Consulting advice: enjoy the small things

Be grateful.  There is a lot of research that shows that when you are grateful, you are happier.  I firmly believe this, and it applies to everyone, not just consultants.

Small things.  

  • Current project has a nice conference room.  Nice and sunny, private, air-conditioned well, easy access to key clients – but far enough to get our work done.
  • Current project is driving distance.  It still requires hotels, but leaving the house at 9am is WAY better than leaving the house at 4:30am to catch a 6:45am flight.
  • Working on Friday afternoon on my colleague’s patio.  Blue blue sky, red maple.
  • Newer consultants getting better, slowly.
  • Friend’s hard-drive crashes, but all the data was backed up
  • Shrimp and grits at the client’s cafeteria.
  • Boss reviews .ppt needed for next day, and it is 90% correct, first time around.
  • You have friends at work you can laugh with, even though projects are off-the-rails busy.  Stop mid conversation to ask, “besides work, how’s everything else?”
  • Ordering Dominos to hotel room at 12:15am.  College style.

Big things.  

  • Got a wager with a work colleague to exercise.  Every marginal day the other person does not exercise is $5.  Good to have friends who motivate you.
  • My wife said she was proud of me the other day.  Big, big props.
  • High-drama people who are not on your project.
  • Client wants you to stick around longer, add-on work.
  • My boss continues to trust me with more work (uh, wait a minute). . . .

Red Leaves

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Consulting advice: Get smart quickly

I conducted 5 interviews for consultants yesterday.  1 was solid, 4 were weak. While there is no strict formula for good management consultants, there are a few prerequisite things that we test for in case interviews:

  • Logical structuring – asking good questions? building a business narrative?
  • Communications - good listener?  articulate? personable and persuasive?
  • Energy level – are they a bore?  could they handle a 7:30am client meeting?
  • Curiosity - are they picking up on cues?  are they enjoying the case?  learning?

Management consulting is for learnersManagement consulting is a unique profession where is it okay to not know the answer at the beginning of the project.  Not all projects are unique and strategic, but there is always something to learn – whether it has to do with the client’s industry, team management or your own leadership style.  If you are not learning, you are dying as a professional consultant.

Read.  There is no other way to get around this.  Take an interest in your client and industry, even if temporarily during the project.  If they have an earnings announcement, you should be the first one on your project to know.  Search for podcasts on the topic. Trust me, there are obscure podcasts on every imaginable topic from cars, chemicals, cardiology, critical conversations, and the capital asset pricing model.

Get smart quickly.  As advice to all consultants, it’s good to get smart on the topic before the project starts.  Do the industry research.  Look for best practices.  Interview subject matter experts.  Dig into previous project deliverables.  Read the Economist.

Depending on the partner on the project, it is permissible to be a little “green” on the subject for the first week or two of the project.  It’s expected and a known fact that they are staffing you in stretch roles; after all, if we weren’t doing new things, we are the type of people to be bored.  Naturally, you should not embarrass the team in front of the client by asking stupid questions, but there is temporary grace for a few days, or week.

Spend money on books.  I typically spend about $200 a year on books related to client work.  This is a personal expense as the client should not pay for me getting smart on their business.  On one project I was learning the ins-outs of how companies hire outside counsel legal firms, and bought some of the books you see below. The only time that these books left my home, or hotel room, I had them wrapped in brown paper, as if I were a frugal student who was planning to re-sell my books back to the bookstore.

Getting Smart

Advice to newbie consultants.  I love teaching consulting and some of the advice to analysts and consultants this year related to content expertise looks like this:

  • Think deeply about the project.  What are the core questions?
  • Use Google to answer stupid questions.  Don’t waste the partner or client’s time.
  • Be resourceful.  Proactively reach out to your network to get smart on the topic
  • Read about the topic: corporate executive board, analyst reports, everything
  • Use the data to drive hypotheses.  What is the data saying?
  • Find similar projects, presentations, pdf online.  Slideshare.  search: pdf
  • Write your findings down.  Re-sort them into buckets and make it MECE.
  • Use finviz to survey the industry’s financial ratios

What other advice do you have for consultants to get smart quickly?

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Consulting commitment: 143am

You cannot be a successful consultant, lawyer, or professional without a sense of commitment.  Commitment to the client, commitment to your team, commitment to yourself.  It’s driven by a sometimes not-so-healthy fear of failure.  In the end, it motivates you and compels to you do better work.  It’s 1:43am.  I am having wine while concurrently working on MS Excel, MS Word, Email, and MS PowerPoint.   Am I superman?  Nope, just a consultant with a deadline.



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Consulting advice: Help your clients save face

Saving face.  This is a simple concept that is critical for consultants and sales people to understand.  Never put your client in a situation where you are directly and publicly disagreeing with them.  Never box them into a corner where they might be ashamed of the situation.  Never embarrass them.  It’s a very Asian business culture concept of harmony, and it is super-applicable to consultants.  Some of the most deadly phrases:

  • I think you are wrong . . .
  • Let’s agree to disagree. . .
  • Well, I have a different opinion. . .
  • Well, if that is what you think. . .

All consultants know that words are powerful and frame a discussion with the client.  A few good phrases that I have found useful during my career in consulting:

  • In my experience. . .
  • Maybe it is just me, but. .
  • Yes, I agree, AND. . .
  • Makes sense, do you think that its possible that. .  

In my experience. . . this is a (not so) subtle way to tell your client that you have done this kind of work before.  It allows you to lead into a recommendation that you are advocating for.  It might be something that worked at a previous client.  Don’t be afraid to use an anti-example. . . In my experience, ABC does not work because. . .   

Maybe it is just me, but . . . this puts the burden of being wrong on the consultant, and points out that the sample size is small.  It is just 1 person’s opinion.

Yes, I agree AND. . .  this is a little verbal judo.  Don’t want this to seem disingenuous, but there probably bits and parts of what the client is saying that you DO agree with.  Build on those.  Think incremental improvement.  Rarely is life black & white.  Nudge.

Do you think it is also possible that. . . ask the client to agree to a small part of your argument first.  Often times, clients who have been in the same company for 30+ years have hard-core biases on what works and what does not.  Part of our job is just to open the curtains and let some light in, just the possibility of different outcomes.


  • Win-win. Build on the analysis that your client has already done
  • Emphasize the headwinds:  Make it clear that the current problems have many factors (of which some / many) are out of the client’s control
  • Gain trust early. The sooner that you gain the client’s trust and become an adviser, the sooner you can push-back appropriately.
  • Ask for feedback too.  Ask the client what areas you can improve and get better.  They should not be the only ones who improve.
  • Let your clients present.  Don’t take credit.  Let your clients present the results to their boss. Make them the heroes.


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Thursdays are get-away days

Getaway day.  My friends and I joke that Thursdays are get-away days.  You have been at the client for 4 days, slept in a hotel room for 3 nights.  Too much restaurant food, and it’s time to go home and get your life in order on Friday.

On Thursday many management consultants are traveling.  Those who are not traveling by plane are either working in New York – financial services consultants seem to travel less – or are on the beach waiting to get staffed.  As glamorous as business travel might seem to the young or naive, it’s not.

Last row, window.  A few weeks ago, I finished up at the client site early and caught a flight home from LaGuardia.  Good news.  I was “standby” and got the last seat on the plane.  Good news, right?  Little did I know that “last seat” was literally the last seat on the plane.  Last row, window.  My back to the bathroom.  Not romantic.

Travel Day

Not for everyone.  I guess that travel is one of the main reasons that people quit consulting.  After all, it is tough to be good to your family when you are gone most of the time.  Some life-time consultants make it work – and it requires real understanding and cooperation with your spouse.  Been married 14 years, and it is a tag-team sport. Thanks SK.

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A process flow to answer the question: Am I am a management consultant?


Am I a management consultant

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Good graphs, look at the Economist blog

I have subscribed to the Economist for 20+ years.  Solid reporting.  Libertarian angle, but with a strong heart.  Another benefit are the excellent graphs.

Consultants love graphs.  Executives are visual people, and graphs can make an enormous impact without using too many words.  The following graphs are all from the Economist blog called graphic detail.  Click on the links to get to the stories, but these graphics are so good that you will get the point immediately.

Safe Skies: Despite a recent tragedy, air flights are getting safer here

Economist - safer skies

Less is Moore: A golden rule of microchips appears to be coming to an end here

Economist - Moore Law

Obama and Aliens: The greatest mass deportation in American history here

Economist - Deportation

Black Gold: A century of jittery oil production and prices here

Economist - Black Gold

Surgery Required: Health care in America is ludicrously expensive here

Economist - Hospital costs

Shares in Emerging Markets: Scarce here

Economist - Market Capitalization

Empire building: The expansion of lego here

Economist - Lego













Key Takeaways: Some things I found most compelling about these graphs:

  • Authoritative use of large data sets (30 years, 100+ years)
  • Strong visual to see two trends heading in opposite directions
  • Shows inflection points in the trends
  • Clear attribution of the reference source (e.g., Department of Homeland Security)
  • Obvious point; (e.g., US healthcare is 300%+ the cost of other countries)
  • Use of maps and graphics when appropriate (e.g., Lego)

Train your eye.  Look through business magazines, research papers, and presentations to look for good graphs, tables, and charts.  All consultants need to know what good looks like.  One of the tips from McKinsey Way is to draw 1 graph a day. That is truly good advice, as this helps you to tell visual stories.  I just made my 1 slide tonight in the hotel room – will use with the client CxO tomorrow.

Related Posts: 2nd Year

WordPress reminded me today that it was my blogiversary.  Two full years blogging. When I told my wife, she said we should celebrate.  Thanks to Associatesmind for encouraging me to start this because it has been one of the most fun and meaningful things I have done over the last 2 years.

What are the numbers? Like any consultant with data, we have to put them on charts. In March of 2012, my first full month of blogging I had 139 views.  Too funny.  Gotta start somewhere, right?  Last month it was close to 12,000.

The total number of views is a brutish way to look at numbers.  First, it assumes that total reach is the goal of the blog (not really), and says nothing about the quality of the content or the productivity of writing.

Monthly Views

Consultants look at productivity.  A better way to look at the numbers might be in the number of views vs. the total number of posts.  Think about it.  Of course there are more views last month (with 100+ posts) vs. the first month when I only had 1 post.

When you take the total number of views and divide them by the cumulative number of posts available to read, it looks like this.  Thankfully, the trend line is going up.  This says that in the early days there were 40 views monthly for the average post, while now it is close to 80 views monthly for each post.  80 views x 140+ posts = 11,000+ views.  If I had a nickel for every view. . . heh heh

Views per Post

Big fan of pareto charts.   Consultants often use the 80/20 rule to describe the non-linear nature of things.  This is true of as well.

Here I ranked the posts by popularity on the bottom.  The most popular post is on consulting salary (why so greedy?) on the left and drives 22% of the unique web pages visits.  The 2nd most popular post is on the pyramid principle, which is adds some more percentage of the total views.  When I start to stack the cumulative percentage of traffic these drive to the site, it looks like this arc.  The red dot shows that the top 40 blog posts drive 80% of the traffic to blog posts.

Cumulative Total of Views

This is a crazy common type of chart consultants use.  You need to learn how to create this type of graph (or better) quickly.  (caveat.  The n=143 unique posts, even though some search lands on the home page, and the consulting skills, tools, and tips page too)

The World Is Flat.   I have probably traveled to 14-15 countries, but the blog has reached lots of people in far off places.  No surprise the most views are from the US, India, and the UK – where English is prevalent.  Take all these 2 year totals with a grain of salt since 10% of all views is spam.

Top Countries by View Count 2 Year

There are places where is not so popular.  Here are the countries where there was only 1-2 views ever.  Some have small population, some lack internet, and some have better taste for blogs.

Least Page Views by Count

Content changes.  The blog has changed a bit.  In the first year, I wrote about a lot of different things – ranging from the Olympics to the Economist.  A summary 1st year topics is shown here.   In the second year, I wrote more about the craft of consulting: the type of things I try to teach younger analysts, consultants and recent MBAs.   A word cloud of the 35,000 words from year 2 looks like this.  (Caveat: took out the words: consulting and people because they were so common and skewed the graphic).  Note to self: use those words less next year.

The simple sentence that I put together from the most common words looks like this:

Projects and clients have different problems, but take the time to do good work. 

Consultantsmind year 2

Highly recommend blogging.  Consultants are story-tellers.  Blogging is a public / private way to practice teaching, coaching, telling stories.  Have learned a lot over the last year, and it has really helped to distill my thinking.  Teaching is my end-goal, and this is a good stepping stone for me.  Thanks for reading.

Consultant, what’s your leverage model?

Leverage is how consulting firms make money.  As I discussed in a previous post, professional services firms – lawyers, accountants, marketers, consultants – are built on organizational pyramid structures.  There are fewer partners than analysts, no surprise. The ratio of finders, minders, and grinders (senior, middle, junior resources) affects the types of projects they can handle and also their profitability.

Tall pyramids. Low leverage. In the consulting context, a tall pyramid is more likely the project staffing you need for a strategy or disruptive innovation project where the outcome is more ambiguous and open-ended.  David Maister lovingly calls these “Brains projects” because they require the top minds of the firm who are typically the most expensive resources.  In a legal context, I imagine patent strategy or high-stakes litigation would also be a “Brains project” where senior partners bill a lot of time to the client.

I find the that tall pyramid (low leverage) projects are usually more strategic, more intense, and shorter in duration.  As a consultant, you learn an incredible amount about the subject matter and work closely with the partners and the rain makers.  There is typically limited implementation.  It is more work for the brain, less for the hands.

Flat pyramids.  High Leverage.  Maister calls these “Procedural projects” because they are very process-oriented.  It is fairly clear what steps need to be taken, and junior resources can effectively do the work, if given good guidance.  The average billing rates to clients will be lower, but these projects will also be more profitable because there is more leverage.  These projects have a lot of on-the-job learning for analysts and consultants. This is where true apprenticeship happens.  It’s a safe place to learn.  The group dinners are fun, and there is a strong sense of team camaraderie.

One type is not better than the other.  Over my career so far, I have worked on a mix of projects, both high and low leverage.  Clients need both types of projects, depending on the scope, and the budget.  Two examples from the same year, 2008:

  • Low leverage strategy project: 1 partner: 1 manager: 1 consultant
  • High leverage supply chain project: 1 partner: 4 managers: 15 consultants

In the example below, the hypothetical firm has low leverage.  Lots of partners and senior managers in relation to consultants and analysis.  Very tall pyramid, so they can really only profitably take on strategic, high-paying work.  If this firm were to win a larger project that required lots of junior resources, they either need to hire / contract newbies, or unfortunately, turn down the work.  In consulting, you are either OVER-staff or UNDER-staffed.  Hard to find the perfect middle in headcount or experience level.

Too many senior resources

For the Big 4 (where I came from), it’s very common for consulting firms to offer the client a low-leverage (tall pyramid) staffing structure during an assessment.  The client gets senior resources during the assessment.  Time is short, and the teams work into the nights.  Great people, great work, great price.

Once the assessment is completed, and a road map for improvements has been created, the team usually evolves into a higher-leverage model with more consultants / senior consultants to implement the recommendations.  A lot of the mental heavy lifting has been done – now it is a question of implementing the plan.

Incentives matter.  Consulting firms are a bit notorious for the “up-or-out” methodology of forcing out non-performers and rewarding coveted promotions to only a portion of their staff.   Unsurprisingly, the shape of the firm’s pyramid can change over time, depending on the type of work the partners sell, promotion guidelines, and retention. Once again David Maister is the gold-standard when it comes to firm economics, and he points out in his book Managing a Professional Services Firm:

“The mix of each that the firm requires (i.e., its ratio of senior to junior professionals) is primarily determined by the mix of client work, and in turn crucially determines the career paths the firm can offer.”    

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Six Sigma: Use the tools, don’t aim for perfection

Six Sigma.  You will hear about this a lot in operations consulting. It is the idea that a process is very consistent and repeatable.  Six sigma means there are only 3.4 defects per 1 million units.  Essentially, it is almost perfect.  Motorola coined the term in the 1980s and GE made it famous.

Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE, took six sigma to a different level.  Just look at these 8,000+ six sigma related GE web pages and press releases here.  If GE makes an engine, they want it just like the one before it.  They do this by continually whittling down the things that create different outcomes until it is “six sigma” reliable.  With Six Sigma, the consultant should constantly think about reducing variability. Same. Same. Same.

Six Sigma

Variability is bad (most of the time).  The idea that processes should be consistent is not a radical or untrue notion.  If you know that something works, you should repeat it.   After all, why spend time and energy re-inventing the wheel?  Best practices are built on the idea that there are time-tested, and successful, processes that can replicated with little controversy or alteration.  This is why enterprise resource planning (ERP) exploded in the 1990′s in advance of the Y2K systems upgrades.  Companies bought into the idea that they could standardize their most routine operational and financial processes inline with what SAP, Oracle had designed for hundreds of other companies and competitors.

Checklist Manifesto

Standardization works.  One of the most famous examples of this in recently history is the adoption of the pre-flight checklists in aviation, and surgical checklists in hospitals.  Historically, pilots and surgeons were alike in that they felt like rulers of their kingdom. In a New York Times article (2006) here, a University of Texas professor was commenting on a physician’s initial resistance to standard processes, “I had one surgeon tell me that checklists are for the lame and weak.”  This attitude is changing.  Atul Guwande wrote the Checklist Manifesto about how something as simple as a checklist was being used to save patient lives at John Hopkins, one of the most premiere hospitals in the world.

At a high-level it completely makes sense to standardize the boring, low value-added parts of your business.  If it is not something that actually makes you better than your competitor, why spend any time or money on it.  Generally speaking, process variability is bad.  It causes mistakes, rework, and client frustration. All waste.  TIMWOOD.

Does six sigma thinking apply to consultants?  Yes.  Do you have boring, low-value added parts of your business that need to be standardized?  If yes, then this applies to you too:  Lawyers, accountants, digital marketers. . . everyone.  By squeezing out the variability (read “craziness”) out of the process, you will be more efficient.  

Action: Brainstorm through the activities that are a part of your work day which are better when done exactly the same way every time.  Those are the things that you want to apply some angry six-sigma vigilance to.

Why are we doing that stupid thing 5 different ways?

This could be a list of simple, mundane things which waste time and lead to poor quality:

  • Different filing nomenclature, so your associates are scrambling to find things
  • Poor version control, so you don’t know what is most current version
  • Lack of templates to reinforce routine work
  • Unclear instructions to new hires of company branding and formats 
  • Inconsistent expense tracking which leads to budgeting issues
  • Irregular interview process leading to staff with inadequate skills

Limitations of six sigma.  For all the hype and uses of six sigma, it has its detractors. There are several real criticisms of six sigma including:

  • Analysis paralysis. If done poorly, or not scoped correctly, it encourages over-analysis using a host of tools to document how bad things are.  Regression models, and other statistical tools that only the geekiest of MBAs really enjoy.
  • Steady-state assumptions.  Six sigma tries to control a process that it assumes is steady.  As most disruptive thinkers will agree: we live in a non-linear world where average does not mean a lot.  Things are usually growing or shrinking.
  • Short-term focus. Six sigma is about reducing variance and getting a process under control.  Same. Same. Same.  In the competitive world we live in, “sameness” definitely provides dependability, but it is discourages breakthroughs.
  • Process dogma.  Andy Stanley – a pastor, and super leadership speaker – says in his podcast that an organization’s purpose should not change, but processes should always change.  When processes don’t change to adapt to the environment, that is bureaucracy.  Purpose should not change, processes should.

In professional services, few things are six sigma reliable.  Maybe the pressure in an oil pipeline, or the number of stitches in a pair of Gap jeans, but not professional services. We are not robots – nor should we be.  Our clients pay us to solve problems that are not easily solved by technology, outsourcing, or inaction.  

As a lawyer, if you are competing with Legalzoom, you are in trouble.  As a consultant, if you are putting together mindless powerpoint, you are in trouble: people on Fiverr will do it for only $5. We are paid to solve complex problems, not merely control a process. Reduce the variability in the boring parts of your work to allow more time, freedom, and margin to innovate and deliver real value to your clients.

All consultants use Lean and Six Sigma tools.  Bain notes that in a recent survey here that 3/4 of Six Sigma projects were unable to reach their savings targets.  By linking Lean with Six Sigma, consulting firms try to have the best of both worlds, focusing on value through simplification (Lean) and focusing on quality through repeatability (six sigma).  The real questions is whether we – as professionals serving customers – have the same diligence with our own proposal creation, and client delivery as we push our clients to take.  In other words, are we eating our own lean six sigma dog food?  Do we practice the lean six sigma that we preach to clients?