Your first year in consulting
You’ve worked so hard to land your dream management consulting job, and now you walk into the office on your first day. Likely you’re excited, eager to learn, and honestly a little nervous. When I walked into Bain & Co. for my first day as a full-time employee, I was no different. I wanted to stand out in my first year and set myself up for success in this job; thankfully I received valuable advice to do so from my business mentors. I’ve detailed their tips below, and hopefully they are as helpful for you as they were for me.
1. Build your reputation within your firm early
I’ve often been told that the first impression you make with someone will stick to you forever, and it is no different in consulting. If you work your heart out for your first six months on the job, keep a positive attitude, and ask for the tough assignments, you will gain a lot of fans in the company. Then, when a client pops up that sounds incredibly interesting or the best manager in the office needs another member on his or her team, you have a lot more leverage to ask for your preferences. Or say a family situation arises and you’d like to work remotely two Fridays a month so you can be closer to them—you’re much more likely to get to do so if people know you are a very reliable worker. The opposite is true too—if you choose to “take it easy” your first few months, using the excuse that you’re new and can’t be held to too high of a standard, you will greatly limit your future opportunities. Managers won’t want you on their teams, and you’ll get stuck on the least desirable clients, likely working worse hours and having less flexibility than the harder-working members of your class. It’s an easy problem to avoid—just view your first six months as another interview process that can set you up to have a much more enjoyable experience.
2. Ask lots of questions
Just because you are working hard does not mean you have all the answers. In fact, as a new consultant, you will have very, very few of the answers. No one expects you to be an industry expert, a master of Excel modeling, or a PowerPoint guru on your first day. What they do expect, though, is that you cultivate an active intellectual curiosity. When you do not fully understand a client situation or recent assignment, ask questions. Not only will you learn quickly and emerge better-equipped to do your job well, but you will also show your team that you care about the work and strive to do your best. The vast majority of managers or supervisors would greatly prefer you to ask for clarification than to waste hours of time stumped on a problem (or, even worse, heading down the wrong path). The same goes for client interactions as well. Now, client etiquette will greatly vary by client (and you should ask your team for guidance in this area when you are new), but generally asking for clarification is a good idea. There are ways to ask questions that show you are well-educated, willing to learn, and wanting to help, that will allow clients to open up even more.
3. Learn from your mistakes
Face the reality that you will make mistakes as a new consultant, and choose to grow from them. No one expects you to get everything right the first time on the job (if you can figure out a way to do this, please let me know how you did it). What they do expect, however, is that you won’t make the same mistake twice. Early on in my first year, I was asked to model the operations of a client’s various warehouses. I was fairly new to Excel and wrote a formula slightly incorrectly, and my model produced some crazy results. I’d checked everything a hundred times, so I was proud to show my manager all the optimization opportunities I’d found. Thankfully, his gut sense told him something was off, and we poured through my model until we found the violating formula. My heart sank, as I was sure I’d never be given any real responsibility again; however, my manager wasn’t mad at all. He used the opportunity to both teach me the correct Excel formula, and show me a few more “tricks” for sense-checking answers. Of course, I never messed up that formula again, and I used the other tips in the future to help me identify mistakes early on.
4. Work the staffing back channels
Each firm handles staffing slightly differently, but in general, where you get staffed is the product of a complex, intertwined system. Bain utilizes “staffing managers” who are responsible for putting together ideal teams on various clients. They do a great job taking into account personal preferences, skill sets, professional development opportunities, past experiences, and a number of other factors when forming new teams. I soon learned that while keeping in contact with my staffing manager throughout the staffing process was valuable, it also was important to work the other channels. For example, if I knew I really wanted to work for a particular manager, I’d set up a Friday coffee chat with her or him shortly before their case staffed up. I’d ask if they would have a role for someone at my level, ask what that role would look like, explain to them why I thought I could both gain and contribute a lot to that role, etc. Then, when the staffing manager would check if the new team manager would want me on their team, it often worked out in my favor. While working all channels will increase the likelihood of getting staffed where you want, keep in mind that you won’t always get exactly what you want. When this happens, use it as an opportunity to continue building your good reputation by working hard through your disappointment. Chances are, this will boost your odds of getting the next case you want even more.
5. Have fun
While it is so important to be a dependable, hard-working member of your team, it is important to remember to have fun as well. As one of the younger members of your team, your teammates will likely be looking to you to lighten the mood on the more difficult days. I found that I could only create a fun environment for my team if I myself chose to be happy and positive. If you’re having a stressful day, take a few minutes to reflect on how cool your job is, and how lucky you are to have it. Then, make a point to help your teammates feel the same way. Specific methods will depend on the personalities of your teammates, but I guarantee that they will appreciate your positivity. I’ve been on teams that pass around hilarious YouTube videos, hold push-up contests, take group Sporcle breaks (if you haven’t heard of Sporcle, look it up), or blast a motivating theme song in the team room. Find what works for your team, and take it upon yourself to be the “fun czar.”
Setting yourself up for a successful tenure at your firm happens much during your first year; hopefully you find these tips as helpful as I did. Always remember to keep a positive attitude and intentionally focus your work ethic and intellectual curiosity on doing the job to the best of your ability, and chances are high that you will perform well.
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