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Real value of a consultant

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Having returned from a loooong hiatus, here’s what I see as a sequel to my last article on consulting >>> Professional reflections – My first year of consulting at the Firm

“Being a great leader is often less a matter of eloquence and more a matter of repetition and consistency.” – Lou Gerstner

Over the last few days, I have started reading a couple of books one of which is “The Firm”, an external perspective on what McKinsey is and what makes up the McKinsey culture. While I can be completely honest that some content in the book will not pass a factual check, there is some content that drew my attention which I wanted to share below.

My thought process is very closely aligned with what the character, Mike Ross, says to his boss, Harvey Specter, in one of the episodes of the TV series, The Suits. It goes something like this, “I know what kind of a lawyer I can be if I am as smart as you, but what I want to learn is what kind of a person I want to be.” (Don’t hold me to the exact wording of the quote… I don’t have as great a photographic memory as Mike Ross).

Anyways, going back to the main topic, I was impressed by what Marvin Bower articulated in his 1997 book, The Will to Lead, as five responsibilities of a professional consultant. I go a step further to add an overarching sixth responsibility that sets the foundation for these five responsibilities.
0. Must hold oneself accountable for being morally right in everything he/she does
1. Must put client’s interests ahead of the firm’s interests
2. Must adhere to the highest standards of truthfulness, integrity, and trustworthiness
3. Must keep to himself/ herself the client’s private and proprietary information
4. Must maintain an independent position and tell the client the truth as he sees it
5. Must provide only services that have real value

A true consultant actually ends up playing four roles:
_ Lawyer for the discretion and integrity
_ Engineer for the scientific, fact-based rigor and precision to the task
_ Doctor for dispensing advice to unhealthy organizations on how to get better and to healthy organizations on how to stay that way
_ Priest for serving clients and being a responsible member of the community

To do this, key ingredients, that Marvin called the McKinsey persona, are:
_ Being selfless
_ Being prepared to sacrifice money and fame for the sake of building a stronger firm
_ Never look for public credit
_ Confident and discreet

Professional reflections – My first year of consulting at the Firm

April 22, 2013 1 comment

On May 8, I would have clocked in a full 365 days as a member of the Firm (what is internally referred to as 1+0 in the firm). And it has got me thinking of how my journey has been thus far… so over the next couple of weeks, I will share my reflections from within.

What started out as a dream job has turned into finding my true passion… a calling which combines
(1) working with the best minds to solve some of the complex organizational problems,
(2) pushing for professional excellence with independence respected by others,
(3) realizing the profound ability to connect deeply with clients, and
(4) adding a sense of meaning to my life and those of others around me.

As consultants, there is definitely a strong sense of responsibility to the organizations we serve and also the stakeholders within (employees from the front line to the C-suite, shareholders, customers, suppliers, and regulators included). Few lessons I have learned in the course of solving some challenging topics has been:
1. Do not lose sight of the “human element” in consulting work. This human element approach gets me to a fundamental principle: We should not view a human as an economic unit and then endeavor to find the most economically viable solution viewing all problems from the angle of the economic effect and cost. And the basic premise of “unlimited wants, limited resources” has to be corrected since most of the informed people in the world have realized by now that the resources are ample enough to completely satisfy the basic needs of all.
2. Respect for clients and colleagues. We often take this for granted but it is important to time and again acknowledge the roles each one brings to solving a problem, and their contributions. It is not to discount the fact that some people are difficult to work with but the positive side of that experience is the opportunity you get to master your people skills. Needless to say, there are more people who have been great colleagues/ clients than not so it absolutely is essential to be able to acknowledge their good support/ work and say a simple “Thank you!” every so often.
3. Be aware of your long-term goals and continuously calibrate to stay on track. This is one place where everyone can easily chart their own path independently and with much ease. When I reconnect with peers who joined the firm at the same time, I am yet to find someone who’s had exactly the same path as I did and yet everyone’s reasonably comfortable with the way their path has turned out to be. Speaking for myself, I was fortunate to have found the right mentors and managers that allowed me to decide where I placed my next step on this career ladder.
4. More tenure means more problem solving. Some people have a notion of consulting that as one gets tenured, the farther away one moves from the actual problem solving. That definitely doesn’t seem to be the case at McKinsey. Every client study I have been on, the leadership (Partners and Directors) have been as actively engaged and have provided immense value to problem solving with their continuous insights. Often times, the Director on the study would have had more knowledge about the client organization than the client leaders themselves given their long relationship in serving a particular client.
5. Know your strengths and also your development needs. In the past I would have been hesitant at sharing my “development needs” (aka weaknesses) but at the firm, I have found it so easy to be vocal about that so that people around me can provide me opportunities to better myself on those dimensions. At the same time, it has helped highlighting my strengths (I admit, it’s hard to talk about your strengths while controlling the brag buttons) to be able to help bring those to life in client engagements.
6. Prioritize, prioritize, and prioritize. There is so much you can do at the firm that is beyond the humanly possible limits. As I initially learned the hard way in business school, the firm experience thus far has given me lessons in ‘Prioritization 201’ through which I have found it easy to prioritize what I do at the firm based on two broad dimensions – alignment with my passion, and contribution to my career goals.
7. Manage your time and have control over it. Might sound odd but given my habit of trying to stay punctual (in my world, it means always before time) and the multitasking I end up doing (sometimes of my own choosing), I find it very important to not only manage my time well but also control my time. This is something I observed in a few partners at the firm who come out as being in total control of their time and priorities. One tactical implementation of this principle (sounds silly) is to always schedule one-on-one meetings with colleagues/ clients/ friends as you calling them since you don’t end up waiting for them to call you otherwise.

Preparing for a consulting case interview

November 27, 2011 2 comments

Having been through the interview process with all the top-tier strategy consulting firms notably McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, I got into the role of advising my peers at Columbia Business School on preparing for such interviews.

Over the last few days, as I do these practice case interviews, I realized that it would be more efficient to create a standard checklist that I can then use to base my feedback on. While the checklist is more aligned with a particular case I have created to give a holistic feel, I think this can be relevant in a general context as well. And some of the tips could evoke a WTH! kinda response also but the idea is to be as comprehensive as possible to appeal to users at varying stages of interview preparation.

For the purpose of this post, I will use a specific case to make my guidelines easier to understand and implement.

Here goes the checklist…

1. Use blank white A4 papers in landscape mode
The idea behind this is that your work should mimic as if you’re working on a MS-Powerpoint deck.

2. Number your pages beforehand
Sometimes interviewers may notice it and regard you as being very structured.

3. Once the interviewer gives the case brief, recap key information to make sure you got everything correctly. In case of long case briefs, make sure you’re very crisp and succinct without relaying the complete brief verbatim to the interviewer.
Case brief given: Our client is Navigant Advisors, a retail brokerage firm doing $5Bn revenue in 2010. It has 200 branches in the U.S. of which 100 are corporate owned and the remaining 100 are franchised. We have been retained by this client to help them understand the economics of the business.
An illustrative recap would be: Navigant Advisors is a $5Bn retail brokerage firm looking to understand the economics of its business and has a 50-50 split for its 200 branches amongst corporate owned and franchised.

Read more…

You know what I did this summer? (Part 2)

August 27, 2011 3 comments

Continuing from the previous post….

I am sitting in my New York apartment eager to ride out Hurricane Irene. Everywhere in Manhattan, there seems to be utter panic. One supermarket had this displayed: “We have water available even now”.

Anyways, rewinding to where I left in my first recount, I completed my client study in Florida in the first week of August and then quickly started another client study the next week. On the side, I also observed fast it being the Islamic month of Ramadan. However, my stint was made easier with the client being closer home in New Jersey (15min drive from New York city). Client from a new industry (consumer goods), this was a short study but very high visibility… direct work with the senior client leadership (CEO and downwards) on a daily basis. This study gave me a great opportunity to work on my client communication and client relationship building skills.

On the personal front, had some great milestones (wife’s birthday and wedding anniversary) that rounded off with me finishing my internship on a high note…
Client satisfaction. Check.
Team appreciation. Check.
Study completion. Check.
Return job offer. Check.

So, now am back into the school mode with a great relief of not having any recruiting pressures. I feel that I can put a lot of emphasis on extending my learning in the second year and also build my skill set. Also, this gives me a huge opportunity to focus on things beyond academics and recruiting.

Zooming into the next 2 weeks before I start classes, have plans to stay home to celebrate Eid with family here in New York following which I will round off my summer with a short trip to Chicago to meet my brother and his family. And then back in action… after possibly the most memorable summer in a long time!!!!

You know what I did this summer? (Part 1)

August 1, 2011 1 comment

Excerpt from my recount to for the Columbia email series – “What’s hot in cluster H?”

I just completed one year in New York and to sum it up, it’s been an exceptional experience for me with a lot of help from cluster H love.

I am writing this on my flight enroute to Palm Beach, Florida… amazing destination but only if one goes as a tourist. And fortunately or unfortunately, I go there for work (how good is that!) This summer has been great in more ways than one. In less than 24 hours after finishing our exams, I was off with Hina and Zoha to visit our families in Dubai and India. Both of us were a little scared about this trip since Zoha was doing her first travel trip and that too starting with a bang… a 13-hour non-stop flight. After a month-long vacation, I landed back in New York to start my internship. Wardrobe needed some revamping so in came our in-house shoe consultant, Mike, who was kind enough to not only give me tips but also accompany me to the store. Alongside other insightful things, one major lesson learnt was that both your feet don’t have to be of the same size. That explained why I always had two sizes in mind whenever I visited a shoe store earlier.

Past that, little did I know that McKinsey would package everything that consulting has to offer in my summer experience (why me?). Day 3 of my training, I am pulled out to be assigned to a project. As I am still settling to the idea of new industry, new client… I am asked to take the next flight to Florida for a client meeting. And so my tryst with Florida began… 6 weeks of Monday through Thursday travel, lots of air miles, hotel points, and eating out. Technically, I thought I was good at MS-Office… but this internship has shown how far away I’m from becoming “barely good”. Day starts and ends with powerpoint with a dose of excel thrown in the middle. As if travel wasn’t enough, work hours have also been equally intense (though not as bad as Manoj’s who gets to personally welcome the sunrise three days a week). Personal relationships are definitely under a lot of stress with this kind of work lifestyle but thankfully mine has held fort strong enough for us to be celebrating our third wedding anniversary tomorrow.

Moving onto the fun part, this summer experience also had some fun elements thrown in with weekend getaways to Montauk (loved the Hamptons area close by), Miami, and then Dana Point in California (had Levi & family also for cluster H company). More than anything, this part kept the significant other happy enough to open the doors for me at 6am on a Friday one week. Above all, the most exciting part is seeing Zoha grow up (though I don’t get to spend much time at home)… We are always running to catch up with the pace at which she outgrows all her stuff – clothes, rockers, play gyms et al. Most interesting experiences have been the mishaps I had while changing her diapers (details warrant an offline conversation).

Putting “trust” in the driver seat…

November 8, 2010 3 comments

Often times, business leaders become so hooked onto profitability objectives that they lose sight of their key stakeholders – customers. This has also been one of the reasons why many companies couldn’t weather the financial storm of 2008. Many in the media call it the credit crisis… and if you see, credit comes from the latin word, credo, meaning credibility / trust. So, this unprecedented crisis was actually a TRUST CRISIS where mistrust between different business stakeholders led to the global economic downfall. Just recently, I was having dinner with Charles Green (the founder CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates and writer of a book by the same name) and we were discussing the ramifications of mistrust in organizations. Charles explained that executives seem to forget the basic nuance of trust being difficult to achieve but easy to lose. Even Richard M. Sternhell (the former Managing Principal of Towers Watson) was present at the dinner and he shared his real-life anecdote of how being trustworthy early on in his career helped him become remarkably successful. The primary issue plaguing the business world is this rat-race of who gets to the cheese first. No one seems to have the time to think how credible are the means they’re taking to reach that end.

The worst outcome of all this evil is a “transactional view” to business. Right from the CEO to the floor supervisor, everyone think about every component of the business as a transaction… “Reduce the procurement transaction lead time”, “Increase the revenue per transaction”, “Maximize number of transactions per customer”, “Standardize the transaction”. One thing that is being royally ignored in all this is RELATIONSHIPS. No one seems to think about the relationships in business… be it within the top management or with the employees or even with the customers. And with no relationships, there can be no trust in business!!! It is vital for organizations to start looking at business from a relationship perspective. As Warren Buffet mentioned of the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition of McLane Distribution from Wal-Mart for $23billion – “We did no due diligence. We knew everything would be exactly as Wal-Mart said it would be, and it was.” If I consider this from a consulting career perspective, trust can yield many benefits:
– Give consultants bigger opportunities
– Help consultants have greater impact
– Make consulting work more enjoyable

Charles Green has redefined the trust equation from just a sum of credibility and reliability to:
Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

While credibility is all about perceived capabilities and reliability is about repeated experiences of having promises kept, the new building blocks of intimacy mean how enjoyable it is for the client to work with consultants, and self-orientation is the opposite of how much you hold client’s interest over yours. As my Strategy Consulting professor taught me about a consulting career, the secret to building trust with clients is:
– Build trust by giving trust
– Involve the client
– Help the client be more effective internally
– Make deliverables more useful to the client
– Make client interactions more valuable
– Be accessible, available and knowledgeable about the client’s organization

Don’t forget that the fear of risk taking may hinder you from engaging in trust-building activity!!!