How to be a Leader as a Management Consultant: Lessons Learned
Section 0: Executive summary
As a leader in management consulting, you’re always “managing” something and can often find yourself rarely executing things hands on for every aspect of your work and day to day life. By the point where you are in a management position you likely are harnessing talent rather than executing every aspect of the day to day work. The name of the industry, the structure of the business, and your day to day life can cause you to end up “managing” when you should really be “leading”.
But what’s the difference? Harvard Business Review suggests that “Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control” (1). The “leader” is very much differentiated from the “manager” and what we should all aspire to be through career and self-development.
My sources of inspiration have come from a compilation of wide-ranging inputs, including: management consulting experience and on the job training with Fortune 500 and US Federal Government clients; US military leaders and leadership principles; business & technology leaders & visionaries; professional athletes, coaches & trainers, and philosophers.
We will explore a number of principles for how to best approach:
1. Leading the people: to include your clients, case teams, & yourself,
2. Leading the business: by being an entrepreneur at every level, and
3. Leading the work: by owning & leading your remit
Now that we have an organizing framework for the different leadership dimensions of the job, let’s deep dive into each of them and unpack what it takes to lead from the front in our industry!
Section 1: Leading the people:
Summary: This job & industry requires you to be a leader across many dimensions and groups of people: your clients, your team members (both above and below you), and yourself. Prioritize each of these groups and provide the right model of leadership which can vary across each audience in achieving results. You ultimately want your clients to fully trust you, your teams eager to work for you and become the next generation of leaders, and yourself to constantly improve and grow into the best leader you can possibly be.
Clients — working in a people-first business:
Develop & maintain genuine relationships: Preface all of your work with genuine personal relationships: this is a business of dealing with human beings, with a variety of dispositions, corporate and personal issues they are wrestling with, and worldviews based on their backgrounds & experiences.
Put yourself in the shoes of your client: understand the client’s situation and disposition, both personally and professionally. The problem you are solving for may appear straight forward, but wrapped with a number of complexities and ambiguities that are ancillary. Understand what your counterpart is dealing with and be empathetic toward their situation.
Teams — building the next generation of leaders:
Enable your teams by providing them the best resources, time, and direction to succeed:
“One third / two thirds rule”: (Army officer / Military Leader Decision Making Process principle) never take more than one third of planning and execution time for yourself, so that two thirds can go to your team for their ability to deliver with clear guidance and expectations.
Have a plan, and multiple backups: Always plan for primary Course of Action (COA), but have alternatives for when things inevitably do not go to plan (e.g. military PACE planning: primary, alternate, contingency, emergency).
Build “followership” by getting people to want to work both with and for you:
Leaders create more leaders, not followers.
Be a servant leader: do the most to improve your team’s situation with no regard for your own…. This is called selfless service. Your people and your teams come before you.
· Example: leaders eat last (Army leader principle)
· Example: lead from the front (Army officer principle)
· Example: never ask your teams to do something you would not do yourself: …. And then do it. Get in the trenches
“In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness” -General Jim Mattis
Foster a culture of teamwork & collaboration:
Build leverage with people who want to work with and for you: Accept the fact that you can no longer do it all on your own at this point in your career and build your “pyramid”
Your most valuable weapon is your “radio, not your rifle” (Army leader principle): in the military, an officer is no longer primarily a rifleman, but rather is in a way the orchestrator of a larger body and directing their actions toward a common mission. In much the same way, as a manager you are now harnessing talent and steering their combined efforts in a harmonized way toward aa successful outcome, and you have significantly more leverage and ability to make an impact driving the team toward the mission rather than “pulling the trigger”
Give something back:
Whether it’s mentoring others, paying it forward to the next generation, other helping those that are disadvantaged (e.g. Diversity and Inclusion, helping those without the same socioeconomic opportunities and resources), always give back as you are more blessed than 95% of the population to be where you are now
“Help others and give something back. I guarantee you will discover that while public service improves the lives and the world around you, its greatest reward is the enrichment and new meaning it will bring your own life.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
Yourself — maintaining a constant state of introspection & improvement:
Develop yourself as a leader:
Don’t be afraid to fail: If you never push yourself and your boundaries and limits you’ll also never learn how to break through them. You will learn more from failure than success. Every no is one step closer to the yes, every failure is one step closer to success. Your mentor and idol is the person who tried one more time.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
Bet on yourself: develop yourself such that your decisions are always rooted in your confidence in your ability to deliver, rather than a company, a support network, another person, etc. These things are all positive, but the anchor is YOU.
Trust yourself: calculate and manage risk, but don’t always “play the odds”. Some things could be so important to you that the odds “don’t matter”, to a point (e.g. Elon Musk and SpaceX / Tesla). Judge your goals and development by your commitment to a cause, especially if your career is passion driven and more than just a means to an end.
“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” — Elon Musk
Outwork everyone: you will rarely be the smartest in the room, most well connected, or most senior… these things you not be able to fully control. However, you can always outwork others to level the playing field & gain an advantage, which you can 100% control.
“There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equals as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that’s that. I am not talented. I am obsessed.” — Conor McGregor
“Faith will get you to a point. Luck will get you to a point. But to achieve the kind of success you dream about, you need to WORK. There are no shortcuts, you can’t cheat life, just get to work and don’t stop until you reach your highest potential.” Denzel Washington
“If you try to shortcut the game, the game will shortcut you.” — Michael Jordan
Develop yourself as a person:
Develop a bigger passion, mission, and identity: you are not your company or your job title. You are a person, not a position, so let your passions and interests drive and motivate you rather than a job, status, or paycheck. Prioritizing your passion will actually make the rest follow through. Define what that “North Star” for you is, then work backwards by identifying the steps it will take to get there.
“Success begins with figuring out what you want, then making the choices that will get you there.” — Shellye Archambeau
Become an expert at something: pick one to a few things that are highly marketable, in demand, and interest you. Dedicate to becoming the expert on that topic or set of topics, e.g. the 10,000 hour rule.
For example, think about how Jeff Bezos looks at this:
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.” — Jeff Bezos.
“Fight tonight”: always be in a state of training and development, but “mission ready” whenever you are called upon (Army leader principle). You never have to get ready if you stay prepared, especially when it’s for that one life changing opportunity.
Be a student of the past & apply your learnings to every day interactions: history is often a good indicator of future trajectory and behaviors for the state of your industry, the way people behave and act, and cyclical business patterns.
“There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all. -Ben Horowitz
Develop your personal worldview and moral compass: you will never fully agree or disagree with anyone you meet or work for… take the pieces from everyone around you, both good and bad, that help to form your own bespoke view on how to approach being a leader based on your experiences and convictions. You will find your own custom worldview fabricated from what and who you want to emulate just as much as the opposite.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius
Have moral courage: do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Sacrificing your principles, even for minor things, is a tradeoff that creates a very slippery slope.
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.” — Marcus Aurelius
Find a mentor and also mentor others: you will get an immense amount of personal development from a mentor, and an equal amount of gratification out of mentoring others. Even though you are still learning as you go, there is always someone you can learn from, and someone who can learn from you.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself” — this one is harsh, and a military “classic”, but useful in the right context. Never impress this upon others, but always to yourself as a leader. You have to take care of the plights of others, both personal and professional, with empathy, with less regard for your own situation. Prioritize others above yourself and reduce the noise on your own issues.
“Being relentless means demanding more of yourself than anyone else could ever demand of you, knowing that every time you stop, you can still do more. You must do more.” -Tim Grover.
Remove the negative influences, the naysayers, and those who do not support your goals and vision.
“We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” — Marcus Aurelius
Have mental and physical fitness and energy: if you are going to lead from the front, you must be able to meet the demands of leadership, both physically and mentally. Work something into your lifestyle to accomplish this.
Manage the perceptions your teams and leaders have of you:
Perception is reality: the perception by others is their reality of who you are, understand and cater to the difference between optics vs. what you know (or think) to be true. Remember that the number and quality of touchpoints vary and which shape others perception — few with leaders, many with teams.
Personal brand: nurture and develop your personal brand by deciding how you want others to view you, and what you want to be known for.
Leadership versus team & subordinates: Care more about the people below you than above you.
Section 2: Leading the business — developing & growing the business
Summary: The management consulting business, at all levels, is a revenue generating function unlike corporate where many aspects of the business can be a cost center. To that end, you are the product and the revenue generator, whether as an individual or as a business leader. Learn how to lead the business in every aspect and become an entrepreneur at every level of the job and invest in yourself.
Learn how to negotiate, sell, and manage your book of work:
Learn how to deal with people, negotiate and the art of “active listening” and “tactical empathy”:
“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.” -Chris Voss
Know who your client is: manage their expectations (and others), and let that primarily drive your actions.
Operate like an entrepreneur at every level of the job: you can be an entry level analyst fresh out of college and still be an entrepreneur! Whether it’s contributing to a larger deal, establishing a peer client relationship with someone who will elevate one day, or creating a new capability, you can always be building & selling in a way that grooms you for the next level.
Understand the difference between your superiors liking what you do for them vs. liking you as a person: this is also a harsh reality, and may even sound contradictory to the points on driving genuine relationships, when really it is symbiotic. Most of your relationships are prefaced on the fact that there is something you have to offer, and some value to add to a given problem. You wouldn’t even be in the room if this were not the case… understand that this is the reality of things and build the foundation of your credibility by which you transact vs. by which you engage in strong relationships.
Embrace the expectations to constantly perform and prove yourself:
Every day is an interview for your job: realize that you consistently have to prove yourself, bring you’re a game, and can never rest on the laurels of your previous successes.
“You’re only a success at the moment you complete a successful act.” — Phil Jackson
Section 3: Leading the work — case delivery & risk management
Summary: At its core, our work needs to be led and delivered to the highest standard to add value and insight to whatever the problem at hand may be on a client engagement. Develop your own method for leading your work and how you excel at your remit, be it large or small. Delivery excellence is the most table stakes aspects of the job and prefaces every additional leadership opportunity.
Slides don’t make decisions, people do:
Focus on leading and delivering amazing work, but also take into account the human aspect of the business. You have to put together the pitch deck, or the recommendation based on your analysis, but you also have to communicate it and confirm informed decisions with your leadership and clients.
Establish your own mental model and first principles:
Take the time to reflect on “how you think” and structure what often can be ambiguous problem sets, and draw inspiration from other mental models in a way that gets to the heart of the problems you deal with every day.
“[Physics is] a good framework for thinking… Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.” — Elon Musk
Get the basics of the job right & excel at them:
Own your remit: first and foremost, whatever is your remit or assignment, large or small, own it and crush it. Whether it’s a single PowerPoint presentation, financial model, or running a 50-person team, or a global line of business, own your remit assigned to you. You have to do what is right in front of you, and do it well, before you can take more on.
Obsess over delivering value and what is right for your customer, not driving revenue for yourself or your firm.
Never show up empty handed: especially when you are in meetings with a superior and or a client.
“Do not let perfection be the enemy of good”: e.g. Pareto Analysis, 80/20 rule, Minimum Viable Product mentality.
“411 before 911”: escalate early and ask for help before you are drowning… don’t do everything yourself if you are not equipped and resourced to do so.
Be resourceful: know your limits but also your assets and resources available to you to help you get the job done. Don’t do it all on your own, take advantage of your leverage & your subject matter experts especially when you are operating outside your core competencies.
“Know what you don’t know, and trust in what you do.” — Bob Iger, Disney CEO
1. Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders. https://hbr.org/2013/08/tests-of-a-leadership-transiti
Other References and Good Reads
Philosophy & Original Thinking:
- The Art of War. Sun Tzu
- Meditations. Marcus Aurelius
- First Principles & Mental Models.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie
- Relentless. Tim Grover
- From Good to Great to Unstoppable. Tim Grover
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Chris Voss
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things. -Ben Horowitz
- Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead And Win. Jocko Willink
- Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. General Jim Mattis
- 11 Principles of Armed Forces Leadership:
- Principles of Modern Military Leadership:
- Army Leadership:
- FM 6–22, Army Leadership — Army Publishing Directorate