The Consulting Journey – Some thoughts for people who are just starting their career

I enjoy spending time with my colleagues – talking shop , sharing experiences , breaking bread , learning from each other , mentoring and getting mentored – and find every opportunity to do that . I especially enjoy hanging out with my younger colleagues who are in the very early stages of their career – their hopes and dreams , their refreshing views on work and humanity , their ambitions – it’s a given that I walk away quite inspired every time.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time with some of our associates and seniors on an AMA session and walked away thinking I should jot down some thoughts in my blog . So here we go

1. What separates the great from the good ?

The fact that you got hired should already make you comfortable with the fact that the firm feels you are a good quality individual . The question now is – what will make you stand out , and what will make you successful in building a career .

From what I have seen over the years – curiosity is the biggest differentiator . Academia gives us a foundation – but when you step into the industry, you generally have a lot to learn . If you are not curious about how the world operates in the big picture – work will look like a chore , and you will be miserable.

In consulting – the part of work that youngsters often rebel against is working on “making a slide deck pretty”. What they don’t often realize is that it’s not the fonts, colors and icons that make a presentation work – it’s the story ! The pretty slides that don’t tell a story are useless . The curious ones often come and ask their seniors a lot of WHY questions . They are also resourceful – they do their research and come with suggestions . They learn from the feedback and get better every time . And slowly – they “shift left” and get more opportunities to contribute to the thought leadership that leads to a solution .

2. How do you add value to your client ?

There are two parts to this – the “arms and legs” part , and the “brains and foresight” part .

The first is about keeping your skills sharp – are you staying current on your skill set ? Do you know who to reach out for help when you are stuck ? Etc. Basically – you need to know enough to do the job well as it was explained to you . You need to be able to solve a problem the right way

The second is – are you able to look into the future and spot opportunities and mitigate risk ? The general idea is – are you just solving the problem the right way , or are you able to figure out if this is the right problem to solve ?

3. How do you become an expert ?

Whether it’s an industry or a technical domain – you have a lot to learn to be an expert , and you can never stop learning . That needs a certain mindset to chart your course .

Consulting has two general approaches to expertise – you can do a series of short projects jumping from one project to another at various clients , or you can stay at one client in a variety of roles over a longer period of time and become a master at everything they do . The end goal is that you have enough experience at some point to know where a certain approach will take you and that foresight is useful to your client . That’s how you get to determine if you are solving the right problem for your client .

I prefer the approach of staying at one client for a longer time and learning everything you can about them and make meaningful relationships . In the process you become a true expert in that industry – and get a better appreciation of how everything fits together . It’s also very important that you get to apply your knowledge elsewhere along the way – by contributing to thought leadership , pursuits etc .

I have heard young consultants often say after a short period of time at one client or one project “I am not learning anything new” . I have felt that way myself too when I was a young consultant – so I have some empathy . It just takes a few minutes to just ask yourself “Do I know how my client is measured and am I doing everything possible to help them attain and surpass that?”. We stop learning when we draw small boxes for ourselves as the scope of what we need to learn . To be successful in this field – you need to constantly expand that box .

4. Leading people

In theory, you can have a perfectly decent career by continuing to be an individual contributor – where your deep expertise is your differentiator . The part we need to understand is that it’s still a small part of the population . That’s a practical limitation . For most of the people – you need to become good at leading people to progress your career .

There are very few people in any company who are truly great leaders of people . But I can say with some conviction that the rest of us can all get into the “good” category with a little effort . The basic idea as you get to lead people is you cannot effectively manage people – you can only lead them . What you can manage is tasks . That’s a long winded way of saying – you don’t become a leader because of a title , you become a leader when people want to follow the direction you set , and they are inspired by both your words and action.

5. Growing your career

The corporate world is generally not very fair – in the sense that if you do good work , it usually doesn’t automatically take you places . The people who need to sponsor your career need to know that you are adding value and it’s on you to make sure they know . Similarly – you need to know that no organization can promote everyone at every level . So you do need to stand out – with high ethics , high skills , high integrity , high collaboration and all that . The sooner you realize it , the less grief you will have and the chance of success will get higher.

Success doesn’t teach us a lot – but we often realize it only later in life . And by then – the price to fail is too high. In other words – the time to take risks and fail a few times without having a big price to pay is early in your career. We all like to get promoted early and often – that’s a very natural feeling and it might never completely leave any of us . But also remember this – if you primarily focus on promotions and play that game successfully , eventually you will get to a place where you are not at all prepared for the role and you will fail . Essentially – pace yourself on how fast you want to grow .

Also remember that how you accomplish a career goal is as important (maybe even more important) as what you accomplish . A bad reputation is easy to take root and very hard to shake . Integrity is not just about career growth – every aspect of your personal and professional life needs you not compromise on that !

6. Mentors and Sponsors

You need both to have a great career and it’s important to build that network early in your career . It’s also important to remember that you need more than one of each . I had one mentor that I mirrored myself on – and one day to be sheer horror I realized that everything so do well is what I learned from him , but so is everything I am bad at πŸ™‚

Getting mentored is easier than getting sponsored . You need to cast a wide net to make it work . Also remember – it’s easy to think that someone we know got promoted because they sucked up to their boss . That does happen – but not as often as you might think . No good leader will be your sponsor unless your work stands out already !

7. Sales vs delivery

No client likes a consultant because they are good sellers . But unfortunately a lot of consultants grow up thinking they need to get out of delivery and be more Sales focused to grow their careers . I can assure you that this is not the case ,

At the simplest level – the client is paying for your skills, experience and foresight . When we deliver that with high quality – they trust us more and that leads them to use our services even more . In other words – sales is more based on delivery , than delivery is based on sales .

Yes you do need to learn the sales process along the way . But never lose sight of the fundamental reason we are consultants – we are there to serve our clients . Sales just happens as a result of a client trusting us to deliver !

Also remember – people buy services from people they trust . Great client relationships happen because of great delivery offer a long period of time . Your success as a seller is much higher if your clients already trust you – which is another reason why staying longer on projects is more helpful than jumping around a lot of clients where you don’t get to create meaningful relationships !

8. Exits

This is a relatively new idea that young folks come into consulting with the primary idea that they want to exit to industry quickly . I actually like this idea a lot and wish I had considered that option early in my career . I switched to software industry for a few years as a young executive and loved it . That experience was very useful to me later when I came back to consulting .

If you want to experiment – my suggestion is to give it a shot early in your career when set backs are not costly . You can always come back to consulting if you want to . All I would say is that give each options bit of time before you make hard decisions .

The more common scenario is whether you want to jump across consulting companies . When I was a young consultant – it was looked down up on if you had a lot of companies on your resume . Today , there is no such stigma really . Also when you make lateral jumps – you get a little more money than via organic salary raises . At least for the short term – there are good reasons to make frequent lateral jumps .

The biggest difficulty for you individually when you switch employers is that you need to build your network from scratch every time . You will need new mentors and sponsors – which takes time to establish . You will possibly need to build new client relationships too – which also takes time . And last but not least – there will be already a line of candidates ahead of you to get promoted in the new place . So while in the short term the money might look good – it might not translate to great success even in the medium term , let alone the long term . So think very carefully before you make important decisions .

9. Goal setting and staying flexible

It’s important to have a North Star on where you are headed . But it’s even more important to be flexible on the short term goals that will get you to your destination .

Early in your career – your interest might be in full stack development and you might end up doing test automation instead . It’s easy to get disheartened and think your skills are being wasted . If you think of life as a linear path – you will be disappointed more times than not . In this scenario – think about the life cycle of the software being built from the perspective of your engineering manager . Would they build great software without a great way to test it ? And once you learn testing and go back to dev – think about how much your approach will change the next time you code . And soon you will realize that it’s not as bad as it seemed initially and maybe you can find a way to make it work and have some fun .

It is also important to work with your up line managers to explain your ambitions and chalk up a plan . They are much more likely to help you achieve your goals faster when they realize you are flexible about the path you take to the destination .

10. Have a great journey

When I look back at my own career – what comes to mind mostly is a rich set of experiences . Making new friends , traveling the world , trying all kinds of food , sleeping in conference rooms even when the hotel room was twenty minutes away , celebrating birthdays of clients and colleagues , the potlucks , sharing grief …all of that . The journey is way more fun and enriching than any particular milestone along the way

Is patience a virtue or a curse at work ?

With family and friends, I absolutely think patience is a virtue . You generally don’t give up on these two groups by definition – and it’s usually bidirectional.

The answer is less obvious when it comes to the work place . Perhaps due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic, it’s a question that has come up from several people I know off late . Sometimes it’s about their own careers and some times it’s about their team or their customers .

How long do you wait for a promotion or raise before jumping ship in this hot labor market ? How long do you wait for performance to improve for an employee before letting them go ? How long will you spend time with a customer who refuses to buy anything from you despite giving you buying signals for a long time ?

A lot of this confusion happens because we carry over the the way we deal with family and friends to our work life too . This is normal since work takes as much time or more than what many people spend on their life outside work . The key difference here is that the emotions that hold a family together are love and affection, where as the key emotions at work are respect and fairness . Once that distinction is clear – it becomes a little more easier to make important decisions .

What this distinction means is that patience is a virtue that comes attached with a time dimension at work – and that time dimension is determined primarily determined by fairness . 

Bad news at work generally doesn’t get better with time – mostly because of the time dimension . You never have enough time – and you can’t buy more time . So generally I am a fan of determining the range of time that is fair to turn around bad news to good news , but then starting with the lower end of that range for how long I will be patient . 

I am also a big fan of defining upfront what happens if nothing changes in that period of time . For this – it needs an honest conversation with the other party on what’s causing the issue and if there is a path possible for a turn around . Without that – you are just guessing and there is a high chance you will get it wrong . Such conversations do need patience to do them well !

It is also important to consider short vs long term implications . Maybe you will get 20-% more money if you jump today – but it will delay your career progression by several years because you need to build a new network at your next gig . Maybe you won’t get money in base pay – but your cash flow might be positively better with a retention bonus . Think about all of this carefully – we all tend to generally be poor at understanding the long term effects when we are worked up .This is where patience is a virtue !

Granted you can’t always be explicit about telling this to the “other side” – if you don’t have another job lined up , you may not want to threaten to leave if no promotion happens in 6 months , or you may not want to spook a customer prematurely that you don’t want to work with them anymore . But in your mind – the action should be clear and immediate . If no promotion happens in 6 months , you want to leave – but that means you start your job search right away .if your cljent doesnt buy in one more quarter, you will stop working with them – but that means you will start more prospecting right now.

When the short end of the fair range is getting close , you have a decision to make . This is where the longer end of the fair range helps . Ok so you didn’t get promoted in 6 months – but there is a hand shake with your boss that happens that makes you believe it will happen in 3 more months . You also have a good idea that you have a few options lined up and can wait 3 months . It’s time to be more explicit with the other party on what happens next – telling them how much longer you are willing to continue patiently and what happens if nothing changes . At this point – it is no longer acceptable to be told an open ended “pls be more patient and good things will happen” . The time for that was the previous conversation – and even there an open ended promise only would have gone  so far ! 

Relationship decisions in personal life are often driven by love and affection – but in the workplace it’s a trade off between risk and return . No one of truly irreplaceable at work over a long period of time – it’s the short to medium term that is at play for work relationships . That is another good reason why it’s fair for your own patience also to come with a finite time dimension  . 

if you have read this far – you are probably a very patient person πŸ™‚ 

Musings from vacation

Couple of decades ago, I worked in UK for a bit . The biggest challenge for me was getting used to the relaxed pace of a 35 hr work week after the 60 hour regular weeks in US that I was used to . I think our manager spent more time with us at Pubs and horse races than at the office . Strangely instead of taking life easy – I really longed to go back to US with the faster pace .

Then came a stint in Germany – where work was all about efficiency . When the work week is 40 hours – it literally means you spend every minute of those hours focused on work . Very little small talk etc – which was usually limited to lunch time in the cafeteria. In fact I hardly remember seeing anyone take their lunch to their desk there . Also – I got used to the idea of employees negotiating for more vacation and better company cars and willing to sacrifice their cash compensation . Vacations were sacred and no one generally thought of work during their time off – and practically very few would be available even on phone after work hours during the week unless it was an emergency . There were clear boundaries between personal and professional lives .

US workplace generally had a culture of very long hours when I entered the workforce. As a young associate – it was a badge of honor one earned by showing up before the bosses showed up and leaving after they did . And the execs did not slack either – often pulling very long hours themselves . Sacrificing vacation for work was another “badge of honor” thing from my past – which took various forms from not taking any vacation some years to checking in on work while on vacation . I am not at all proud of any of these – I wish I was smarter to not do it .

This week – I took my daughter to UK and Italy for a vacation . The last time she left our home town was just before the pandemic hit – when we had taken a week in a London and Paris . She will be off to College next month and this was a daddy-daughter thing we had planned for a while and were eagerly looking forward to . The last time just she and I traveled together was 12 years ago πŸ™‚

I more or less succeeded in staying present and not worrying about work – with maybe six work emails and a couple of slack messages in eight days . All of those could have waited for me to return next week – but I will give myself a B- for an improved performance from past vacations πŸ™‚

I have been in several European countries over the years for work – and occasionally on vacation as well . The difference from a work trip to a vacation trip is significant in all aspects

1. I realized how much I depend on my EA for booking travel – she makes it all seamless across flights , cars , hotels and so on . Researching and getting through all of that myself was both fun and stressful . Thankfully, the experience of a few million air miles does come handy in terms of knowing must-do and must-avoid items

2. I enjoy food a lot , as does my kiddo . The work trips generally don’t leave a lot of options for trying out the local food options to the extent I would love to . Well this time – I think we had almost all the stuff we wanted to πŸ™‚ . The standouts were the lunch at an organic farm in Tuscany, Pizza in Naples, and the dinner at Dishoom in Kensington .

3. The sights to see – it’s actually pretty pathetic that I hardly spend any time to stop and smell the roses when I am on work trips . Usually I walk from the plane to a cab and my eyes are on my phone the entire ride . A cabbie in Paris was once so annoyed that he would stop at every landmark on our way to my meeting to make sure I appreciated his city πŸ™‚ . NY is perhaps the best example – I go there several times a year for work , but I love to go on a double decker bus with my wife and daughter and watch this amazing city from the eyes of a tourist . We totally made amends on that front – weather was hot , and we walked more these last few days than any one week in recent history . But we loved every moment of it !

4. Water ! So I have always had a big problem with spending $$ on bottled water . Even when I travel for work – I don’t drink the $5 bottle of water in the hotel room. I would go buy water from a convenience store for cheaper . Well – all that changed upside down this week in Italy . It was so hot that we were finishing two bottles an hour throughout the trip . By the time we were driving back to the airport – I briefly considered opening a shop for selling just bottled water in Rome πŸ™‚

5. Skechers shoes are life savers ! I knew from past trips that there will be a lot of walking involved and the decision to put a pair of Skechers on was perhaps the single best decision I made . My legs are sore – but I know how much worse it could have been !

6. Everyone in Italy seems to be a Formula 1 driver . My original plan was to rent a car in Rome and drive to Amalfi coast from there . Lucky me – a client of mine talked me out of it last week when I had dinner with him . Best advice ever – I wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip if I had to deal with the stress of driving south .

7. The heat wave and the Taxi strike ! Italy had been cursed with a heat wave for the last few months and I think we caught the peak of it . First week of July seemed worse than the last week of August . To add to the misery – there was the taxi strike in Rome to protest against Uber . Uber is twice as expensive as regular Taxi when I checked . And it seems taxi drivers spend 200K euros to get their license to operate – a situation similar to what happened with the taxi medallion owners in NY . The result of this was that we ended up walking a lot more than we planned to . By the last day – we could navigate the city quite well without a map , and I think I can swear decently in Italian now πŸ™‚

8. The quality of tour guides we got – that made a huge difference ! They were courteous to a fault , throughly professional and had a great sense of humor . Their knowledge of history is stunning to say the least, and their pride in it is heart warming . I was curious what they thought of Mussolini – and it was clear none of them cared for that time in history . I think this is the best I ever experienced so far anywhere in the world . I also left Italy thinking this might be an area that INDIA could do better about tourism .

9. Cash is still king . I generally don’t carry cash with me when I travel and I regret it every time . This time was no exception . The exchange rate losses alone could have funded the expense on bottled water πŸ™‚ . Credit card acceptance is much better now compared to the past – but for tipping , buying water and eating an ice cream on the street , you need a lot of small change . Even the cabs had notices that they prefer cash !

9. What did I learn from this trip ? I think the biggest learning for me is to slow down and smell the roses along the way . I admire the general culture of Italians – over the weekend, they drive to a small village and take it easy . When they eat in a restaurant – they take their time to enjoy their wine and their meal . No one is ever in a hurry unless they are driving πŸ™‚

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