Category Archives: Morale

Critical Consulting Skill: Flexibility

As I’ve pointed out in this blog before, one of the things I’ve always liked about consulting is the variety.  You generally work on a project for a few months and, by the time you’re getting tired of your surroundings, you get transferred to another project.  Sometimes it’s another project at the same client, but often times you go to an entirely new client, perhaps in another city.

You could be moved to another project right as you were getting in a groove of the project you were on.  Often times you have some advanced warning.  If you are assigned to a single phase of a project, you know the timeframe of that phase.  You may have hopes to be on the next phase, but you could be pulled off if you lack the right skill set for that phase, or the client loses funding for the next phase or any number of other reasons.  Projects simply go in new directions, causing changes to the staffing model.

You could be informed of a change at a moment’s notice.  Once, while I was unassigned (on the bench in consulting vernacular), I was called at home at 9:00 PM and told to show up in another city the next day.

When you roll off of a project and the firm doesn’t have another project to assign you to, you either go back to the office or to a work-from-home status.  Firms evaluate their consultants on a number of criteria, but the primary ones are on their sales numbers and their utilization numbers – percentage of available hours that you were billable on projects.

While on the bench, it’s important to do two things.  First you want to get assigned to a team working on a project sales proposal.  This will help you gain sales credit, but also can help you get assigned to the project if the firm wins the business.

The second thing to do is to get your name out to partners or whatever roles within the firm assign staffing to projects.  It’s important to let them know who you are, what skills you have and that you are available and ambitious to get on a billable project.

Once you get assigned, it could be on an out-of-town project, requiring travel from Monday thru Friday or at a location that requires a long commute from your home.  You may hear of new projects starting up with new and exciting technologies only to find out that you’ve been assigned to a mundane project with little growth potential.

You can lobby for the projects you desire, but you often don’t get a choice.  Consultants are usually assigned to projects based on the firm’s ability to maximize their billing rate across all clients.  If you turn down a project for any reason, you risk being labeled as a non-team player and they may resist assigning you to projects in the future.

They usually do ask you what you are interested in and what your career goals are and, if they’re able to assign you to a project that fits your interests, they’ll try to find a match for you.  They do have an interest in keeping their employees happy.  But they also need to bill clients to stay in business.

The critical aspect here is to be flexible.  Doing what’s best for the firm in the short-term will often be recognized by management and can be good for your career in the long-term.

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com).  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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Filed under Business, Consulting, Flexibility, Morale, Networking, Personal Branding

Can Consultants Have a Sense of Humor?

I’ve always had a pretty good sense of humor.  I can find irony in a lot of things and have used it to my advantage.  In my school days it would get me in trouble occasionally when the teacher thought I was auditioning for class clown.  As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve tried to mature only as much as necessary.

As a consultant – and in any business – you spend a fair amount of time in meetings.  Meetings can be long and tedious.  Business people always seem to be concerned about their professional image and joking around can give the impression that you are not serious about your work.

But an appropriate joke placed at the right time can lighten up the environment and refocus people from being glazed over from statistics on endless PowerPoint slides.

The timing and content of a joke must be appropriate.  Some guidelines to follow are:

  • Don’t overdo it.  Telling a joke and giving a stand-up routine are two different things.  The point of telling a joke in a meeting or any professional situation is to lighten things up, not to entertain the troops.
  • Keep it appropriate.  Although I hate the term ‘politically correct’, it describes the approach fairly well.  If there is any question of it being offensive, don’t say it.  Avoid references to politics, religion and sex at a minimum.  Michael Scott can get away with saying “That’s what she said” on The Office, but it’s not advisable in a business setting.
  • Don’t put people down. People can be very sensitive.  Telling a joke at someone else’s expense, particularly in front of their colleagues or their boss can have serious ramifications.  If you tell a joke at anyone’s expense, it should probably be at your own.  But doing that too often can give the impression of a lack of self-confidence.
  • Read the audience.  Some people have no patience for people joking around in a business setting.  If you try to lighten things up with a joke and get no response or a cold stare, back off.  Taking them as a challenge to make them laugh will most likely backfire on you.  If they want to be serious and all that their consultant seems to be focused on is joking around, your chances of success at that client are low.
  • Beware of a double standard with the client.  Some clients have a set of acceptable standards for their own employees and another set for consultants.  This stands to reason to some degree.  They’re usually paying a lot more on a per hour basis for their consultants and they want them to be as efficient as possible.  You may see client employees get away with joking around and having fun, while you get reprimanded for not being serious enough.

Having a sense of humor can be a great asset.  Much of success in consulting is about building relationships and much of that hinges on just being likable.  The ability to make people laugh can endear them to you. It can also make your own work day more pleasant.  But everyone has their own idea of what is funny and what’s not.  Make sure that you don’t turn a client off with your sense of humor.

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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Accountability vs. Blame

Everyone makes a mistake on occasion.  I’ve seen the smartest and most meticulous people write down the wrong time or date for a meeting.  It happens.  And as long as it’s not habitual, most people tolerate small mistakes.

Then there are major screw ups.  Perhaps someone didn’t anticipate a key risk on a project or realized during step 9 that step 3 in a process was skipped, causing major rework and embarrassment with the client.

The real issue is how organizations deal with mistakes of this nature.  Many organizations talk about not focusing on blame.  Certainly, when a major faux pas is made, the first thing to focus on is how to make amends. 

Once corrective actions begin, you start to hear people saying things like “We have to determine who is responsible and hold them accountable.”  To me, that sounds a lot like “We need a scapegoat to shoulder the blame.”

I’m all for holding people accountable.  But people have different opinions of what that means.  Some see it as identifying someone to punish while others see it as a teaching moment.  Some see punishment as a form of teaching, assuming that if an employee knows they’ll face a severe punishment for messing up, they will be extra careful.

This negative reinforcement may make employees cautious, which can be good.  But it may make them too cautious, causing them to avoid any type of risk that could help them – and the organization – excel.

Performance evaluations tend to start someone with the expectation of perfection, and then ding them down to their realistic level after identifying everything they did wrong.  This can create a negative environment, where people either cover up errors or begin passing blame on other people as soon as things go south.  In this type of environment, people learn that the sooner you can pin the blame on a co-worker, the quicker you can save your own ass.

There are positive environments that have tolerance for errors, some that even encourage people to take risks and make errors in the interest of learning.  This creates an environment of honesty and accountability.  As soon as someone realizes something is wrong, they feel confident going into the boss’s office and saying “I made a mistake that could cost us (time, money, credibility, all of the above)”. 

A good leader will both work with an employee to help figure out how to correct an error, and hold them accountable in a positive way.  They will help them identify lessons learned – what they could have done differently to avoid this happening again?

Organizations like this tend to be more transparent with their employees and with their customers, creating an environment of trust within the organization and with everyone that interacts with them.

How does your organization hold people accountable?

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com) He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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Consulting’s Three-Headed Monster

By Lew Sauder

A good consulting firm needs to be successful from three aspects: Delivery, Sales and Recruiting.  This is often considered the three-headed monster of consulting

Delivery, the act of providing services to clients, is the firm’s primary product.  It relies on a defined methodology and qualified people to deliver those services.

Sales are necessary to bring in paying clients that put the food on the table for everyone involved.  Most firms rely on the delivery folks to provide leads, develop relationships and develop proposals in order to sell projects to clients. But they also have a sales department with account reps to develop new leads and ultimately sell their services.

You can develop all the methodologies and sell all the projects you want, but without someone to recruit qualified people to deliver those services, no client billing takes place and no food gets put on that proverbial table.

If a firm is only good in two of those aspects, they will most likely fail.  Firms that are good in all three of those aspects can fail if they don’t figure out a way to make them work in concert with each other.

If you speak to someone from each area, they will most likely tell you that theirs is the toughest job.

Sales professionals will tell you that their job is tough because if they don’t bring in business, they don’t get paid.  Most make a modest base salary, but primarily rely on their commissions.  They also know that if they don’t perform, the consultants on staff will begin losing their jobs when the projects dry up.  There are cold calls and relentless rejections before getting to a yes answer.  It requires a special skill to get in the door to sell something intangible like professional services.

A good recruiter seeks to understand the needs of the project in order to staff it with qualified people.  Most projects are staffed with a core of existing employees that have been with the firm long enough to understand the firm’s service offerings, methodology and culture.  But new employees are often needed to fully staff a project.  The recruiter needs to know the skills required for each resource, the experience level needed, the approximate time frame each will be required and the expected salary or hourly rate they are willing to pay.  If candidates with those specific criteria are not available, the recruiter needs to determine which of the criteria can be sacrificed.

The delivery folks are the front line team that has to face the customer.  The sales team may promise the world to make the sale, but the delivery people have to figure out a way to get it done on time and within budget.  They need to communicate their staffing needs to the recruiting team, interview and approve each new staff member.  If recruiting provides four candidates for a position and none of them meet the needs, it’s back to the drawing board and they have to reiterate their needs to recruiting.  This can delay the start of the project.

These teams can’t run as separate silos.  A well run firm, where all three groups work together requires strong management that unites them as an integrated team to insure optimal employee and customer satisfaction. 

Management that is partial to one group at the expense of another eventually erodes the morale of  all three groups.  The critical skill for any manager in a consulting environment is to keep each component of the three-headed monster playing nice with each other.

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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Removal from a Client Project

By Lew Sauder

It happens every once in a while.  A consultant is working with their project team and sometime during the project, the account manager speaks with the consultant and informs them that they are being rolled off of the project.

It can happen to ineffective consultants and they don’t usually last long with the firm.  But sometimes, the person just doesn’t mesh with the team or the client.  I’ve seen consultants taken off of projects for a number of reasons.  Perhaps they:

  • Talk too much
  • Don’t talk enough
  • Dress funny
  • Handed in a task late
  • Didn’t appear focused in a meeting
  • Didn’t reply to an email on time
  • Looked at the CEO funny

It has amazed me throughout my career that top-level executives, who had the strength and perseverance to get to that level are as sensitive and insecure as they sometimes are.  I knew of one CEO who wanted a consultant removed from the project because he didn’t push all the chairs back neatly to the conference table after a meeting.

When removal from a project occurs due to client request, it’s not necessarily the end of your  consulting career.  Firms understand that you can’t please everyone all of the time.  If it happens more than once, they may see it as a trend and deal with it as a performance issue.

Sometimes, it happens in the natural course of the project.  A large project can go from several months in duration to a couple of years.  Different skills are needed at different times in a project so people are swapped out of projects based on the matching of their skill set and the skills needed at the time.  The firm may decide that your work on the project is near enough to completion that someone else can pick it up.  They may need you for another client project or to work on a proposal. 

Project economics may also play a role.  Some projects are sold as ‘Fixed-bid’, meaning the firm receives a set amount in fees and must deliver the project while trying to burn as few consultant hours as possible to maintain their target profit margin.  Fixed bid projects are often run on a tight budget.  Depending on your billing rate, they may want to get you off of the project as soon as possible to ease up the budget.

Very few people serve on a project from beginning to end.  Project managers are even switched out from time to time.  Rolling off of a project is a natural occurrence that can happen for any number of reasons – good or bad.

If you are taken off of a project due to a client issue, the firm may say something to you.  They may wait to see if it is a recurring issue or just an anomaly. It’s always best to try to find out the real reason you’ve been taken off of a project, but it’s not always for a bad reason or anything within your control.

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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The Consulting Dress Code by Lew Sauder

When I started out in consulting many years ago, the dress code was very simple.  You wore a suit and tie every day; even if you were on the bench, sitting in the office all day.  After all, you never knew when a client would show up for a meeting. It wasn’t a whole lot different for women.  They wore skirt suits and high-heels.  While they didn’t wear ties, they often wore those bow thingies that looked and felt like ties.

Shortly into my career, however, a major revolution took place in the business world: the concept of business-casual Fridays.  We started seeing it at client-sites.  Nearly all of our clients required the restrictive suit and choking tie costume Monday through Thursday, but on Fridays, they allowed their employees to take off the jacket and tie and wear a pair of khaki pants.  Most consulting firms strictly prohibited their consultants from drinking the causal Friday Kool-Aid.

Keep in mind that this was a time when the button-down reputation was a significant part of the branding for some of the top consulting firms.  EDS, the consulting firm originally started by Ross Perot, had a rule that you could take your suit jacket off at your desk, but must put it on when away from your desk, even to go to the bathroom.  Arthur Anderson (now Accenture) consultants were known as clones or “Androids” because they all looked alike with their standard blue suite and white tie uniform.

I do remember some exceptions.  While at Ernst & Young, I had a client whose dress code was strictly casual.  They told us that if we showed up in anything dressier than jeans they would send us home.  They didn’t want us to stick out as consultants.  I was happy to comply.  As the consulting firms continued to require their consultants to stick to their own formal dress code at the client, they began running in to the same issue with clients.  The consultants stuck out too much on casual Fridays and were perpetuating their reputation of aloofness.  The firms began to get pressure from client management to fit in a little more.

The economy also played a role.  As the economy improved, business got better and consulting firms needed to keep expanding their workforce.  Retention became an issue.  Salaries and bonuses increased, work-life balance became a familiar term and the firms began instituting casual Fridays if the client followed the same policy or if you weren’t client-facing on that day.

Understandably, they didn’t want the relaxation of the rules to become a slippery slope.  But it was the subject of some now-humorous debate that reminds me of when Congress held hearings in the 1960s on whether the Kingsmen song “Louie Louie” was somehow harmful to our American youth. Some of the debates that stick in my mind were:

  • Whether it was appropriate for women to wear “skorts”, those pleated shorts that flared out to look like a skirt.
  • Whether it was too casual for men to wear dress shoes with tassels.
  • Should women be allowed to wear pant suits (Hilary Clinton helped settle that one)?

This was a major renaissance for consulting firm policy. Suddenly, rules were lightening up and people began to push the envelope.  There was almost too much ambiguity to set hard and fast rules.  Many places began listing clothing that was not acceptable. (Really?  Shorts and flip-flops aren’t allowed?) One of the hardest rules for firms to let go was the denim policy.  There was often a strict rule that even if the client wore jeans, consultants were strictly prohibited from wearing this appalling garment.

I remember my boss back then, a partner in the firm, advising that we should observe how their employees dress and target dressing just a notch above that.  If all else fails, try to emulate how the client’s executives dress. 

I never quite understood the debate.  I always thought that if you were more comfortable, you would be more productive.  But I also knew people who felt that the suit created a formality that caused people to be more focused.  The analogy was of two kids baseball teams.  One team wore whatever they had; tee-shirts, jeans and whatever, while the other team was decked out in matching uniforms.  It made them feel like a more cohesive team and perhaps gave them a psychological drive to perform better.

Today, dress codes are across the board.  There are still clients that require suits and ties five days a week, some have casual attire all week.  Some allow jeans on Friday, some all week.  I actually heard of an IT shop whose policy was “If you won’t get arrested for wearing it in public, it’s OK”.  I was recently at a Friday meeting at an organization whose policy allowed jeans on Friday.  There were some consultants from Boston Consulting Group in attendance.  They actually wore jeans with the un-tucked shirt look!  Holy Cow! BCGers were that casual at a client site?

The fact is, they looked nice.  And like my old boss’s advice, they were still dressed a notch (or two) above the client’s employees that day.  I tell new consultants to follow the “one notch above” rule.  If there is ever any doubt, where a suit and tie.  You can always take off the jacket and tie and be business casual for the remainder of the day.

What faux pas have you experienced in dressing for a client or business situation?

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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Is Celebrity Apprentice good business training? By Lew Sauder

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but one of my favorite shows is Celebrity Apprentice.  Not that I think it’s quality TV by any means; I just get a kick out of seeing how petty some of these washed up rock stars and former Playboy models can act on national television.

I started watching it with my kids thinking there were leadership tips they could learn for when they get into the business world.  Instead I generally use it to teach them how NOT to act when they get in the real world.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, the typical season starts out with a team of eight men against a team of eight women.  Each team is given a task per episode to raise money or market a product and Donald Trump announces at the end of the show which team won.  One member of the losing team gets fired.  They continue to eliminate one person each week, redistributing players to other teams if it becomes lopsided, until it comes down to two finalists.  Those two compete against each other in the season finale to determine the Celebrity Apprentice.  Some observations I’ve made about the show are:

  1. Since the object of the game is to avoid getting fired, the participants are playing not to lose rather than playing to win.  It’s an interesting dynamic as teammates pretend to be team players, trying to win for the team, but knowing that if their team loses, they could be singled out to be fired.  The project manager knows that they are responsible for the task, but if they lose, they can choose two people from the team to bring back into the board room to argue why one of them is the scapegoat – I mean reason – the task failed.  This is not an environment that induces risk taking.  If the project manager decides on a bold approach and it fails, the PM is most likely to be the one fired.  If a team member has an opportunity to take a risk to help the team, they’re better off playing it safe and going below the radar.
  2. Few celebrities are good leaders. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the show is watching a former actor try to direct a diverse team of people who are more interested in showcasing their own capabilities and looking good, than in helping the team succeed.  It results in a team with three or four people vying for control, when there is supposed to only be one designated leader.  The test of wills often ends up with a weak leader submitting to one or more of their team members. If the team loses, the team members throw the PM under the bus for being a weak leader.
  3. Unprofessional behavior in the board room. Donald Trump’s board room has the appearance of a very formal setting.  A long beautiful conference room table where Trump and his two offspring advisors, Donald Junior and Ivanka, sit on one side while the participants submissively sit (or stand) on the other.  It’s a beautifully decorated room in the prestigious Trump Tower in New York City. Despite its solemn setting, this is where the team members get nasty.  F-bombs and other obscenities are regularly bleeped out, team members make accusations of others’ behavior and lack of assistance and team members have been known to cry.  The Donald often sits and lets two or more team members go at each other, essentially enabling the petty back-biting.

 

So I sit watching this circus with my family and criticize the above behaviors pointing out to my kids the poor management and leadership skills that the various contestants display.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize how real world it is. I see these violations in the business world all the time.

People are always worried about either getting fired or getting passed up for promotion for screwing up.  It’s much safer to keep your head down and just do what you’re asked than to try something bold and risky to increase the odds of failure.  And why make a suggestion for a new way to innovate your organization’s process and risk pissing off the manager that designed the current one?

A former actor may have been nominated, or even won an Oscar, but it’s no indication that they can manage.  The same can be said for business managers.  Usually the most productive worker bee gets promoted to be the boss when the opportunity arises.  It’s no indication they will be good at managing.  It’s a completely different set of skills. Leadership requires a combination of confidence, humility, empathy, decision making and many other abilities.  Assuming that a good research analyst can lead a team is as illogical as assuming a good actor can do it.

Professionalism is no better in the business world than in Trump’s board room.  I’ve heard f-bombs in the nicest mahogany lined offices and in the offices of corporate presidents.  And people get thrown under the bus on a regular basis, both privately and publicly.

So it brings me to the question I should ask myself before I use it as a business lesson for my kids: Does Celebrity Apprentice simply prepare us for how business works? Or does it point out all that’s bad about corporate politics to teach us how not to act?

I’d love to hear your take on this.  In the meantime, maybe we should just switch to watching The Office.

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.

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