The path to partnership in big consulting firms 


Having gone through this process successfully and in somewhat of a fast track manner , I have often been asked by several people on what does it take to make partner in a consulting firm (or principal, VP, MD or any of the other terms that are equal to a partner).  I have asked several of my seniors on their experiences of the process to prepare myself when I went through the drill myself. Given this is still the primary aspiration for many big firm consultants, and I continue to get asked about this topic a lot  – I thought I will share my personal views for what they are worth.

Warning : It is a VERY long post – and if you are not a big firm consultant considering going through the process – you will be bored to tears. Still with me ? Lets get started with how you become the top dog 🙂

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1. Decide if you REALLY want it 

On the good side – Partners usually make more money and have better perks than others in a firm , and have a lot of power . On the bad side – they have a really hard job (at least till they are sufficiently tenured) . Trust me – it is not as beautiful as it looks from the outside .  It takes a toll on you to make partner . Crazy work hours , extreme multi tasking , globe trotting in cramped economy seating and living with uncertainty for years all take a big toll on you . Only you can decide if it is worth the trouble for you . Think long and hard and then think some more . It takes a lot of commitment and drive to push through the process

If you want to make partner, it is 100% on you to make it work. Don’t expect your firm or your manager or your counsellor to own it. They won’t own it. They can only facilitate it to some degree. There will be hundreds of obstacles and excuses on how the deck is stacked unfavorably for you. If you constantly find yourself in that negative zone – you probably are not ready for the big job.

2. Start selling early in your career

At a minimum you need to have sold a few big multi million deals and managed a few big projects . It takes time to get the sales skill . So start really early in your career to sell – even if all you get to do at first is fetch coffee for the proposal team . Find the best sellers in your firm and watch them in action closely . Delivery skills are something hat you will pick up organically . However, Sales does not come naturally to some people (like me ). You have to work at it

Also – find out early on how credit splits work in your firm . Some times partners share credit , some times you have to split with a partner . Learn the rules before you put in the effort to sell or manage revenue . I have lost count of how many people I know of who played without knowing the rules and then ended up in extreme frustration

3. Do something useful to existing partners and get noticed

End of the day, even if you have all the sales and revenue numbers in the world – if enough number of partners don’t know about you, you will not make partner. At most big firms – you need explicit support from 15 or 20 partners for your case to go through the vote. If you try to do something useful for 15 partners one at a time linearly, you will waste a lot of time. So find out who are the powerful ones and get access to them. Contribute to their projects , ask them for advice, learn from them. If they think you add value – they will help get you the support of other partners.

There is a certain hierarchy of partners in all firms. People who are not partners do not always know this. Not all partners have the same clout. And most firms will try to give an impression to employees that they are all partners of same stature. That is NOT true. Find the ones who have tenure (in firms where tenure matters), or ones in more senior bands and build great working relationships with them.

Don’t wait till you are a senior manager to start this process. Start as soon as you decide if this partnership route is the one you want to take

4. Find three coaches and start taking their advice on next steps

a. Someone who made partner the previous cycle and remembers the drill well enough to guide you

b. Someone who has run the process as co-ordinator in the past ( partners typically take turns)

c. Someone who runs an industry or service line , or if that is not possible – then one of their direct reports

Whatever you do – try not to get one of the recent direct admit partners as one of the three coaches if you can help it. People who made partner in another firm might not know all the rules of the game you are about to play.

The key to make partner is to be part of a group that needs more new leaders. If the ERP business of your firm is declining, even if you check every box – you still might not make it through the process because the firm has no use for one more ERP partner. You should immediately move to a group where there is growth for at least next 5 years. This is critical information your coaches can tell you about. Don’t kill yourself through the grind in a group that has no future in the firm, even if it was once a darling and created a lot of partner jobs.

5. Enlist the support of some customers – ideally at CXO levels

Firms like to see positive feedback from customers. Their reason to promote you to partner is essentially in hopes that you can convince customers to buy from you. Nothing gives confidence like a customer who says good things about you. If you build good relationships with customers, then take them to a dinner or social event that one or more of existing partners are present. Make those introductions proactively – once you make partner, you will need a hundred favors from your peers to survive.

Also get some partners involved in the deals you run. Let them watch you in action and take their feedback . Your goal is to get a bunch of partners really confident that you can do work at their level, and take feedback like an adult.

6. Enlist the support of ISVs and IHVs

Consulting in IT works only if the consulting firm has excellent relationships with software and hardware vendors. Unlike with customers, it is a LOT more easy to build relationships with ISVs and IHVs. Work with them, develop a good professional relationship, get them into some of your deals . They will reciprocate and that will get the attention of the panel evaluating your case. Again – it is one of those things that takes lot of time. So start early.

7. Develop your drafting skills and keep fine tuning it

There are two things you need to be good at – writing really aggressive sales documents ( RFP responses, proposal decks etc) and really conservative contracts . Some partners coach their senior managers on these things – but not all do. Take the initiative to learn from good proposals and SOWs. This will get noticed and is one of the best ways to get the attention of partners who will then pull you into sales pursuits and projects. The one mis-step that a lot of candidates make is that they get good at drafting but fail miserably when presenting it internally or to the customer. If you need to brush up on this – join toast masters. Ideally you should be able to do a solid presentation if you have made it to senior manager. But it is not universally true. A bad presentation can reverse your chances – so please work on your presentation skills.

8. Act like a partner before you get the job

For the most part, as a senior manager or Associate partner, you are already running most of the projects and sales pursuits. Now is the time to act like a partner would. Try hard to look beyond the day to day project plan, and get into advising customers on long term topics. Find out from your peers on what they are seeing in their gigs and clue in your customers on important trends. At some point – you will start operating in a different level and you will know it. While it does sound vain – and it is vain – dress matters too. If the partners in your firm typically wear a suit to work, wear one yourself too. And start coaching your junior colleagues and help them get to your level. That is a skill you will need in plenty once you make partner. You will be a coach or counsellor to many people in future – and the firm needs to see you have that in your DNA.

The one thing you should NOT do is jerk around your team in your assumed role as partner. That would be a terrible thing to do.

9. Don’t do anything stupid or unethical

I can’t stress this enough. It should be the most obvious thing but some occasionally screw up on this front. For example – Don’t try to do a bad deal to up your sales numbers in time for your partner process. Most likely someone will find out and then you probably have shut the door on your chances for good. if someone in the panel even remotely suspects a lack of ethics or inappropriate behavior – they won’t go through with your case. No firm will risk that.

10. Now the easy part – just show up for interviews and know your lines

The easiest part of the process is the actual partnership interviews and case reviews. Panel already has opinions about you before they call you for the discussion (you have done all the hard work already). You are in good shape if you made it this far. You need to be confident ( not cocky and you should know the difference) when facing them. They need to feel that you will be a great peer. They need to see something more than they have seen in you as a senior manager. They need to see someone who thinks about the big picture, opportunities for the firm, potential pitfalls etc.  But those are all things you would have already picked up from one of your three coaches.

What if you fail to make it ?

Not everyone who starts the process ends up as a partner . You need to have a plan ready on how to deal with the rejection. Some firms only let you try two or three times at most. Get a realistic view from your coaches on whether you have a fair shot at making it next time. If there are specific things to work on – like getting more references from customers , it is manageable by the time the next cycle starts. Vague reasons like “poor communication skills” are usually red signals. You need to decide if you are happy to not make partner (you still can make a lot of money in non partner jobs, and hopefully a better work life balance). You can also decide that you want to move to another consulting company and try your luck there (all the prep work you did will help – but you will need to build a network there and that will take time). Take a break and think through it before you start the process a second time.

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