods and tools to do this, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
  • Read Frequently: As a consultant, you will be constantly asked about your opinion and you’ll have to frequently share that with others. One of the best ways to have an informed opinion and to develop opinions and perspectives is to read and to read frequently. Read things that are directly related to the issue that your client is trying to solve. Read what’s going on in your client’s industry. Read things that are not directly related to either of those but are of interest as sometimes there are opportunities to spot connections from the related and unrelated. Most importantly, develop some sort of system that works for you which has a combination of resources that you continuously read and go to for information and insights.
  • Think ahead: In addition to solving the challenge your client has put in front of you, a good consultant also needs to be one step ahead of where their client might go next. You never know what your client might need, but if you can anticipate their challenges and gain the knowledge or insight on how to help them think through the challenge you will become an incredible asset to your client and potentially identify further opportunities for yourself and the firm. Reading frequently will help you think ahead, and serve as a great mechanism for helping your client spot problems and opportunities before they come to you for them.
  • Develop your Brand: Identifying the topics and capabilities you want to develop expertise in and building those capabilities is what will help build your reputation in the firm. If you need help figuring out your brand, answer this: If someone in the firm were to email you asking for help, what would you want to be known for? You may know the answer to that question yet, and that is okay. Start with thinking about your past skills and experiences along with what is in front of you for your current project and role and do your best to “own” those topics. You may not be known as an expert immediately, but that will change over time as you grow your knowledge and experiences. And that brand will evolve over time, as you learn and grow yourself.
  • Be resourceful: As important as it is to be knowledgeable and insightful, it’s impossible to know everything. That’s where knowing how to find the right answer or knowing the people who can find the right answer becomes critical to consulting. Taking the time to build true relationships with the people you meet when you work at the firm and then cultivating those relationships through digital and in-person means will be incredibly helpful over the time of your career here. There will be lots of times when you will need to call upon help from others and having those relationships will help you find the right people at the right time. Additionally, the tools and mechanisms you use to build these relationships will help you throughout the rest of your life, personally and professionally.

Consulting is a knowledge and serviced based business. Your value as a consultant is equivalent to the sum of your knowledge and your experiences. What you do to develop both knowledge and experience starts with you.

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The Career Learning Curve is about Slope and Speed

When I was deciding on a career as a college senior, I took the advice of those around me and chose to optimize for learning – That is, to select a job with a steep learning curve. The hypothesis was that if you find a job that enables you to gain lots of incredible experiences early on that will proper you forward throughout your career. While I still think this is great advice, I want to update that to include a new element: speed, and specifically, speed of feedback and teaching.

Sarah Tavel talks about this in her post about fast learning cycles. The idea here is you want a job that can teach and provide you feedback so you can execute, learn, fail, and scale faster. Her example:

At a fast growing startup, your learning cycle is incredibly fast. For example, at Pinterest, particularly early on, if I had a hypothesis I wanted to test, I could ship an experiment fast, and because we already had an incredibly engaged user base, learn from the results within a week or two. Basically, my learning cycle was as fast as you could ask for, which meant I was able to cram an incredible amount of learning into a very short period of time.

On the other hand, I’d often interview product manager candidates who worked at big companies like Microsoft. I’d always be amazed at how little product management they actually got to do over their many years of experience. It’d take them years (literally!) to ship a feature, despite many promotions along the way.

In many ways, the concept of slope and speed is similar to agile methodology, where instead of building everything all at once, you build and launch a much smaller set of features and functionality in a much shorter period of time. Once it’s launched, you obtain feedback, find what works and what doesn’t, and use that to build your next iteration.

As it turns out, it’s not just about finding a steep learning curve, but also an environment that allows you to get feedback and iterate quickly. It’s not just about a brand name company, or getting to work on a lot of projects, but having a continuous cycle of learning, testing, getting real-time feedback and iterating.

Why Learning is the New Coding

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It’s hard to dismiss the growing importance of technology and software for the future of the workforce and economy. For interested students, there are coding bootcamps and online courses to teach you how to code. Governments gotten involved as too, as President Obama has pledged billions of dollars to teach  students how to become technically competent. Last but not least, companies are starting to wise up to the digital revolution, and are starting to take it upon themselves to ensure they have the technical skills of the future.

The NY Times ran a great story on the transformation that’s underway at AT&T known as Vision 2020. AT&T is trying to reinvent itself so it can compete in the digital world. According to it’s CEO Randall Stephenson, AT&T “needs to retrain its 280,000 employees so they can improve their coding skills, or learn them, and make quick business decisions based on a fire hose of data coming into the company.”

According to another Business Insider article, AT&T expects its employees to spend about 5-10 hours a week extra so it can learn and evolve. While the NY Times article seems a little doomsday, it brings across a good point – the digital world is accelerating the rate of change and innovation to faster paces than we’ve ever seen. While the technologies are coming faster and quicker, it also means that people who use the technology need to adapt and evolve just as quickly. That means learning and acquiring new skills (like what AT&T is espousing) is as important as ever.

So how does AT&T plan to do this? By encouraging and it’s employees to learn and develop the skills needed to produce these new products and services. For starters, it’s partnered with Udacity and Georgia Tech for an online Master’s in Engineering Program. Its employees can take the program free of charge (cost is $6,600) and they can do it while they work their day job, which means lots of late nights and weekend work.

For it’s workers who are interested in growing and developing new skills, who want to work in more technical minded environments, and who want to stay with AT&T for awhile this is a great opportunity to guarantee opportunities for the future, whether at the company or elsewhere.

However, these changes don’t sit well with everyone. A good portion of its workforce is near the age of retirement, and would rather “run out the clock” than adapt and develop new skills. Others see their skillset as niche and acknowledge the digital revolution but believe they will be fine.

Unfortunately, not everyone can simply run out the clock in their job until they retire. And while there will be some jobs that never get replaced, many will. People in the workforce (looking at you, millennials) will have lots of working years left in their career. If there’s any lesson from this story it’s that if you want to increase your career success you’ll need to focus on continuously learning and acquiring new skills, especially technically minded ones. Those who do so will have the best chance at remaining relevant in the increasingly challenging workforce.

So how do you learn? There’s lots of great resources in the digital age. AT&T partnered with Udacity, but there are lots of online learning options on the web such as Udemy and Skillcrush. Furthermore, I’ve also written a post on how I learn through various digital tools that don’t require any money.

It’s clear that technology innovation is not going away, if anything, it’s speeding up. And while it’s great to learn how to code there are many other types of skills that can be incredibly relevant in the digital age. What is just as  important is acquiring a mindset where you’re open and diligent about continuously learning and developing new skills.

Whether it’s coding or not, gaining a mindset of growth and learning is a critical characteristic for employees in the new economy. The sooner employees realize it, the more valuable they’ll become.