Last week, The Gunter Group joined a panel of management consultants to speak to a group of Portland State University business students. We owe much of our success to the encouragement of mentors over the years, so we welcome any chance to pay it forward. The future business leaders and problem solvers we met at PSU represented an impressive and thoughtful group of engaged and motivated students. For those unable to attend, we wanted to capture some of the themes and advice from the panel and invite ongoing discussion with anyone considering a career in consulting.
The panel’s response to several questions was a resounding, “It depends!” As consultants, we sometimes chuckle at this answer because we share a common challenge of trying to explain what we do when it can be different things from day to day. “It depends” points to one of a consultant’s most essential skills – adaptability. From the solutions we propose and the methodologies we employ to the language we use and the tasks on our to-do list, consultants must be able to think on their feet, read the room, and simultaneously hold theoretical best practices and practical realities in mind at all times.
How can burgeoning consultants develop this seemingly ephemeral skill set? Experience.
Put yourself in situations that stretch your ability to lead a team, resolve conflict, apply data insights, and generally experiment. The world is your laboratory and you needn’t wait until you land your first formal consulting engagement to practice. Principal consultant, Matt Bader, shared how his military and athletic experiences prepared him for consulting more than anything else in his background. Consider hobbies, sports, volunteer work, and other extracurriculars not as boxes to check on a future resume but as playgrounds to gather lessons learned and examples to illustrate your ability to deliver on the job. Perhaps keep a list of these anecdotes and map them to the core competencies and strengths you most want demonstrate and practice talking about the value of these experiences.
Work and life
The world of consulting is known for at times brutal hours and intense client demands. While the panel confirmed that client delivery is always top priority, they also shared how they approach work as part of a meaningful and enjoyable life.
The notion of “work/life balance” is a bit misleading. Work comprises such a large percent of our adult life; the lucky among us are able to spend those hours in ways we enjoy with a sense of camaraderie that is not separate from but a part of life. Work/life integration is a more useful way to think about any career, especially consulting.
At The Gunter Group, we view our work as vehicles to build great lives for ourselves and our families. Yes, we love to work hard and deliver outstanding results – that’s part of who we are. The opportunity to serve others, solve challenging problems, and see the positive impact of our work in our own community drives us; so too does the ability to pick up the kids, step away for a family emergency, and take that vacation sooner than later.
Over time, the hours will ebb and flow but they always even out. Our ability to sustain our best effort over long periods of time enables us to show up at our best. The cumulative gains of steady, consistent, and sustainable effort are much greater than grinding away without any rest. Like an elite athlete, rest becomes just as, if not more, important than intense training. In our line of work a relaxed and open mindset facilitates creativity, curiosity, and flexibility that fuels our best work.
Most B-schools fail to equip students with the skills or perspective needed to manage their energy and build the mental and physical resilience to sustain decades of work. How you tackle assignments and manage commitments in school builds the habits you’ll bring to the workplace. Practice now how you want to show up for your life and living in alignment with your values. Increasingly, employers like us recognize the value of employees who thrive in this way. They are the colleagues we most enjoy working with, the consultants our clients trust and adore, and the employees who grow into the leaders our business needs tomorrow.
The dreaded case study
Whether part of a class assignment or interview process, several students expressed concern about facing the business cases or whiteboard sessions so notorious in the consulting world. The entire panel unanimously said the most important thing is to remember there is never any one right answer. Case studies reveal how someone thinks and communicates – are they systematic and deliberate or do they struggle to conceptualize a clear process in the midst of ambiguity? Can they adapt to the personalities and balance competing priorities or do they blindly prescribe tools without considering the people who will use them?
One of our non-negotiables at The Gunter Group is “thrives in ambiguity” which often means stepping into apparent chaos and creating order for a client. One of the worst ways to approach a case study is with a one-size-fits-all approach or trying to be the smartest person in the room. It is possible to go through the motions of Agile or PROSCI and get to the end to find that key stakeholders are caught off guard by the end result, sending you back to the beginning and costing a client precious time and money. You might be a genius who proposes an elaborate plan that no one else can understand, let alone implement. Sometimes common sense is the best way to add value.
Think of any scenario as real people who need guidance to solve a problem. How will you know you’re asking the right questions, involving the right people, providing the right level of information at the right time, and marking progress? Even in highly technical environments, the amount of time spent flexing technical skills is relatively small. Success in any arena hinges on the ability to understand and manage people so think like a human being first before turning to anything from a textbook.
We hope these highlights from the panel serve to inspire and prepare some of our future colleagues. We’re always looking for talented people to join our team and welcome the chance to answer questions about our work.