It´s Okay Not to Know
Many, myself included, join consulting due to a desire to take on the challenging business problems that consultancies navigate clients through. What I found out after joining is that consulting is not about what you know, it is about what you don´t know. What kept me going every day was not the problem that I was working on, it was the people that I worked with.
I joined Deloitte on a Thursday and had my first onboarding session with my engagement team on Friday. I had been assigned to a case in the Life Sciences Industry. One of the world´s largest pharmaceuticals was struggling to contain labor costs in its Emerging Markets operations and had hired our firm to find a way to drive productivity while rationalizing headcount. The first step was to collect data on the current state of their operations in South America, so the team was flying out to Ecuador the following Sunday. My work stream: figure out a way to redesign their finance operations across 6 markets to save at least $5.0M. I have a background in Economics and my previous work experience had been in financial services in Central America, yet I found myself in a country that I had never been to before, with people that I barely knew, in an industry that I had no experience in, armed with only a 50-page PowerPoint deck and my laptop. How did I start? By asking questions.
I was expected to be “client-ready” from day one, but by this my manager did not expect me to pull off an all-nighter to pretend to become a point expert by picking up a few buzz words related to business model transformation in the Ecuadorian pharma industry. By being “client ready” my manager expected me to fully understand what the client´s objectives were and what their problem was to identify which experts were best to leverage. This is what I would call the 80/20 rule of consulting: 80% of your time will be asking others questions while 20% of your time you will be answering your client´s questions.
As my career advanced I found myself doing less number crunching and more big-picture development. I learned that what separates a consultant from a senior consultant is understanding that companies are not esoteric beings represented through fixed assets or dollar amounts on a 10K, but rather individuals led by other individuals. Consulting closes the information gap during decision making by using all available resources and expertise to craft a solution for the client. Consulting is about understanding the stakeholder´s needs, working collaboratively to generate buy-in, showing genuine interest in their long-term success, understanding decision implications, and prioritizing impact. Oddly enough, 4 of the 5 of these are related to people, not databases, and none of them are defined by your previous knowledge or expertise.
In consulting you will become good at something and then the firm will take it away. Consulting is not about following a recipe for “business success”, but rather about providing guidance in an ocean of data points. My advice to future post-MBA consultants is to scrutinize the leadership development courses that your target MBA program offers; effective questioning and leading through ambiguity are two required skills that are easily overlooked by candidates and that summarize the reason why I choose UNC Kenan-Flagler. I was a consultant and want to go back to consulting because of the endless opportunity to learn everything that I do not know from those who do; I want to go back because it is the only industry in which it´s okay not to know.