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March 31, 2009

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You're a team

The first few weeks at a consulting firm are a crash course in teamwork, and job seekers often underestimate the extent to which collaboration determines a project's success. A common misperception is that consultants sit down with corporate vice presidents, tell them what to do, and watch the client's metamorphosis. The truth is that nothing gets accomplished without extensive discussion, countless status meetings and plenty of ad-hoc brainstorming sessions where everyone involved works feverishly to build a consensus.

Over the course of your career in consulting, you will be a member of many teams, often simultaneously. At a client site, for example, you may be working on an implementation team while also sitting down with a proposal team to generate new work. Additionally, you might be working on an "internal" team to develop new community service programs for your own firm. In the course of your workday, you could interact with as many as six different teams, all with different objectives and time commitments. If you have an aversion to meetings, or if you envision a career defined by isolated thinking and long stretches of time without any human interaction, consulting probably isn't the right choice for you.

Close quarters, high pressure

Since you'll depend on your client for your office space, be prepared to work in non-lavish conditions. At one client site, your project team may have limited access to conference rooms and be forced to hold meetings in a cubicle. At another client site, your team may be sharing a single office with one small window and very little space. Part of your job will be to learn to be productive with frequent interruptions. More often than not, you will share limited technical resources such as printers, copiers, fax machines and LAN lines.

It all comes with the nature of the job. Consultants are high-priced migrant workers; they must know how to pack their bags, move to another location and set up shop, all in the blink of an eye and with little choice in the matter. But whether they are working in a crowded office space, a hotel suite late at night, or on an flight home, good consultants develop a set of behaviors that makes their jobs much easier.

Some coping tips:

  • Take personal calls on your cell phone, away from the project team.
  • If you are frustrated with a software program, take a walk and come back with a positive outlook.
  • Speak only when necessary in order to keep the noise down in the project room.
  • Keep your work space uncluttered.

These simple rules can improve a project's efficiency and the quality of life for your fellow consultants.

Know the objectives

Most productive meetings address a set of objectives, assign individual tasks to support the objectives, and set timelines for completion. While this process is fairly routine in a consultant's workweek, the abundance of meetings can have a deadening effect; consultants can spend more time thinking about their mountain of pending work than the actual meeting they are attending.

Walking away from a meeting with only a vague idea of its objectives can lead to a variety of problems, not the least of which is having to meet all over again. Consulting firms operate on tight schedules. Project managers generally do not tolerate having to repeat critical directives, because they are pressed for time and need each component of the team to produce solid results.

Once a meeting is brought to a close, you should walk away with a notepad filled with key points from the discussion and a specific list of your own "to do" items. If you are unclear about a certain portion of the meeting, you should raise the issue immediately, rather than spend your time guessing how to proceed. For each and every meeting, no matter how irrelevant it seems, your attention to detail can make or break your performance on the project team. Don't expect anyone to keep you awake. Fellow consultants are bogged down with their own assignments, and even though they may engage you in small talk, the expectation is that you will deliver results on time and consistent with the original objectives.

Whatever it takes

If consulting firms seem demanding when trying to meet deadlines, the clients can be downright unforgiving. At the start of every project, the thought of missing deadlines simply does not occur to consultants, nor does the prospect of creating anything but high-quality deliverables. The ugly reality is that executives do not always budget enough time or allot enough resources to meet the client's expectations. The result is that consultants must bring a "whatever it takes" attitude to work every day.

If a 60-hour workweek doesn't appear to be enough to get your required work done, then you add on more hours. If a printer breaks down on the night before a big presentation, then you have to find one, even if it means a late night drive to Kinko's. Sometimes, during the end of projects, you will squeeze massive amounts of work into small timeframes, and you may have to pull an all-nighter or two. These things happen in consulting, and consulting firms expect that you will take it all in stride. You do have some latitude with regard to personal time, but when important deadlines approach, getting out of an assignment is nearly impossible.

The good news is that never-say-die attitudes are contagious, and the longer you work in a consulting firm, the more you begin to appreciate spending time with people who value results so highly. People who leave the consulting profession are often disappointed to learn that their new company employs a more laissez-faire approach to everything it does. The consulting industry's sharp attention to deadlines is both its curse and its strength. Consultants initially bemoan the fact that their job is so demanding, but they often grow to love that very facet of it, and in some cases see it as justification for never switching careers.

Communicating with your team

Sometimes your team will go into head-down mode, where people are working independently on PowerPoint slides or financial models. As a new consultant, you want to take responsibility for updating your team leaders frequently on where you are with your work. Certainly, they will want to always have a best estimate of their project status. But this will help you, too, because the team leader has experience that you don't, and he or she will likely have some useful suggestions. Once a day is probably fine for an update.

When you are away from your team (say, on a Friday, when all team members are usually in their home office), use voice mail for updates and questions. Most consulting firms communicate as a voice mail culture, meaning that the equivalent to calling a person directly is to leave a voice mail. The recipient can simply hit the "reply" command to respond. Use voice mail for issues of medium urgency, and use e-mail when you can wait 24 hours or more for a response. By the same token, try to reply to each voice mail within two hours or so of its delivery.

Make sure your e-mail doesn't pile up, especially for your project work. To get yourself started on the right foot, play a little game with yourself: give yourself no more than 24 hours to respond to every work e-mail, and buy yourself a little gift for every 10 you successfully respond to on time.

Ask lots of questions

Did one of your junior high teachers waggle his finger at your and claim, "The only stupid question is the one that's never asked?" Remember, you are a new consultant and you are not expected to know anything. If you are fresh out of college, you are not expected to know what a discount rate or DCF is. At MBA or lateral hire levels, you may have never seen a decision tree before. If you feel at all self-conscious about asking silly questions, you'd better stop it right now. Ask away! Internally, consulting is entirely about mentorship and grooming new consultants, and Q&A is the only way to learn.

At the beginning of your first few projects, take a minute during the kickoff meeting to remind your team members that you are still new to the firm, and you would like to set the expectation that you will be asking the team members lots of questions. This is a really good step to take because (1) It shows that you are proactive about learning and doing a great job and (2) Your more senior team members will be prepared to help you and not be surprised or frustrated when you come to them for help.

One great way to make sure you ask and answer your questions is to keep a question journal. Devote a couple of pages in your notebook to this task. When something comes up, write it down, whether it's about your firm's methodology, an industry term or how to find the online time tracking system. Once a day, flip through the questions and figure out which ones make sense to ask. Don't forget to jot the answer down next to the question when you're done.

It also helps to have a "buddy" in the firm who can be your go-to resource for mundane things like voice mail or expense guidelines. Many firms will actually assign you a buddy for this reason. If you are not assigned one, figure out who you feel most comfortable talking with and ask that person directly if he or she wouldn't mind being your resource for all things mundane. Again, the point of this isn't to get permission, but to set the expectation with the person that you will be coming to them for help.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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