This post is Part 4 in a five-part series on the skills you will need to succeed in consulting, and focuses on building an effective network and positive reputation within your office and firm.
Arguably the most important part of long-term success at any company is your network and reputation - this is doubly-so at a management consulting firm, where word (good or bad) spreads like wildfire, and your network directly impacts the types of projects you have access to.
1. Get to know the people in your office - and let them get to know you
There's a common misconception - I think across industries, not just in consulting - that you will be rewarded commensurately to how hard you work and how good your output is. In my view, this is false. Good networking will never compensate for poor performance, but doing a good job only takes you 80% of the way. The remaining 20% is contingent on what other people think and say about you. It is absolutely your responsibility to manage your brand and to build positive relationships with your colleagues.
The power of a strong reputation is immeasurable. You've surely heard of a vicious cycle; a virtuous cycle is the opposite of that. When someone thinks highly of you, they speak highly of you. When people speak highly of you, your brand spreads. When you have a strong brand, you have more leverage in picking the projects you want to work on and the teams you want to work with. In turn, this helps you lock in projects you'll do best in.
Note this: A strong brand means that people will overlook minor mistakes - whereas a weak brand will simplify magnify those mistakes into something much bigger.
It's illogical, but even at the most meritocratic of firms, humans are still humans. We're swayed by a host of cognitive biases. These include the halo/horns effect (your judgment of a person is influenced by your overall impression of them), the ingroup bias (you like people who are similar to you) and the mere-exposure effect (you like people more the more you see of them - fun fact: I first learned about this in a Social Psych class, in a module on love).
Why is it important for you to be aware of these biases? Let's take the mere-exposure effect as an example: out of sight, out of mind means that if you’re not showing up to the office or coming to events, you may be harming your ability to get staffed. Instead, make sure that you're taking the time to get to know people in your office. This means going to social outings, stopping by someone's desk just to chat, grabbing coffee with a colleague (even if it means you'll have to stay late to finish work). In fact, this ties in quite nicely to the ingroup bias. The more time you spend at the office, the more the trait of 'colleague' takes precedence over gender, race, etc. and thus the more you are perceived to be part of the same ingroup.
Let me give you a personal example of how spending time getting to know your colleagues is important. Early in my career, I got staffed on a project because I passed by an Associate's desk before thinking "hey, I really should go and say hello". We chatted for a few minutes and I mentioned that I had just rolled off a case. She said "Great! We actually need a consultant for a couple of weeks! Are you interested?" And within about thirty minutes, I was staffed. It was that simple, and the project ultimately ended up being one of my best at the firm.
2. Get to know people across other offices
In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated things you can do to build a strong network at your firm. Last year, I set myself a goal to visit all of our North American offices - of which I visited all but one (sorry, Dallas...). I did it because I love to travel, I wanted to catch up with friends and colleagues across the US and Canada, and because I was interested in getting to know our other offices. Each office has its own culture, industry or function focuses, and even different office events.
You’ve likely met colleagues from other offices at training, firm offsites, etc. Taking the time to visit friends in other offices is an excellent way to cement relationships you've built - either with peers or with partners - and to create new ones.
While visiting New York, I got into a long conversation with a partner about the state of the media industry. When he had some business development work in an area we had discussed, he shot me an e-mail to let me know, and I spent a week doing work for him. That opened me up to staffing opportunities that I would have not been connected to otherwise – after all, why would a partner in New York staff a consultant in Toronto unless he had good reason to?
And setting aside the professional aspect, it’s also a lot of fun. You get to catch up with colleagues over lunch, grab coffee or a drink, and have someone show you around the city.
3. Get to know the admins, knowledge teams, and design teams
The true holders of power! The admins generally know more about what's going in the office than any partner does. Never, ever be disrespectful to any of the EA's - they've been around a lot longer than you have and are probably more valuable to the firm than you are (come on, don’t you watch Suits? Nobody messes with Donna)! On the flip side, they can also open a lot of doors and point you in the right direction - even when you might not know what direction you're supposed to be going in.
By that token, you’re likely to work with a design/production team and a knowledge management team. Be respectful, appreciative, and considerate - and that will go a long way. Set reasonable deadlines unless it is a true emergency. If you don't need something till tomorrow, let them know! I've found by being clear when something is high, medium or low priority - the teams are much more responsive when I do ask for a quick turnaround.
And don't forget to say thank you. A quick note to someone's manager will mean a lot to them and they'll appreciate that you took a few minutes to look out for them when they've spent so many hours helping you out. Think of the last time someone said something nice about you; it may have been a few spoken words or a few lines by e-mail, but I’ll bet it meant a lot to you and stuck with you. Do others the same courtesy.
4. Get to know whoever is responsible for your career reviews
Like I said before, doing a good job only takes you 80% of the way. The rest is up to the people around you – what they think of you, what they say about you, and whether they champion you. A reputation spreads quickly and easily – one “yeah, I heard that girl’s a hard-working powerhouse” or a quick “someone mentioned she had accuracy issues” can have long-term ramifications on others’ perceptions of you. These are both things I have directly heard, and the impression sticks with you (Part of the availability heuristic, actually - if you can only recall hearing about a person's accuracy issues, you're much more likely to judge them as inaccurate, even if it was an issue on just one case)
Your career advisor is meant to separate the wheat from the chaff and help you put your best foot forward. Still - even the best-meaning career advisor has a LOT of other things on their plate. Make their job easy - drop by their office every now and then for a quick catch-up.
Personally, in the 6+ months leading up to my promotion, I made sure that I had frequent check-ins with my career advisor - to let him know new responsibilities I had taken on, new content knowledge I had developed, or any concerns I had about my project.
Remind your career advisor of all the awesome stuff you're doing - and not just the week before career reviews are due. It's like networking for a job - you want to be consistently building relationships, not suddenly caring the week before your review is due. And ultimately, their opinion matters a LOT. You want them to be on your side.
Sit down and give a think to who's in your network, and if you've been doing everything you can to build a positive reputation. And most importantly - make sure you're doing everything else right as well! Check out the previous parts on 'How to Succeed' as a consultant: