First, getting fired in management consulting doesn’t happen often. There are many reasons for this (eg, the rigorous recruiting process, the supportive development-focused culture).
However, in tough economic times select firms will significantly tighten hiring and raise the bar on promotions. Those who don’t make the cut must leave the company within a rough timeframe – the “up or out” policy.
Not all consulting firms employ “up or out” – some are comfortable letting people stay in the same positions for many years. Booz Allen is one example. Still, here are the five mistakes that will get you fired in management consulting.
1. Not managing upwards effectively
The best consultants are experts at upward management. Until you’re a senior partner, you’ll always have people above you that need to be managed. This requires the ability to do a few things:
- Manage expectations regarding deadlines and work quality. You don’t want the senior partner of your project demanding a functional model in 2 weeks if the data won’t arrive for a week and a half
- Learn to pushback effectively when suggestions are not efficient or practical, or when you’re simply overwhelmed. You don’t want to involve 5 partners in weekly brainstorming sessions when only 2 have relevant content knowledge and the rest argue incessantly
- Engage senior consultants in areas where they can contribute the most. You don’t want expert consultants on HR hiring policies to attend a low-level 2-hour discussion on streamlining IT systems
- Process management. This is the ability to stay on top of all the little things – from daily status updates for your project leader to scheduling key partner and client meetings early
Pushback is an art – I’ll cover how to pushback effectively in a separate future article.
2. Drinking too much at work functions or client dinners
This is an obvious no-no, but it happens all the time. Two casual happy hour beers after-work can turn into drinks at the restaurant bar before dinner, which becomes a few glasses of red wine during the meal.
At some point, you’ll be complaining about the client team with the senior partner sitting to your left. You’ll share your secrets for avoiding unwanted work with another consultant, only to see your project leader starting at you from across the table. Bad news.
3. Staying silent during team and client meetings
This is a common mistake for junior consultants – you’ve only spent 3 months studying cellphone manufacturers when the partner has spent 10 years, so what can you possibly contribute to the discussion? You’re afraid of being the guy that asks a dumb question, or makes a meaningless remark that is swiftly ignored by everyone else.
Silence digs your career grave. It may take a few weeks to acclimate, but the best consultants get up to speed quickly.
Here are a few strategies for contributing effectively when you know very little:
- Ask specific questions – questions can be as powerful as comments, and are much easier to generate.
- Become master of your domain – whatever information you’re in charge of, know it well. Not only will you have the answer when called upon, but you can reference esoteric points of data unfamiliar to anyone else.
- Synthesize what’s being said – this is an invaluable skill, and doesn’t require new insight. Simply take a few important points and sum them up, in the guise of trying to understand the conversation’s direction:
“So if I’m understanding this right, it seems that the collections process is inefficient because of 2 reasons – one, 75% of the processes that could be automated are manual, and two, none of the frontline employees are compensated based on performance…”
4. Repeating mistakes
Consultants make mistakes – blame it on the unfamiliar clients, rotating working teams, and constant travel. The key is to avoid making the same mistake repeatedly. Here are a few examples:
- Not double checking new additions to a financial model, even after calculation errors were pointed out at a team meeting
- Forgetting to confirm the attendance of a specific client executive, after they were left out of previous progress reviews
People notice repeated mistakes, and eventually you’ll be known as unfocused, careless, or worst of all, lazy.
5. Not seeking help when you have no clue
Like mistake #4, consultants constantly cover unfamiliar territory. Your responsibilities change from project to project, and part of consulting development is to acquire new skills. That adaptability is part of the reason why companies hire consultants.
You’ll be asked to take on new challenges. Whether that’s developing potential business unit organizational structures, or constructing a performance-based compensation policy, you’ll often find yourself clueless.
At times like these, be upfront about what you don’t know. Seek help immediately, whether from fellow consultants or your engagement manager, your friend in investment banking or your firm mentor.
If you don’t, it rarely ends well.