This post is Part 5 in a five-part series on the skills you will need to succeed in consulting, and focuses on developing a frame of mind that will help you achieve a sustainable lifestyle as a consultant.
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Part 5: Frame of mind
Frame of mind goes beyond hard or soft skills – and this is a lot more internally focused. It comes down to the following question: How do you find a sustainable balance for yourself?
1. Figure out a routine that works for you
When I first started work, I'd get back to the hotel around 7pm and then procrastinate for a couple of hours - talking to friends, helping with recruiting work, whatever. I'd start work at 10pm and wouldn't be done till 2am. And if I got stuck - it was often too late to ask for help at 1 in the morning. I'd spin my wheels and wouldn't finish till late in the morning - further affecting my productivity the next day.
I quickly learned that I needed to have a routine. For me, that meant getting back, taking 30-45m to relax and eat, and then working. I didn't waste my time on calls that weren't important, and I minimized other distractions. It meant that I was done early, had time to call friends/family/etc. and was in bed by midnight most nights.
Others preferred to work out, call significant others, etc. It's important that you quickly figure out a routine that works for you. And remember: work comes first, at least during the week. Get it done first and then think about personal stuff. I can’t stress this enough – if you are going to succeed as a consultant, you have to recognize that your clients (and your firm) are paying for your work. That is priority number one!
2. Decide what matters most to you
Consulting work requires sacrifice - especially in your first couple of years. You'll have to figure out what matters most to you. Is it getting an hour to work out in the evenings? Calling your significant other on Skype for 2 hours? Getting a good night's sleep? Working harder than everyone else? Maintaining all your friendships?
The reality of the consulting lifestyle is that you can't have it all. You will have to be a lot more deliberate about how you spend your time, and this means figuring out what matters most to you. Something has to give, and you can only give up so many hours of sleep a night until your body starts to hate you.
This is something that a lot of new consultants don’t realize – especially if you’ve taken some time off before starting work, you’ve gotten used to a certain lifestyle. That might be waking up whenever you want, having tons of free time, going out to social events every night… and your new lifestyle is a big change.
Figure out what your 'non-negotiables' are and stick to them. A friend takes Tuesday evenings off to work with a non-profit. A colleague requests that he have 6-8pm as workout time, where he's not expected to be online. A manager doesn’t mind working on weekends, but is protective of his Friday evenings and will leave the office at 5pm unless it is a true work emergency. Figure out what matters most to you. This will help keep you sane!
3. Remember that you are valuable
A colleague once told me, “It’ll take you 6-12 months till you’re actively adding value to your team”. Frankly, I agree with that. There are so many skills you have to learn – from technical skills to work-planning to client relationships – that you’ll probably hear some variation of the expression “it’s like drinking from a fire hose” about several hundred times in your first month.
When you start, you will not be efficient, you will not be used to triple-checking your work, you will not necessarily be a superstar with clients – but don’t forget that you are valuable! You were hired for a reason. Why is this important? Because others won’t value you if you’re not valuing yourself. If you don’t value your time, then managers will have no problem loading you up with extra work – and eventually, their expectations reset such that they expect you to work long hours and are disappointed if you don’t.
Success does NOT require you to be the hardest-working, keenest consultant in the world. It requires you to be effective, trustworthy, and good at managing expectations. Don’t be afraid to push back on managers if you’re feeling overwhelmed by work or if they’re working you too hard. If a deliverable is not urgent, don’t be afraid to suggest that you work on it tomorrow. Personally, I go with “great, I can work on this first thing tomorrow. Let me know if it’s urgent and I’m happy to work on it tonight”. The key is to be willing to work long hours when necessary – sometimes work is urgent, sometimes you will need to work all-night, and that’s okay. Just don’t overwork yourself if you don’t have to. This is a tricky balance that comes more easily with experience.
Remember: managers want someone who is effective and trustworthy. They’ll pick someone who is efficient and accurate over someone who will work all night for you but might give you inaccurate work. A large part of your job as a manager is to review your team’s work – if you trust them, then that takes a huge load off your plate and saves you a lot of long nights.
4. Understand what you want to get out of the job
This will vary from person to person. You might want to do 2 years before going to do an MBA... or perhaps you want to use this job to travel the world for a few years.... or maybe you want to start your own business using the skills you've learned... or perhaps the partner track is for you. Figure out what you want and act accordingly. Don't lose sight of your longer-term goals.
If an MBA is your short-term goal - think about who your recommenders might be, what extracurricular work you should be pursuing, whether you can take LOA to do something special (I opted to take 4 months off to work for an NGO I cared about) or if you should be studying for the GMAT. If you’re planning on applying in round 1, don’t take on a high-pressure project between August and October. Try to get staffed internally if possible. Save up your vacation just in case. Figure out who else is planning on applying and bounce essay ideas off one another. Read the application process today so that you know what to expect. It’ll take longer than you think!
If you intend to start your own business - try to steer your career toward projects that will help you develop a well-rounded skill-set. Don't be afraid to take on projects with smaller teams and more responsibility per person. Learn what you do and don't like from the big organizations you work with. Think about the techniques that your company uses to train and develop employees. Talk to like-minded colleagues about your entrepreneurial plans. And really focus on building your network at your organization - it's much more important in this scenario than if you're going to B-School and developing a network there. And when you’re getting ready to leave, talk to partners about your plans – I’ve seen partners invest in consultants’ ideas. Can’t hurt to try!
If you want to become a partner, then say so. Figure out where you might want to specialize so you can start building a support base. Think about high-profile work at the firm (e.g. recruiting, diversity efforts, gender initiatives, etc.) that will help expose you to senior leadership. This is the simplest and easiest way to get access to people who can help steer your career in the right direction. Never forget that everyone is naturally predisposed towards having an ingroup bias – you like people who are like you! This means that some of your biggest supporters will be those who went through similar experiences or challenges as you. Talk to these people and make sure you understand what it means to be a partner. Try to get involved in the pitch process as soon as you can – figure out what matters most to partners, and do your best to emulate the behaviors of partners your admire and avoid the behaviours of those you don’t.
Each of these objectives has very different implications for how you should be acting. Where do you want to be in 2 years? 5 years? Consider that and plan accordingly.
This concludes the series – hopefully it’s been valuable to you. This was developed with input from multiple consultants but ultimately it’s just one guy talking after a couple of years in the field. If you have feedback, comments, or suggestions for things you’d like to see, please give us a shout.
Missed the first few parts? Read the full series below:
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