How L.E.K. Helps the World’s Top Companies Achieve Growth

In this episode of Strategy Simplified, we’re joined by Maria Steingoltz, a Managing Director at L.E.K. Consulting. She shares with us about the firm, the work it engages in, and a case study from a recent client engagement.

From the case study, you’ll learn learn how the generalist strategy consulting firm approaches ambiguous problems, structures engagements, staffs project teams, and thinks about strategy and implementation. It’s a fascinating listen for any current or future consultants!

Interested in working for “The Growth Guys” (AKA L.E.K.)? Learn more via theĀ firm’s website. Listen to the conversation below.

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Transcription:

MC

Maria, thank you so much for being on the podcast with us today.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Thank you for having me.

MC

We are really looking forward to not only learning about LEK, but learning about you and also about the work that you and your firm do. So to dive in, I would love if you could just share a brief background about who you are.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Okay, yeah, that sounds great. Well, I’m Maria Steingoltz. I am a Managing Director based out of Chicago and I actually head up the Chicago office. Within the LEK universe, I’m part of the retail and consumer products team, but I spend most of my time working with clients in the food and beverage, and beauty and personal care industries.

MC

If you could help us zoom out just a little bit further on the work that LEK does overall, and the types of clients that you serve, before we dive into one of your specific examples.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Absolutely. We are a generalist firm. So we work across industry verticals. I’m in retail and consumer but we have colleagues who work with Life Science clients, Industrials clients, Technology clients, Education clients. Think about any aspect of the economy, we’re probably serving big strategics within those and we also work with the financial sponsor community.

So the Private Equity community, to the extent that they’re exploring doing a deal within any one of those segments. They come to us, all of these clients come to us is because we’re the growth guys, you know, we help with growth strategy for organizations. So that can be anything from helping them with strategic planning process or helping make trade off decisions between where to put investment.

It could be the next layer of better understanding their consumer, thinking about their pricing strategy, anything that you think about that spurs top line growth, and of course, circling back to the point around mergers and acquisitions, companies can grow via M&A. And so we work with them on those priorities as well. Supporting a deal, but also sometimes thinking about where they should be investing and making acquisitions.

MC

Absolutely. Global reach across industries and capability areas. PE, M&A space as well across all those. What about the the overall size of the firm? And can you speak any to the the number of active consultants that you have in the North America region or in Chicago specifically?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

I like to say, at least for me, we’re kind of the Goldilocks. We’re not too big, but we’re not too small. So around the world across our 20 offices around the world, we have about 1,600 professionals. In Chicago, we’re about 160 just to give you a scale and order of magnitude. And for me, I think it’s a really a perfect size because we’re a midsize firm, we’re at scale.

Anyone who joins us is going to have international opportunities, great learning and development opportunities. Processes and support teams to help them get the job done and resources are in place. At the same time we’re still small enough where I know most of the people who are in Chicago – actually, I know all of the people! But almost everybody knows everybody else.

And it still feels small and intimate where we get to know each other and have great social events. Friday, we typically have a beer cart at 3:00. So everyone I know is counting down the hours until that happens.

MC

Oh my gosh, I love that so much. I miss that Friday camaraderie and networking in the local office for sure. We’re recording this in the summer of 2022. We’re going to dive into a specific historical example here in just a second, but where are you at – you mentioned a couple of in person things just there in terms of overall corporate and office culture. Today, we’re talking to you, you are in the Chicago office physically. Where’s LEK at now, at this moment in time, with hybrid versus in person versus virtual? And how are you approaching that moving forward?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, great question. So we are in hybrid. So for us, that means two days a week are in the office. But the two days a week are not predefined. So each individual can pick the days that work for them and their schedule. And they also can vary week to week. So you know, one day one week, it might be Tuesday, Wednesday that you want to be in. Other weeks it might be Thursday, Friday, and that’s totally fine.

I mean, we really believe in flexibility. And so that’s why we’ve kept that in from the time when we were all working from home. But at the same time, we also believe consulting, ultimately, is an apprenticeship model. And so there’s something to be said about working side by side with your colleagues, and being together. That’s for us where hybrid comes in.

MC

Absolutely. Well, I’m excited to dive in with you on a piece of work that you have completed before. And so with the case study that you have identified to share with us today, would love if you could share some background info for the engagement, including who the client was, and what the problem was that they were facing.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, so I’ll pick one from the food and beverage space. This client was a multinational protein supplier to some of the major QSRs and restaurants that were out there. They really needed a lot of help thinking about their next phase of growth. So they had formed really great relationships with their core customer base but at the same time, now they were thinking about what’s next. And so they reached out to LEK, to help them think through that.

MC

Gotcha. And not being from retail and consumer, can you help me understand: what’s a QSR?

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L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Oh, I’m sorry. QSR is a quick service restaurant. So anything like a McDonald’s or Burger King, any place you go into that you can get a quick bite to eat, you don’t have service tableside, as you sit down, you sort of place your order, get your food and then go. That’s a quick service restaurant.

MC

Okay. And when you say protein supplier, what do you mean?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Somebody who was working primarily with chicken and beef products, and they didn’t own the chickens themselves, but they would receive the chickens, and they were a manufacturer, so they would process the chickens and make them ready, as well as the beef and make it ready for selling into restaurants.

MC

In that introduction, thank you for that, you shared a little bit about what they were looking to accomplish or what they were facing, but how much of the work, Maria, is actually standing alongside the client and helping them define that themselves, helping identify the true root of the problem, structuring the case objective, and outlining what you would achieve in the scope of work?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

To be honest, that happens oftentimes before the project starts. So myself and the other partners who were involved in the project worked with the client really closely to help, as you said, describe what is the problem and the challenge that they were facing?

What were the goals that they were hoping to achieve as part of the project so that by the time that project actually started for the team that was already well defined in terms of what do we want to do and accomplish over the next 10 to 12 weeks that we’re working together? And then of course, you’re still working side by side with the client in order to get to the answer and develop the answer. But at the same time, the goals and objectives are predefined before the project starts.

MC

So can you launch into a few more of those details then? You did mention timeline, was it in the realm of 10 to 12 weeks, how large was the team? Kind of what role were you working with specifically on the client side and help us understand whether or not those things are typical for LEK’s engagements.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

I would say this one was probably a little bit longer than typical. And part of the reason for the longer time horizon was because of the complexity of the business. They were, as I mentioned, a multinational. They had operations in North America, but also in China, in Southeast Asia, because their customer base was also global. These were global restaurants that were around the world.

And so because of that extra layer of complexity, we needed a little bit more time. And our team was structured and organized where the bulk of the team was based out of the US. But then we did have team members based out of China to help conduct some of the research to help support our recommendations.

So the project team on that one, it was three partners that we were closely collaborating with. We had a day to day project manager, who is post-MBA, typically for us, and a few years out of their MBA. We had a consultant who was maybe one to two years outside of the MBA. And in the US, we had two associates, then we had two associates and one consultant based out of China as well.

That kind of structure for LEK is typical for clients that have multinational footprints, and when there’s growth priorities that are taking place from around the world, that’s when we’ll have the global type of team structure. If it’s a domestic player, then we would primarily have the team based out of the US.

MC

Okay. But in this case, you could use your resources globally, and actively on the team, not just checking into one of your knowledge centers and getting some insights, globally speaking, but actually involving others in other regions on the team.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

They were very much a part of the core team. So they would be working in all of our case team meetings, they would be involved in client presentations. The time zones, of course, were a little bit challenging, but we would try to organize our calls to accommodate all of the different time zones.

I mean, importantly, the client had a management team had some management team based out of China, some management team that was based out of Southeast Asia. So in those times, when we were working side by side with the management team, it was actually really helpful to have team members that were on the ground there.

But really we were one LEK, integrated together. That’s sort of the benefit of being a global firm is the ability to work with international clients, but also learn from our team members and colleagues from around the world.

MC

So, Maria, help us understand a little bit in terms of from a project activities lens. What type of work did the team do? Research, analysis, etc.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

So there were a couple of components. The first was really understanding the market landscape. And some of the typical questions, how big is this overall? How fast is it growing? And what’s our current position of our client within the market?

So for some of that, we needed to work with their management team to get their financials. And how do those questions around share and competitive differentiation change depending on portions of their business? So how well are they doing on the chicken side versus the beef side? How are they doing and well positioned in the US versus Southeast Asia versus China? They had different types of offerings, in different product formats that they could give to their clients as well, their customers, the restaurants.

And so again, trying to slice and dice the market. We call it building the fact base just to get a level-setting and understanding of okay, well, what are the facts and figures around the dynamics of this market, size, growth, competitive dynamics. Actually getting some voice of the customer as well. What are they looking for from their suppliers? To help form that foundational understanding of the current state. So that was the first portion of the project, probably three to four weeks.

And then concurrently, once we once we finished that, we started to have some of those strategic conversations. So based on the facts that have been gathered, what does that mean from an implication standpoint? And what opportunities does that identify for our client in terms of where they should be focusing their business?

MC

Is there any standard language or structure at LEK that you use as you start to share those insights and preliminary recommendations with the client? Do those look like facilitated workshopping type discussions or, we always have one midpoint meeting, or we have ongoing steering committee meetings. What does that look like at LEK?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, so we had ongoing steering committee meetings. We definitely like to co-create with our clients. We think it’s actually a bad outcome for us to go away and do things in a vacuum and then come back and have a big ta-da reveal at the end. Oftentimes, that that does not work, we want to co-create.

So we’ll be doing the heavy lifting in terms of the research, the analysis, and you know, putting it all together, packaging it into a slide deck. A consultant without their slide deck, of course. So we had regular steering committee meetings, and then really, with some of the key working team members, we were working collaboratively with them every single week. And so probably having daily conversations with some of the team members, like the folks who were on the finance team definitely saw a lot of LEK during the project.

MC

Would you be able to share with us any of the insights that you uncovered?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, I mean, it was really interesting. You know, the fun fact that was really surprising to me is a chicken is not a chicken in China. There are two types of chickens, there’s yellow feather, and there’s white feather chickens. And so the yellow feather kind are the ones that are sold in like outdoor markets and really are oftentimes in a different serving, a different type of customer. Versus the white feather was more what our client was positioned and manufacturing was products made out of the white chicken.

And so it was actually a really surprising finding in the sense of when you look at the market, you really have to think about a chicken is not a chicken. And so when we were identifying opportunities, we had to think about it in that way.

The second thing we found was that the client was at a certain part of the value stream, and their clients were continually and increasingly seeking more value added within the solutions that they were coming. So instead of just dividing up the chicken into pieces, they were looking for the chicken pieces to be marinated, for example, or to be battered. And so if they could deliver on this greater value add solution to their own customers, that was something that was an untapped opportunity within the business.

And then the last thing I would say is, they had, as I mentioned, primarily been focused and working with some of the major restaurants out there. But there was actually a lot to do with other customer types that historically, our client had never served. And so we help them to prioritize those customer types based on overall opportunity within the margin profile of those customers to prioritize which ones would be the most exciting and attractive for for their customer base and their growth ambitions as well.

MC

It sounds like you found a lot of things, some good opportunities. You said you’re the growth guys, right, finding those opportunities for growth, broadly speaking, but I’m sure that this was not smooth sailing from start to finish. What were as you recall, what were some of the challenges that the team faced overall?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

We talked about a couple of them, right, getting the definitions right. A chicken’s not a chicken, that was certainly a surprise and a challenge. Number two was just having team members from our end, as well as from the client end being all around the world. And so really being thoughtful, I would say, and deliberate in terms of the project cadence and organization to make sure we got everybody’s feedback. And when do we schedule the group calls versus the individual calls? I’d say that was another challenge within the project that we had to work through at the front.

And then the third one is we also learned about this fun thing called chicken math, because, a chicken once it’s processed and divided up into pieces and sent off elsewhere, there’s always pieces that are left. And so actually, you have to think about the value of what’s left, and where can that go in any decision that you make on the core stuff you might be making. And so it’s actually a lot more complicated when you think about the margin and the profitability potential of the different opportunities than you might think, initially. Chicken math, you heard it here. It’s a totally different thing.

MC

I mean, that sounds like a very intriguing kind of logic puzzle, plus the opportunity for some really unique visualizations of the data and information I would guess. That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Well, Maria, you told us some of the insights, how would you boil down the headline recommendation to your clients and then how did they respond to that in the work that you did.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Basically what we told them is there’s a ton of whitespace that’s still out there. I think the implication for them was now how do we think about our operations in light of those opportunities, because it did mean that some additional investment within their existing plants would have to be made, lines had to get reconfigured, and potentially some capital had to be deployed to expand some of the facilities.

So they were excited about it. But obviously, this was just the tip of the spear of the broader journey. We had identified the growth and now how do you go about actioning it from a production and manufacturing standpoint, which was their core business?

MC

And are you able to share in this case is that work that you left them to do? Or were you continuing to step up alongside them in partnership as they thought about the operational implications of your recommendations?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

In this specific case, our mandate was bespoke to that front end. We do support some organizations in terms of the second layer of implications. Typically, when it comes to plant reconfiguration, that’s not us. We leave it to the manufacturing experts for that.

MC

Very fair. Now, in an ongoing way, continuing to have relationships, I’m sure with people at that organization. Do you stay in touch about the work that was done historically? And do you have any anecdotes or perhaps metrics or stories about their application of your insights and recommendations?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

It was a pretty fun outcome in the sense that they started to put our plan into practice, make some of the changes that could be done immediately. And then really saw a lot of benefit and a lot of initial growth coming out of it. And then on the back of that accelerated growth, a bigger chicken manufacturer actually came and bought our client.

So that organization had access to our data and report and they had started to activate, but also having our plan available to them, I think provided some of the confidence for them to buy our client. So our client independently is no more. I do keep in touch with the management team, though. And they’re all doing great, but have moved on to other ventures.

MC

I do want to highlight one thing that you said in there, the aspect to which you as, as LEK came in, put together a robust, comprehensive evidence base with clear recommendations and insights. And that work was actually then highly leverageable to your client outside of the original context and scope of why they hired you, but may have actually been, we may never know specifically, but may have been a key value add in that overall acquisition process. Would you agree with that?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, I would absolutely agree. And I do know that it was because I had conversations with the CEO about it. So I do know that it was highly important to them and leveraged throughout the process.

MC

What cool impact, right? It’s very awesome to hear that as an example. Well, it’s been interesting to look at this specific example. Maria, as you zoom out and think overall, in terms of your career and your work with LEK. What are some of the favorite things about your industry, your job?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Yeah, I love it. Because it’s always changing. Every day is a brand new challenge, whether it’s a team challenge, or a client question that comes up, and I just love the relationships that I’ve been able to form along the way, both inside of LEK but also outside of LEK. I do feel like I’ve made some some lifelong friends. We talked about my office, I share a wall with someone who I had started with as an associate and we’re now both partners together, have been with LEK for our careers. And you know, really, friends, not only inside the office, but outside.

MC

Well, I know that there are so many listening to this podcast that idealize that journey that you’ve had, the impact you’ve been able to make for your clients, the community and camaraderie that you have with your colleagues, the tough problems that you get to solve.

So before we let you go, we want to shift the conversation just a little bit to recruiting. You just walked us through this real world example of the type of cases that you do. In your recruiting process, you call those case study interviews, how does this real world work actually translate into the interview cases and the overall process for how you bring individuals into the firm?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

All of our interview case studies are actually based on real client engagements and projects. They are a streamlined version, because as you can imagine, something that was done over 12 weeks by a big group of people can’t be covered in 30 minutes within a case interview. But we do simplify and streamline to focus maybe on one or two of the key issues and nuances that came out of the project that we then want to have the conversation about as part of the case interview. And so it’s real world examples. If you’re doing a case, someone’s probably worked on it at LEK.

MC

And as you’re going through these case study interviews, and you’re considering various prospective candidates, what are some of the qualities that you look for?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

I always think that it’s really important to be intellectually curious, and not only settle at the surface level information, but try to really get to the bottom of ‘why is this happening and what are the key drivers that are maybe motivating this observation about the market?’ So I look for that.

I look for someone who really can take many pieces of information, organize it into a structured way of thinking, it can be a framework that’s formal, or it could be just structured thinking and organizing your thoughts and the key issues that are presented to you, and does that lead you and help you to solve and develop the answer. So organized, analytical, driving towards an answer development.

And then the last thing I would say is, the person has to be a good communicator. If they’re not, you can have the best answer in the world, but if you can’t have your audience understand it, and in this case, the audience would be your interviewer, it doesn’t help. And so clear articulation of any findings is pretty important as well.

MC

So then, from a from a hiring standpoint, Maria, those are the sorts of people that you’re looking for. Now, back to this moment in time, we’re in an unsure economy, is LEK still hiring? And if so, kind of how are you thinking about that right now at this specific moment in time? And how could interested individuals pursue that opportunity?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

We are absolutely hiring! Right now, we are open for Life Science Specialists. I think on July 1, we open our resume drop through our website for our 2023 class. So recruiting for 2023 starts this year and that starts this summer. We’ve got great growth ambitions as a firm and an organization. We’re in growth mode, so we are absolutely looking for great candidates to join us.

MC

Fantastic. Well, we really appreciate the conversation that we’ve had with you today around the core of the work that you do and your firm. But a couple of just fun, more personal questions here at the end. Now we’re recording this on a Friday so the weekend is right around the corner. What are some of your favorite things to do over a typical weekend?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

I have two kids at home and so usually the weekends are full of activities, baseball or soccer games and the like. But in the downtime, we like to go bike riding as a family, maybe have a picnic and play ball or read a book or something like that. That’s in the summer months in Chicago, favorite activities for the family.

MC

Well, I hope it’s not too hot for you to enjoy those things over the next couple of weekends. Absolutely. And second question, while you’re still enjoying a great career in consulting at LEK, if you had perhaps gone a different path in your life in an alternate universe, and you ended up in a different career, what might that have been for you?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

I always wanted to join the Foreign Service. I just have always been fascinated by different cultures and the ways of working. I ultimately didn’t go down that path because I thought that I wasn’t sure about moving from place to place every two years and completely changing my lifestyle. And so ultimately, that’s why I went consulting, but Foreign Service was always top of the list.

MC

I’m sure though that the excitement that you would have experienced in that world is still replicated in the busyness that you have here in running the Chicago office, your family at home, but you have a little bit of that free time you talked to about already in terms of weekend hobbies or activities. So what about something else that you’re doing with your free time now, something that you’re reading or watching or listening to? What are you enjoying in this moment?

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Well, you’re gonna laugh big because it sort of speaks to my unfulfilled wishes in Foreign Service, but I’ve been really into Tehran on Apple TV. It’s a great spy thriller about a Mossad agent that goes undercover in Tehran, and it’s a very strong female lead, which I love as well. So I’ve been sort of living vicariously through that main character, and it’s a really fun show.

MC

Okay, I will have to add this to my list. I have not seen that yet. But if it has anything like Alias vibes, Jennifer Garner, I’m a big fan. I’m going to have to look into that, Maria. Absolutely.

Well, we just really thank you again for being willing to take the time to share with our listeners about the work that you do and your firm and over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be able to hear from some of your colleagues as well in terms of how LEK approaches your work and thinks about your people force. So we want to thank you again, Maria.

L.E.K.: Maria Steingoltz

Thank you so much, Stephanie. It was so fun. I love talking chicken and I love talking chicken math.

Conclusion

As Maria shared, L.E.K. is hiring and interested in engaging with high quality candidates like you. Learn more about the firm, the work that they do, who they’re hiring, and how to apply. We’ll see you next time.

Filed Under: Boutique Consulting Firms, case studies, Consulting Firms, consulting recruiting, life as a consultant