Managers are the glue, be greedy for work

I gave this advice to a newbie manager this week.  The manager kept acting like an individual contributor, as if that was enough to succeed.  He kept saying, “well, I do this” and “I do that”.  Wrong point of view.  No sense of managerial duties.

Managers are the glue.  Good managers give the consulting firm leverage and profitability because they know how to run teams.  They are able to take assignments, and efficiently farm them the work out to people lower in the pyramid. . . people with less experience, less opportunity cost (read: lower wages) who can responsibly get the work done.  Managers work too, but more importantly, they run the factory.

Yes, it is an over-simplification, but not by much.  The mantra of “finders, minders, grinders” model is largely true.  If consulting is a pyramid (it is. . .) then we have roles:

  • Partners/principals look for work, help scope the projects
  • Senior managers/managers develop and execute plans, keep clients happy
  • Senior consultants/consultants, frankly, do a lot of the analytics and work

Become the “go-to” person.  As a manager looking to rise in the ranks, your mission is to become a “go-to” person when partners/principals are looking to get proposals finished, and projects delivered.  You know how to get smart on a topic.  Every time you have a call with a partner, you take great notes, you build on their assumptions and thoughts.  You have impactful conversations and convert partner thoughts into proposal and PowerPoint decks.  In short, you are a pleasure to work with.

Develop a brand.  Everything is branding.  With partners, you are the manager who can get proposals done well and early.  With your peers, you are someone always willing to help out, give fair feedback, and take time out of your day to listen/commiserate.  With consultants and analysts, you help train them on hard skills (e.g., excel, powerpoint, research), but also give good career and life advice.  With HR, you are the one who can do case interviews and write mid-year evaluations on time.

Be greedy for work.  In my simple mind, upward career progression is related to taking on more work.  You make your boss’ life easier, and you continually look for more work that is higher impact (read: more profits for the firm).  This is no easy task since you are probably already working 60-70 hours a week.  Two things goals and two different approaches:

1. More difficult work. You start migrating to more difficult and ambiguous work. Instead of focusing on an inputs (e.g., creating a presentation, doing research), you are focused on outputs (e.g., sales meetings, recruitment, sales and profits).  This is some combination of your existing experiences, your network, the market, your mentors, and dumb luck.  You need to read a lot, listen to podcasts.  Constantly get smarter.

2. More work. You volunteer to help on more proposals.  You get leverage through your network of analysts and consultants who are willing to work weekends for you.  You know how to recycle existing content from proposals and presentations.  You know how to consulting with hypotheses – savings your teams hundreds of hours of consulting.

More work

As the funny expression goes, “if you want something done, give it to someone who is busy.”  Be the busy person who can take on more work, more difficult work.  Increase your capacity to deliver profits to the firm.  Be authentic and a great consultant.

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Consulting advice: Be, do, say

Be. Do. Say. I heard this for the first time 3 weeks ago.  It resonated. In the overly-marketed world we live in, there is incessant advertising noise and not a lot of authenticity.  Through the clutter, which brands and people can you really trust?

Companies and products all purport to have the solution.  They talk about unique selling propositions, value chains, core competencies and other MBA babble. Perhaps a more authentic and long-view question to ask is, “Who are you, who are you becoming?”

Be do say

Be.  Rather than talking a big game to prospects about what you can do for them (SAY), why not focus more on yourself?  Man in the mirror.  If you are so good that they cannot ignore you (plug for Cal Newport’s book), then you have a chance of making it.

The best marketing is always a great product.

Employee satisfaction = customer satisfaction. I remember reading that customer satisfaction starts with, and cannot ever exceed, employee satisfaction.  How will you delight customers, when your staff is unhappy?  Grumpy staff = grumpier customers.

Dave Ramsey, financial radio coach and entrepreneur advocate, says that it’s important to have a team, not employees.  “Employees come in late, leave early, and steal stuff while they’re here.” (laugh, but true).  Instead, you want “a talented team with members who are dedicated to a common vision. . . He’s learned that what’s on a person’s resume isn’t always as important as what’s in their heart.”

This is doubly true in consulting since our product is our people.  Are our teams smart, aware, fun, and eager to do great work?  Are we giving our people the direction, tools, feedback, support, and honesty for them to continually get better?

As Gandhi implied, BE the change:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”  - Gandhi

What is the master idea?  Joey Reiman, a branding consultant, talks alot about the “master idea” that motivates, inspires and holds organizations together.  It is a deep-seated need to have purpose.  It is almost Joseph Campbell in proportion.

Joey talks about BE.DO.SAY here and reiterates the fact that companies spend $500 Billion a year on marketing and advertising . . . and in reality talk is cheap.  A lot of this money should better be spent on BEING better and DOING better.  Not just talk.

Counterpoint:  For consultants to innovate – bring new things to market and our clients – we need to have a tolerance for failure.  It is impractical and unprofitable to refine our offerings to the point of academic obsolescence.  Analysis paralysis, right?

Key question: how to judge when we are focusing on BEING and DOING better, and when are we just wasting time with R&D and over-thinking?  As Muhammad Ali said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

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Stop whining, consultants focus on options, not problems

I listened to a lot of whining this week,  It was partly sad, partly frustrating.  New consultants – unaware of what we really do – have a list of reasons why it is hard:

  • I can’t get the data, so that’s why I am behind
  • I sent an email; don’t know why they won’t answer
  • ABC told me to do that, I was just following instructions
  • There’s so much work to do

Stop whining

Consultants talk about options, not problems.  We solve business problems.  That is what we do.  Business problems are messy, annoying, unclear, and painful.  That is why they pay us well to do this work.  If it were easy, everyone would do it.

As mature consultants, if we find ourselves complaining about – instead of solving – problems, we need to take a time out. . . leave the room, and come back in.  If you have issues with the project, put it into buckets:

Constraints.  Is this something that I cannot change at all?  Is it a sunk cost?

Assumptions.  Am I boxing myself into a choice, that is a false choice?  Are there other creative solutions to think through.  Am I thinking too narrowly about the problem?

Variables.  What else can I do to affect the outcome?  Work harder?  Talk to the client?  Adjust the scope?  Work on something else in the mean time?  Ask for advice?  Get extra resources?

Grow up.  Don’t fold your arms, and stick out your lower lip.  Grow up.  Structure the problem, look the scary tiger in the mouth, and get to work.  Good consulting is a simple formula: head, heart,and hands.  Think about the problem deeply, come up with some options, do the research, model through it.  Figure it out. Don’t whine.

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Consulting advice: Like your boss

There is significant evidence that shows that “liking your boss” is a huge source of work satisfaction.  Put another way, if you don’t like your boss, you will not be happy. Accenture says 31% of people leave their job because of their boss here.

Luckily, I like my boss.  He is super fair, trusting, easy to get along with, and most importantly, knows what he is doing.  Seriously, leaders need to lead, right?

Leader follower

Some things I have said to my boss. . .which tells me that I am in a safe environment, somewhere I can challenge myself and others, innovate, and grow:

  • I am not brilliant, but we just can’t be doing XYZ without losing face
  • He means well, has some strengths, but is not in the right role to succeed
  • Need to let you know that there is risk; was a part of a meeting that did not go well
  • I am not the right person.  Might make sense to have ABC do that, (s)he is better
  • Yes, we can make those changes, but probably not tonight.  Too late, and we don’t want to be experimenting before the proposal
  • Sorry to have to say this, but the raise / incentive did not show in the last paycheck
  • Don’t recommend that.  We have those 2 pages which tell enough of the story
  • I don’t know, but I will find out
  • Doesn’t it make sense that we ABC?
  • Sorry, it was a miss on my part

If you don’t have an authentic relationship with your boss.  First of all, that sucks. Second, I guess you have a few choices to make:

  • Do great work, try to develop a mentor relationship
  • Find the white spaces, and volunteer to do more
  • Make your boss look great
  • Be vulnerable, and try to connect on a deeper level
  • Find ways to be helpful, and show that you are loyal and committed
  • Learn what you can and move on
  • Wait until your boss leaves
  • Find new “roots” in the organization, laterally, or elsewhere

Consulting advice: if you agree, stop talking

We all like to talk.  This is not always good.  It is often good to stop talking. Don’t re-iterate what the person said.  Don’t overdo it on the paraphrase.  If you agree, nod your head.  Say “it makes sense”.  Say “Great”.  Stop talking.

Getting the last word.  There are people everywhere who talk too much. When you have a conversation with them, they will try and get the last word in.  When there is nothing more to say, they will paraphrase what your said.

  • I completely agree, blah, blah
  • My thoughts exactly,  blah blah
  • Sure, I think what you are saying is blah blah

Stop the blah, blah.  Those are all wasted words. Listening means not talking. Listening means letting them own parts of the conversation and letting thoughts flow.

Cutting people off when they are talking is a bad habit.  Something I am personally working on.  It stops the train of the other person’s thought, is disrespectful, and honestly pretty ineffective;  It takes more time to get each side’s point across.  Overly paraphrasing, and repeating back what someone just said is also a “lack of listening.”

We are agreeing violently.  This happens to me at least once a week.   I will stop the conversation / discussion / debate and say, “I think we are agreeing violently.” At which time, the other person usually pauses and thanks me for that reality check.

Agreeing violently

When the customer has bought, shut up.   From sales training, they teach you to shut-up once the customer has decided to buy.  More times than not, if the sales person keeps talking. . . they essentially will “un-sell” the product.

Caveat: Of course, paraphrase when needed.  When you really do want to clarify instructions, or make sure you heard things right, ask.  Definitely ask.

What you don’t want to do (and I see this all the time) is repeat back what the other person is saying so that you get the last word in, sound smart, own the conversation, or like to hear your own voice.    If you agree, stop talking.

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Peter Drucker said, “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer the meetings the better”

This is my calendar from a recent week. Granted some of these were client interviews, but needless to say, the real work and thinking was done between meetings, or at night at the hotel.  The time before and after the meeting were also “wasted” because I was either walking to, waiting for, or late for another meeting.

Week of Meetings and calls

Peter Drucker said it best, “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization.  The fewer meetings the better.”  I cannot agree with this statement enough.

Meetings are often a waste of time. There are often TOO many people invited, for TOO long of a time, covering TOO little content, with TOO little accountability.

It is a ripple effect.  One company discovered that a weekly executive meeting was consuming 300,000 hours of time annually because of the trickle down effect. 1 weekly meeting took up 7,000 hours (headcount x hours x weeks).  However, that forced 11 unit meetings (20,000 hours), forced  21 team meetings (63,000 hours) and forced 130 preparatory meetings (210,000 hours) in a chain reaction.  HBR article here.

Meetings are often disrespectful.  I have been invited to many meetings where the presenter is “holding court”, essentially walking through their agenda, and essentially holding the audience hostage.  Bad form, disrespectful, and a bit sad.

In my mind, the person calling the meeting should invest at least 10-20x the effort to accomplish the goals of the meeting ahead of time without calling the meeting.  Do the work ahead of time.  You have to earn the right to call a meeting.

If you want to get input on an idea, project, proposal, or initiative. . . do the research, put together a persuasive powerpoint, walk the halls and talk to the right people, send out an email to get feedback, get buy-in, and start doing the work.  Once it has momentum, get the right funding and resources in place and call the kick-off meeting.

Meetings are poorly run.  Some people are better than others, but some meetings have no agenda, no facilitation, no sense of on-time start, on-time end, or meeting minutes.  In consulting world, that is unacceptable.  Time = money.  As some of us like to quip, “That is an hour of my life that I will never get back.”

Meetings are indiscriminate.  We all get invited to meetings once in a while when we wonder. . . “why was I invited?”  I don’t know anything about that.

Frankly, if you are not contributing to the meeting (have a speaking or deciding role), you don’t need to be there.  You can get the meeting minutes, or run-down from someone afterwards.  Whenever I decide to NOT accept a meeting invite, and discover that the meeting was unproductive and blah, I consider it a huge win.

Meetings are band-aids.  Too often, meetings are the only way things get done within a company.  Without meetings, people don’t know what to do, how to do it, and are afraid to take action.  It creates limited forward progress, and yet, they are need because some progress is better than none.  It is often a manual solution to a systemic problem.  It does not solve the root cause of the problem.

Meetings reduce leverage. People get stacked on top of each other, observing, commenting, and group-thinking answers.  Have been in meetings where there is a VP, Director, Manager, and Analyst from the same department.  Hmm, not efficient.

Meetings are inevitable.  I am not so Pollyanna that I believe meetings can be abolished.  In fact, it is how most organizations function.  They use meetings to push things along, generate momentum, and gain consensus.

Ideally, organizations would have very few meetings because people would know the organization / department / personal mission, collaborate daily, know where to find information and resources, innovate, make mistakes, but organically course-correct within a culture of trust and growth.  Sadly, that is rare.

In the same HBR aricle here, research shows that 15% of company time is in meetings. A number that has increased every year since 2008.  In the consulting world where time is money, 15% of your time to meetings is probably unwise, and maybe, unacceptable.

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Sunk cost: Google cuts orkut

Sunk cost is a simple economic concept that we ignore.  The idea that “resources already spent cannot be recovered” seems simple.  You cannot “un-spend” money or time.  We intuitively know this and yet, we constantly don’t follow our own advice.

10 years ago, Google started Orkut, ostensibly the first social network before facebook.  According to wikipedia it was founded about 2 weeks before facebook. Hugely popular in Brazil and India, it was not long before the facebook juggernaut caught up.  Facebook right now boasts 1.2 billion (billion with a B) users.

orkut

As consultants, this is important for two reasons: 1) clients often have legacy organizational structures, IT systems, vendor relationships and other vestiges of the past that prevent them from moving forward  2) consultants need to know when to stop activities that are not helping them win.  In summary, we need to know when to let it go.

Don’t cry over split milk is a common expression you learn as a kid.  The past is the past.  Stop pouting, and move on.

Don’t put good money after bad.  Expert poker players and investment managers probably know this better than anyone.  Money invested (in the poker hand or stock) is money already spent.  It should not affect your next decision.

Last week, I heard someone say they would sell their house when they get the price they paid for it.  Silly.  Anchoring to the past.  The market does not care what you paid.

Don’t be afraid to quit something that is failing.  Sticking with something that you know is failing is, um, stupid.  Seth Godin talks about the power of quitting in his book, The Dip. A fascinating interview he did with Guy Kawasaki here.

[Guy] Question: How can a company quit a product and not give the incorrect signal that it’s quitting the market?
[Seth] Answer: Tactics change all the time. Losing organizations embrace tactics because they’re not flexible or brave enough to embrace strategy. Smart organizations are clear and loud and vivid about their strategies and the market forgives them—endorses them too—when they change their tactics on the path of getting there.

You should finish what you start.  This is usually good advice, but not always.   As consultants, we should use data to help us make good decisions.  Understand the trade offs, and the opportunity costs.  See the potential risks and pitfalls. Anticipate the “dips” and tough areas and press on.

However, if we start something that is failing. . . understand why it is failing, and don’t believe it is worth salvaging. . . the faster you quit, the better.  Cut your losses.

Real life examples from my consultantsmind life. . .

  • Started out in sales as a financial consultant.  Liked the idea of it, but my heart was not in it, and that showed.  Got 90+ clients and $4MM in assets under management, but that is not the stuff of wall street careers.  Quit.
  • Started another blog (same time as this one).  After 4 posts. . .stopped
  • Have a tenant in a rental property.  After many emails, texts, phone calls about late rent. Tenant was not communicating, not trying. . . started the eviction process.
  • Invested in HOGS, what I thought would be a smart investment in China’s growing appetite for meat products. . . great growth stock right?  No, it went sideways for years.  Held on to the stock for way too long.  Did not think about the sunk cost.

Question: Should Google has waited 10 years to cut their losses on Orkut?

Best practices: A crutch for consultants and clients?

This is a post I did 2 years ago.  My new edits are in red color.

Management consultants use the phrase “best practices” often.  Perhaps too often. You will see that magical phrase mentioned numerous times in white papers and research on these websites: Boston Consulting Group, DeloittePWC and Accenture.  A few pictures that help explain why best practices are so popular with consultants and clients.

Best practices are like good hiking trails. . .Hiking Trail - Consulting blog

. . . they are market-tested:  Many of these best practices have been around for years.  Clients have a sense of comfort that they are following a well-worn path.  You don’t have to read the most recent article in Harvard Business Review to know that the Toyota Management System for lean production still works today.

. . . they are repeatable: Consulting firms work with so many clients that they see what works and what does not.  Clients think they are unique (n=1), but a lot of the back-office functions are more alike than different.  No reason to “re-invent the wheel” on mundane processes.  Better to just follow the trail that is already there.

Some clients demand to see it.   They don’t want to be innovative.  They want to implement what has worked.  Clients can be very risk-averse.

. . . they save time:  It might not be perfect or holistic, but best practices will get you most of the way there.  Not all clients want to spend the time or the money to dig into the problem.  They want the 80% solution.

Sadly, some consultants can be a bit lazy.  Copy/paste what they did before. Sometimes that is appropriate, usually not. 

Best practices are like powerful telescopes. . .

Telescope - Consulting blog

. . . they appeal to the curious:  Clients want insight into what competitors and other leading companies are doing.  There is a fine line between best practices, benchmarking, competitive intelligence – but the basic conformist tendency is the same: “Show me what other people doing.”

. . . they help you see farther:  Having access to best practices or other “special sauce” positions the management consultant as an expert who can bring new and external insights.  While the client can draw on 10-20 years of personal experience, the consultant can tap into the firm’s collective history (for Trekkie fans, think of the BORG) and dig up example after example of previous client projects on the same topic.

Some might argue that this culls the “wisdom of the crowds” so that the best answers surface to the top.  No reason to experiment in areas that are more related to operational efficiency.  Just work more efficiently.  Not thinking, more doing.

Danger: Best practices can also be like cookie cutters. .  .

Cookie Cutter - Consulting Blog

  • If abused or misunderstood, best practices can become the lazy person’s way to propose a quick, often ill-fitting solution without thinking through the problem
  • Best practices are excellent tools, but you cannot “copy” your way to operational excellence or strategic differentiation.  The most you will get is parity
  • Best practices cannot be simply a cut/paste into an organization.  They do not work without the necessary leadership, culture, resources, IT systems etc. . .
  • Large ERP implementations (read: SAP, Oracle etc) force companies to adopt industry-standard processes.  Whether these are best practices is up for debate\

Photo credit: Kid Cowboy, Flikr creative commons; Pale Side of Insomnia, Flikr, creative commons

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Consulting jargon: What is a deliverable?

 

You will hear this jargon often.  A deliverable is the final product of a consulting phase or project.  It comes in many forms, but for consultants it’s usually PowerPoint. It is the thing the client is paying for.  It is the thinking.  It is the product.

what is a deliverable PowerPoint presentations are deliverables.  This is the actual work product that we give to clients.  Those pieces of paper are worth anywhere from $ 50K to $5M.  Of course, clients are not fools.  They know that the recommendations on those pages have the potential to generate more revenues, reduce costs, and increase cash flow. Ideally, consulting recommendations are thought-through, supported by data, actionable, and full of impact.  It’s more than just the paper, or the nice looking binder.  It is the expertise, research, and brain-power that supports the recommendations and findings on the 8.5″ x 11″ page (A4 if in Asia).

Presentations are mandatory.  You will never find a consultant who admits they cannot put together slides or a compelling presentation.  It is the currency of our work.  If you cannot put together a well-structured, persuasive, and visual presentation. . . well, you won’t be a management consultant for long.  It’s table stakes. Sure, clients can also pay to get business models, software interfaces, workshops, performance dashboards, training, customer surveys, knowledge management tools etc. . . but it is really the presentations that executives are used to seeing, expecting.

For example, I was recently on a project where 90%+ of the work was done in excel. The business model was beautifully laid out - full of constraints, assumptions, variables, sensitivity analysis. Each of the tabs was labeled, and color coded.  Geek dream.

Would any PowerPoint presentation do justice to the simplicity, power, and flexibility of the excel model?  No.  Did we create a PowerPoint anyway?  Yes.

Why create a PowerPoint to explain the Excel?  Is this really a LEAN activity that provides value to the customer, they are willing to pay for?  I would argue yes.

  • Explained the process steps we took to create the excel
  • Showed the people we interviewed and data sets used for the excel
  • Created an instruction manual showing how the excel worked
  • Highlights the main points of the excel model
  • Added graphs and sensitivity analyses (how results compared to benchmarks)
  • It can be shared from executive to executive

Why PowerPoint.  Some consultants might argue with me on this, but I believe that many executives think in PowerPoint for many reasons.

Lawyers, accountants, and marketers.  Even though we have a lot of in common, your “deliverables” will be different. Less likely to be in PPT. That said, one thing you might learn from consultants. . . a simple PowerPoint, whether 3 pages or 10 pages, does provide an opportunity to summarize the project, process, and results.  It is a way to discuss the work at a more strategic level.  Think of it like a brief.  It provides some finality to the work, and helps prevent (not avoid) scope creep.

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