The three workhorse skills from management consulting I still rely on

I started at Boston Consulting Group out of business school. I was more clueless than pretty much everyone in my class: they’d typically had 2-5 years of work experience prior to MBA, and I’d managed to squeak by with six months in a highly suspect 6-person outfit between college and b-school.

I chose management consulting as a field because, like business school, it was a socially acceptable – and prestigious – way to not have to pick something specific to do for another few years. I didn’t have a solid plan of how long to stay in consulting or what to do after. And I sure as hell didn’t think I’d last 4.5 years.

Management consulting was a fantastic education and apprenticeship for me. I think of it as the real business school, one that taught me practical skills that I still use daily in a very different professional setting – startups – and in life outside work.

The three workhorse skills I learned in consulting

Consulting helped me learn a few things very well that I still rely on a decade later:

  1. how to structure problems,
  2. how to power through to the answer, and
  3. how to communicate effectively.

Structure the problem

I think the natural first response that arises for anyone faced with a gnarly question like “When and how should we expand globally?” is “F*&^ed if I know!” It certainly does for me. Realizing that moving to more productive considerations would be advisable, people naturally default to sequential thinking. Something on the order of “Well, I guess we’ll pick the first place we go to, which is bound to be in EMEA because that’s where we have the most customers outside of the US, go there, make it work, then rinse and repeat.” It’s easy to imagine this person then setting off to the most approachable task, like “chat with Mollie in HR.”

Consulting beats a different default into you with a stick: don’t jump to conclusions; think from right to left; don’t blurt out the first thing that came into your head (and is thus likely representative of all kinds of heuristics and biases you harbor). Stop; structure the problem.

Structuring the problem is as simple as coming up with a bunch of buckets, one bucket per topic, that can together describe the problem and its various parts and don’t overlap too much. This is known as MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive).

In the example above, we might consider the following buckets: 1) understand what’s to be gained from expanding globally to set the overall goal, 2) estimate what geographic possibilities make sense and sequence them based on a set of predetermined criteria, 3) consider things to be done in various functions’ domain (marketing, sales, success, HR, legal, finance), 4) think through implementation details (“we’ll probably need a landing team”) and risks (“what if we go over budget – oh crap, we need a budget”). We might also want to think through data sources that’ll help us get to the answer – interviews with companies who’ve done it before, desk research of economic trends, meetings with internal heads of functions to make sure the implementation plan makes sense. And if we’ve done this sort of thing before, we’d even come up with a Gantt chart that maps all these activities to a somewhat reasonable timeline and resolves dependencies and long lead times.

There’s typically no single way to structure a problem, and two people will likely structure the same problem differently. That’s OK. As long as their structure covers the bases and helps them solve the problem, they’re good!

It all sounds simple, but it’s exceedingly rare to see an untrained person structure problems well. This is understandable: very few people are born with this innate ability. Most people think sequentially, from left to right, and it works most of the time. Where it doesn’t work well is when you’re trying to solve a complex problem in a short period of time and not have to redo it.

Here are a few situations from the last few weeks in which I’ve applied problem structuring of various degrees of formality:

  • Helping a startup founder think through top metrics for their company
  • Describing the problem space with a startup operations leader
  • Creating this site
  • Putting together a charter document for a new community
  • Auditing the weekly habits I’m tracking

For further approachable reading on logic and structure, check out The Minto Pyramid Principle.

Power through to the answer

A lot of questions and problems in business are complex and difficult. If you’re facing them for the first time, they are even more complex and difficult to you because 1) you haven’t yet developed the experience required to recognize that particular problem as a certain type of problem and 2) because you haven’t solved that type of problem before.

So how do you get stuff done when you’re clueless?

The big lesson taught in consulting is that you can break any problem down into parts that (even) you can manage and crank through. (Note that problem structuring is helpful here!) By doing this, you may not come up with the “perfect answer” if such a thing even exists in the real world, but you’ll arrive at an answer that has some reason behind it and can be a good starting point for discussion or action.

I don’t think I knew before consulting that you can come up with a reasonable answer to any practical question. You often find a situation in life when people stop trying very soon (a lot of calls to customer service follow this path, as do work situations in which the answer comes back as “that can’t be done” or “I don’t know how to do it”). In consulting, these answers aren’t accepted as valid; you will always be pushed to come up with some sort of solution, even if it’s imperfect, even if it is based on estimation. The cynic in me wants to say that’s because consultants are trying to look smart in front of people paying them millions of dollars for a few months of work. The pragmatist in me says, who cares what the roots of this conviction are? I’m glad I got to learn this lesson!

One neat way to think about it, I’ve found, is to imagine yourself on an uninhabited island, facing the question/problem with noone to ask for help. Try to come up with ways to solve it!

Another neat trick is triangulation, a fancy word for trying to solve the problem using different approaches and hoping that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Let’s say you’re tasked with the enviable assignment of figuring out the global market size for AI-enabled products and services. It’s amazing how triangulation of this number can boost your confidence in your presentation to your boss. Perhaps one way to look at it would be top-down: start with the size of the total market for products and services that potentially use AI (get a bunch of market research reports, read up on which parts of the market use AI, add those dollars up and multiply by a guess at the percentage of them that are AI-enabled). But you could probably drive a truck through the range that alone is going to produce. How about supplementing with a bottom-up approach, in which you look up all companies that have “AI” in their name or description, generously assume that they in fact have something to do with AI, and estimate their revenues? Thirdly, why not survey a bunch of industry experts and ask them for the number? Will the resulting “average” be precise? Nope. But it’ll most certainly be closer to the answer than the one from the first approach that popped into your head.

In the last few weeks, I’ve applied the skill of powering through to the answer in these situations:

  • Figuring out how much I should charge clients for consulting services
  • Finding the right health insurance provider
  • Getting the best currently available credit card

Communicate effectively

One obvious advantage consulting has over the majority of companies (small startups are one of the notable exceptions) is that it exposes you to people in leadership positions much earlier on. In a medium-to-large company, your first real chance to present to senior leadership might come after 5-10 years on the job. In consulting, it happens rather instantaneously just because management consultants’ clients are typically a company’s top leaders.

Storytime. Before BCG’s client at a top-10 Russian bank signed the contract, they asked to interview the consulting team (vs. just seeing team members’ brief resumes in the pitch deck). The five of us plus the two partners shuffled in. The client proceeded to ask each one of us which school we went to, what projects we’d been on and how old we were. I was 25, and on the older side. And yes, you can ask this type of question in Russia legally, apparently. We proceeded to win and deliver the engagement, in which I was charged with developing the strategy for the Commercial and Investment bank departments. My counterparts were their heads. The Commercial bank head was in his 60s (I think, I didn’t ask him) and had been at one point an ambassador of Russia to a country in South America.

Ghetto local practices aside, in consulting I got exposed to people in positions of power very early in my career. In addition to anthropological interest, this taught me concise, precise communication and persuasion without authority. When you’re in your early 20s with two years of work experience and are “advising” a CEO, you quickly realize you don’t want to waste their time and you want to tell them things that will be of value, then back slowly into the bushes. Quality of insight, clarity of thought and presentation, and high content per volume ratio (a.k.a. density and conciseness) are still things I strive for in written and oral form.

Here are a few situations from the last couple of weeks in which I’ve applied these communication skills:

  • Spending 30 minutes to craft an email to a team at a startup I’m helping. My goals were enough context, minimum possible length, pre-answering all follow-up questions I could think of
  • Giving context and formulating the ask to a lawyer I’m working with on a personal matter
  • Writing this post 🤪

Working in an environment that prizes certain useful skills and trains them into you presents an obvious advantage towards acquiring said skills. I’m curious to hear what core skills folks have taken away from the jobs/environments they’ve been in!

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