I've held off on writing about 'how to succeed as a consultant' until I knew that I could provide real, valuable advice to students who are entering the field or to new consultants who have just started. As I approach the median tenure at a consulting firm (likely somewhere between 2.5-3 years), I've learned quite a few things along the way. This series is meant to share some of that and over the next month I'll be posting about the following 5 topics that will help you succeed as a management consultant:
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Part 1: Hard skills and staying organized
1. Don't stress too much about Excel, PowerPoint, etc. before starting work
Before I started work, I sat down with a consultant and grilled him on things I should be learning in Excel, PPT, etc. before I started work. He gave me a bunch of suggestions but reiterated that I really shouldn't be worrying about this too much.
What I didn't realize at the time was that he was completely right. There's very little that you can teach yourself before you start work that will make a meaningful impact on the beginning of your career. I taught myself things like concatenation, Index Match, and a few other formulas for Excel.. and frankly I should have just spent that time enjoying time off before I started.
2. But do stress about it when you start
When you start work, get familiar right away with your firm's training materials; they should have a lot of detailed information about modeling best practices, Excel formulas you should know, etc.
I spent time in my first few months simply creating sample worksheets to test out complex formulas, or techniques I hadn't seen before. A few things you should get acquainted with:
- Index-Match (One of the most commonly-used shortcuts and is practically mandatory for creating dynamic worksheets)
- Pivot tables (incredibly useful once you wrap your head around them)
- Arrays (equally useful to pivot tables, and can do much of the same)
- Tracing precedent/dependents (for whenever you take over a model from someone else)
- Creating ranges (some people swear by it, others find it annoying)
- Text to columns (when you need to clean data)
- Conditional formatting (easy, simple and clean formatting)
- Buttons, checkboxes, etc. (make that model look good!)
- Sumifs, Countifs, Sumproduct (very useful)
- Offset-Indirect (Look this one up - it's useful but tough to error-check)
And you should also be thinking about error-checking - ALWAYS. Know how many rows, columns, etc. your data has. Know what values they should generally add up to. Create a few 'checks' with conditional formatting e.g. IF(A2>A1*1.1, "TOO BIG", "Fine") which you can use to highlight areas where a cell's value is going up by more than 10% from one column to the next.
Keep an eye out for numbers that just LOOK off - you'll develop this intuition over time, but an easy thing to do is to try to filter a column. Look for the lowest and highest numbers - those are usually where you'll find errors. And keep an eye out for those pesky #N/A's.
These are skills you will have to develop but that won't really make sense until you're working with real date, so as soon as you've started work, get cracking!
3. Start with good organizational practice for your files and folders
It's easy to get overwhelmed when you first start work - especially when you're working on ten different files at the same time. Two rookie mistakes are working on the wrong version of a document, and not being able to find the document you need. There's nothing that will make you look more amateurish. And I know a thing about that - in my first week, I accidentally saved over a piece of analysis that took me an hour to redo.
I recommend two things. The first is simple: always save your documents using a consistent format. I include the YYYYMMDD date at the beginning and then a vXX at the end. For example:
20130813 - Overview of healthcare reform v01.pptx
This is useful because I know when I worked on a document, and can quickly check to make sure I'm working on the most recent version.
Second, is setting up a number-based folder structure. This will allow you to get to ANY document you need in a matter of seconds. For example, my folders will look like the following for my current project:
01. Onboarding documents
02. Topic #1
03. Topic #2
04. Topic #3
99. Old documents
And each of these have subfolders that are also number organized. The '99. Old Documents' is where I throw out old versions of documents, just in case I ever need to refer to them (I almost never do).
Let me show you an example of how I can quickly pull up a document. I know that to open to the final version of a training document I created, I have to press 03, Enter, 04, Enter, 01, Enter, Enter.
This opens up the '03. Training' folder, the '04. Training Topic' subfolder, the '01. Final' subfolder, then the document itself. This is MUCH faster than having to click through each separately, and because all my folders and subfolders are organized, I always know where any given document will be.
I laughed when an old manager first showed me this technique - "why not just click on each folder?!" - I now swear by it. It is immensely helpful and is an easy way to show your managers how organized you are.
"Need that training document right now? No problem, it's on it's way."
4. Find an e-mail-handling methodology that works for you
Personally, I use the Zero Inbox methodology. It's a way to stay on top of your e-mails by filing them away when you're done, and only leaving 'unresolved' e-mails in your inbox. You can do it with a few simple steps.
Step 1: Create a set of folders that can reasonably capture all of the e-mails that you will receive at any point. See sample structure after Step 4.
Step 2: Create shortcuts for the most commonly-used folders. This can be Ctrl + Shift + Number, meaning you have up to 9 shortcuts. I’d recommend you create an “Everything Else” folder with a Ctrl + Shift + 1 or Ctrl + Shift + 9 shortcut. You can view the following links to see how you can create these 'Quick Steps' shortcuts: Outlook's own explanation and another explanation with video.
Step 3: Whenever you “complete” an e-mail or don’t need it anymore, file it away! This becomes surprisingly easy as you memorize the shortcuts.
Step 4: The only e-mails left in your inbox will be those that require attention. Over the past year, I’ve managed to keep this 10-15 e-mails, including internal and external to-do’s. At a glance, this allows me to see what I have to do and prioritize accordingly. Very useful when you’re balancing a lot of responsibilities.
Sample folder structure:
- Everything Else
- Staffing/Case Codes
- Case Reviews
- Old Cases
- Current Client
c. Competitive Research
d. Client news
- Feedback (for your next promotion!)
- Firm contribution
- HR Documents
- Good to Know/Training
- For Posterity
5. Don't rely too much on the mouse - learn the shortcuts!
You might be able to tell by this point that I'm a firm believer in maximizing efficiency. There is a LOT to be said for learning shortcuts, not just because of the cumulative time savings but because it just looks damn cool (not even kidding here). Anyone who's fast with shortcuts is assumed to be good at analytics (unless proven otherwise).
When I first started, I literally printed out several pages of shortcuts, put them up in my cubicle and would study and practice them until they were second-nature to me. I found training documents and used those to practice as well. These days, I send out daily shortcuts to about a thousand consultants through our 'Shortcut of the Day'. There are a ton to learn, and I encourage you to share useful shortcuts, macros, etc. with your colleagues.
6. Get your hands on some 'best practices' work
Especially useful when you're building a complex dashboard in Excel or building a deck from the ground up. Find a few examples of best practices - work that just looks really, really good. Use these as a basis point for your own work - remember, in consulting there is no such thing as 'plagiarism' from other colleagues. You're all in it together - if you can build off someone else's work you absolutely should, just let them know that you're doing it.
This will make a world of a difference. My first client-facing dashboard looked really, really good. What I never told my manager was that I had borrowed the entire look and feel (colours, formatting, buttons, etc.) from someone else's work. And there's nothing wrong with that - consulting is all about working smart, not hard. There's no pride in working hard to replicate someone else's work. Learn as much as you can from others' work and apply the best pieces to your own - see The meaning of the phrase 'Results-Oriented' for some thoughts on what makes a consultant effective.
Are you still a student looking for a consulting job and trying to learn about breaking into the field? The completely free '6 Steps to Success' is a great place to start. And you can subscribe to the blog, as well. Check out the full series here: