I thought I had it all figured out… until I didn’t.
Graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Electrical Engineering was an ultimate labor of love—an accomplishment that I thought greatly prepared me for a career in management consulting. But that was Plan B. At the time, Plan A was becoming a professional Electrical Engineer.
Getting the diploma was one thing—settling on a career as an Electrical Engineer was totally different. I had worked multiple summers as an engineering intern; learning the ropes, being groomed into a professional engineer. But I also had explored a career in management consulting as a “backup plan.” Very quickly the “backup plan” became not only a viable option but an attractive one.
So, on the eve of getting my diploma, with two job offers in tow, and my dream staring me in the face, I had a difficult decision to make. I turned down that lucrative job offer as a promising professional Electrical Engineer—all for the “bright lights and big cities” that was a career in management consulting. Consulting was the best of both worlds for me. The assurance that I would still use the core engineering skills I spent years developing; math, science, troubleshooting, analytical thinking. But equally as important to me was the opportunity to build business acumen, develop soft skills, and work on teams. With Consulting I satisfied my appetite to have a variety of roles and responsibilities, and the chance for early leadership opportunities.
Equipped with my school pedigree, summer intern experience, and personality, I thought I was destined for the fast track in the management consulting world. Manager in two years. Senior Manager in five years. Partner in seven years. Piece of cake, right? At least that’s how the movie played out in my head.
But on my first day as a “Big Four” management consultant, reality set in. Everyone in my start group had come from prestigious universities with tons of academic honors. Most of them had completed the most sought-after summer internships. Some of them were already entrepreneurs! Everyone was top notch. My expectations were sent into a tailspin like the climactic reveal of an unexpected villain in a mystery movie… dun dun dun!
If you’re a college student considering a career in management consulting, I don’t say this to scare you. In my more than 21 years of experience as a management consultant, there have been countless highlight reel moments—and I’ve been an active participant in many of those.
However, there have been so many more grind-it-out, push-through moments. These moments have truly woven the tapestries of my personal character and professional career. By sharing my lessons learned, I hope to give you some clarity on what a career in management consulting entails.
So, if you want to make your dream of becoming a consultant a reality, here are some things you should know:
Play in the Pocket
For a musician, “playing in the pocket” is that euphoric moment when the band is locked into an infectious groove. The music settles into a rhythm that ebbs and flows, rises and falls with continuity—each player performing at their highest level, making it look easy. That’s “the pocket.”
Being a consultant doesn’t mean you have to be the smartest person in the room with all the answers, or the most talented social scientist that can read a room in seconds… even though the job can sometimes call for you to be a semblance of those things.
I have found that my most successful time as a consultant has been when I embraced the challenge of mastering my craft, while finding my sweet spot on the team. I found “the pocket.” I connected with colleagues and selflessly gave for the good of the team. I connected with clients and led with empathy instead of managing with apathy. I taught other team members my expertise, tips, and tricks. I figured out early on that by elevating the entire team I didn’t lose out. The pocket just got deeper.
Thermostat vs. Thermometer
What’s the difference between the two? A thermometer just measures and reflects the temperature. A thermostat senses the temperature and then it performs an action to regulate and control the temperature to get to a desired state.
Successful management consultants are thermostats, not thermometers—they add value by helping clients achieve something they could not achieve of their own will. Companies are typically keenly aware when they are in trouble or when they are lagging the innovation curve. What they struggle with, and where they need our help, is diagnosing the root cause or the true requirements and taking actions to help achieve the desired state. Clients don’t just want to hear about the problem, the shortcoming, or even the idea. They want to hear about the path to success, and they want to know you can help take them there. Learning this lesson was the inflection point for me and changed the trajectory of my career. Clients needed thermostats!
Successful consultants quickly learn that who they are is more important than what they are. Their pedigree may have gotten them the interview, and maybe even the job; their well-polished appearance may present an illusion that they have it all together; they may have learned all the right buzz words and catch phrases—but the demands of consulting will peel away all those outward facades and expose the true essence of what’s inside. In the fast-paced, ever-changing world of consulting and client projects, we control very little. No matter how well thought out our project plans are, the only thing we actually control is our mindset and how we choose to respond to challenges.
Are you an effective listening team player, a gritty problem solver, a confident self-starter, a motivated and positive person? How do you deal with pressure? Expectations? Competing priorities? Success? Failure? If you have a grasp on the answers to these questions and are ready to put those beliefs to the test, management consulting might be the right career for you.
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