Management consulting is a job associated with slick Powerpoint presentations and complex Excel models. You *do* generally need to know how to use those programs as a consultant. However, after five weeks on the job, I am learning that being an effective consultant has less to do with memorizing Microsoft shortcuts, and more to do with working well in a small, fast paced team.
Here are my five takeaways for how to hit the ground running as a new consultant.
1) Show unfinished work
Imagine this: you’re given an assignment that will take until the end of day to do. Do you plan your day around the assignment, and then send it back by end of day? That’s what I used to do, and it would typically result in me staying late to finish the assignment.
Why? Consulting is a team sport, where everyone has an opinion on the work, and most deliverables go through many iterations before the final product is selected and published.
If you want to deliver something on time, make time for feedback. Plan out how you plan to solve the problem and get feedback on your proposal. Then write a draft, and collect feedback there, too. As you do more work, collect more feedback. It might seem ridiculous to do this for a one-day assignment, but I promise that a couple of 5 minute check-ins can save hours of rework later.
Another benefit? Showing your process gives them a chance to offer feedback on how to improve your process, not just your final deliverable.
2) Carry 2 notebooks
I keep one notebook for my daily to-do list and key learnings, and another for all of the other notes I take during the day, like meeting notes and scribbles on how I might structure a deck I need to write.
Notebook 1 gives me a high level view of my priorities for the day, as well as a log of what I have accomplished and key things I want to remember. My second notebook is my room to think and get into the details of what I am working on. Typically, my second notebook fills up way faster than Notebook 1. Which is exactly why I do this.
I found when I put priorities and day-to-day notes in one notebook, my priorities would get lost in a sea of details and incoming ideas. Keeping them separate allows you to have one high level view of your day, while also having plenty of space to jot down thoughts as they come.
3) Don’t eat lunch at your desk
No, this is not a tip to about using lunch as a chance to network with partners. It’s about building relationships with your team.
In my first couple of weeks, I turned down my coworkers heading to lunch because I was in the middle of something. It would be quicker for me to focus on my work now and eat when I came to a natural break, than to stop and eat with them. Or so I thought. When I needed a teammate to send me something, my needs were last on her priority list. And with good reason — I was a stranger. Asking for favors was uncomfortable for me as well. It’s awkward to ask people for their time when you barely know them.
Take the time to get to know your team. You’ll not only work faster, you’ll start to enjoy your day a lot more, too.
4) Take meeting notes (and send them out)
When you’re the new person on a consulting project, you’re in the awkward position of wanting to add value, and yet also knowing very little about the subject compared to the partners leading the engagement. Taking meeting notes and sending them is a great way to help your team, while also reinforcing what you are learning on the project.
A simple way to organise them is like this: List the main points that were discussed (bullet them for easy reading), then pull out the action steps and put those in a separate section at the top, titled ‘Summary of next steps’ with names of who should be doing what.
5) It’s okay to speak last
There's a partner where I work, who, unlike most partners, tends to speak last in every meeting. When a discussion heats up, he is silent, and actually leans in to listen better. Suddenly, when he gets an idea, he draws out his thoughts on a notepad, his hand scribbling faster as he connects ideas and begins to draw out a framework for the problem we are currently discussing. Finally, he will present his thoughts. They are always articulate, well-thought out, and accompanied by a clear path forward. He speaks less than most, and yet is sought out constantly for his opinion.
You don’t have to wait until the end of meetings to speak (in truth, most consulting firms have a culture that encourages speaking up) but it can be beneficial to take even ten seconds to structure your thoughts before you speak. I like to ask myself what the ‘so what?’ of my contribution is. If there isn’t one, I probably don’t have a clear point at that time. A funnier tool someone mentioned in a training this week is the acronym WAIT, which stands for, Why am I speaking?
Whichever method you use, take note: People tend to average out their opinions over time. If you speak few times, but always add value, you’ll show up as a strong member of the team. If you have many good contributions, but equally as many unstructured comments, your personal brand will reflect that.