Starting a Consulting Firm: What I’d Do Differently the Second Time ‘Round
In which Jill looks back with no regrets. (Okay, she has a few.)
Recently I did some quick napkin math and figured I’ve spent 85 percent of my professional life in consulting. Although I’m no longer a consultant, some of my best friends are. And I meet tons of people who share the intention, often whispered, to one day leave their jobs and go out on their own.
I also keep in touch with many of my former clients who relate recent experiences with management consultants, both good and bad. Hearing these stories either makes me happy I left consulting when I did or makes me wish I were a consultant again - if only to set things right.
“What they should do…” I hear myself telling my clients-turned-friends. “I’ve seen it before.” (This is how technology professionals over forty console ourselves that our skills are still valid.)
It’s unlikely I’ll ever return to consulting. But if I did go back I’d definitely do things differently. Here are a few of the changes I’d make.
1. I’d spend more time interviewing people.
I led a boutique consulting firm for over 20 years. We were self-funded and lacked the capital to keep a robust bench. That meant we often interviewed new team members only when we had a gig waiting. In other words, too late.
When we needed to hire someone we’d check online job boards or ask friends for referrals, pushing through interviews and reference checks to get the new hire billable posthaste.
If I were starting my firm today I’d keep closer tabs on exceptional people who were already in my network. I’d update them on our latest projects (whether or not they were looking) and share the skills clients were requesting. I’d remind them when they decided to make a change, we’d love first dibs. As a leader, I’d remember that I was empowered to slow down the fire drills and delay project start dates, assuring clients that the right talent would be worth the wait. (It always is.)
2. I’d use more templates.
My firm did a respectable job defining packaged services and developing standard delivery frameworks. At the same time, we prided ourselves on treating every customer differently. “Meet the customer where they’re at!” we’d repeat, mantra-like, laughing off the bad grammar.
In reality, companies aren’t that unique. That’s heresy in the consulting world, of course, where every client insists that her company, the business problem, or the political climate is special and very, very complex.
Poppycock. The reason our services worked so well is that they were repeatable. After all the best practices for strategy mapping, launching an analytics center of excellence, or integrating data aren’t that cutting-edge. The challenging clients were the ones that had the people problems. The technology and process issues--okay, I’ll say it: we’d seen them before.
Instead of conducting protracted meetings and facilitated sessions to diagnose problems, I’d give the client a standardized questionnaire, then delivering a standard timeline with meetings pre-approved and deliverables scheduled. The timeline would form the basis for the statement of work, project milestones, and pricing. We’d upload it to the cloud and update it regularly. Anyone with access could check in on progress, due dates, and commitments. We’d also make our forms and completed deliverables available there.
After every engagement we’d fine tune our workstreams, automate new processes, iterate new deliverables as needed, and practice continuous improvement. In other words, we’d do what we were telling our clients to do.
3. I’d speak truth to power.
As a founder and managing partner of my firm, I was often invited to meet CEOs, board members, and other captains of industry. These meetings were usually conducted around huge conference tables in wood-paneled suites crowning high office buildings. Typically the CEO and his executives would ask the requisite questions about our firm and explain “the problem as we see it.” Then the CEO would ask some version of the question, “How do we compare to our competitors?”
“You guys are right there!,” I’d gush. “I suspect once we conduct our interviews and facilitated sessions we’ll find some process issues, but your people are first-rate (queue the self-satisfied nods around the room) and the timing for this engagement is ideal!”
What I should have said was, “You’re late to the game. And you being the head coach isn’t going to matter if you don’t give your people full permission to play completely differently. Close. Your. Playbook. No one cares how big you are. It’s a new game, and the rules are changing. There are new teams out there, and yours is getting ready to lose. Bootcamp starts now.”
I was a coward. I had employees. We had to let executives save face, to make them feel that our collective effort was a set of minor fixes, not a wholesale transformation. Now I understand that I owed this to them.
But I did occasionally have what came to be called the “I Love You, But I Have to Kill You” conversation. It took place exactly six times in twenty years. Three of the prospective clients decided to “regroup,” two of them engaging us within the year, one of them three months later. (That project was subsequently heralded on the cover of a national magazine.) Two of the remaining clients absorbed the difficult news and moved forward without missing a beat, engaging us for subsequent work and keeping in touch with questions and progress reports. We were happy to oblige.
And the remaining client? We never heard from them again, and in retrospect, that was how it should have been.
4. I’d stop researching technology for its own sake.
I will never get back the hours I spent reading up on emerging tech. I need to understand how hashing algorithms/canonical aggregate subqueries/cost-based optimizers work, I’d reason. A client might ask.
Rarely would somebody ask. And if they did, odds are I’d have a colleague who was far more qualified to answer. But it didn’t stop me from trying to learn everything I could while forgetting important stuff I knew. Like: surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. In my case, that’s not hard to do, and I did it. But I often forgot why.
Been thinking you need to unpack the details of GPU acceleration, the blockchain, or Flink? Ask a coworker or employee to explain the topic for you. What? You don’t have anyone in your circle who knows that stuff? Then you might not need to, either.
5. I’d connect my clients to one another.
In retrospect, my clients had so much in common but knew so little about each other. Sure there were conference cocktails and reference calls. But at times we’d be working on nearly identical issues across several different companies, our consultants solving the same problem at a bank, a media company, and a retailer, comparing notes and using Yammer to share ideas and approaches. Yet our customers never knew.
Introducing executives struggling with similar issues should have been a no-brainer. It would have let us connect smart people, broker valuable meetings, create new opportunities, and innovate collectively. Maybe I assumed everyone was too busy, or bringing diverse clients together would somehow backfire. But I never really tried it, and likely lost opportunities to grow as a result.
6. I’d read more fiction.
This is my version of the well-worn “I’d take more vacation” lament.
What I was missing wasn’t more free time, but more time away from the ‘round the clock functions-and-features fest, where attendance is required if you want a seat at the at the high-tech table. I needed to switch my right brain back on, take a poetry class, discover an emerging writer, re-read Milan Kundera.
Moving into my new house last year I stumbled across some notebooks I’d kept from college. Opening one, I was shocked at how incisive and confident my work was, to the point I began wondering if I’d since regressed.
If I only had it to do over again.