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7 Secrets to Success When Your Boss is an Ex-Consultant

Posted on June 16, 2019 at 1:35 PM


There were over 637,000 people in the United States employed in the management consulting industry in 2016, according to Statista.com. With annual staff turnover rates of an estimated 15-20 percent, that means tens of thousands of former consultants are released into the wild each year to take 'real' jobs at organizations outside of consulting. Many of those ex-consultants transition to management roles. Some have even ended up as the CEO of large companies like Google, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, American Express, Pepsi, LEGO, Levi-Strauss, Intuit, Capital One, and GE.


If you work for a team or organization led by an ex-consultant, you may realize that ex-consultants can be challenging to work with. They use unfamiliar buzzwords and terms. They want to see everything in slide format. They lean too much on data and analysis and sometimes forget the human part of the equation. They can be arrogant and run at a hyper pace. They may lack life experience. In short, they see the world differently than "mere mortals" who never worked in consulting.


If you have an ex-consultant as a boss, here are 7 secrets on how to survive - and thrive - working with them:


1 - Find the 80/20 - Because management consultants charge expensive rates, consultants are trained to prioritize their work to maximize the value they return to clients. They do that by using the Pareto Principle, often called simply the "80/20 rule." This rule states a common phenomena where the most important 20 percent of things you could work on will produce 80 percent of the value. In other words, learn to avoid "sweating the small stuff" and figure out the few big things that generate most of the impact in your work and be excellent at those.


2- Structure Your Communications - Consultants are trained to communicate in a concise and precise manner. They get used to all their consulting colleagues communicating that way too. They can tune out people who are not communicating in the same "answer-first" style that quickly gets to the "bottom line" of any issue. The good news is that this structured communication style can be learned. Ask your manager to provide you with training in structured communications.


3 - Dig for Data - Consultants are trained to be fact-based and data-driven. If you are presenting your work, an ex-consultant boss is probably going to ask you for facts and data to back up your conclusions. Anticipate their questions and look for data to help explain your decisions. Sometimes data can be calculating what the numbers would look like from your recommendations. Sometimes it can be asking customers or others for their reactions to your ideas. Learn to be data-driven yourself and you will likely end up making better decisions that will generate less scrutiny from your ex-consultant manager.


4 - Get Comfortable with Feedback - Consultants learn to be open, honest, and direct in giving and receiving feedback because their work depends on it. Their work is typically team-based, and since a new team forms for each new project, consultants get a chance to work in many different teams over time. Teams have to ensure their work is right before it goes to the client, so they learn to pressure-test each other's work. You need to learn to be comfortable receiving (and delivering) open and honest feedback and avoid taking it personally.


5 - Protect Your Time - Consultants work under tight deadlines in their projects. They also have to add in travel time to get to the client. Consultants are often expected to work hours far in excess of 40 hours per week. They can often do this because they started in their consulting career before they picked up other priorities in life - like a family. An ex-consultant might expect everyone to work excessive hours as a default since that is what they are used to. If your boss is still working consulting hours, put stakes in the ground around the commitments outside of work that are important to you and schedule those like you would any priority at work.


6 - Help them Understand Organizational Politics - Every workplace has organizational politics, but the internal politics in consulting are less entrenched because people change teams and managers all the time. An ex-consultant may naively believe the right facts and logic will always prevail in their new role. They may fail to realize the importance of relationships and politics in big organizations where people often plan to work for decades, not years. Help them see the potential errors and traps they are facing. Give them suggestions for the relationships they should build. If your boss stumbles, it probably means your job gets tougher too, so help them succeed. Helping your boss navigate the organization can make you particularly valuable to them - and earn their appreciation at review time.


7 - Emphasize Implementation - Consulting often stops at the recommendation stage and leaves implementation to clients. This can make consultants under-appreciate the difficulty of implementation. Your boss will probably come up with a lot of new ideas how to do things. Instead of telling them all the reasons why their new ideas won't work, help them understand what it would take to implement their ideas. How would other departments have to change their priorities or behaviors to implement that idea? What things could we stop doing to free up resources to start that? How could we get the people and tools to do that? Your boss will probably have one or two good ideas mixed into all the possibilities they see. Help them focus on and deliver those and they may see you as an exceptionally valuable member of the team.


Working with a manager who comes from a consulting background can be challenging. It can also be rewarding if you take advantage of the learning and growth opportunities it provides.

Categories: Meeting Effectiveness, Communication Skills, Consulting