Consulting is infamous for long hours. Infamy rivalled only by talk of demanding clients. But do the hours have to be that long? And are clients really all that tough?
The short answer, in my opinion, is yes and no. But at least there is an element of ‘no’.
On the ‘yes’ side, the fact of the matter is that clients bring consultants in to tackle big tricky problems. By definition it’s stuff that they need help with. So by its very conception, a consulting project is never going to be a walk in the park. Often there is a lot to do. Normally there is a great deal of ambiguity which means that there’s a lot of problem solving and hypothesis driven investigation. Consulting teams don’t come cheap. Teams can often be under-resourced by Partners protecting their margin. Oh and clients often feel like they want to be getting their money’s worth. So sometimes long hours and shirty lead clients are inevitable.
This inevitability does not have to apply to every project. What’s the secret? Well, in my experience, there is a direct correlation between a smooth, enjoyable project and getting to know your client as a person during the first week. Simply put: drop the consulting guard and resist turning up to your first meeting with a beautiful slide deck. Instead, arrange a 5pm drink in the local pub / bar and maybe even go for a pizza. Keep it casual (no flashy restaurants you’d go to for team dinner) and keep it at a normal time (9pm is not normal). Get to know your clients as you would a friend. Ask them questions. Understand their background. Talk about your common ground: family, holidays, hobbies, neighbourhoods, mortgages etc. The golden rule is to remember that your client is just a normal person too – they have a life outside of work as well. And they’ll warm up on realising that you’re not too unlike them.
The upshot of doing this is really beneficial. All your meetings will become more relaxed. You’ll stop producing answers and start involving your client in co-producing answers that they’ll feel ownership of. You’ll turn up to meetings with a blank sheet of paper for brainstorming. Rather than 100s of slide you’ve come up with in your ivory tower. You’ll be more tempted to pick up the phone / drop by their desk instead of emailing. You won’t feel the need to produce appendix 3 in the back-up slide deck to prove that you’re adding value. You’ll ask each other questions about the weekend, holidays, evenings after work. You’ll repeat your trip to the pub / bar / cafe / pizzeria and deepen that strong working relationship. Perhaps most importantly, the client team (as opposed to the lead client) won’t resent you being there. They’ll realise from the get go that you’re a normal person too – not some consultant robot who puts them to shame with the hours you can pull.
This might all sound too good to be true. In some circumstances it is. Some clients and projects are difficult no matter how they kick off. But what have you got to lose in trying? And you never know – in a couple of years time you might look back and see the same correlation as I see.
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